S1E1 Transcript

001 - What is the Old Testament and Why Study It?

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Season 1, Episode 1
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Length: 24:55


So, when we talk about the Old Testament, we are talking about the Hebrew scriptures, or 39 books inspired by God that make up 75% of the Bible. And it covers that period from creation up until about 400 BC. It’s the record of mankind origin, how God created the world, how we came to be, what our purpose was, humanity’s subsequent rejection of God, and God’s activity to reclaim and redeem that world.

The Old Testament at first was the basis of life and thought for ancient Israel. But with the passing of time, the Old Testament has also become the foundation for Christianity, and because of that foundational to all of Western civilization.


There are some common beliefs or myths about the Old Testament that are often excuses why people don’t study it. One excuse is the idea the Old Testament is out of date, and it’s been replaced by the New Testament. It’s no longer applicable to us. So maybe you’ve heard somebody say something like this: We now live under grace and not law; we’re a New Testament church. And so, there’s this idea that the old covenant in the Old Testament has been set aside, and because of that it’s been made inconsequential. We don’t even need to study it anymore.

Or another idea is the Old Testament is primarily about law, whereas the New Testament is primarily about grace. And, of course, we want grace over law. And so possibly, that means we might put too much emphasis on the Old Testament, and that could actually be dangerous to our faith. That might make us focus on work, so not grace, and so we avoid it. We give our attention to the New Testament.

Another reason is we just have a bad view of God. We have this idea that the God in the Old Testament is angry and violent and wrathful, focused only on judgment. Unlike the New Testament, God who was kind and loving and merciful and forgiving of everybody, and certainly we preferred that kind of loving God rather than the angry violent God.

Another reason that people don’t often study the Old Testament is it’s just simply too confusing. All of the laws, the sacrifices, the list of names, the genealogies. Locations, references to cities or towns that we know nothing about. People groups that we’re not familiar with. The poetry. All this doesn’t make sense.

That makes it very difficult, and of course, that’s understandable. It is unfamiliar and it is difficult. The good news is that we can learn about those things and maybe that’s why you’re listening to this episode.

Some might say that the Old Testament is irrelevant because it’s an ancient book. It doesn’t relate to modern life today. Society has advanced so much beyond past where the Old Testament world is and we know more and are more sophisticated, more and more advanced. And therefore, there’s really no reason to go back and read it and pay attention to it.

Some may argue that the Old Testament is simply not true. But most of those stories in there didn’t really happen. It’s not real history. It’s just a record of how the Jewish people evolved over the centuries and their beliefs and their culture in order to give them their own unique identity as a people group. But it’s not real history. Those aren’t real stories.


So why should we study the Old Testament? Well, first of all, in 2000 years, the Church has never been willing to get rid of the Old Testament. And for Jesus and the disciples, the Old Testament was authoritative scripture. In the gospels, when Jesus would talk about Scripture or when he would quote scripture, he was quoting the Old Testament. And so, to abandon or ignore the Old Testament would be to do something Jesus himself wasn’t even willing to do.

In fact, this is one of the early heresies in the life of the Church. In the 2nd century, there was a preacher/ philosopher named Marcion, who held many of these same false views about God in the old and tried to persuade the Church to get rid of most of the Old Testament writings. In wrestling with this idea and the influence of Marcion, the Church soon declared Marcionism to be heresy. And therefore, they embraced and affirmed the validity and the authority of the Old Testament.

And so, the Old Testament is the foundation. It’s the beginning of our faith, and this is where God’s story begins, and consequently it’s where our own story, even today, begins as people who are faithful followers of God.

Now, when the New Testament writers came along, they assumed — in writing their letters and their accounts of Jesus — they assumed that their followers and their audience all understood and had a deep sufficient knowledge of the world and the ideas of the Old Testament. They took for granted that the Old Testament was the foundation. And the major doctrines for Christian theology and the life of the Church, then and now, such as holiness, mercy, love; the ideas of covenant, atonement, justification, salvation: these are all introduced and explained in the Old Testament, and then they’re brought forward into the New Testament to make them complete.

We can think of it like this. The Old Testament asks questions that it doesn’t answer. And the Old Testament presents problems for which it doesn’t give the solutions. I like how Old Testament scholar John Oswalt put this. He says the Old Testament alone is a book of questions without answers of dreams without realities into failed hopes.

And the ultimate question of the Old Testament it asks this: How can sinful people live in fellowship with the Holy God? Is it even possible to live holy as God is holy? That’s the question that the Old Testament asked but doesn’t answer. And it’s the cross in the New Testament that offers the resounding yes to that very question.

So, the Old Testament is the necessary foundation for the ultimate hope and promise of redemption and salvation that we find in the New. But if we don’t have the Old Testament, then we don’t understand the questions and we don’t understand the problem and the answer of the cross and the solution of the cross in the resurrection, the incarnation, the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, the church, and indeed the second coming itself makes very little sense to us.


In terms of the timeline and structure of the Old Testament, we are talking about the period of time from the beginning of creation, wherever that may be, up until 400 BC with Malachi, the last book in the Old Testament. Now in the 1st 11 chapters of Genesis, we’re not given any specific markers to help us be accurate as to where exactly in the historical timeline these first few chapters take place. So from Adam to Abraham we simply have to say that the time period here is debatable.

But there are three views that are most commonly put forth here as possibilities. The first is what we would call the Old Earth view, and here we are talking about the age of the earth being millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years old. This all comes about because of Darwinian evolution, and that’s what makes the long timeline very necessary that the beginning of all matter and all creation happened in very simple single cell organisms and then slowly over millions of years, evolved into the more complex life forms that we see today. Of course, most of us are familiar with evolutionary theory. There are certainly many people, including biblical scholars, that would embrace this old Earth view and seek to make evolution compatible with Christian faith and with the story of Genesis. Now I think there are substantial problems with that view, in my judgment. We’ll save that for another podcast series.

A second option is on the other end of the spectrum with the Young Earth view. Here the age of the Earth is somewhere around 6000 years old. That age is arrived at by looking at the genealogy is given in the opening chapters of Genesis. And then taking those ages and dates and counting backwards in order to arrive at a point of creation in the historical timeline, which puts it somewhere around 6 to 7000 BC.

The young earth view looks at the creation account in Genesis one and two and takes it quite literally. That creation is the result of a direct act on the part of God through his speech, and then with his hands and the creation of Adam and Eve. Evolution is not involved. But rather, God specifically brings all matter into existence at one moment, out of nothingness, as the text describes.

The third option that we could choose is what I call, in a tip of the hat to JRR Tolkien, the Middle Earth view. Like the Young Earth view, this is a rejection of evolutionary timeline, evolutionary explanations. It also is a literal approach to the creation account. The same affirmations that God did create the earth as described in Genesis. There are the seven days of creation. There are some different possibilities as to how we precisely understand those seven days of creation. And there’s debate even among conservative theologians and scholars as to what is actually happening there.

A good resource that I would highly recommend on different possibilities for the seven days of creation is the book, Seven Days That Changed the World, by Dr. John Lennox. This is a valuable resource because it keeps within a creationism framework as well as maintaining a high view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.

But the Middle Earth view is different from the Young Earth view, in that the age of the earth is somewhat older. So anywhere from 10,000 years, possibly up to as many as 100,000 years old.

But when we get to Genesis 12 and the character of Abraham, we can be much more specific in the timeline as to where we are in history because of archaeological evidence and writings that we find and things like that. So, in Genesis 12, we put Abraham somewhere around the year 2200 BC in the ancient city of Ur, in the Sumerian civilization, in what is today southern Iraq. From Genesis 12 on we’re covering the period in history from about 2200 BC up to 400 BC, so the bulk of the Old Testament takes place in about an 1800-year span of time.

In terms of history, this puts us into the Bronze and the Iron Ages. The Bronze Age begins about 1000 years before Abraham, so we would say Abraham is living in the Middle Bronze Age and then Moses and the events of the Exodus, Joshua and the settlement of Canaan. These are all taking place in the Late Bronze Age, somewhere between 1200 and 1500 BC. And then from the time of the Kings or the Book of Judges moving forward, all of the rest of the Old Testament takes place in the Iron Age, which begins in that part of the world, at least sometime around 1200, and will go all the way up through the Middle Ages.


Now, chronologically, there are a few key historical eras in the history of Israel in the Old Testament that we want to know about. The first of those is the period of the Patriarchs. This is the Book of Genesis, the figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then the time in Egypt under Joseph. This is followed by the events of the Exodus and the conquest. That’s the second historical era, so the books of Exodus through Joshua.

An interesting sidebar here. Right around the time of the Exodus, in India, is when the doctrines and the thinking of Hinduism are beginning to be written down for the first time. Hinduism, of course, claims to be one of the world’s oldest religions and has been developing in the Far East in India roughly parallel to these events of the Old Testament.

The third historical period is the time of the Judges. This is about a 200-year period here with the figures such as Gideon and Samson. The major figure that ends the time of the Judges is the prophet Samuel. Then beginning in 1000 BC, God grants Israel its request to have its own king. And so, the period of the United Monarchy follows for about 70 years under Kings Saul, King David, and Solomon. This is Israel at its greatest period, the Golden Age of Israel.

But when Solomon dies in 930 BC, the Kingdom divides. This is the period of the Divided Monarchy. Solomon’s death led to the split of the Kingdom into the Kingdom of Judah in the South. That would be led by Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which was led at first by Jeroboam, who had been the commander of Solomon’s armies.

In 722 BC, the northern Kingdom of Israel falls to the Assyrians. In 586 BC, about 140 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians, and this is the period known as the Exile.

In 539, when the Persians come to power, Cyrus, who is the Persian king, allows a small handful of Jewish people to return from Babylon back to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, rebuild the walls, and then later rebuild the temple. And so, we call this last period of the Old Testament the Restoration. This is a story told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Now, another interesting historical fact. In terms of world religions, right around this time, possibly within 100 years, a man named Siddhartha Guatama is born in Nepal. And Guatama, of course becomes known as Buddha. And the religion that grew up around his teachings, of course, is Buddhism.

Now in between the old and the New Testaments, there’s about a 400-year period that sometimes you’ll hear called the Silent Period. The Intertestamental period is what I call it, and this is a time when there is no king. Israel does not exist really as a nation, really as a political entity, and it’s frequently subject to a series of foreign rulers. This is the time when the Greek Empire is at its dominant most dominant point having conquered the world under Alexander the Great. The Romans are beginning to really develop and grow and toward the end of that period will burst onto power on the world stage.

This intertestamental period is what sets up all of the events and the ideas and the people groups that will take place and become very significant in the New Testament.


In terms of the writing and the structure of the Old Testament, there are three basic kinds or genres of writings that we find. First is historical writings or historical narrative. These are the books told in story form. The second type of writing is wisdom or poetry. These are five books called the Books of Wisdom and include Job, Psalms, Proverbs.

The third major genre or kind of writing in the Old Testament are the prophets. Now, the prophetic writings are divided into two groups: major prophets and minor prophets. The major prophets–these are five books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Book of Lamentations, which is written by Jeremiah. Those are the five major prophets. The other twelve are called the minor prophets.

Now, major and minor here simply refer to the length of writings of the book, not their significance of the message or their historical context. There are no inconsequential prophetic books in the Old Testament. Every one of them even, Obadiah, a very short book has profound messages and implications for our understanding of what God was doing at that time in history. We can also say that the major prophets are the long-winded books. Isaiah is the longest book in the Bible next to Psalms and. The minor prophets, on the other hand, are quite concise.

Within the historical writings, especially the first five books, we find a subgenre called the law. The law is not a distinct set of books, but rather a kind of writing that is woven into the first five books of the Bible that are known as the Pentateuch or the five writings of Moses in Hebrew. The Jewish people would call these first five books the Torah. Pentateuch is a Greek word, Torah is Hebrew. And the writing, called the law, is woven throughout these five books. Of course, especially the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

But the law here is a mix of stories and commands that detail the nature of God and what he’s like, what he wants for his people, especially in the context of a covenant — we’ll talk about this later–and the way that God’s people are supposed to behave. But that’s why we can single the law out as a separate type of writing to pay attention to, even though it is woven into historical narrative.

The Hebrew structure of the Old Testament and the books in the Old Testament is referred to as Tanakh. This is really an acronym. The Hebrew structure has three major groups. The Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible: that’s the TA in tanakh. The second group is a Nevi’im, the NA in Tanach. The Nevi’im, or the writings, the historical writings. That also would combine the books of poetry and wisdom together. Then the third group, the Ketuvim, is the K in Tanakh, the Ketuvim or the Prophets.

Interestingly, in the Jewish Old Testament, the Ketuvim puts together the prophets with the book of Books of judges through Second Kings. This is because of the prophetic nature and messages of what is happening in those accounts, especially with a figure of Samuel.

Now the Christian arrangement for the Bible, the way that most of us are going to be familiar with the Bible and the Old Testament if we’ve looked at it; this arrangement goes back to 200 BC to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, called the Septuagint. In the 200 BC, when they translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, they structured the books not like the Hebrew structure, but rather first by topic and then chronologically within each of those topics.

The Christian Old Testament is arranged this way. First come the five books called the Pentateuch. The first five books of the Bible, just like the Jewish Bible does. But then it’s followed by the 12 historical books, followed by the five books of poetry or wisdom, and then the Prophets come last. First are the five major prophets, and then at the end of the Old Testament, the 12 minor prophets. So, if you want to go look for Amos, one of the minor prophets, you’re going to go look near the end of the Old Testament.

Now the Protestant tradition recognizes, as does the Hebrew tradition, 39 books in the Old Testament. However, Roman Catholicism adds an additional 7, so they would look at 46 books as part of the Old Testament canon. Eastern Orthodox tradition has 49, and the Ethiopian Orthodox or the Coptic Church has 50. So, there’s different variations within different Christian traditions, but all Christian traditions and the Hebrew tradition includes these core 39 books. These other books that the other traditions would consider to be part of the Old Testament are known generally as apocrypha or apocryphal writings.


So, there you have the Old Testament. An account of God’s activity in human history and human life across nearly 2000 years in ancient world. And it’s a story that comes primarily through narrative writing stories that capture the account of that history but also comes through poetry. And through prophetic voices. It’s a story of families. It’s a story of individuals. It’s the story of failure and success. It’s the story of faith and sinfulness. It’s a story of nations and the rise and falls of empires. It’s a story of promises and problems and the difficulty in the struggle of people who are called by God and learning how to walk with him and walk in fellowship with the God who created them and loves them.

But even for us today, the Old Testament is more relevant than ever. The more we dive into the story in the history, not just the biblical spiritual applications, but into the history of the Old Testament, the more we find that what happened in the Old Testament world still happens today. And this is for a really simple reason: Human nature doesn’t change. We can change the calendar. We can change the clothing. We can change the technology. We can change how much knowledge we have about the world, but fundamentally human nature is today what it was then, and the same impulses and ambitions and desires and strategies that all are deployed in human society and the political wranglings and maneuvers show up in our world and in our geopolitics, just like they do in the Old Testament.

So, the more we dive in in the Old Testament and we see what God did, then the better we can understand who is God today, what does he want today and how will he work?

Without the Old Testament, we can’t adequately understand the depth of the problem that Jesus came to solve. We don’t understand the seriousness of that sin problem. And we miss out on the depth of what God is asking us to be a part of and drawing us into with the life for which he intended us to live.

But if we’re going to be deep and rich and well-grounded in our biblical knowledge and our faith and our walk with God here at a time and the world around us is increasingly hostile to Christian faith and life in practice and thought now more than ever, we as the church need to become good students of God’s big story that begins in the Old Testament. It begins with creation and understanding what it is God wanted to do, who was he? How did he reveal himself, what happened, what went wrong with the world? And how did his ultimate plan for the redemption of all of creation began and lay together across human history to culminate in the events of the incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the resurrection, and someday, the second coming of Jesus Christ as King over his world?

That’s why we study the Old Testament.