Theology of the Old Testament

The Ten Commandments is one of the most famous parts of the Old Testament. In this entry there are not Ten Commandments but rather Ten Voices. The idea is to hear ten representative expressions of what is important in the Old Testament for understanding God, Israel, and life in the world – for that is what Old Testament theology is all about.

Love of God

First is the passage recited twice a day down the ages by observant Jews, and also referred to by Jesus as “the great commandment”. Moses, the speaking voice in the book of Deuteronomy, says: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is the one and only. So you should love the LORD your God with all your thinking, all your longing, and all your striving… (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). When one truly falls in love, the beloved becomes “the one and only”. Other people are out there, but they don’t matter in the way that the beloved does; the beloved is “a love supreme”. That is how Israel are to be in relation to their God. This love is to be basic to their identity, as the text goes on to say how they are to recite and display these words, rather like singing favourite songs and wearing the colours of one’s team.

Being human

Secondly, what does it mean to be human? In the opening chapter of the Bible, the great panorama of the world as that which God has made and delights in, we read: “So God created humanity in his image; in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The text never says specifically what it means that humans should be in the image of God, and so this can be read in more than one way. It has often been taken to imply human ability to think and speak and be aware of right and wrong, in a way that is not characteristic of other living creatures. On any reckoning it implies the special dignity of humans, and their responsible role within God’s world.

The chosen people

“How odd of God to choose the Jews”. So runs an offensive old rhyme. Yet, in its skewed way, it sees something basic to the Old Testament. Again in Deuteronomy, Moses says: “The LORD owns the heavens to their furthest extremity and the earth with everything in it. Yet the LORD set his heart on your ancestors, loving them and choosing their descendants – you – out of all other peoples…” (Deuteronomy 10:14-15). The Old Testament never “explains” God’s calling Israel to be his special people (so it remains “odd”), and yet it sees it in terms of the wonder of being loved against all expectation – the God who owns everything, and so could have gone for the biggest and best, in fact goes for the small people of Israel.

The name of God

Fourthly, the God of the Old Testament has a name, in this Wiki generally given as YHWH, but it is not a name like any other name. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. So say to the Israelites ‘I am has sent me to you…the LORD (that is, YHWH) has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14-15). Thinkers down the ages have wrestled with the implications of this: Is God ultimate being itself? Is God a dynamic presence? Or what? God’s words to Moses do not “explain” God’s name or nature but rather imply the old axiom: “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”. As a mark of reverence, and to indicate that this God is not like Apollo or Marduk or other ancient deities, Jews and Christians have generally used the reverential term “the LORD” to refer to this God who is known yet unknown.

Prophetic calling

Certain people are called to serve God in a special way. Again in Deuteronomy, Moses recounts how the elders of Israel said to him: “You go and hear all that the LORD our God says. Then you tell us all that the LORD our God tells you, so we can hear it and do it” (Deuteronomy 5:27). This is the best nutshell depiction of a prophet, someone whose responsibility is to speak on God’s behalf. Moses is to go close to God – which is probably a moral and spiritual closeness, rather than anything spatial – so that he can learn the mind of God. This is not to give him an exciting “experience”, but rather to enable him to let Israel know what they need to know so that they can live faithfully under God.

Israel’s life with God is structured by religious rituals, at the heart of which is the offering of sacrifice. It is an actual practice, costly and often bloody, to symbolize human response to God. It also readily becomes a metaphor. One of the psalm writers, confronting the murky depths of the human heart and abusive actions, is aware of the ease with which religious practices like sacrifice can leave untouched what really matters. He says to God: “For you take no delight in sacrifice… The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). Yet the psalm paradoxically ends with a promise to offer God sacrifices. Inner reality matters. But outward practice matters too. Ideally, they should be in step with each other.

Seventhly, one of the qualities that the Old Testament promotes is wisdom. This is not cleverness or great learning, but rather an ability to know how to live well and handle life with all its challenges. The keynote of the book of Proverbs is: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). To fear God in the Old Testament is not to be frightened but rather to reverence and obey. The great gain of living thus is that it is the highroad to acquiring wisdom. The way to wisdom also involves keeping one’s eyes open to the world around, and being ready to learn, even from the mundane and apparently insignificant: “Go to the ant, lazybones; look at what it does – and become wise” (Proverbs 6:6).

Faithfulness

Eighthly, the Old Testament knows well that life can be hard. The prophet Habakkuk complains to God about how bad things are (“I see devastation and violence… justice is perverted”, Habakkuk 1:3-4), and receives the disconcerting answer that things are going to get even worse. The LORD then speaks of the need for patience and also says “the righteous will live by their faithfulness” (Habakkuk 2:4). This epigram takes on great significance in the New Testament, and already in its own context it is weighty: faithfulness, hanging-in-there, not-giving-up – this is the mark of the person who is serious about their relationship with God. As elsewhere there is no “explaining” of things that are difficult, but rather a focus on what can actually be done that will make a difference.

The demanding nature of being God’s people receives regular expression in the Psalms. Although there are many psalms of praise and thanksgiving, there are even more psalms of lament, for so often life hurts and God seems absent in the midst of the pain and sufferings of the world. Most famous is Psalm 22, whose opening words are used by Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” No answer or explanation is given to this question, either in the psalm, or to Jesus. Yet, paradoxically, the last ten verses of the psalm are an expression of ardent praise to God. What makes the difference? We are not told. What is clear is that the pain of seeming abandonment, expressed unreservedly, is not the final note.

Hope and messianic expectation

Hope – confidence that, in God’s world, there is future, and that it will be good – is also a recurrent theme. It has often been thought by Christians that a hope for “the messiah” is a keynote of the Old Testament. In fact “the messiah” is not an Old Testament term, and it develops only in later literature. Nonetheless, strong hopes are attached to the house of David, the son of Jesse and the greatest king of Israel, whose descendants ruled in Jerusalem for centuries. These hopes are not extinguished even when there are no longer any kings in Jerusalem, during and after the Babylonian captivity. At a time when the monarchy appears to be nothing more than a tree stump – once great, but now chopped down – there is a famous voice in Isaiah: “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow out of his roots… The spirit of the LORD will rest on him…” (Isaiah 11:1-2). The identity of this person is not specified. Originally one of the kings of Jerusalem was probably envisaged. Christians have seen the vision as realized in Jesus, even though Jesus does not do all of the things of which the Isaiah passage goes on to speak. It remains meaningful to link the voices and the vision of the Old Testament to Jesus as a supreme realization. But Jews meaningfully read the material in a different way.

Further reading

There is no single mode of understanding and/or appropriating that of which the Old Testament speaks. Its resonant voices, ancient yet enduring, can be heard in more than one way. The following works offer a selection of ways:
Brueggemann, Walter. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. Library of Biblical Theology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2008.
Childs, Brevard. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context. London: SCM, 1985.
Davidson, Robert. The Courage to Doubt. London: SCM, 1983.
Levenson, Jon D. The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism. Oxfordshire, England; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Moberly, R. W. L. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.