3 Books To Help You Understand the Old Testament
The Old Testament can feel stale and dry when we don’t spend a lot of time in it. Worse, it often feels detached—like we are merely reading history instead of the revealed words of God.
In our churches today, we talk as if everything God had done prior to Jesus’s life and ministry on earth is null and void, as if He was not working His plan of salvation even then. (In fact, there are many sects that deemphasize the importance of the Old Testament and delegitimize it in the name of Jesus as Lord.)
This year while taking Old Testament classes at Midwestern, I had something of an epiphany. I’m not sure why, but something resonated deep within me as I read about the plan God carved out for the people of Israel and considered the ways it was really our story all along, too.
Below are three books that I have read that might help you better understand where and how the Old Testament fits into the story of Jesus coming to save the world through his life, death, and resurrection. All three have encouraged me, and they have enriched my understanding of what God was doing so many years ago in foreign lands and through foreign people.
In They Spoke of Me, Smith and Berry explain the ways Jesus is the lens through which we must read the Old Testament. Drawing from the creation narrative to Melchizedek to Moses and Israel to Jonah to the Psalms, they pull on the single thread that holds the Bible together: Jesus.
Both Smith and Berry are respectable scholars, but they have written a book with short, readable chapters that any Christian seeking to learn more about the Old Testament ought to be able to digest.
Additionally, this would be a particularly great book to walk alongside reading with a younger Christian who is still learning about the story of Scripture. If you’re unfamiliar with how to interpret and understand the Bible in a Christ-centered way, this is an excellent starting point.
I'm still reading through this book, admittedly, but I have been captivated by it. Bearing God’s Name is a more accessible/popular-level explanation of a portion of her doctoral dissertation. As the title suggests, this book tackles the question, “What does it mean to bear God’s name?” Imes argues that we have misapplied the command prohibiting taking the Lord’s name in vain—that it was a command against bearingGod’s name in a vain manner, not against using it as a particular curse word or derogatory term (though we shouldn’t do that either, for whatever it’s worth).
Similarly to They Spoke of Me, Imes takes a Christ-centered approach to understanding the Old Testament; however, Bearing God’s Name spends more time in the immediate cultural context. These two really function as great companions to one another, with They Spoke of Me looking backward from the New Testament to the Old Testament while Bearing God’s Name starts in the Old Testament and anticipates the New Testament.
This one, too, is easily digestible in a group setting. InterVarsity Press has created digital content and videos to accompany the chapters, and the end of the book contains discussion questions for each chapter. Each chapter also contains notes in the margin that offer other resources or give clarification to the topic at hand. At the moment, this is my favorite book on this list.
Last on this list, I chose to put the textbook I used earlier this year in a class at MBTS. It might sound really intimidating to have a textbook on this list, but What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About is written at a highly accessible level for the kind of scholarly contributions it makes. Though it’s a longer book than the other two paperbacks above, it’s worth the time and energy—this book, more than the other two, will help you “unlock” the Old Testament without needing a functional knowledge of Israel’s culture or the Hebrew language.
DeRouchie writes the entire book from this standpoint: the Old Testament was Jesus’s Bible, and because of this we should read it as if we were reading Jesus’s Bible. In other words, the Old Testament wasn’t somehow separate from the life or mission of God in Christ; instead, it is the very text that Jesus grew up knowing, reading, loving, and embracing. He taught with authority in the midst of a culture that was engaging with the Old Testament regularly.
Through this lens, DeRouchie helps us understand the different “movements” or scenes depicted throughout the Old Testament. He breaks down the importance of the covenants God made with Israel and shows how Jesus fulfilled them. He even goes to great lengths to show the importance of the order of Old Testament books. (If you weren’t aware, the Old Testament in Jesus’s day was in a different order than the one you’re probably familiar with—and DeRouchie thinks there’s a big-picture reason for it).
Written by a bright scholar with a pastor’s heart, I highly recommend picking up a copy of What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About, even though it’s a textbook. After all, I can always help you walk through the hard parts of the book if you need it—I had the chance to do a Zoom intensive with DeRouchie this year and read through the whole book for the class.
Of course, these are just primers.
This list is not comprehensive. But if you’re itching to love the Old Testament more, consider picking up a copy of one of these works by some of the brightest scholars in the church today. They'll draw you closer to Jesus and help you weave together the story of the whole Bible.