Monday, 11 February 2019

A Very Basic Introduction to the Old Testament

The Old Testament

The Hebrew Scriptures forms our Old Testament.  In Hebrew it’s called Tanakah - which is an abbreviation of the terms used for the three sets of books included: Torah (Law), Navi-im (Prophets) and Katov-im (Writings.)

Writings include such things as the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs (some translations call it Song of Solomon), Ecclesiastes. Psalms were hymns used in Temple worship - in the church we also use them in worship - sometimes as the words to our modern hymns, and sometimes as prayers. Proverbs are small snippets of wisdom intended for personal enlightenment. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is space for lament in the life of faith.

Prophets include elements of the history of the Jewish nation, as it went into exile and returned home, as well as the stories of the life and teachings of the prophets.  Unlike the popular stereotype, prophets rarely predicted the future.  Rather than foretelling, much of their work was forthtelling - describing what was happening in the world around them and saying what God thought of that; from there they frequently laid out what the consequences would be if the behaviour continued. The prophets denounced injustice, and called for leaders to be fair in their treatment of the poor.  The lesson of the prophets could be summed up in the words of Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, To love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?”

As you read through the prophets you will find constant parallels between their teaching, and Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels.

Law is the first five books of the Bible. It includes elements of prehistory, such as the hymn of praise to God as creator of all things that the Bible begins with.  It goes on to the history of the Hebrew people, from their beginnings with Abraham, through slavery in Egypt, and return to the land of Israel.  

It also includes the laws given to Moses to help a group of escaped slaves become a nation.  This was to be an extraordinary nation - a theocracy - ruled by God, rather than human rulers. (Although a few generations later, the people would demand, and be given, a king such as other nations had.)  The law code includes the things you would expect - property law, laws concerning slaves, and laws of restitution, are all similar to other law codes of the ancient world.  But there are also the things that set Israel apart as a holy nation - ceremonies, such as circumcision, feasts and fasts, rules for holiness, rules for food, rules for conduct of worship, sacrifices, the rule of the Sabbath.

It was the law that the Pharisees used in their attempts to accuse Jesus of being a sinner - he broke the law of the Sabbath by healing people (Matthew 12:10, John 9:14), his followers picked grain to eat on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1).

When the message of Christ was being spread to Gentiles (non-Jewish people), who had not been living according to the law, the early church had to face the question of whether people had to become Jews (be subject to to the law) to become Christian.  

The early church gathered for worship, not on the Sabbath as dictated in the law (the day God rested after the work of creation), but instead on the first day of the week (Sunday) (Acts 20:7) the day of Jesus resurrection, and the first day of a new creation where Christ had overcome death. Offerings to help spread the Good News were also taken on the Sunday (1 Corinthians 6:12).

In Acts chapter 10, Peter was challenged by God to leave behind his attachment to the law, to go to the Centurion Cornelius, with the message of Christ.  In a vision God offered Peter foods that were not permitted under the law, with the message that God had now declared these unclean things clean. This led Peter to understand that the message of Jesus was for people who were outside the law, as well as for the Jews. 

Paul started out persecuting Christians, because of his understanding of the law.  His conversion, led him to a new understanding. In Galatians 5:2 Paul went so far to tell Gentiles that if they submitted to circumcision, Christ would be of no benefit to them.  Paul said in the letter to the Romans 8:2 “For the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, has set you free from the law of sin and death.”


Today, there are churches, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, who try to live the Old Testament law in combination with the Christian faith.  They worship on Saturday, and get around all of the intricacies of the food laws by being vegetarian.

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