Teaching the Old Testament Genres
Rolan Monje -- Manila, Philippines
Taught as part of a lesson entitled, "Maturing Our Churches -- Lord, Teach Us," on Thursday, July 7, 2016, at the Reach Summit in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. You can listen to the audio recording of this lesson here. (Please note that a small subscription fee to DTV is required to access the lesson.)
I. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
I remember asking a congregation of fairly mature Christians, “Who among us has read the entire Bible?” Only about half raised their hands. Later on in fellowship, many confessed: “Bro, bro -- I got bored, or bogged down with the Old Testament!”
Viewed as distant, difficult, antiquated, the Old Testament is frequently neglected in preaching and teaching in the church. It is sometimes rarely studied in quiet times: even those who make the noble resolution to read the Bible in a year can start “fired up” in Genesis; still be okay in Exodus; then get confused in Leviticus; get discouraged in Numbers; and give up in Deuteronomy.
Many Christians feel familiar with parts of the Old Testament, or grow up hearing the stories, but these are just stored in their memory banks without much significance.
As we address the hunger for spiritual meat in our churches, let’s be reminded that
teaching the Bible should engage the whole Bible. Three-quarters of the Bible is the Old Testament -- 929 chapters as compared to 260 in the New.
Contrary to prevailing attitude, we as leaders need to show that the Old Testament contains much relevant and meaningful application for today as the New.
Think about Jesus and Paul: what did they have to say about the Old Testament?
In 1 Corinthians chapter 10, the apostle Paul warns Christians -- how? by referring to Old Testament scriptures, using history. He draws from the Exodus, he recounts things from Numbers, he puts them all together, and what is his hermeneutic conclusion? “Now these things happened to them as an examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” (v.11, NIV) Clearly, Paul valued teaching from the Old Testament.
Jesus’ fundamental statement in Luke 24 is even more pointed. In verse 44, he says that everything written about him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Here, the Old Testament points to Jesus -- his person, his nature, his purpose, his character. During his ministry, Jesus constantly appealed to the Old Testament as a source of authority, including stating that he was to fulfill it; it was all about him. All these examples should point us to the importance of the Old Testament.
The challenge for us, therefore would be similar to the storehouse analogy in Matt 13:52: “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Jesus is telling them that the truths they were to teach included both the new treasures of Jesus’ teaching and the old truths from Jewish teaching. In other words, a trained teacher should be able to draw spiritual truths from various places and all kinds of contexts.
II. OLD TESTAMENT GENRES
The Bible is one book but it’s also a library of books, so it’s filled with various literary types or genres. One important key to the proper interpretation of scripture is recognition of genre. This is vital to Old Testament teaching. From the get-go, our members need to be made aware of the great number of genres we can learn from, even from the Old Testament alone.
Think about it! There are so many types of narratives: you’ve got epic; short story; sayings or aphorisms; riddles; ironies; taunts; wisdom passages of different kinds; blessings, curses, imprecations; law; different types of law; apocalyptic literature; poetry -- multiple types (I identified fifteen types of Psalms in my book); prophecy; histories, reports, genealogies, and even romance! All of these I’ve mentioned are just Old Testament genres.
The New Testament adds two basic genres to this list: gospel, epistle, or perhaps a sermonic letter in Hebrews.
There’s so much to learn and draw from, in the Old Testament alone!
Next, I’d like to make a case for the genre of Biblical narrative. Although you find stories in the New Testament, there’s a lot to teach from in the stories of the Old Testament: the parting of the Red Sea; Daniel in the Lion’s Den; David and Goliath. These were written for adults to read and reflect on, not just children.
Teaching through story is one of the most effective ways devised by human beings since the beginning of time. Older generations know this. I know for a fact that if I ask my grandfather for some cash, he’s going to say, “Rolan, let me tell you about World War Two.”
“Wow, Grandpa, I just need some cash,” and he’s gonna tell me a story!
But to guide, instruct, to inform and to change minds, we need stories. Story is a powerful vehicle - everybody likes a good story. People crave stories. That’s why people watch movies, read novels, they devour the latest scoop in magazines. In your sermons, people will listen more to a story than to an abstract lesson. The sheer number of stories in the Old Testament gives preachers an automatic edge. Thirty to forty per cent of the Old Testament is story -- so let’s leverage the stories to catch people’s attention and change their hearts!
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR TEACHING THE OLD TESTAMENT GENRES
It’s important that we become fully acquainted and comfortable with all the Biblical genres of the Old Testament. This takes work and it starts in our quiet times. For some, this entails learning more about Old Testament history, geography, culture. With certain passages, for example, you need to increase your knowledge of ancient Hebrew manners and customs. I believe the extra time is worth it. We must learn how to summarize things well, too, because there’s a lot of learning in the Old Testament. When we pick out points of history, geography, etc., we need to give enough information without drowning our audience in detail.
We need to show the people in our preaching and teaching how to approach each genre. When you preach, you’ve got to vary your genres. Show people that interpreting poetry is different than interpreting prose. Much education comes before we get to edification. It’s probably best to start with familiar stories and passages, because that will demand less background and information. Don’t go home right after this class, for example, and shock your people with something apocalyptic from Ezekiel right away! The more you practice the Old Testament, preaching the Old Testament, segments from the Old Testament, you will develop a feel for it, so that your preaching becomes what it’s supposed to be: interesting and profound, fluid and artistic.
3) Challenge people.
We have to exhort people to study out genres outside their comfort zone.
People appreciate it when you as a leader exert extra effort to teach lesser known books and difficult passages. As you generate interest, it encourages people to dig deeper in their quiet times, and learn to allow extra time for Bible study. Not everyone will respond immediately, but you then create a culture of becoming better students of scripture.
Lift up from each genre some big ideas for Bible-wide themes. Big ideas allow your sermons to stick. Big ideas also build interest in further study. How about teaching "covenant" from the Prophets, or "righteousness" from the Patriarchal narratives? I love teaching humility from the book of Psalms. How about using those avoided genealogies & family registers to teach on purity? These are things we usually skip, but they make a good case for purity. When it comes to evangelism, many times we think, “I want to preach on evangelism, how can I make it stick in another way?” Teach the Prophets, highlighting their strong desire for all nations to worship Yahweh. The prophets were adamant that it’s not just Israel that should praise the Lord -- his word should reach the ends of the world. The prophets were passionate about this.
Call people to action by building significance and relevance. This is where you make a bridge from the “then” to the “now.” Some areas to explore:
- What does this passage teach about God’s attributes?
- What can we learn about God, who he , what makes him tick, what makes him sick?
- What can we learn about God’s actions?
- What does this teach about how our minds, convictions, actions should be?
- How can this teaching develop the church and impact seekers?
To conclude: the Old Testament has a great deal to offer us in both individual learning and congregational teaching. In exploring the genres of Old Testament literature, we find much potential for creative and effective Bible teaching. Admittedly, many leaders find it easier to preach on the New Testament rather than the Old, but while the majority choose to plow the well-worn fields of the newer canon, I pray that many of us today will find a renewed passion and confidence for teaching the older – so let’s teach both testaments and impact people for God! Amen!
Steven Mathewson (2002). The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Baker Academic.
Walter Kaiser (2007). The Majesty of God in the Old Testament: A Guide for Preaching and Teaching. Baker Academic.
Ellen Davis (2005). Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament. Westminster John Knox Press.