Getting to Know the Old Testament

Part Three

How to Study the Old Testament

by John N. Oswalt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, Asbury Theological Seminary Elder, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

The preceding article closed with the observation that the “problems” of the Old Testament need not prevent us from perceiving the message of God’s Word. In order to do this, however – more so than with the New Testament – systematic study will be necessary. Devotional, verse-by-verse reading of the Old Testament is not as productive as in the New Testament. Therefore, this article will devote itself to suggestions for study preliminary to the thumbnail sketch of the Old Testament which will appear in the final article of this series.

First, a workman must look to his or her tools. The absolute minimum for Old Testament Bible study would be four and I would suggest six “tools.”

The first is a modern language edition of the Bible in paragraphed form. The archaic language of the Authorized (or King James) Version presents enough problems in the New Testament. These are multiplied in the Old. I would suggest the New American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible and/or the New English Bible in that order. The Word of God will speak clearly and accurately through all of these, but the first is the most likely to literally represent the original; the latter is most likely to offer some creative guesses at points of textual difficulty.[1] The Living Bible is fine for rapid reading, but because it is a paraphrase[2], it is not best for detailed study.

Second, a good Bible dictionary is needed. Probably the best one-volume edition is the New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans. Among multi-volume sets are Zondervan’s new Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, and Eerdman’s International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (now undergoing revision). These are both, of course, very expensive. Abingdon’s Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible is excellent for someone with critical training.[3]

Third, a one-volume commentary will be helpful in difficult spots. The most recent good one is the New Bible Commentary, Revised from Eerdman’s. Avoid the Abingdon one-volume commentary as well as Peake’s unless you have had some Biblical training and are equipped intellectually and spiritually to sift and evaluate the presuppositions of liberal Biblical criticism.

Fourth, a Bible atlas. There are a number of good ones available depending upon the amount you want to pay. The Westminster, Macmillan and Oxford are all good in the $10 to $15 range. My choice would be Macmillan since it concentrates upon maps without extensive text. Oxford’s second edition, which has a good bit more text, is now available in paperback at about $4.

These four tools are essential. But, as mentioned above, I would add two more: a concordance and a Bible handbook. Young’s and Strong’s concordances are based on the King James, but there is enough similarity among the versions for them to be highly useful regardless of the Bible version you are using. Nelson’s concordance is based on the Revised Standard Version.

The most attractive and useful handbook to appear in some time is Eerdman ‘s new Handbook of the Bible. This ought to replace the old standby, Halley’s, both in terms of format and content. Some who are pinched for funds may want to purchase this book in place of the commentary and atlas mentioned above. Along with short introductory articles on Biblical books and various Biblical themes, it includes brief commentary and maps. Even if you purchase a commentary and an atlas, this volume contains enough other material, handily arranged, to make it worth buying.

With tools such as these in hand, really profitable Old Testament study is possible. The following are suggestions for such a course of study.

First, read the entire Biblical passage before reading any commentary or exposition. It is the Bible which is inspired, not the expositor or commentator. Look up unfamiliar names and places as you go along, but try to form your own estimate of a passage’s meaning before you look at someone’s else’s opinion. You may want to revise your understanding after reading others, but it is far better to revise your own thoughts than have no thoughts except someone else’s.

Second, read entire thought units, not single verses. Try to get the big picture and keep it in mind as you read. When you begin a new book, glance over it quickly. Try to see what material it includes and how this material is organized. All the time ask yourself, “What is the point of this book?” Then go back and look for smaller units of thought, probably groups of chapters. Look for the same kinds of things just mentioned. It will help to find these groupings if you will ask yourself, “Where does a common idea begin or end?” The key in this process is found in the word “relationship.” Keep asking yourself, “How are these ideas related or connected? Are they primarily related to what goes before or to what follows? Is there a break in the chain of relationship, suggesting a new unit or division?”

Now take the first group of chapters (comprising a thought unit) and look for smaller thought units within that group. These will probably be about a chapter in length, but they may be more or less. Chapter divisions and verse numbers were added to the Bible thousands of years after the original writing.

Next take the first of these smaller thought units (probably roughly equivalent to the first chapter} and give it a title. This will force you to sum up in a few words the basic thought or action of the unit.

As an example of the process just discussed, let us look at the book of Genesis. A quick survey shows us that this is a book of biography. It seems to show God’s working in the lives of selected men. This is especially so after chapter 12. Beginning there we can see that 12:1-25:12 covers Abraham; 25:19-35:29 deals with Jacob (Isaac is also dealt with in the first two chapters of the unit); 35-50 cover Joseph. Throughout these chapters God’s promise and His faithfulness in keeping it are prominent.

This leaves chapters 1-11. Once again individuals are prominent: Adam in chapters 2-5, and Noah in 6-10. Here we can see the problem of human sin and God’s preparations for dealing with it. A more detailed way of grouping the chapters in the 1-11 unit might be as follows: 1:1-2:3 Creation; 2:4- 3:24 Fall; 4-5 Adam; 6-10 Noah; 11 Babel. The movement in these chapters is from one man to the whole world and then from the whole world to one man.

Chapter 1:1-2:3 might be simply titled “Creation.” However, this is rather general and does not clearly distinguish the unit from the following chapter. Investigation reveals the prominence of God as Creator and the goodness of Creation as important themes in the thought unit. Therefore “God’s Good Creation” might be appropriate, although this is somewhat analytical and prosaic.

After creating the unit (or chapter) title, you are in a position to study the paragraphs to see how the inspired writer put these basic building blocks together to make a point. Be alert for such devices as repetition, contrast, comparison and climax. Once again, writing titles for each of the paragraphs will help you pin down the content. If you will examine Genesis 1:1-2:3 in this way you will be struck by the centrality of God’s action (e.g., study the verbs which describe God’s creating acts), by the order and symmetry of the whole process, by the cumulative impact of the repetition of “it was good,” all moving in concert to the climax in the Sabbath.

As you work through a book in this manner, you will probably want to revise some of the findings of your earlier survey, but this is all to the good. Along with this kind of detailed study, you will also want to get a copy of the Living Bible or some other easily-read paraphrase. Use this to read great blocks of the Old Testament, simply for the overall exposure.

If you will faithfully apply such a process of disciplined study to the Old Testament (it is equally profitable in the New), the first part of your Bible will no longer be a lump of stone. Instead you will discover that it is a diamond shining with hundreds of facets of beauty.

But someone, throwing up his hands in despair, is saying, “Do you mean that the only way I can ever understand the Old Testament is to go through that wringer.”

This is probably true of many. Fortunately, God accommodates Himself to our weaknesses. He wants so deeply to be found by you that He will reward even your tiniest step toward Him! Thus, if you will open yourself to Him in His Word and will read with the larger thought continually in view, keeping alert for relationships between thoughts, looking up terms you don’t know, you will find glorious vistas of understanding opening up before you.

There are many people lamenting some of the directions in which our church is moving, calling stridently for a return to “Biblical” Christianity. Many such people do not have the foggiest notion what genuinely Biblical Christianity is. Why is this? Because they are not enough concerned about our church or their faith to do the hard, serious work required to discover what Biblical religion really is. The familiar slogan “Back to the Bible” throws down the challenge before us. Before we are too quick to accuse others of betraying Biblical Christianity, let us be certain there are no logs in our own eyes! May many of us in our Good News Movement begin to act as if the Bible really is God’s Word, as we claim it to be. May we take the time and the energy and the sweat to study it in a disciplined fashion. Then perhaps evangelicals will become a force to be reckoned with in our church. Otherwise, we will be merely a group of reactionaries who condemn things that do not “sound right.” The Bible demands more of us than that.

Coming in the next issue of Good News PART IV: “Your Roadmap of The Old Testament”

[1] TEXTUAL DIFFICULTY: Those places where the Hebrew language is obscure or various Interpretations are possible. In such places, the translator or paraphraser makes a judgment as to what was the probable intended meaning of the inspired author. So-called “textual criticism” is the study intended to discover what the original meaning was, and which of the various ancient manuscripts known to us is the most authentic to the original, inspired writing.

[2] PARAPHRASE: a version of Scripture where an attempt is made to convey the Biblical thought accurately, expressing this meaning freely but accurately, through expansion of the literal translation from the Hebrew (or Greek and Aramaic languages in case of the New Testament). The Living Bible is the most familiar paraphrase today. A “translation” sticks as closely as possible to the literal meaning of the original Biblical language.

[3] CRITICAL TRAINING: study of the various theories, methods and the history of Biblical criticism. This is a vast and highly complex area. Background is needed in order for the reader to wisely evaluate the various theories which are often presented so as to appear as fact rather than hypothesis. Untrained readers may easily, therefore, mistake theory for fact.



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