The Old Testament
After speaking with many people of various backgrounds and religions (or lack thereof), I think many people misunderstand the Old Testament. This may be from being misinformed and/or from the lack of desire to find out for oneself. I have also heard excuse such as the Old Testament being too long and that it is just too difficult to understand. These sentiments are, from my point of view, wrong. I believe that the Old Testament is a very important set of prophetic scripture for us today. It contains helpful, faith-building stories; important records of God's dealings with ancient people, who are analogous to us and from their experiences we can learn; the covenants of the fathers, (like Adam, Noah and Abraham) with God; prophecies of our future; and, most important, it testifies of Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf.
Some of my favorite stories are from the Old Testament. The creation and the story of Adam and Eve; Noah; Abraham; Moses; plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea; fiery serpents in the desert; crossing the River Jordan on dry ground; Gideon; Ruth; Samuel; Daniel; and the list goes on for many, many pages. We learn from the account of the creation that we were formed in the likeness and image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1,3). From Noah that God loves all people; Noah and others (Jude 1:14-15, Genesis 6:3) preached for many years (at least 130) prior to the flood. If the people had repented they could have been saved. According to Peter, they may yet be able to be saved (1 Peter 3:19-20). Moses is a deliverer and thus performs a role similar or analogous to that of Christ. He saves his people from a captivity from which they can not escape themselves. When the Israelites disobeyed in the desert, fiery serpents were sent upon them (Numbers 21:6-7). All who were bitten died unless they looked upon a brazen serpent that was put up on a pole (Numbers 21:8-9). Just as those that looked were saved, those that look to Christ will be saved too (John 3:14-15). Do you ever wonder why a coiled serpent on a cross is a symbol of health? Take a look at the emblem of Blue Cross & Blue Shield health insurance. Even with the strong symbolism, the Israelites misunderstood and righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it (1 Kings 18:4). When Joshua and the Israelites crossed the River Jordan on dry ground they were commanded to pick up 12 stones from which to build a memorial. Years later when asked by their children about the pile of rocks, they could say, "This is where we crossed on dry ground" (Joshua 3:11-17; 4:1-5,6-7,8-11,20-24) and they would remember the great works of God on their behalf. Do we remember the great works of God? We need the Old Testament to remind us of the great miracles and mercy of God, lest we forget.
There seems to be a strong misconception that "the God of the Old Testament was mean, vindictive and harsh". Many site the "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth", which I must add is somewhat taken out of context, as reason for God being mean. God set up His people under the rule of law, vengeance is His (Deuteronomy 32:35,41; Psalms 94:1) and not for us to perform. Matters were intended to be brought before judges with witnesses to be addressed. Ways are provided in the Law for a guilty party to make recompense or attempt restitution for the injury through other means (ie money, crops or land) not just "eye for and eye". I think Ghandi perpetuated this misconception with his quip "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world blind and toothless". He is right if that were simply the Law, again vengeance is not ours but the Lord's. An example of the justice and wonderful mercy of the Law is that there were a number of cities setup in Israel that were designated as refuges for those running from a mob or vengeful pursuers (Numbers 35:6; Deuteronomy 4:24). Once I understood the Law better, I began to understand the compassion of it.
Still some say that God of the Old Testament seems to them to be cruel versus the God of the New Testament. An example of this that they cite is the wiping out of the people in the land of Canaan so the Israelites could move in. God is no respector of people and wants all His children (all humanity) to have truth and return to Him. We have only the account of His interaction with the Israelites, what about His interactions with other peoples? Were there not other prophets in the area? For example, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, was "the Priest of Middian" and a righteous man (Exodus 18). Balaam was a prophet who talked with the Lord (Numbers 22:12,20,28,32-25), not a descendent of Jacob and living in the Euphrates area (modern Iraq). Another demonstration of this same idea is Jonah (much later), who went to teach truth to the people of Nineveh (non-Israelites). He told them they must repent or be destroyed. They chose to repent and Jonah misunderstood God's compassion for penitent sinners. The Ninevites were saved from destruction just as those in the land of Canaan would have been saved and just as those at the time of the great flood (see above). But they would not give up their worship of false gods (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).
Aside → God has given us power through the exercise of choice. Our choices effect others, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. Our choices most dramatically effect others through taking away their power to choose. When it comes to bringing life into this world and removing life from this world, our choices are extremely important. If you read the commandments correctly, some of the most severe punishments are for bad choices involving this sacred power of creating or destroying life. Part of the worship of the false gods of those in Canaan was to sacrifice purity and make a mockery of the power we have from God to bring life into this world.
From Abraham we learn that when we seek the Lord he will give us great promises. What are the “blessings of Abraham” (Galatians 3:6-9,14). Paul gives part of the answer (Gal 3:16-18,29) and we can also find it through Genesis 17:1-6,7,8-9,16 and 22:15-17,18. A father of many nations and also that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through the seed of Abraham. That means nations previous to, concurrent with and future to both him and us. Following Abraham points us in the right direction: to Christ and perfection (Genesis 17:1). We can partake in the same covenant as Abraham, in faith, and be joint heirs of the world with Christ (Romans 4:13; 8:17, Galatians 3:29).
Another point is that the Apostles taught that we should learn from the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15-16). But what scriptures did they have? They would have only had a select version of what we now call the Old Testament. Isaiah is so often quoted that they must have had a copy of his prophecies also. Should we not then follow the admonition of Paul and study those things?And what scriptures did Christ open to understanding to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-24,25-27,28-32)? From Moses, meaning the five books of Moses that are Genesis through Deuteronomy, through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, etc) the scriptures speak and testify of Him.
The Old Testament is also full of prophecies about the second coming of our Lord. Amos 3:7, Malachi chapters 3 and 4 are only a minor part of the many revelations and prophecies about our future. If we understand the prophecies we can be prepared for what may come. By studying and living from all of the word of God we will be prepared spiritually and by being prepared spiritually we will not fear, no matter the ending.
One bit of information that has helped me to understand the Old Testament is that all things testify of Christ (His birth, life, sacrifice, resurrection, second coming, etc). From the beginning, prior to the Law of Moses, Adam offered animal sacrifices , so did Abraham (think of being told to sacrifice Isaac). These sacrifices, the shedding of blood, represents the final and ultimate shedding of blood of Christ on our behalf. The Law of Moses (also know as “the school master”) was given to point the people to Christ, not as an end but as a means to help them focus on Him and get them to the higher law. It was to be an outer expression of their inner commitment to follow the Savior. Many Israelites misunderstood this and thought that it was by the law alone (outer actions and blood lines) that they were saved (Galatians 3:24).
One of my favorite scriptures is a testimony from Isaiah; his prophecies are full of references and allusions to Christ. In chapter 49, Isaiah prophecies that the people, nearing destruction, would complain saying (vs 14) "But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me and my Lord hath forgotten me." Do we say that we are forgotten now? The Lord's response through Isaiah is touching and beautiful (15-16) "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me." This is clearly a reference to Christ and the nails driven through His hands for us.
I have addressed only a small number of reasons why we should study from the Old Testament. I do not mean to diminish other scripture, just pass along why we should not disregard important information. As we read and study the Old Testament we will begin to understand some of the context of that world and the love that God does have for each of us. We will come to know that He will not forget nor forsake us. We will learn more about His mission and understand better the reason for it. We will come to know Him and, through faith in action, become more like Him.