Why Read the Old Testament?

When I was teaching my course on the Church this past fall (to a wonderful group of men studying to be permanent deacons), I realized that I needed to add something to our reading list: the Old Testament! We were trying to understand how the Church fit into God’s plan of salvation. We were trying to understand Christ’s priesthood and the priesthood of all believers. We were trying to understand what Paul meant when he called Christians “temples of the Holy Spirit.” How could we understand these things? We needed to return to our roots, our Israelite roots, manifested in the Old Testament. For in the Old Testament God began to teach his children about realities like salvation, the priesthood, and the temple.

The Old Testament can be a mysterious, strange place for people to begin to traverse—like the woods of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, with its eerily quiet snow, or the mountain caves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s dwarves, with their dark passageways. Who knows what one will find in the Old Testament: riddle-speaking prophets, strange miracles, bloody battles, stern commandments, even adultery, soothsaying, intrigue, and murder. A talking donkey, man-eating bears, a woman turned into a pillar of salt. What does it all mean? Why would God do the things that he does in the Old Testament? And why are there stories of people acting kind of crazy or very sinfully?

Early in the Church’s history, in the second century in fact, a bishop named Marcion judged that the Old Testament must be rejected completely.  He began to teach that there was a god of the Old Testament, who was a lesser god than the god of the New Testament. From the Old Testament he concluded that the god of Israel was a wrathful, unmerciful god. On the other hand, he claimed that the god of the New Testament, the Father of Jesus Christ, was the good and merciful god, who founded the Church.

The Catholic Church rejected Marcion’s teaching on the Old and New Testaments as heresy, and affirmed that there is only one God, who is the God of Israel, of the Old Testament, and the God of Jesus Christ, of the New Testament.

Marcionism is not dead, and even today we will sometimes find people saying that God in the Old Testament is just so mean, and judgmental, and hateful; he is nothing like the God that Jesus Christ preaches in the New Testament. But we want to avoid this idea of division between the Testaments: this idea that God is mean in the Old Testament and nice in the New. We do not want to slip into Marcionism and reject the “God of the Old Testament.”

If we read the Bible, we will begin to see that Marcionism does not at all jive with the Old Testament and the New Testament.

If we go to that mysterious place, called the Old Testament, we will find that God is stern, yes, and he sometimes gets “angry,” indeed he does, but we will also find there many love poems from God to Israel, his spouse; we will find the Father’s exhortations for his children to turn back to him; and we will find promises—beautiful, amazing promises—of happiness, of flourishing, if we only choose to follow God’s commands, and be faithful to the Creator and Savior God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Likewise, if we go to the New Testament, we will see there that God is not all rainbows and roses. There is talk of his anger; there are stories of his swift and firm correction of sinners (see Acts 5). Jesus is not nice to those hard-hearted Pharisees and Scribes, whom he calls whitewashed sepulchers (Mt 23:27).

But back to the Old Testament. Why should we read it? Well, first of all, we want to avoid making Marcion’s serious mistakes. But there are many reasons besides avoiding heresy to enter those woods, those caves, of the Old Testament. Following are 8 reasons for reading the Old Testament, which have come to my mind as a Catholic wife and mother, and a systematic theologian.

8. We hear the Old Testament in Mass every Sunday, but we may not always understand the prophecies, prayers, and stories. One of the main reasons that we do not understand them is because we are not familiar with their context. So let’s get familiar with the Old Testament! The stories, prophecies, and prayers are interesting and life-giving, and they are even more so when we know their settings, backgrounds, customs, and characters better.

7. We find references to the Old Testament in recent Church documents, as well as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. So in an effort to understand what the Church is trying to teach us, let’s, again, get familiar with the Old Testament!

6. Hey, what about those kids’ books on Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath? These stories are accessible to children, and they are accessible to us adults too! I love reading these Bible story books to my kids, and I should spend time going to the original stories and trying to understand their deep, beautiful meaning.

5. The saints, doctors, and spiritual writers loved to read and speak about the Old Testament. They prayed the Psalms, saw Christ in the stories of the Old Testament, and reveled in the guidance of the Wisdom literature. A short Old Testament book, Song of Songs, is arguably the most copied, quoted, and commented-on book of Scripture.

4. The Church Fathers, like Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine, loved to delve into the Old Testament. How did they do theology? How did they write so many beautiful books? By reading the Old Testament!

3. Guess what! St. Paul, St. Peter, and all the other New Testament writers knew the Old Testament well, and they referred to it often in order to teach the early Christians about faith and life. If we want to understand the New Testament, we need to know the Old Testament.

2. Even better: Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) (see Mt 5:17). He taught his followers how to understand the Old Testament, and how to find the truth about the Messiah, himself, in those ancient scrolls (see Lk 24:13-35).

1. The number one reason why we should read the Old Testament is that God wrote it just for you and me. Yes, God is the primary author of the Old Testament, and he wrote it so that you and I would come to know him and love him better. Those love poems of the Old Testament, those stories, and laws, and teachings, and prayers: they were all given for the sake of our salvation. Wow!

So try picking up the Old Testament and reading what God has to say to you. My deaconate candidates in class did so, and were very enthusiastic about what they learned. Take a deeper look at those Old Testament readings in the Sunday Mass, or get more familiar with the stories in your children’s Bible books. When Jesus refers to the Old Testament, go back there, and try to understand what he is talking about. Remember, God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he has written the Old Testament for you!

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Dr. Kristin Towle decided to become a theology professor when she took her first theology class as a freshman at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN). She had the honor of being in the first class of theology Ph.D. students at Ave Maria University. While in the Everglades of Florida, she met her future husband, Michael, also from Minnesota. After a four-year adventure in the St. Louis area, Kristin and Mike and their little family returned home to Minnesota, with its gorgeous summers and long, harsh winters. Kristin, Mike, and their four small children now live in the Minneapolis area. Kristin can be found teaching at the St. Paul Seminary, or chasing after her two boys and two girls at the mall or the park. She can be reached at [email protected].

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