By Chris Hulshof
As the new year begins, Christians often decide to read through the Bible starting in Genesis. But by the second week of January, many of those same readers begin to get off track.
Reading habits that may start well in Genesis and Exodus often go astray when the assigned readings move into Leviticus which focuses heavily on Old Testament law.
The book of Numbers is a little more easy to read because of the large amount of narrative content, but then Deuteronomy becomes as difficult as Leviticus because Moses’ farewell addresses take up the majority of the book.
It seems as if the opening books of the Bible derail many people’s attempts to read through God’s Word in a year.
But there’s good news! Every believer can successfully navigate the Old Testament as they read through the Bible by keeping these three ideas in mind:
Don’t settle for a “moral of the story” understanding of the passage.
One of the most common ways people misread the Old Testament is through a “moral of the story” lens.
When people read the Old Testament using this methodology, they’re looking for ways to stand with resolve like Joseph, lead like Moses or Nehemiah, be a more committed individual like Ruth, or become more fearless like Esther.
Reading the Old Testament as a collection of stories designed to teach one how to do right and avoid wrong misses the redemptive story of the Bible. There’s more to those stories than this!
It also doesn’t suffice to view Old Testament characters as merely examples to follow with life lessons to either reject or embrace. This type of reading fails to address humanity’s greatest need.
Humans are radically corrupt because of the fall. Our sin problem goes much deeper than any outward, “do it yourself” remedy can fix.
What we need most is a rescuer, not a role model. We need a substitute, not a better version of ourselves.
Reading the Old Testament through a “moral of the story’ lens doesn’t help people connect all of the biblical stories to God’s full redemptive plan as it develops from Genesis through Malachi.
Keep in mind the basic themes or acts of the Bible.
In his book, The Big Story: How the Bible Makes Sense of Life, Justin Buzzard argues the Bible is made up of five themes or acts as it moves from Genesis to Revelation.
Buzzard identifies these as: God, creation, rebellion, rescue, and home. Each of these themes can function as a hook to hang an Old Testament story on.
For example, as you read through the book of Numbers, recognize you’re reading a series of rebellion stories. These are the stories of a generation that chose to reject God’s promise of a homeland and consequently wandered in the wilderness until all those who were over 20 years old had died (barring Joshua and Caleb).
When reading through the tabernacle blueprints in Exodus 25:1-31:18, note there’s an underlying theme that supports the idea that God has always wanted to dwell with His people.
The tabernacle instructions provide a home story where God is taking the initiative to create a place where He can live with His people.
The narratives of the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, and God’s repeated deliverance of Israel in the book of Judges are examples of numerous rescue stories recorded in the Old Testament.
Keeping these basic themes or acts in mind allows one to understand each Old Testament story in light of the redemptive plan of God on display in the Old Testament.
Look for the gospel handle in the passage.
Former seminary professor Dr. Francis Rossow frequently used the term “gospel handle’ to describe a word or phrase that—while not necessarily gospel-centric—can serve as a bridge to the gospel message.
For example, in his book Gospel Handles, Rossow picks up on the use of the word “sign” in Genesis 9:12 and Luke 2:12.
- Genesis 9:12: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you…’”
- Luke 2:12: “This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”
Rossow connects the two uses of the word “sign” to show the gospel reality of a sign that’s greater than the rainbow.
Both signs, according to Rossow, communicate God’s mercy. The first represents God’s preventative mercy while the second represents God’s active mercy.
The rainbow symbolized God’s commitment to never again destroy the earth by flood. The baby in a manger, however, is a much better sign.
This sign demonstrates God’s desire to save the world rather than destroy it.
This gospel handle technique requires a slow and attentive reading of the Scriptures. However, when we pay close attention to the Old Testament, we can identify places where there’s a gospel handle.
Reading through the Bible in a year is a valuable endeavor. But it’s also worth recognizing the challenge posed by some of the Old Testament’s early content.
When we view the biblical text through a proper lens, remember the five themes or acts of the Scriptures, and look for gospel handles, we’ll find there’s much more in our daily reading than we ever expected to encounter.
Chris is an associate professor and department chair for Liberty University’s School of Divinity where he teaches courses in Old Testament survey, inductive Bible study, and theology of suffering and disability.