Ask the Experts: Studying the Old Testament in Small Groups

Ask the Experts: Studying the Old Testament in Small Groups

To truly engage the authoritative message of the OT, leaders must do so from an informed sense of what to do and what not to do.

Many small groups have an uncomfortable relationship with the Old Testament, that is if they have any relationship at all. I’ve asked John Walton, PhD., to answer some questions on this important topic. John is a professor at Wheaton College and prolific author, notably of the popular series, The Lost World of…, which seeks to help modern readers wrestle with what the authors of the Old Testament were trying to communicate.

I’ve known John for nearly 30 years, when I began my undergraduate studies at the Moody Bible Institute. Then, as now, I am struck by his love for Scripture and his love for ministry. I regularly consult his work and when I’m particularly stuck I email him. Always gracious and ministry-minded, John is the perfect person to help us sort out the role of small groups and the Old Testament.

John, thanks for participating in this interview. Let me start with a “why” question. Given the challenges of studying a portion of the Bible well over 2,000 years old, why should a small group undertake this endeavor? Why study it? Why not just stick with the New Testament?

The Bible offers revelation of God’s plans and purposes, which have been in motion since creation. The Old Testament (OT) offers God’s story, which eventuates in the New Testament (NT) where we find the climax of God’s story as we encounter Jesus’ story. Many aspects of God’s story would be lost to us if we had only the NT. We believe that Scripture is God’s revelation—why would we ever want to neglect any of God’s revelation, let alone a full two-thirds of it (represented in the OT).

On that note, a famous pastor recently suggested that since the Old Testament is the Jewish Scriptures it’s “not our Bible” and we should “unhitch” ourselves from it. How would you respond to that?

It is understandable that we would “unhitch” ourselves from obligation to the Covenant and its Torah since it is not our covenant. That is not the same as saying that the OT is not our Bible. Yahweh is our God and this is his story—we would never want to “unhitch” ourselves from that, though we realize that part of his story is found in how he interacted with Israel. Even when that does not apply directly to us, it remains relevant to us.

If you were coaching small group leaders, what are the sections or books you’d immediately steer a group toward? Are there books or genres within the Old Testament that the average small group should avoid?

If a group wants to encounter God’s story in the OT, it is best to start with those books that provide the framework of that story. That means that the narratives of Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua-Kings would be first. Notice the goal—encountering God’s story. Other genres should be included only once an effort has been made to become informed about how that genre works. Any genre is open to misinterpretation if we are not familiar with its conventions and objectives. Our intuitions will not serve us well because they are modern intuitions. As such, they easily mislead us into an unwarranted confidence.

We all have built-in biases from our families of origin and the culture we grew up in. What are some of the pitfalls we should consider as we open up the Old Testament?

If a group wants to truly engage the authoritative message of the OT, they must do so from an informed sense of what to do and what not to do. They must begin with a basic understanding of what the OT is and how it works. Some of the alternative approaches represent pitfalls and should be avoided:

  • NOT getting devotional or inspirational nuggets
  • NOT looking for role models to imitate
  • NOT finding moral guidance or lessons
  • NOT learning about the future, particularly the “End Times”
  • NOT finding proof texts to establish the “biblical” view of some aspect of modern culture (e.g., dating, nutrition, climate change, leadership, social media)
  • NOT finding promises that you can claim (so that you can get ahead by holding God accountable)
The internet is a wonderful and terrible place. I know many Christians who use Google to answer their biblical and theological questions. That can be as unhelpful as it is helpful. What are some of the tools and resources that a lay-person can use to help them understand the OT?

The problem with such use of the internet is that many of the sources are not governed by a sound methodology. It might be helpful for a group to begin with one (or more) of the very accessible guides to methodology. For example:

One of my favorite resources I give to group leaders is The Bible Story Handbook: A Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible that you wrote with your wife, Kim. What inspired you to write that?

Basically, we felt compelled to write it in order to offer a corrective to what we considered pervasive misuse of biblical narrative, resulting in careless interpretation. It was particularly evident in Sunday school curriculum, but observable in sermons, devotionals, and Bible studies as well. Any methodology can be dangerous if it is not subject to controls. Too often the interpretation of narratives has been limited only by the imagination of the interpreter. We wanted to help Sunday school teachers, parents, and even pastors and curriculum writers think more carefully about methodology so that the authority of Scripture is preserved in interpretation. Consequently, in the Bible Story Handbook, we laid out a methodology and then demonstrated its application to a full range of Bible stories (narratives) from both the OT and NT.

One of the guiding principles of interpreting the Bible correctly is what did the author intend to communicate? I grew up in an environment obsessed with the End Times and it seemed that some allusion to that was behind every bush and tabernacle in the Old Testament. A millennium before that everything in the Old Testament was a type of Christ. Even St. Augustine was convinced that Noah’s Ark was an allusion to Christ complete with the spear wound from the cross figuring with the door to the Ark. How can a small group leader keep things on track when such “creative” ideas emerge?

The Noah’s Ark illustration that you mention is a great example because it prompts us to ask, “Why does that strike us as illegitimate?” The answer is that it does so because it is not verifiable from any biblical text. There is no indication that the OT author was thinking that and no suggestion by any NT author that we should think that way. Jesus affirms that in important ways the OT was talking about him, but that does not give us license to connect the dots in any way that appeals to us. The reason why we cannot do that is that when we do not track with the authors of Scripture, we have no authority. The same problem characterizes the speculations concerning the End Times.

Some key evaluative questions should always be on the table and be the first to consider when trying to interpret a passage:

  • Is there evidence that the human author had that in mind? We look for our evidence in the context: literary, linguistic, cultural, historical—not in the “witness of the Spirit”—the latter cannot be verified and therefore cannot be counted as evidence. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us in interpretation and give us insight into the text, but the Holy Spirit cannot be invoked as an appeal to authority—“the Spirit gave me this so it must be right”. The most likely interpretation is the one with the strongest evidence.
  • Is the proposed interpretation derived from or focused on aspects of our modern culture that would have been unknown to the ancient author? We must not assume that the Israelite authors who were responsible for Scripture (through God’s inspiration) anticipated and addressed our modern context. It is true that the Bible’s message is for our benefit, but it was not written to us. It is not in our language and does not anticipate the many aspects of our culture.
If interpretation is so dependent on knowing the author’s culture, how can a group ever do it since they have little knowledge of that ancient culture?

First of all, even with little knowledge of the ancient culture of the authors, we know our culture well enough that we can begin to eliminate potential interpretations as obviously reflecting our cultural ways of thinking. That in itself is a great start. The text is not talking about social media, market economy, democracy, individualism, personal rights, modern politics, or the cold war. The text clearly addresses the need to respect all persons, but it does not anticipate the shape of modern racism or speak into the menu of #MeToo concerns. We have to begin the process of interpretation by tracking with the author.

Second, we live in a time when we have increasing accessibility to the ancient world. Resources have begun appearing in the last couple of decades that give information that can guide groups to better understanding:

Any final thoughts?

It is tough to do OT in small groups because it takes work and resources to avoid problems, and many small groups are not looking for extra work and do not have ready access to resources. In many small groups, people may be more inclined to shoot from the hip as it were on the basis of their intuition (insights God has given them). Unfortunately, our intuitions are founded on our modern culture, which means that we are imposing foreign perspectives (ours) on the ancient text. Nevertheless, the payoff of doing the hard work can be significant, so it is worth the effort. So small groups have to:

  • Understand what is needed (methodologically and procedurally) to achieve their objective (receiving the authoritative message of God’s Word)
  • Be committed to working at it (anything worth doing takes effort)
  • Learn about the resources that can help them and then use them diligently

In the end, they have to be willing to be accountable to the author’s intentions. Scripture’s authority is God’s authority, and he vested his authority in the human instruments who gave us the Bible. Therefore, to get God’s authoritative message, we must tether ourselves to the human instruments with intentionality and diligence.

John, this has been incredibly rich and helpful! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.

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