The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
2 – What’s in the Old Testament?
September 13, 2015
Let me tell you a story.
How did you respond when I said that? My guess is when you heard it, your ears perked up a bit, you leaned forward, you focused in a bit more on what I was about to say. We all love a good story, don’t we? As kids, nothing engaged our imagination like hearing, “Once upon a time…” We’re all suckers for a feel-good news story or well-spun tale in a book or a movie. We are narrative creatures.
That’s why, as we continue this sermon series on the Bible, it’s important for us, right at the beginning, to talk about the purpose of the Bible. Now, you’re going to get a lot of different responses to that statement, depending on who you ask. Some would say it’s a self-help guide that tells us how to live. Others would say it’s a history book detailing how God made the world and ruled God’s people. Others will tell you it’s the literal word of God, downloaded straight from heaven in the good ol’ King James English. And some people, particularly those who haven’t read it, will tell you that its purpose is to delude people into judging and hating others not like them. We can come up with all kinds of purposes for the Bible, can’t we?
But I want to offer today what I think is the primary purpose of the Bible. I think the primary purpose of the Bible is to tell a story. A love story. It’s the story about a creative, generous, patient God and God’s recalcitrant, difficult, stiff-necked people – that’s you and me, in case you were wondering. It’s a story about how God loved us but we didn’t love God back, so God kept loving us and we still didn’t love God back, and finally God loved us so much that God got right in our face and said, “I love you!” and we killed him. And then…God loved us some more.
How you understand the purpose of the Bible influences how you read it. If you read it as a self-help guide, you’ll look for nuggets of wisdom to get you through your day. If you read it as a list of rules, you’ll use it as a checklist for who’s doing right and who’s doing wrong. But if you read it as a story, you’ll see that at its essence, the Bible shows us what God is like. It is one of the primary ways we can know God, so when we read something in it, our first question should be, “What does this story tell me about God?”
Today, we’re going to look at the part of the story that’s told in the first 39 books of the Bible, which have been historically known as the Old Testament. There’s been a movement afoot lately to do away with that name and move to calling it the First Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, because the word “old” has some negative connotations that go with it, especially when followed up by the word “new.” If I gave you the choice between and old car and a new car, most of us would choose the new car. When something in our house is old, we replace it with something new. But the New Testament is not a bigger and better version of the old one. It wasn’t meant to replace what came before.
Instead, the First Testament tells us the story of how God created us, formed a relationship with us, and sought to lead us. While it certainly points to Jesus Christ, it’s not simply a prologue or an opening act. The Hebrew Scriptures stand on their own as a compelling, heart-breaking, hopeful story about God and God’s people. I wish I could give you a lot of information about each and every book this morning, but then I guarantee we’d all be old by the time we left. So this is going to be more of scenic overview than a thorough study and will probably feel like we’re pushing a hotdog through a straw. If you’d like to talk more about it or have questions, come to our Crestwood University this afternoon. For now, fasten your seatbelts and make sure your Bibles are in the upright and open position. No, seriously, you may want to open your Bible to the Table of Contents in order to keep up.
The story starts where every good story starts: “In the beginning…” The first book, Genesis, tells the story about how God created the world and everything in it, culminating in God’s greatest creation, us. This was truly an amazing feat for which God was immediately sorry, because we human beings used our free will to disobey God, as we see in the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark. So God chooses one particular couple, Abraham and Sarah, and seeks to build a great nation out of them and their offspring and lead them to the Promised Land. Genesis tells that story, through Abraham to his son Isaac, and then to his grandson Jacob.
Exodus picks up the story after God’s people were made slaves in Egypt. God calls on another man, this one named Moses, to lead God’s people out of slavery and into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy the blessing of being God’s people. Along the way, God gives them the law, which is God’s instructions on how the people are to live in order to be a blessing. The books of Leviticus and Numbers are mostly the details about that law, while the fifth book, Deuteronomy, is a restating of that law by Moses in his final sermon to God’s people.
Those first five books together – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – are known in Hebrew as the Torah, which means “law,” or in Greek as the Pentateuch, which means “five books.” This law spelled out in great detail how God’s people were to conduct themselves, treat others, and relate to God so that they could be in right relationship, or good standing, with God. God wanted the people to be a light to the pagan nations around them, so those people could see what it was like to live with God’s blessing. The law was the step-by-step instructions for being Godly people. The Torah is still an important part of the Jewish culture today.
As we wave goodbye to the Torah, we see coming up in front of us an impressive group of books that continue the history of God’s people and how they related to God and each other. These 12 history books span about 800 years, weaving together different storylines and characters into this beautiful tapestry that shows us, as my friend David Shirey says, that God is “patiently, persistently, passionately working God’s purposes out, sometimes with the help of God’s people, sometimes without them, and sometimes in spite of them.”
The first history book, Joshua, tells about God’s people settling into the Promised Land, while the book of Judges tells about the series of leaders – people like Gideon and Samson – God appointed to guide the people. Just an FYI that both books are rated R for violence and bloodshed, which makes them an interesting contrast the next book, Ruth, a gentle story about two women from enemy nations who share a lifelong friendship.
The next six books – 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, 1st and 2nd Chronicles – tell the story of God’s people demanding a king to lead them, and God saying, “Really? You have me, but you want one of YOU to lead you? Suit yourself!” Starting with Saul, God’s people have a series of kings, some good like David and Solomon, some bad like most of the rest of them. The leadership is so bad that at one point God’s people split into two different kingdoms. Can you imagine a group of God’s people disagreeing so strongly that they divided? I’m so glad that doesn’t happen today! These books remind us that the human condition hasn’t changed much in several thousand years…and yet God still loves us.
The Northern Kingdom, called Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians, while the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, is ransacked by the Babylonians, and God’s people are taken into exile. After the exodus from Egypt, the exile is probably the most defining event for God’s people. They were removed from the Promised Land and forced to live as foriegners. And what they discover is that even while they are thousands of miles away from home, God still loves them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the homecoming from exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The last history book, Esther, is a beautiful little interlude, telling the story of one woman acting bravely to save God’s people.
From the history books, we move to the Wisdom and Poetry section, which includes Job, a parable about why bad things happen to good people; Psalms, the hymnbook of the Hebrews; Proverbs, a collection of wisdom sayings about how to live a Godly life; Ecclesiates, a pessimistic book about the meaning and purpose of life; and the Song of Songs, an erotic poem that will make you blush and remind you how much God loves you. Don’t read that one to your kids at night unless you’re prepared to answer a lot of questions.
That covers 22 books of the First Testament, leaving the last 17, which are the Prophets. The first five – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel – are called the Major Prophets because of their length; the last 12 are the Minor Prophets. The prophets all lived during the time of the History Books and served the role of reminding God’s people who they were called to be. Some of the prophets lived before the exile, and warned God’s people to behave or they would be punished. Some of the prophets lived during the exile and reminded God’s people that God had not forgotten them. What would usually happen was that the prophet would get a message from God and speak it to the people. The people would either listen and straighten up, or more often, ignore the prophet. God would then exact punishment on the people, which caused them to truly repent and return to their Godly ways. That would last a little while, and then they’d start falling away again. So God would send another prophet. Wash, rinse, repeat. One of the most famous lines from the prophets is from Micah, who says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” But the people didn’t do those things, so finally God decided on a better way to relate to them. We’ll save that for next week when we look at the New Testament.
So there you have it! A bullet-train ride through the Old/First Testament. You might be tempted to dismiss this as not important. I had a congregation member once who said we should do away with the Old Testament because all we need is Jesus. But could you imagine taking letters from your grandparents or your old photo albums and chucking them in the garbage because they didn’t matter? We have to know the story of how we got here in order to understand who we are. We need to know the lengths to which God has gone to create us, lead us, and love us in order to appreciate the magnitude of that love. We’ll talk more about how that love was made real next week, but for now, before you dismiss these “old” writings, remember: This ancient story? It’s God’s story. It’s our story.