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Three Tips For Reading Old Testament Stories

Posted April 1, 2024

Not all Old Testament prophets get eaten by lions, but the story of the man of God from Judah in 1 Kings 13 can lead to a fair amount of confusion about how the Lord rewards his messengers. It’s a tough chapter, not unlike many Old Testament passages. In this story, the man of God prophesies against the idolatrous king of Israel, Jeroboam. His message is about the pagan worship taking place in Bethel

And the man cried against the altar by the word of the Lord and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’”1 Kings 13:2

After delivering his message, the man of God refuses to dine with King Jeroboam, and readers are told that the word of the Lord has commanded him not to eat or drink while he is in Bethel (vv. 8–9). But there is an “old prophet” who also lives in Bethel—claiming to have received a word from the Lord as well—who tricks the man of God into turning aside from the road and refreshing himself with food (vv. 14–19). When the man of God finally departs, a lion attacks and kills him along the way because he disobeyed the word of the Lord (vv. 20–25).

It is hard not to read this story and sympathize deeply with the prophet who was tricked, to question why God would deal such a punishment, and why this story would be included in the Bible.

Because of cultural, linguistic, and literary differences between Ancient Near East story-telling and modern Western story-telling, many Old Testament passages can be confusing or even discouraging. It’s easy for Christians to misunderstand important parts of God’s revealed word or to skip over large sections of the Old Testament altogether. Here are three things to keep in mind when reading stories from the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is written for an audience far removed from us

The stories of the patriarchs, of early Israel, of the kings, prophets and the Exile, took place thousands of years ago in a time much different from ours. Civilizations were ruled by codes of conduct that look nothing like our world. The Laws of Hammurabi, for instance, lay out household laws for treatment and rights of servants and slaves. It would have been fairly common for slaves to be given as concubines as Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham when they couldn’t conceive a child on their own (Gen. 16:1–6). It’s important to remember that these narratives are not a moral commentary. Although Scripture condemns this behavior in other places (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:4-8, 1 Tim. 3:2), the purpose of this passage is not moral but spiritual. We are tracing God’s promise to Abraham to make him a father of many nations and seeing here, unfortunately, that Abraham has not responded in faith. Silence on the injustice of Hagar’s situation is not God’s endorsement—and the help he extends to her personally in the chapters that follow prove that he is a God who hears and sees even the least of us (Gen. 16:7–13, 21:8–21).

Many things done by God’s people reflect the moral codes and standards of their neighbors in the Ancient Near East, not God’s law, and while God permits some of this conduct (the taking of multiple wives, for instance), it is not condoned and is regulated in the Mosaic laws. Consider the taking of war brides—a fairly common practice at the time. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, the Mosaic law commands that anyone who takes a war bride is to give her a period to grieve the loss of her home and family before initiating a marital relationship. And if he decides not to keep her as a wife, she is not to be sold or used as a slave but is free to go where she wants. That the Israelites were allowed to forcibly take foreign women as wives may seem cruel and uncivilized to our modern sensibilities, but in the context of the surrounding nations, the restraints God puts on this practice are astoundingly counter-cultural and demonstrate in a unique way the autonomy and humanity God gives women that is not often seen in other ancient laws and practices

The heroes aren’t perfect

Part of why it can be hard to read Old Testament narratives is because the people we consider to be the heroes are constantly making bad decisions. It isn’t only the taking war brides or the use of slaves that cast a shadow on our view of God’s people—often, the leaders, kings, and priests commit grave sins (e.g. Abraham and Sarah trafficking Hagar, Jacob thieving and stealing, Eli failing to control his sons’ abuse of women at the temple, David raping Bathsheba, etc.).

In Judges 11:30–31, one of Israel’s judges, Jephthah, makes a tragic vow. Before battling Israel’s enemies, the Ammonites, he swears to the Lord: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” Upon his victorious return, his only child comes out of his house, with tambourines and dancing to celebrate his conquest (Judges 11:34–36). Although he gives his young daughter two months to mourn her circumstances, he does eventually fulfill his vow.

Jephthah may be a war hero, but this story is meant to stop us in our tracks. This great judge of Israel who leads the people to victory commits child sacrifice in the name of the Lord. What’s worse, he doesn’t know the law well enough to know that there is provision for his rash oath, that he did not need to put his daughter on the altar (Lev. 5, 27). This is a sad indication both of the failure of Israel’s leaders and of how spiritually far away from God they are.

Eventually, every single one of Israel’s patriarchs, priests, kings and prophets fails. They’re sinful humans. We aren’t meant to look to them but to whom they point: Christ.

The word of the Lord is the true main character

Christ is the perfect prophet, priest, and king. He is the great judge who conquers. He is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and all of God’s promises, which begin in the Garden of Eden where Adam fails—Christ doesn’t fail. Through Adam’s sin, death came to all people; through Christ, life is extended instead (Rom. 5:12-19). All of Scripture points to Jesus’s coming to heal what was broken in the Fall, to restore God’s people to himself, to save us from sin and death, and to give us an eternal home.

The Old Testament isn’t just a collection of ancient stories. It is the history of God’s promises, and we can see the word of the Lord proved over and over again. Abraham and Sarah do conceive and have Isaac—Abraham becomes the father of a great nation, from whom Jesus himself descends, the savior of the world. Israel’s judges stumble and fall—Jephthah, Gideon, Samson. But Christ does not! He comes and conquers sin, claiming us as his own and bringing us into the kingdom.

We see God’s promises unfold on this grand scale of Scripture, but we see it story by story as well. The man of God’s death-by-lion convicts the “old prophet” that the word of the Lord is true and the old prophet buries him in his own tomb, his bones eventually laid to rest beside the man from Judah. But it’s not until 2 Kings 23 when we see the prophecy come true: Josiah becomes king, destroys the altars at Bethel, and burns the bones of the false priests. He does not, however, disturb the bones of the man of God from Judah who is buried there with the old prophet. It takes two books for us to see the word of the Lord proved true, but what an ending! The man of God may have been tricked and punished for his disobedience, but his is not the main story—his life and his death served to testify to the power and righteousness of God he proclaimed, and when the deceitful prophet put his trust in the word of that God, he too was preserved from the judgment to come.

It is so important to immerse ourselves in Old Testament narratives, even the tough ones. Look for the word of God being proved true, because it is a testament to his great power, unfailing love, and the assurance of his promises being fulfilled.


Footnotes

  • E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis, (Garden City, 1964), 119.

  • Zach Keele, The Unfolding Word: The Story of the Bible from Creation to New Creation, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 69.

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Mary Van Weelden

Mary Van Weelden is a writer and a journalist, and is currently working on a double M.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies at Westminster Seminary California. She and her husband are actively searching for the best taco place in Escondido, CA. Come talk to her about practical theology and comma placements on Twitter at @agirlnamedmary.