The Two Ways to Read the Old Testament

The same story can be a tragedy or triumph depending on who you are rooting for.

I grew up in North Carolina in the heated NCAA basketball rivalry Duke v. UNC. Twice every winter, the two schools would meet on the court. Every game ended in cheers or tears. I won’t name names, but I can still remember the waterworks after a game when one of my brothers sobbed over an upsetting Duke loss. But in the house right down the street, the same game–the same outcome–might spark shouts of hallelujah and exuberant high-fives.

It all depended on whether you were a Duke fan or a UNC fan. What was a bad call to one was a good call to another. A hot streak of three-pointers was unbelievable fortune for some and a depressing omen for others. Your hero was an opposing fan’s villain. It all depended on which team you identified with.

And the Old Testament is no different. There are two basic ways to read the Old Testament. The characters you choose to side with will determine whether the OT means life or death, triumph or tragedy, joy or despair, victory or defeat.

It all depends whether you identify with the friends of God–or his enemies.

Over and over again, the narrators of the Old Testament stories present us with only two options, and we are forced to side with one of them: Cain or Abel, Abraham or Lot, Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Laban, Jacob or Esau, Moses or Pharaoh, Israel or Canaan.

As unbelievers, we necessarily side with the enemies of God. The hated, the cursed, the rejected, the hard-hearted, the destroyed, the annihilated, the dispossessed, the wicked, the rebels against a holy Creator God. When we flip through the OT, every page presents us with men and women just like us being wiped off the face of the earth, condemned and cursed to eternal death for their unrighteous and sinful acts. It’s tragic. It’s terrifying. It’s hopeless.

This is the first way to read the Old Testament: as Cain, as Esau, as Ishmael, as a Canaanite, as stiff-necked, rebellious Israel. We shake our fists at a God who would destroy us–all the while denying how much we deserve punishment for our wickedness.

Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament period, spoke to a people that seemed doomed to relive a narrative of death. However, in his final words, he foretold a day that would change the narrative. This day of the LORD was the only hope. Without it, there would be no other way to read the OT than as a “decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6).

In the opening words of Matthew’s Gospel, we learn that that day of the LORD has dawned in the person of Jesus Christ. Matthew narrates the story of the Son of God, who walks through the Old Testament narrative under the favor of the Father, perfectly obedient to the end, yet suffering the decree of destruction for the sins of his people.

And this, brothers and sisters, completely changes the way we read the Old Testament. In Jesus Christ, we are able to return to Genesis as the friends of God. We no longer identify with those who are cursed but those who are eternally blessed. We are not those who disobey but those who obey. We are not the unrighteous but the righteous. Our ability to identify with the sons of God has happened because God in Christ chose to identify with us. He is a God who makes his enemies his friends. He makes rebels his sons.

Paul writes, “We are more than conquerors through him who loves us” (Romans 8:37). It is Christ’s identification with us that turns the Old Testament from doom to joy. It is our repentance and faith in Jesus that helps us to see God’s salvation through his judgment. It is our first reading of the Old Testament that shows us our sin, God’s wrath, and our need for a Savior. It is the Savior who suffered God’s wrath for our sin who sends us back to the Old Testament to parade through it in triumphant celebration.

(photo credit: Sam Greenhalgh)

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