Last Thursday I went to Cambridge for a daylong seminar on Preaching the Book of Deuteronomy with Old Testament scholar, Dr. Daniel Block. For many people, Deuteronomy is a dull book to be avoided. But the 74-year-old Dr. Block was neither dull nor tentative in his treatment of the book. Full of passion and love for its teachings, he sometimes shouted, sometimes laughed, and at one point even broke into song as he was preaching. He shared how he had begun teaching through Deuteronomy in an adult Sunday School class at his church. Initially 60 people signed up to join him, but how many would continue, particularly given how slowly he was working through the chapters? Well, he still has a couple of chapters to complete, but he’s been teaching that class for seven years now and he averages 180 to 200 people each week. Obviously, there’s more to be learned from this book than most people think! There were many lessons I took away from the series of lectures, but perhaps most helpful was his perspective on how Christians can enjoy reading the Old Testament.
1. Don’t misread the New Testament back into the Old.
Many Christians either start reading the Bible in the New Testament or get bogged down in the Old and hold their breath until they get to the New. Once in the New Testament, many people misread Paul’s words and get an even more negative impression of the Old Testament. For instance, Paul in explaining his testimony shares in Romans 7:9, I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. Paul is explaining how the commandments in the Old Testament, particularly the command not to covet, convinced him of his sinfulness and guilt before God. Some people wrongly draw the conclusion that all the Old Testament does is condemn a person. People do something similar when they read Galatians 3:23. It says, Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. It’s easy to get the impression that before the New Testament came, everyone was in slavery. But God didn’t deliver His people from Egypt only to enslave them through the law. What Paul is describing is the slavery that comes from living under the law “before faith.” Psalm 119 gives a completely different perspective on the Old Testament. Verse 24 says, for instance, Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors. Similarly, David says of God’s commands in Psalm 19:10, More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. This is how a true believer saw the law in Old Testament times. As we turn to the Old Testament today, this should be our expectation, rather than the perspective of unbelieving 1st century Pharisees.
2. Don’t ignore the context in which it was written.
Dr. Block’s opening address was from Deuteronomy 14:1-21. You might remember it as the chapter that forbids eating ostriches, bats and goats cooked in their mother’s milk. It’s not the first place people usually turn for a warm, devotional read. But the challenge of reading a chapter like this isn’t just in the topic, it’s the fact that it was first written to people living in a very different context than ours. If we don’t investigate that context or just assume that it’s the same as ours, we can miss what’s being taught. Some of the food laws were for Israel’s protection; others were to symbolize truths about life, death, blood and purity. While we read these laws with the assumption that we should be able to eat whatever we want and see any regulation as restrictive and oppressive, the original hearers thought quite differently. They lived in a religious context where people were incredibly superstitious and forever worried about offending the gods. People never knew where they stood and developed strange and unhealthy taboos about all kinds of things. By contrast, Israel’s God was clear and never left people guessing how they might please Him. Even in the food laws, the emphasis is on what God’s people can eat, and the restrictions are for the people’s safety and edification.
3. Don’t lose sight of the grace amidst the laws.
Probably the biggest mistake we make in reading the Old Testament is in losing sight of the grace amidst the laws. In his hour-long sermon from the ‘food regulations chapter,’ Dr. Block said it was a mistake in seeing the chapter as being primarily about food regulations. In fact, the chapter doesn’t start with food at all. It starts by affirming the adoption of God’s people (v.1 You are the sons of the LORD your God), the calling of God’s people (v.2 you are a people holy to the LORD your God), the value of God’s people (v.2 a people for his treasured possession), and the election of God’s people (v.2 the LORD has chosen you … out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth). Too often we skip these precious statements of grace that are intended to inform everything else we read and the laws seem dry and lifeless as a result.
I don’t plan on a doing a 7-year study in the book of Deuteronomy anytime soon, but I do look forward to reading and teaching this book with fresh eyes as a result of Dr. Block’s enthusiastic appeal. May God give you help as you grow in your reading of the Old Testament!
In awe of Him,