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Eight Questions to Ask When You Read the Old Testament

Missional-Header-570x362It’s not a secret that many people, Christians included, find the Old Testament more challenging and difficult to understand than the New Testament. The reasons for this are many and much-discussed; foremost among them is the great cultural and literary gap between our era and Iron Age Mesopotamia. What it means is that while Christians can appreciate individual Old Testament stories, it can be tricky to connect those stories to the New Testament, and more specifically to the Gospel message we’re so familiar with.

This was the topic of Christopher J.H. Wright‘s plenary address this morning at A Missionary Reading of Scripture, a conference taking place at Calvin Theological Seminary this week.

Wright encourages Christians to look at the Old Testament not just as a collection of disconnected stories or moral fables, but as part of the grand, purposeful narrative of God’s Word. That’s easier said than done, of course—but in his presentation, Wright listed out eight questions you can ask while reading an Old Testament story or passage to help you better understand it. Answering some or all of these questions can help you understand how even difficult or disturbing sections of the Old Testament fit into the story of the Bible.

I’ve edited Wright’s questions down to make them understandable outside the context of his (excellent) presentation. Without further ado, here are…

Eight Questions to Ask When You Read the Old Testament

  1. What do we know about the context and origin of this text? Does this passage respond to or challenge any specific events, trends, or behaviors? If so, can you think of modern-day analogues for those issues?
  2. What does this passage reveal about God and his purposes? And how does the glimpse of God seen in this passage compare to depictions of God elsewhere in the Bible?
  3. Where does this passage fit into the “story” of the Bible? What Bible stories came before this one, leading up to it? What stories come after, building on it?
  4. What picture of God’s people does this passage paint? What values and ideals does this passage hold up for us? If the passage criticizes God’s people or shows them behaving badly, what values can we identify by their absence?
  5. Does this text point us to the future? What promises, foreshadowings of future events, or other groundwork does this passage lay down for us?
  6. What happens if you read this text with Luke 24 in mind? (In Luke 24, Jesus identifies himself as a culmination of the Old Testament narrative.) What happens if you don’t read this text with Luke 24 in mind?
  7. What questions about your own faith today do you want to ask of, or introduce into, this passage?
  8. What questions does this passage ask you? How does it challenge, correct, or encourage you?

This is a huge simplification of Wright’s points, and I hope I’ve preserved at least some of their spirit. Some of these questions can be answered by anyone; others probably require a bit of background research—a few minutes spent with a Bible commentary, a conversation with your pastor, etc. But even if you don’t know all the answers, simply learning to ask the right questions is a good first step!

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