What I Learned from the Old Testament

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Recently a friend of mine shared a story with several of us about how he, while on vacation and with some spare time on his hands, decided to re-read some parts of the Old Testament. His strongest impression of what he read, he said, was that these were the records of a people struggling to understand what it means to no longer be God’s chosen people–or, if they were still chosen, why being chosen did not protect them from being defeated, occupied, and driven into exile, their temple desecrated and their community destroyed. He commended a reading of the Old Testament to us all, saying that it would remind us of the importance of humility, and endurance, and maintaining faith and hope even while our assumptions about the world all around us are being shattered.

(Please, no 2016 elections jokes. I’ve heard enough already. Besides, my friend is a Republican.)

It took me two and a half years, but about a month ago I finally completed my long trek through the entire Old Testament (the Revised English version, with an assist from a lot of commentaries by Robert Alter along the way), one chapter at a time. My thoughts on it all? Overall, I would say my friend’s recommendation was correct, casual though it may have been. I would add, though, that the best way to draw out that homily–in my pedantic opinion anyway–isn’t to take it from the apparent authorial intentions of the narrative itself (as if there was only one authorial intent or narrative line in the OT!), but rather to recognize that, to a very great extent, the marvelous, meticulous, convoluted, confusing, millennia-long literary product which is the Old Testament is itself an important source for our concepts of “humility,” “endurance,” “faith,” and “hope” in the first place.

Not that other ancient literary sources didn’t also help lay a deep foundation for the gradual emergence of a real moral subjectivity, whereby we human beings are simultaneously conscious of both our own pleadings outward and upward and of the condition of our own heart as the source of those pleadings. Truth is, this remarkable psychological and ethical evolution had many ancient parents. (Which is, itself, part of the reason why reading the Old Testament in light of critical scholarship on the myths of other ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern peoples is so valuable). But because the historical Jesus, and thus Christianity, came from Palestine and out of the Hebrew religious tradition, the Old Testament’s liturgical and prophetic literary legacy was carried forward through all of Christian and Western and modern European civilization. So that means the legends of Adam, the pains of Abraham, the dilemmas of Moses, the boldness of Miriam, the mourning of Aaron, the triumphs of Deborah, the sins of David, the perversions of Ahab, the warnings of Isaiah, the strategies of Esther, the crankiness of the Preacher, the madness of Ezekiel, the machinations of Zerubbabel, the haplessness of Jonah, the cursings of Jeremiah–and more importantly, the belabored, overlapping, inconsistent, sometimes simply fragmentary but often nonetheless powerful translations which relate all of the above to us, in all their messy, haunted, one-step-forward-two-steps-back repetitiveness–have shaped the way Christians like myself morally conceive of the world. The very facticity of these records obliges us to reconsider our beliefs, and then reconsider again. Or as the finest scriptorian I have ever known, Jim Faulconer, often reminded his students: as believers, we ought to “read, read, read, work, pray, and reread.” Doing that stretches our acts of faith out–and given the canon of the Old Testament, that stretching will be lengthy and humbling indeed.

In other words, it seems to me, having read the whole blessed, boring, remarkable, ridiculous thing, that having the Christian story of salvation and judgment be connected to the OT’s monumental and contradictory literary burden–a burden which most Christians either proof-text to death or ignore entirely, as I did for so many years–can give those who believe in that redemptive story an awareness of carrying a great historical weight. The salvation of Jesus is presented in the New Testament terms of a sacrificial lamb, a priestly office, a purifying fire; centuries of literary echoes and arguments inform each of those theological imaginings, and when we strive (or are forced by the hardness of life) to see something beyond the simplistic, we find that our hopes in Him cannot be disentangled from those forms either. And that, I think, means we cannot help but turn in upon ourselves and ask just where we have placed this story of Jesus’s grace in our hearts, and more importantly why. We are the sorts of modern Christian believers we are–or, at least, many of us are led to being the sort of humble, enduring, faithful, hopeful, believers we ought to be–in part because the Old Testament, the bare fact of the whole strange and awesome thing, with all its commandments and condemnations and curiosities, its insistently distancing and yet drawing presence, won’t let us be otherwise.

Well, anyway, that’s that. I’m not a scholar of the Old Testament as history or literature; I’m just a reader. I already accepted the basic assumptions of historical criticism in approaching the text, so realizing the ambiguity and unreliability of many of these tales didn’t bother me any. Mine is a faith more based on community and continuity that history and authority, and the OT gave me plenty of the former, even while complicating even further the later, so as a reading of scripture it served me well. Your mileage may vary. Still, would I recommend it? Of course! I mean, the election is over, at least insofar as the Anglo-American blogosphere is concerned, so what better thing could you do with 2017 (and possibly 2018, and perhaps longer), than sit down and read, from beginning to end, hundreds of interwoven accounts of the world’s creation, its promise being vouchsafed to a particular people, and their constant interrogation of, enjoyment of, abuse of, abandonment of, and attempted reclamation of, that gift? (There’s a lesson in that, surely.)

Oh, and all right, you want a ranking? Top Ten list? Fine, here it is. I mean, if Mormon apostle Bruce R. “Job is for people who like the book of Job” McConkie can do this, so can I.

The Top Ten Books of the Old Testament:

1. Genesis
2. Job
3. Ecclesiastes
4. Exodus
5. 1 & 2 Samuel
6. Micah
7. Ezra-Nehemiah
8. Isaiah
9. Esther
10. The Psalms

Feel free to disagree with my listing in the comments (though you’ll be wrong).


  1. Wonderful thoughts, Russell. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  2. Glad to see you have the Book of Job there as number 2. I guess that qualifies as “the Book of Job is for people who like the Book of Job. I like it. So does Michael Austin. Maybe it it’s time I took the plunge and do what you have done, and suggested we do here.

  3. Russell – This is awesome. I started a quest very similar to yours about 6 years ago, and it also took about 2.5-3 years. It involved:

    The Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV)
    – Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, Oxford University Press (for a better understanding of modern critical approaches)
    – Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Dana M. Pike, and David Rolph Seely, Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, Deseret Book (for an LDS perspective on modern critical approaches)

    I basically read the Old Testament in the order it was treated in the Coogan text (reading each of the footnotes), then read the relevant chapter in the Coogan text, and then followed it up with the LDS perspective from the Holzapfel text. I followed this not only for the entirety of the Old Testament, but for the Apocrypha as well.

    It was a long and arduous road, but many of my key takeaways were similar to yours: it is a very, very diverse set of writings with a diverse set of viewpoints from a world very different than ours. Yet by engaging it deeply and understanding those differences, I felt a greater appreciation for the writings and the ability to tap a deeper reservoir from which I could draw while on my own mortal journey. And, as you mentioned, it set me up for a much richer, 2-year study of the New Testament as a follow-up and using a similar approach (but with Ehrman’s NT text, also from OUP).

    I also loved your reference to Jim Faulconer. His book Scripture Study has greatly influenced the way in which I engage with the scriptures. I believe he begins the book with the quote you mention above (“read, read, . . . ).

    And finally, here are my top 10:

    10. Leviticus (a year with Donald Parry and the close reading he taught dramatically increased my appreciation for it)
    9. Samuel/Kings
    8. Deuteronomy
    7. Exodus
    6. Proverbs
    5. Hosea
    4. Leviticus
    3. Psalms
    2. Isaiah
    1. Genesis

    (In Elder McConkie’s calculus, apparently I am not one of those who likes Job. :))

  4. Oddly, it wasn’t until my third time through the Old Testament that I thought (realized?) that the over arching theme running through the OT was the love God had for his children.

  5. Sidebottom says:

    Ezra-Nehemiah is troublesome. “Those families you had in Babylon? Leave them behind because we’ve got to go back to Jerusalem”

    As for me and my house, I’d prefer an Old Testament without all of the post-exilic redaction.

  6. Michael, I appreciate that very much; you were there at the beginning of my journey, and instrumental to the fact that I went about it the way I did.

    KevinF, I’ve known I was “one of those people” for a long, long time–though my appreciation of Job, and how it fits into the wisdom literature of the OT, was greatly increased by seeing it as part of the whole product.

    JT, thanks for sharing your own version of this journey. I was took several classes from Jim, more than 20 years ago; his influence continues to be strong (and deservedly so!).

    STW, I don’t know if the OT teaches me that God loves all His children–I think it teaches me that, over the millennia, many of the people of Israel came to believe that God must love all His children. Which is perhaps the same thing, I suppose, but the distinction is worth keeping in mind.

    Sidebottom, the post-exilic redactions are part of the whole messy reality of it; if the OT wasn’t characterized by so many people trying in so many different ways to change the meaning of so many different texts, much of humility-teaching ambiguity and questioning would be lost. Ezra-Nehemiah is just the most obvious example of one faction of the people of Israel attempting to retcon everyone’s collective understanding of themselves, but the whole project is so thoroughly defined by exactly that process that I suspect an OT without it would just be weird.

  7. Currently reading straight through. I just started Esther in the NRSV. First time reading the old testament in a non-KJV translation. It sure helps me 1) stay awake, 2) understand what’s going on, and 3) read more than one chapter at a time.

    I think I want to re-name Judges to “Stupid things men did”. Ezra-Nehemiah seems like more of the same. I’m with Sidebottom on this one. Care to explain why you think it should make the top 10? I just finished it and felt somewhat less than spiritually enlightened, but would like to understand what others feel are it’s redeeming qualities.

    Job is awesome, and I’ll give a second shout-out to Michael Austin’s book Re-reading Job.

  8. Shoulda refreshed the page before submitting that previous comment…

  9. Special K, as you can see from my reply to Sidebottom above, it’s not that I find anything spiritually redeeming in Ezra-Nehemiah; by and large, I don’t find much actual content that is spiritually enlightening anywhere in the OT (some of the wisdom literature or psalms excepted). Rather, I think the redemptive possibilities it presents are bound up in the whole textual production it reveals–and E-N is, in that sense, a really fascinating part of the text.

  10. What a great, post, Russell. I read the OT straight through 15 years ago, while I was a missionary, and still pretty clueless about how to effectively read scripture, and I haven’t done it since. You’ve inspired me to want to do it again with a fresh view.

    I’m certainly one of those people who like the book of Job. Job is truth. It may not be pleasant, or comforting, or easy to understand. It’s certainly not tidy, elegant, or well-behaved. But it is truth.

    I have a feeling that an OT without post-exilic redactions would have nearly as much ambiguity and competing agendas as the OT we have. I’m no expert on the history, but in my gut, I sense that it’s naïve to think that all the complexity and ambiguity was inserted post exile. The kind of revision, whitewashing, and compromise that is so apparent in the post-exilic redactions is all an inherent part of the process of even writing the story down, though less apparent.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Don’t you ever wish you had a copy of the brass plates? I suspect they read quite different from what the post exilic compilation gave us.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    As an OT fan I loved the post!

  13. I think that a lot of the complexity and ambiguity (and, presumably, some plain and precious truth) was washed over post-exile – that’s exactly the problem. When the whole of history is filtered through a post-exilic lens we miss out on the evolving relationship between God and man. The authentic history in many places is rendered so irrelevant that we may as well go back and insert references to home teaching and the Perpetual Education Fund.

  14. My goal is to follow JT’s plan. I had basically identified those same resources with the goal to worth through them.

  15. JKC, I’m glad my experience inspired you to give it another shot! (I also attempted the entire OT, from beginning to end, on my mission 26+ years ago; I made it through Jeremiah, and then fell apart.) Regarding the ambiguity in the received text and the patience, questioning, and humility it can teach us, please note (you too, Sidebottom) that I never denied that its overlapping, stitched-over, and inconsistent character is solely manifest in the seams of post-exilic redactions; as I wrote, “Ezra-Nehemiah is just the most obvious example” of such, but hardly the only one. (For example, I very nearly put Joshua on my top ten list, only because that’s, once the Deuteronomists got involve, the “latest” text which still has editorial traces of the myths which were stitched together throughout Genesis.)

    Clark, to be completely honest, I sincerely doubt, if there really were brass plates, that they would read a whole lot differently than our present OT. I mean, many existing texts wouldn’t be part of it (because they wouldn’t have been written yet), but it probably would have been filled with transcriptions and translations all sorts of stuff that didn’t survive the ensuing centuries.

    Kevin, thanks! You’ve long been one of my inspirations.

    David, I hope that works for you! Alter’s translations and commentary are wonderfully helpful, so keep them in mind as well.

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