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What is the Old Testament?

April 29, 2024 | Brad Campbell

You’re sitting by a fire in the middle of the dark night. You’ve just set up your pack-and-go tent after a twenty-mile group hike through the middle of the desert, and you’re parched after another long day’s hike with seemingly no destination on the horizon...or so you’ve heard. The desert watches you, as vast as the uncharted midnight ocean. The man who is leading you is supposedly “meeting with God on top of that mountain.” Things were so much better in Egypt, you think to yourself. You feel a pat on the back as the leader of your tent community, Aaron, comes to ask how you’re doing.  

Aaron is supposed to be in charge while Moses is on the mountain, but we all know what happened last time Aaron was in charge. He collected all our most prized possessions and fashioned them into a golden cow. Moses was furious, calling it an “idol” or something like that. What is the big deal about these so-called “idols”? We were simply trying to make an image of the God they told us saved us from slavery, but slavery was way better than this life. At least we had three meals a day and a safe place to rest our head. 

Some of the other camp dwellers come out to sit by the fire with you. One of them ecstatic, acting like he’s just seen the glory of Pharaoh himself. Another of them simply sits down next to you, sighs, and you notice tears running down his left cheek. Great, a crazy man and a crying man; just what I need. The crying man’s young daughter walks out with her head hung low. “Mister Aaron, sir… can you tell me again why we’re wandering out here in the desert? I miss our home.” After about ten seconds of silence, Aaron replied, “We are here because this is where God wants us to be right now.” 

“Are we being punished?” 

“Well… no.” 

“Has God forgotten us?” 

“No, I don’t think so…”  

“Who exactly is this ‘God’ anyways? How is he different than the other gods we used to worship?” 

“Daughter, listen… Do you hear that? The sound of this fire burning? Do you feel its warmth? Do you sense its safety? And do you see those stars up there? Our God is different because our God created all of these things and is more powerful than all the other gods you used to worship.”  

Aaron cried out to the other children playing outside their tents, “Children, and all you weary people, come and gather around this fire. I am going to tell you a story.”  


Have you ever opened to the first pages of your Bible and thought to yourself, Why do people say I should read both the Old and the New Testament? Isn’t Jesus only in the New Testament? Many people believe that the two parts of the Bible are not connected in any way. In fact, there are some Christians who would even say, “Do away with the Old Testament entirely!” Jesus isn’t in it, so why should we be concerned about reading it? Well, we should be deeply concerned about reading it. The reality is that the Bible from cover to cover is one story from beginning to end about God and God’s plan to put a broken world back together. We cannot understand the story of Jesus in the New Testament without understanding the story of where the people of Jesus (who is the same God as the one in the Old Testament) came from. 

The Old Testament, originally written in the now-dead “language of Canaan”--Biblical Hebrew--is comprised of thirty-nine different documents ranging from poetry to prose, fiction to non-fiction, prophecy to proverb, all in an attempt to tell a singular story of the God of Israel. It is divided into three sections: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.  

The Torah (Hebrew, “law”) is the origin story for God’s family lineage. It begins with the creation account of Genesis and ends with Moses’s death in the end of Deuteronomy. This collection of five scrolls (yes, the Bible was originally written on scrolls!) would have been memorized by faithful Jews in the time of Jesus and contained all the covenantal rules to obey to live a godly life. Jesus would have known all this section of the Old Testament by heart. The Torah serves as the rule of life for faithful Jewish people. To worship God faithfully in the Old Testament is to obey God’s law in the Torah. 

The Nevi’im (Hebrew, “prophets”) includes a lot of the Old Testament story that led to the need for a Messiah. It includes two large groups of text: the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the twelve Minor Prophets). This portion of the Old Testament includes, as the title may suggest, “prophets” of Israel. The role of the biblical prophet was not to determine future events but to call out the unfaithfulness of Israel’s worship and lifestyle to the Torah. The prophets sought to correct and urge the Jewish people to live obedient and faithful lives to God. And because we are God’s people as well, the prophets call us to live Godly lives as we read them. As you will see, most people failed to heed the words of the prophets, which led to the consequences of exile. 

The Ketuvim (Hebrew, “the writings”) include all the wisdom literature and short stories of the Old Testament. It includes Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. All these books have been properly called “wisdom literature” in the history of their interpretation, because they take the rule of the Torah and apply it to human principles and offer wise examples for faithful living to God through prayer, story, song, and narrative. Many of these texts served as Israel’s original congregational hymnal and devotional guide. 

Whether it is your first week of being a Christian or you’ve been a Christian for seventy years, the Old Testament can seem like a daunting book to delve into. The next time you’re reading through your Bible, I encourage you to start somewhere you haven’t read before – particularly in the Old Testament. It can be easy for us to open again and again to the same stories of Genesis and Exodus, but perhaps engage with the story of Joshua, Esther, or Habakkuk. Read these texts and remember that they are a larger part of a story in which God is the main character. It is God’s story, but it is also YOUR story. If you are interested in reading more about the Old Testament and how it might fit into your practice of reading Scripture, I encourage you to read Craig Bartholomew’s The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story.  

 As you journey through these ancient narratives, consider the themes of faith, obedience, and perseverance that echo throughout this story and how they resonate with your own spiritual journey in Christ today. 



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