Two ways to read the Old Testament

Erkki Koskenniemi
Emilia Mansikka

The knowledge of the Old Testament has decreased rather rapidly in Europe during the last decades. There are many reasons for this. On one hand, the habit of reading the Bible regularly has decreased quite alarmingly. The struggle for spare time is difficult, and the continuous rush makes important things overtake the most important one. On the other hand, the exegetics of the Old Testament practiced at universities has often been foreign for both people of congregations and the students studying to become pastors. This being the case, the pastoral education has failed to prepare the future pastors to teach the Old Testament.

On some parts, the Biblical exegesis taught at the university will never find its way to congregations. However, it does have a lot to offer. The purpose of this short article is to help the reader understand that there are multiple ways of reading the Bible and how two of these ways can complement each other and helps us understand the Holy book even better.

The First Way: How did the first hearers understand the text?

The best thing university exegesis can offer is a simple question: How did the first people to hear and read the text understand it? This question leads to diligent study of language, history and culture. Thus, a reader of the Bible tries to travel in time to the age of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, to stand side by side with the first hearers of their words and to listen very carefully. This is how the historical exegesis works.

The task is very challenging. We are thinking about a person who has come from a completely different kind of culture, who is sitting among us and hardly knows our language. He understands little of our speech, our customs seem strange and misunderstandings come about very easily. The readers of the Old Testament also face misunderstandings, in remarkably greater amount. Despite, this point of view has a lot to offer.

This way of reading helps us understand how Isaiah acts in the middle of the disaster, how Ezekiel, far away in Mesopotamia, sees the final stages of his beloved city, and how Zechariah walks together with Haggai in ruined Jerusalem, where the inhabitants of Judea have recently returned. A finding after another follows and the reader becomes more and more inspired, the deeper he gets into the history and the word of God.

The Second Way: How did the first Christians read the Bible?

The second way of reading has been considered self-evident in Christ’s Church from the very beginning, but rare at the universities: The Old Testament is read through Christ.

According to our belief, there is only one God and He, in all his love, has approached the sinful mankind.

For example, the letter to Ephesians describes very powerfully how God has determined His work of salvation before the beginning of ages, prepared it during the Old Testament, and fulfilled it in Christ’s atonement. From this point of view, the Old and the New Testament belong together and they form God’s love letter to the mankind.

We get the basics of this particular way of reading from the last chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, in which the resurrected Christ unfolds the Scripture to two of His disciples. The lesson begins from Moses and – as Paul would put it – removes the cover from the disciples’ eyes.

The following examples illustrate how the two ways of reading the Bible can serve each other.

Jeremiah and the New Covenant

Prophet Jeremiah did not receive an easy task. He was a young man, when the Lord sent him to prophesy to his people. At the same time, it was made clear to him that people would not take heed of his words. He went both to the rich and the poor, but the word was rejected (chapter 5). He sat on the stocks, taunted by everyone and cursed his vocation (chapter 20). He wrote his prophecies and sent them to the king – they were read to the king, who then burned them in public (chapter 36). It was not until the besieged Jerusalem was laid low, after all the horror of the siege and the terrors of conquest, that the words of Jeremiah were taken seriously. However, even after this the poor man was badly mistreated in the aftermath of the disaster.

The historical way of reading offers a lot for the readers of the book of Jeremiah. The first hearers of Jeremiah saw and heard everything, but did not receive the word. Jeremiah is one of many examples of faith: The work of God’s Kingdom is done faithfully even though we had to pay a high price for it. Jeremiah was one of the chosen strangers, as the First Letter of Peter describes Christians to be: We are loved by Christ, but the world hates us.

Read through Christ, the book of Jeremiah provides a rich and abundant world. Jeremiah is obviously one of the servants, which the owner of the vineyard (God) sent before his Son (Mark 12). However, in addition he prophecies something completely new in the midst of destruction:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”

Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 31:31-37)

The words in the book of Jeremiah refer to the new covenant, to the blood of Christ and to the Holy Communion. The new covenant is a covenant of grace and forgiveness.

Ezekiel and the New Jerusalem

At the time when Jeremiah was going through his own battle in Jerusalem, another prophet was following the situation from a distance. The king of Babylon had brought his forces to Jerusalem in 597 and replaced the king. To be on the safe side, he had nobles, armorers and priests taken into captivity in his own land. Among them, forced into exile, was a priest called Ezekiel. Since 593 he started to have visions.

At first, they were warning and showed how Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. The most hopeless vision of them all is described in chapters 8-11: The glory of the Lord leaves Jerusalem and the city is, thus, without a protector, free to be destroyed. Jerusalem was indeed destructed in 587/586.

After the destruction of the city, the book of Ezekiel holds completely different kinds of phases. Here are the loveliest prophecies about how the Lord becomes the shepherd of His people (chapter 34) and how He brings His people into life even though they are like a heap of dry bones (chapter 37).

From the historical point of view, the book of Ezekiel is very thrilling to read. It tells its own story about God’s hatred and His love.

Read through Christ, the book of Ezekiel opens up in a rich and completely new way. We picked up the passage of chapters 40-48, which is the opposite vision for the hopeless vision in chapters 8-11: The glory of the Lord returns to Jerusalem and the prophet gets to walk on the streets of the new city. Thus, the city is ready and waiting – The Lord is soon taking His people there! Similarly, in the book of Revelation, John had the chance to see New Jerusalem and the great wedding feast. That is where Christ’s people, the Bride of the Lamb are taken. The treasures of the Book of Revelation are unfolded through the book of Ezekiel.

The Two Viewpoints

The abovementioned examples aim at showing how it is possible for a regular reader of the Bible to take into account both of the described viewpoints. Exegetics at the university views the Old Testament from a historical point of view, whereas the Church sees it as part of God’s revelation. Both points of view have a lot to offer, precisely when they are used side by side. The Bible contains more than we understand and it invites us to study God’s great love letter.