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Understanding the Old Testament: Culture Shock!

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

The Old Testament is difficult. The misconceptions by Christians and non-Christians are many making the Old Testament a well of knowledge, mystery, and controversy all tied into one. It’s hard to know where to begin. 

To start, I want to provide a couple quotes that really hit me as far as how we need to approach the Old Testament and how the immediate meaning might not always be clear.  This will help prep you for later discussions about the Old Testament:

“What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our time…; the interpreter must go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East, and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use.

For the ancient peoples of the Near East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their time and centuries.

“Yet at the same time, the modern reader must try to see the Old Testament passages on their own terms.  The reader must ask: ‘What was the Old Testament author saying to his own times? …In other words, one must be sensitive to the original context of an Old Testament passage.  Why was it written and when?  What problems called it into being?  What question was it initially intended to answer?  What did it tell the people about God’s will and ways or about their responsibilities that they would not otherwise have known?  Only when one understands the intent of the passage for the author’s own times, can he then catch the full significance of the passage for Christian faith and life.  The Old Testament context will not tell all one needs to know about the meaning of the passage.  But unless one starts there, it becomes easy to twist the meaning of the Scriptures to one’s own purpose.  Rather, the sense of the individual authors must be grasped in order to capture the meaning put there by the overall Author, the Spirit of God, who speaks through all of Scripture and whose speaking give the whole Bible its authority for his people.” (W.S. LaSor, D.A. Hubbard, and F.W. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982, pp. 5-6.  In the second edition of this book (1996), the citation is at the back of the book, on p. 590.)

This blog is not a place for a long, thought-out defense of the many difficult passages of the Old Testament, but I will direct you to a great book that does.  My favorite right now is Is God A Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.  This book goes through the criticisms of the Old Testament and gives thought out responses to each. I will touch on some of Copan’s defenses and provide a link to his book on Amazon. 

What I will do in this post is give some thoughts to consider as we approach the Old Testament.  What I’ve found is that now that I know better how to approach the Old Testament, it becomes far more interesting.  You’ll see what I mean soon.

If you’re someone who reads the Old Testament, you’ve likely been stumped by it.  In fact, you may have even asked yourself (if you read the New Testament), “Is this the same God?”  You might find yourself thinking, “God really ...?” or “Can I follow a God who supports…?”  You may not even know who this God is or be able to relate to Him.  If this is how you feel, you’re not alone.  In fact, you should be stumped by the Old Testament.  There are many reasons this is not a comfortable place to be.

A Whole New “Old” World

The first reason we should feel so out of touch with the Old Testament is because it is a very old document.  In fact, a series of very old documents.  When you pick up the Bible you are not reading a book, but a whole library of 66 books, 39 of them making up the Old Testament written over at least 1000 years all during ancient civilization spreading from at least the iron age to the Roman World of the first century.

When we are reading the Old Testament we should keep in mind that we are reading from a very different time where people had a very different approach to, well, just about everything.  The way people thought, worked, communicated, and related was in almost every respect upside down from today’s modern world, or even life 500 years ago.  

We would not go into Uganda and expect people to act just like Americans.  It would be disrespectful to enter someone else’s culture and expect them to have the same concerns, values, or etiquette.  It would be just as bad to judge them based on our values.  Why then would we read the Old Testament and expect to not need some help understanding the culture of the time to see its message more clearly?  

Have you ever been around another family in their home whose culture was so different than yours that you felt very out of place? That’s exactly what the Old Testament should feel like to most modern readers. This is why it’s vital that we understand better what they were trying to say in their time and culture, not take our baggage into their world, and expect them to give us answers to all our questions.  Our questions were not the concern of the writers of the Old Testament.  Our way of approaching the world was not even on their mind.  This includes but is not limited to thinking scientifically or individualistically. The writers of the Old Testament were addressing a specific time, culture, and people that is often completely foreign to us.  When we don’t try to understand this, we get unnecessarily hung up on things that people at the time were not even thinking about.  Our questions were not the same as their questions, and we have an entirely different set of hangups than they had.

Does this mean the Old Testament is not the word of God or that God was completely limited by the minds of these ancient writers? No. If this is the case we could not rightly call the Old Testament the "word of God" or say that it is "inspired by God." In speaking of Old Testament prophecy, 1 Peter 1:20-21 says: "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." If we believe this scripture, we must believe that the Old Testament must be considered the work of God, not of man.

So does this mean that what I am saying about the Old Testament coming from ancient writers is annulled? No, because while the Old Testament was written by men led by God's Holy Spirit, it still had to reflect the times in which it was written otherwise what these biblical authors through God's inspiration wrote would fall on deaf ears. In other words, God had to approach them on their level of understanding.

Let me give a minor example. In the ancient world, many people did not think that you thought with your brain. They in fact often thought that this took place in your kidneys!

Because of this the literal translation of Jeremiah 20:12 is "Lord Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and kidneys..." We can attempt to explain this away by saying this is simply a poetic way for explaining the mind, but this is unnecessary if you consider that Jeremiah would have spoken according to his understanding at the time. God did not see it necessary to correct the ancient Hebrew's understanding of the kidneys as the place where thoughts resided through the prophet Jeremiah.

Does this mean God made an error? Of course not! Besides, no one would complain about Jeremiah stating that emotions and motives were within the heart. This is because this is still language we use today even though we know this all takes place primarily in the brain.

This is a minor and incidental example but, as you will see, the Old Testament goes much further than this in reflecting its time. Let’s take a look at some of the cultural differences at the time of the ancient Israelites.  What was the Mesopotamian world where they resided like?   

1. It was barbaric and highly immoral

For example, the Ammonites (a neighboring civilization to the Israelites) would sacrifice their children to the god Molech and prostitution was part of daily religion.  Their entire religion was centered around worship of men, immorality, and violence.  Yes, there were exceptions to this, but as a general rule, the surrounding civilizations were highly immoral and barbaric at levels that are hard to understand as a more civilized society.  

Keeping this in mind will help us to appreciate how, in the Old Testament, God entered into the highly immoral culture of the time and brought it forward. 

2. It was polytheistic 

In the ancient Near East, everyone was polytheistic.  Idols, the worship of men, and the worship of various gods were as normal a part of everyday life as our iPhones. 

This also helps us appreciate how radical it would be to worship one God at the time. The Israelites would have stood out among their neighbors.


3. It was primitive

What do I mean by primitive?  There was no scientific knowledge compared to modernity.  Does that mean people were stupid? No, mankind was just not advanced in their discoveries.  They didn’t understand many of the things we take for granted today like how the water cycle works, how germs can cause disease, or how to effectively heal a wound.  

This is one reason we should not approach the Old Testament as a book of scientific facts because no one was even thinking about that at the time. While many might read the Old Testament and try to pick it apart with scientific inaccuracies, it is important to understand that the ancient world had hardly the concern for scientific accuracy that we do today. They had other concerns that were more pressing to them. This is not simply a cop-out for every time the BIble is scientifically inaccurate. As we will see in other posts, there were many ways that the Old Testament was far ahead of its time.

Why should we not always try to “fit science” with what the Old Testament says?  Because that was never a concern of the Old Testament writers, and apparently making sure the people at the time had the correct scientific knowledge wasn’t God’s primary concern either.

When we understand these three things, we take the a step in approaching the Old Testament in a better way by trying to see things from the perspective of those who lived at the time, rather than coming into the text with our own modern presuppositions.  This brings me to my next point.

Is the Old Testament timeless?

Is all the OT relevant for all time?  The answer is both yes and no.  Much of the OT is specific to the time and culture in which it was written and is not something we are bound by, or even always an example for us to follow. Much of the Old Testament is a narrative, a story, not a prescription of how we are to live. Though there is much we can glean from it even today.

Let me give two examples.  Here’s an example from Jesus himself.  Mark 10:2-9 describes an event where some Pharisees (a highly religious group of the day) came to Jesus and asked him if it was okay for a man to divorce his wife.  They cite a law from Moses to say that this is permitted.  Jesus responds in verse 5, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law…” 

What is Jesus saying about the Old Testament law?  He is implying that, in some cases, the laws are accommodating for the people of the time.  They were not meant to be ideals for all time.  Instead, the Old Testament law is both accommodating for the culture and future-looking for the culture.

Once I’ve looked at the culture of the whole near eastern world the Israelites lived in, there are far less things that bother me in the Old Testament.  There are certainly still some problems I see, but looking at the surrounding cultures shows how the Israelite law was far above the rest of the world.  At the time, the laws were prescriptive for how to love God and love your neighbor, though it may not always look this way in a modern, more civilized society.  God was entering into the cultural context of the time and meeting them at their level (see Deut. 4:8).

My next example (though I could use many) is Deuteronomy 21:10-14 says, “10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Great scripture to tag on as a bumper sticker right? Not!  No one reads this and is excited about the Bible.  To us this sounds really messed up.  But let’s enter the cultural context of the time.  At the time, what were the common practices when a nation went to war against another nation? The common practices were to take over an area and do anything you want with the people there.  How were those restricted by this command?  The men could not rape the women and they had to go through a process and waiting period before they could take a woman as their wife.  They had limits where the surrounding nations often had none.

Even so, it’s not that there’s nothing messed up about this situation.  However, there’s something else interesting about this command.  In a sense, it condemns itself by saying it is dishonorable!  It is not saying this is the ideal situation, but if it happens, do this.  God was entering into a culture where war and conquest was the normal part of life for nations and he put limits on what was allowed and what wasn’t.  In the New Testament, we are called to a higher standard and to not even seek war against our enemies (see Matt. 5:43-48).  

The Old Testament law is sometimes described as the “nanny” to watch over God’s people until the Messiah comes.  The Old Testament law is not the fulfillment of God’s ideal will for His people.  The purpose of the Old Testament was to point his people forward to the Messiah. Most Jews today are still waiting for a Messiah to come.  This shows how clear the purpose of the Old Testament is.  

Understand Narrative vs. Commands

Lastly, when we read the Old Testament, we need to understand the difference between narrative and commands. I just referenced two commands in the Old Testament.  These commands brought God’s people forward while accommodating for the Near Eastern culture of the time.  But there’s another nuance to look out for as you read the Old Testament.  You need to make sure that you are not assuming the history sections were prescriptive of how people should act.  Rather, they are descriptive of what happened.  Let me give one example. 

Many are familiar with the story of Gideon.  The story starts off with Gideon as the hero who God uses to defeat the Midianite oppressors (Judges 6-7).  However, in Judges 8, Gideon starts doing some strange things.  First, he starts torturing and killing his fellow Israelites for not feeding him and his men when they needed it (see vs. 4-7, 16-17).  Later, he also makes an idol that the Israelites start to worship (see vs. 27).  Was Gideon supposed to torture and kill people with thorns or make an idol?  

What we must understand about the style the Old Testament is that it often simply records the events that occurred without saying what was right or wrong about the situation.  Instead, the Old Testament shows its characters with all their flaws and mistakes and lets the reader decide. 

In my opinion, this makes the Old Testament more interesting by keeping the reader on their toes.  The characters are far from all being strait-laced examples of perfection.  There is no sugar-coating or veiling of the truth. Rather, they show how God has mercy on and works through very flawed people for his purposes.  

So to sum up, we may experience culture shock when we read the Old Testament because it was a different time with a completely different outlook on society in nearly every area. If we are able to understand better how the world worked at the time, we may see the Old Testament laws and stories in a completely different light than if we approach it through our own modern presuppositions.

How has this blog helped you to understand the Old Testament better?  If you appreciated something, have a question, or even criticism of something that was said, please leave a comment below.  I’m happy to discuss deeper with you.  If you enjoyed the post and want others to grow in their understanding of the Old Testament, please like and share. Below are some resources that have helped me grow in my understanding of the Old Testament and that inspired this post.

Book On Understanding The Old Testament:

Is God A Moral Monster by Paul Copan (Can be found on Audible or Amazon.)

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