Jesus is the central focus of the entire Old Testament. Here are five principles for understanding the Scriptures.
The Old Testament can be confusing. It’s very long, and unfamiliar to most Christians. Many reading it cannot see how it points to the coming of Jesus. Most modern biblical scholarship makes this worse, as it asserts that the Old Testament is a complex of contradictory theologies that tell us more about the culture of the Near East than it tells us about Christ, if it tells us anything about Christ at all.
In what follows, I want to provide some guiding principles on reading the Old Testament, with examples that demonstrate how a fully Christian reading of the Old Testament is actually the best and most fruitful reading of the Old Testament. This article therefore serves as both a guide to reading the Bible and a critique of modern critical methods that see the Old Testament as a disunity.
1. Read it!
St. Justin Popovich instructs us to read at least one chapter of the Old Testament and one chapter of the New Testament per day. That is, he instructs us to read them equally. By contrast, many modern Christians consider the New Testament to be fundamentally different in kind than the Old Testament and therefore more important to read.
While these principles are rarely made explicit, the Old Testament is thought of as a rather vague, sometimes horrifying book about God the Father, occasionally mixed in with prophecies of Christ. The Old Testament is a Jewish book that’s been adapted for Christian use. By contrast, the Fathers of the Church considered the whole Bible, every word, to be written “for our sake” (1 Corinthians 10:11) and written to reveal the second person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word of God.
St. Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho, makes clear that the Old Testament is fundamentally our book, not the book of Judaism. This is not a book written out of the culture of ancient Israel which the Church has adapted and invested new meaning into. Instead, this is a book written by God through inspired prophets, often against the culture of ancient Israel. And instead of investing new meaning into the Old Testament, the Church, invested as it is with the same Spirit that “spoke by the prophets”, discerns the meaning that the Creator Himself wrote into the Old Testament.
2. Read it Christocentrically
The Old Testament is about Jesus Christ. The Church therefore invites man to “come and see” (John 1:46) that this is the one of whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. Let’s consider an example of a proper and satisfying Christocentric reading of Old Testament passages. In the book of Joshua, we read the famous story of Rahab the harlot. When Israel invades the promised land, they are commanded to “devote the people to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:17). As in the days of Noah, wickedness had reached such a level that God had resolved to destroy an entire society. Yet, Merciful as God is, He would not allow a single righteous person to be destroyed in the flood.
And as with St. Mary of Egypt, righteousness is sometimes found in unexpected places. When the spies come into Jericho, Rahab deceives the Canaanites and safeguards the Israelites. Because of this, Rahab and her family is protected from destruction. In order to mark her house out from the rest of the Canaanites, Rahab hangs a scarlet cord out her window. Christians have historically seen this as a profound type of Christ: the red blood of Christ saves us from destruction at the Final Judgment. Unfortunately, many modern readers dismiss this as “reading into” the text. But had moderns read carefully, they would realize the Church has always been right about this.
Let’s consider several details which reinforce a Christocentric reading of this passage. First, Rahab is a Woman. This is not trivial. In Genesis 3, the Serpent deceived the first Woman (Genesis 3:13). God punishes “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Consequently, it is now the Woman who deceives the Serpent. This typifies the eschatological Woman, the Holy Theotokos, the New Eve, as she deceives the Serpent. St. Ignatius of Antioch therefore taught that God hid the virgnity of the Theotokos from Satan.
Second, Rahab is a harlot. When God called Israel, she too was a harlot, as is vividly portrayed in Hosea 1-3. Yet, through the blood of Christ, God transforms this harlot into the New Eve, the Holy Church (the Theotokos personally symbolizes the whole Church). Indeed, the harlot Israel is transformed into a virgin Bride for Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2). This is precisely what happens to Rahab. Deuteronomy 22:13-15 commands that if a Woman is accused of dishonor in her virginity, the father and mother of the woman are to bring out the bloody evidence of her virginity publicly, which will be her vindication. Perhaps, then, we should see the scarlet cord which is publicly displayed out of Rahab’s window as the evidence of Rahab’s restored virginity: the harlot Eve transformed into the Virgin Bride.
There’s more. All Christians have historically recognized a connection between the blood of the Passover Lamb and the blood of Christ. On the night of Passover, every Israelite door was to be marked with blood. Throughout the Old Testament, the door symbolizes birth. Death strikes the whole land of Egypt on Passover Night, but in the morning, the firstborn Israelite sons are reborn, resurrected, through the blood on the doorpost- which points to Jesus Christ “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15) resurrected through His own blood.
The whole structure of Joshua 1-6 replays the exodus in reverse. In the exodus, Egypt is first destroyed, then the Israelites cross the Red Sea, and then the Israelites celebrate Passover. In the conquest, the Israelites first celebrate Passover, then they cross the Jordan, and then Jericho is destroyed. Where the firstborn sons were resurrected through blood on their doorpost when death came to strike Egypt, so Rahab is resurrected through the scarlet cord when death comes to strike Jericho. The scarlet cord therefore plays the role of the blood of the Passover Lamb.
All these threads come rushing together in the person of Christ. Rahab, the New Eve, deceives the Serpent. The blood of Christ raises Eve up from death. And she inherits the land of promise, which in the new covenant, is the whole creation: Isaiah 65-66, speaking of the promise of the new heavens and the new earth, is filled with allusions to Numbers 14, which speaks of the promise of the land of Israel.
The lesson to be learned in this is that the Church’s reading of the Old Testament is not merely one reading. It is the best and most satisfying reading.
3. Read it typologically
The Church is big on typology. As a single God is the author of human history, the same patterns appear over and over again throughout God’s story. I provided one example above concerning how one Old Testament story points profoundly to Jesus Christ. Yet it’s not only true that the Old Testament typifies Christ. The Old Testament also typifies 1) the Old Testament and 2) Church History. Let’s consider these things one at a time.
First, the Old Testament typifies itself. This is particularly observable in the life of Jacob, from whom the name Israel comes. When Esau seeks to kill Jacob, Jacob flees to Laban. While with Laban, Jacob is enslaved- Laban changes his wages ten times (Genesis 31:7) and seeks to steal everything he produces (Genesis 30:35). Nevertheless, Jacob multiplies greatly, having twelve sons and increasing his flocks. Indeed, these two things reinforce each other. Rachel means “ewe lamb”, so that the sons of Jacob are Jacob’s flock. Afterwards, Jacob makes an exodus from Laban by crossing a body of water (Genesis 31:20-21), and Laban pursues him (Genesis 31:22-23). Finally, Jacob meets God in a theophany (Genesis 32:1-2). This is all replayed in a larger scale in the great exodus out of Egypt. When there is a famine in the promised land that could kill Jacob’s family, Israel flees to Egypt. While in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved. Nevertheless, Israel multiplies greatly. Afterwards, Israel makes an exodus by crossing a body of water and Pharaoh pursues them. Finally, Israel meets God at the great Sinai theophany. The Old Testament itself is a tightly knit book of typology.
But it’s not only the Old Testament. The God who authored Israel’s story likewise authored the story of the Church, so that events within the Old Testament typify events within the Church’s history. One example is the pattern of Satan’s attacks on the people of God. In the life of Abraham, Satan tried to subvert God’s plan three times. First, Satan attacked the Bride in Genesis 12. Abram went down to Egypt to find refuge from a famine and Pharaoh seized Sarai. Nevertheless, Abram comes out of Egypt with great spoils (note how this typifies the exodus as well) and Sarai is saved.
Next, Satan tries to corrupt the Seed of Abraham. In order to do this, Satan causes Abram to “listen to the voice of his wife” (Genesis 16:2, see also Genesis 3:17) and sleep with Hagar, thus producing Ishmael as an alternative Seed. Nevertheless, God establishes His covenant through Sarah and Isaac in Genesis 17.
Finally, as the birth of Isaac is one year away, Satan causes Abimelech, king of Philistia, to seize Sarah and attempt to produce children through her in Genesis 20. Nevertheless, Sarah is saved and Isaac is indeed born.
The pattern is thus that Satan attacks the Bride, then attempts to corrupt the Bride, then finally attacks the Seed. This pattern is evident many times in Church History. First, in the Apostolic Age, Satan first stirred up a great persecution at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). Then, Satan stirred up the Judaizing heresy. Finally, Satan attempted to kill Christians in the Neronic persecution, this time focusing on those who had converted in the years 30-64.
Interestingly, this pattern also appears in the fourth century. First, Satan attempted to kill the Church, the Holy Bride, in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. After Constantine converted, Satan poured out filthy waters by stirring up the heresy of Arianism. Finally, Satan attempted to attack the Seed by raising up Julian the Apostate, who attempted to re-educate the young in paganism. If we understand the way God has worked in history, then perhaps we can better understand the ways in which He works today.
4. Read it Christotelically
I noted above that we should read the Old Testament as a book with Christ at the center. But it’s also true that the Old Testament is a story searching for an end, a goal (telos). That goal is the Messiah (Romans 10:4). Many people read the Old Testament and see the first eleven chapters as being about the whole of humanity, while the rest concerns only Israel. While this is true from one perspective, I think it misses the larger point. God’s point in the election of Israel is to cultivate a holy seed which the rest of the human race is grafted onto (Romans 11:17-24). Attentive readers of the text have noted how this progresses in the Old Testament.
First, in the book of Judges, Israel keeps worshiping other gods. God had given them the books of Genesis through Joshua to remedy this problem. He raised up the judges. While they kept going back to other gods, eventually, this problem declined. By the time of the kings, the primary problem was not worshiping other gods, but worshiping the true God falsely, on high places. In order to remedy this problem, God inspires the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Song of Solomon. The prophets are raised up, who call Israel back to true worship. Eventually, Israel is punished in the exile. When they come back from Babylon, Israel no longer worships at high places. They witness to the nations. Their problem is now Pharisaism and legalism. It is in this context of human maturation that Jesus Christ arrives, proclaims the gospel, and invites the nations to be grafted in.
It is important to note, however, that there is not merely an upwards maturation in the history of Israel. There is also a downwards maturation. From the very beginning, there is the “Seed of the Woman” and the “Seed of the Serpent” within Israel, and both seeds reach their climax in the first century. While the holy seed is fully ripe at the coming of the Messiah, the wicked seed is also ripe. God, who “turns all things to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), uses both to His purpose. I’ve already described how God uses the holy seed to prepare for the mission to the Gentiles. But the unrighteous seed are also used to God’s purposes. It is through the unrighteous that Satan seeks His opportunity to accuse God’s people.
We therefore see in Zechariah 3 Satan standing before Joshua the High Priest, who is clothed in filthy garments. Satan stands ready to “accuse” him. God rebukes Satan and then robes Joshua in pure vestments. This is a prophecy of Christ’s death and resurrection- Christ is Joshua (Joshua is the same name as Jesus) the Great High Priest, and He takes on our filthy garments (Genesis 3:21) of sin and death and glorifies them in His holy resurrection.
We then see in Zechariah 5 that a mystery Babylon is rising up within Israel. A false Tabernacle is being set up in the “land of Shinar”, where the Tower of Babylon was constructed.
In Romans 7, Paul, speaking with the voice of Israel in exile, describes how sin accumulated within Israel. Just as the Serpent deceived Eve, “Sin deceived” Israel, who died. Satan uses the wicked within Israel as a justification to accuse the Messiah and call for His death. God obliged, but used this death to destroy Satan. This is the climax of the deceit theme within the Bible. The Serpent deceived the Woman and caused her to die. But now God deceives the Serpent and the Messiah crushes his head. Mystery Babylon comes to its climax in Jerusalem-Babylon, in which God “traps” every evil spirit (Revelation 18:1). In AD 70, Jerusalem-Babylon is destroyed and the Church rides out to conquer the world for Israel’s God.
5. See the Big Picture
The Old Testament is a big book, with a lot of trees. It’s therefore easy to miss the forest for the trees. But as one God oversaw the whole history of Israel, leading up to Jesus Christ, and one Spirit inspired the whole Bible, focusing on Jesus Christ, we need to keep our eyes open for the big picture. The big picture of the Old Testament is exile and exodus.
In Genesis 1, God makes the world in six days, pronouncing a triple blessing on creation. In Genesis 3, after the Fall, God pronounces a triple curse on creation. In Genesis 8-9, all the animals come out “by families”, Noah consecrates them to God, and God “blesses” them through Noah. In Genesis 12, God promises to “bless all the families of the earth” through Abraham. The story of Israel is the story of building an ark. As the flood was Noah’s exodus out of the old creation into a new creation, so also Israel’s story leads up to a great new exodus. The beginning of the Pentateuch portrays the primeval exile from Paradise. The end of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 30-32, portrays the eschatological new exodus, back into Paradise and into new life. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 is a profoundly important passage, though it is often ignored, so it is worth quoting in full.
(Deuteronomy 30:1-6) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
There is a curious paradox in this passage. In order to return to the Lord and serve Him, Israel needs a circumcised heart. Yet, Israel doesn’t get a circumcised heart until after she returns to the Lord. This paradox is resolved in the person of Christ. Jesus is the personal embodiment of Israel, and it is through Him that God circumcises our hearts, cutting into it the shape of the cross. As He takes on the destiny of Israel, Israel returns to the Lord through Him. He is the Seed of Abraham, the “heir of the world” (Romans 4:12), and it is in Him that we return to Paradise. The Pentateuch begins with man exiled from Paradise and loses “life”. Its midpoint is Leviticus 16, where the High Priest (who is a figure of Adam) is disrobed and rerobed in glory, as one goat is exiled and another ascends to God. Its end is Deuteronomy 30, where Israel returns from exile and finds “life.”
Consider how the Holy Prophet Ezekiel draws on Deuteronomy 30 in Ezekiel 36-37. At the beginning of the book of Ezekiel, Israel is in idolatry. God scatters the bones of the idolaters around the altar. Yet God promises to cleanse Israel’s heart from idolatry. In Ezekiel, God says that He will bring Israel back from exile, and the “land that was desolate will be as the garden of Eden” (Ezekiel 36:35). Then in Ezekiel 37, Deuteronomy 30 is opened up and expanded. Ezekiel sees the scattered bones of the idolaters, and God asks: “Can these bones live?”
The answer is evident from what happens next. Just as God breathed the Spirit into the dirt of the ground and brought Adam to life, so also God breathes into dead Israel, and flesh comes upon the bones. After God brought Adam to life, He brought Him into Paradise. Likewise, after God brings Israel back to life in a new exodus, God brings Israel into the promised land. Jesus the Messiah is the Last Adam. Because Israel is Adam, Jesus is also the personal embodiment of Israel. In His death, He takes on Israel’s exile. And in His resurrection, He brings Israel back to life. Through Holy Baptism and suffering (Romans 6:1-4, 8:17), the shape of the cross is cut into our hearts so that we can inherit the promised land, the renewed creation, the New Eden.
The history of Israel begins with the call of Abraham. In Genesis 11, Abraham is in Mesopotamia. He comes out of Mesopotamia, and in the midpoint of his journey, his father, the older generation, dies. Then he comes to the promised land, where he wanders and witnesses to the Gentiles. This is a clear type of the exodus, where Israel comes out of Egypt, the older generation dies in the wilderness, and then Israel comes into the promised land. After the patriarchal period, Israel descends into Egypt. After coming out, they finally conquer the land, led by Joshua. At Israel’s exile to Babylon in Mesopotamia, history restarts.
The return from Babylon under Ezra and Nehemiah begins a new patriarchal period. Israel is in the land, and they witness to the Gentiles, but they don’t yet possess the land. Daniel prophesies a period of 1,290 days until the coming of the Messiah (Daniel 12:11). As 1,290 is three times 430, the period of years that Abraham and his family were in Egypt, we should read Daniel’s prophecy as a prophecy of a new Egyptian captivity. This time, Jerusalem itself, led by the wicked Herods and High Priests, is the locus of the Egyptian captivity. Jesus leads His people out of Egypt as the New Moses. Finally, as the New Joshua, our Lord leads the Church into the promised land.