Understanding the Old Testament

Question: If God is loving and merciful, how is it that he helped his people in Old Testament times to murder, pillage, slaughter children and so forth? Our Bible study group has started to look at the Old Testament, and we are beside ourselves when we read of all these things. 

— Name withheld, Pflugerville, Texas

Answer: The Old Testament can make tough reading, and there are parts of it that are downright disedifying. How-ever, it is important that we don’t take what we read in the Old Testament at face value. We have to keep in mind its historical context, the ways in which people thought at the time, and the fact that the Old Testament is incomplete in many ways. 

One way to deal with the difficulties you experience is to realize that the Old Testament — though inspired by God — is a very human document and shows all the flaws of human thinking and writing; it is marred in the way it reflects the religious consciousness of the people of the time. Dei Verbum , the 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, points out, “The words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men” (No. 13). 

Human language is imperfect, incomplete and partial. It is the nature of human speech that it is rarely able to say fully and accurately what it means. The Old Testament, which Dei Verbum says “contains matters imperfect and provisional” (No. 15), records the dealings of God with his people in the best language that the biblical authors knew. The consciousness of the Old Testament peoples was far from perfect, and it would not be complete until the final Word of God was spoken in Christ. 

This is not to say that the Old Testament authors were not inspired; they were. God really and truly spoke through them despite their limitation of understanding and knowledge. 

In reading the Old Testament we do well to keep in mind the admonition of Dei Verbum : “Rightly to understand what the sacred author wanted to affirm in his work, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the conventions which the people of his time followed in their dealings with one another” (No. 12). 

The authors of the earlier parts of the Old Testament thought that God was on their side alone, and that he helped them murder, pillage, and slaughter children. But as Old Testament religion developed, we find that there emerges a viewpoint that emphasizes the mercy, justice and loving character of God. 

One of the fundamental principles of Bible reading is that we approach the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. Even more fundamentally, we read the whole Bible in the light of Christ’s life, words and deeds. The Old Testament is an imperfect prefigurement of what we read in the New Testament. The New Testament fulfills, completes, amplifies — and even corrects — the Old Testament. 

The Bible is not properly read from cover to cover. We read everything in the light of Christ. This is how it works at Mass. The Gospel is always the final and complete statement of God’s word. The Old Testament is always read as an incomplete introduction to the Gospel. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.