This summer I’ve been reading through a lot of the Old Testament, and of course a considerable amount of the OT is historical narrative (mixed with the ever-riveting genealogies, legal material, and censuses). In fact, in the printed edition of the Bible I’ve been reading out of, 416 pages of the total 1042 pages are OT history (Genesis through Esther). That’s nearly half of the entire Bible! Naturally some of this history is already important to us. There are some of our favorite Bible stories: Creation, the Flood, Abraham, Moses and the Exodus, David’s reign as king, Esther, and others. But what about the rest of it? Do we really need to have complete catalogues of all the kings of Israel and Judah and what they did? (We even have a second account of all the kings of Judah thanks to Chronicles, as if one wasn’t enough) Do we really need all the detailed information about slaughtering sacrificial animals in Leviticus? What about the detailed division of the Promised Land given in Joshua?
Certainly there are sections of the OT that we are not going to be coming back to over and over again. All of the Bible is inspired, but not all equally important in our lives of faith. We don’t need to rush to do Bible studies of Leviticus as often as we study Romans or the Gospel of John. But that doesn’t mean that OT history is useless for us. In fact, it can give our faith an astounding depth and breadth.
Not Just Jewish History, Our History Too
Unless you are a thoroughgoing old school Dispensationalist, then you believe that the church is at least in some way a continuation of OT Israel. We are all one people of God. We Gentiles have simply been grafted into God’s people Israel (Romans 11). Therefore, the OT, all of it, is not just Jewish history, but it is our spiritual history too. Because we are children of the promise fulfilled in the death of Christ, we are also children of Abraham. In a sense, we cannot understand the work of Christ more fully until we understand the OT, because everything that Christ does is a fulfillment of OT promises. And the most important part of the OT is the history of God’s people. It’s the story of how God has protected and preserved his people and been faithful to his promises for them. We can’t understand how Jesus fulfills these promises of God until we read and understand the narratives in which God makes them.
God is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever
Even though God has worked differently at various times in history, he is still the same God, and he has the same plan of salvation for his people. Thus, reading OT history teaches us who God is by what he has done for his people in history. At times it might seem foreign, strange and upsetting to us, but that isn’t reason for us to ignore it. For example, if the violence of parts of OT history make us feel uncomfortable that’s an opportunity to engage with the text, understand why the violence is there, and make sure that our understanding of God is actually formed by the scriptures. If we focus on just our favorite parts of the Bible we might get a lopsided view of God. So, just as the NT emphasizes that God is a God of peace, he is also, as the OT often emphasizes, a God of justice and deliverance. God’s actions in history help us to understand his character and how he cares for his people. And ultimately this helps us to understand how the work of Christ fits into the greater narrative of God delivering humanity and all of creation from the power of sin and death. Christ’s work is a culmination of God’s work since the beginning. It is the pinnacle of all his work to save, deliver, and protect his people.
An Example of God’s Mercy: Ahab and Manasseh
Two OT figures who made a big impact on me as I was reading this summer are Ahab and Manasseh. They are easily two of the worst kings in all of Israel’s history. Both of them stand out for their idolatry and leading their people into their idolatry, and yet God brings both of them to repentance and has mercy on them, even temporally.
Numerous times in 1 Kings, the writer says that Ahab is worse than all others who have come before him (16:30, 16:33, and 21:25). And yet when Elijah confronts him and tells him that he will die and the dogs will eat his body, he repents. God then says, “I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house” (21:29b).
Similarly Manasseh’s evil reaches epic portions. He even burns his son as an offering to an idol (2 Kings 21:6). God says that Manasseh is even worse than the Amorites (21:11). God promises destruction to Jerusalem because of Manasseh’s idolatry and while the book of Kings leaves it at that, the book of Chronicles gives us more to the story. 2 Chronicles records a story in which Manasseh is bound and brought to Babylon (33:11). And because Manasseh experiences the judgment of God in this way, he repents. He cries out to God for mercy and when his prayer is answered, “Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.” He takes away the idols, tears down the altars to other gods and restores the altar of the Lord.
This is the amazing God that we have. A God who took a man who burned his own son to curry favor with a hunk of stone and brought him to to full repentance, causing him to trust that the Lord is the one and only God. This same God also showed incredible mercy to a man who was a hardened and bitter enemy of God and his prophets, a man that certainly deserved God’s righteous judgment. But God relents, because he is first and foremost a God of mercy, not wrath. He can be wrathful, but it comes out of his justice. His primary work is that of mercy. That is why he has mercy even on Manasseh and Ahab.
And so it is with us. We can never sin our way out of God’s love and mercy. If he will call to repentance and forgive the likes of Ahab and Manasseh, there is more than enough love and mercy for us too. OT history teaches us, among other things, that this is the way that God has been doing things since the beginning. It is the way he continues to work with us, with infinite love and mercy forever and ever.