How Should We Interpret the Old Testament?

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“You are not under the law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)

Previously, I raised the question, “What changed between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant?” How is a person to know which verses in the Mosaic Law are universal principles and therefore binding upon all cultures at all times, and which verses are specific applications of universal principles, and as such, the application is not binding.

I suggested that there are a couple of methods that we should avoid using.

The first of these I call, “The Pick and Choose Method.” This method freely uses any verse in the Law that strengthens one’s theological beliefs and just as freely ignores or discards all verses in the Law that seem to teach contrary to one’s theological beliefs. The problem with this method is the lack of authority to determine which verses still apply to the New Testament believer. If you can ignore or “throw out” verses you don’t feel are still binding, why cannot someone else throw out the verses that you like?

The second method I suggested we avoid is “The Three Category Method: Civil, Ceremonial and Moral Law.” The civil law is said to apply only to the Israelites while they lived in the land of Palestine. The ceremonial law is said to include sacrifice and other aspects of worship and was fulfilled in Christ’s ministry. Therefore the civil and ceremonial laws do not apply to New Testament believers. The moral law, however, is said to be a reflection of the unchanging moral nature of God, and is still binding upon all men.

The first problem with this method is it denies that all Scripture is still profitable for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16). All the passages that deal with civil or ceremonial laws are no longer applicable to us. They are viewed as “historical facts” about Israel’s relationship either to the land of Canaan or to her worship practices. Only the moral laws are said to be unchanging and would qualify as still being profitable for doctrine in this dispensation. This brings up the second problem. How do you determine which verses contain a moral law? Is it not true that many of the civil laws which stipulated special care for the poor during the harvest are reflecting a moral concern? If the civil laws reflect moral principles, perhaps they should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Further, if a person goes looking for moral principles that underlie the civil and ceremonial laws, he effectively destroys the three category method. A third problem is that there is no agreed-upon method for knowing which verses to include in each category. Some verses, such as those which deal with the Sabbath, seem to fit in more than one category.

With this introduction, I now come to the basic premise that guides my approach to interpreting the Old Testament.

A Foundational Premise for Interpreting the Old Testament

The Bible is God’s self-revelation to man. In it we learn that God is immutable—He never changes. His counsel, purpose, and character are always the same (Malachi 3:6; Jas. 1:17; Heb. 6:17). God is the source of all truth (Deut. 32:4; Isa 65:16), and truth is true because it is a reflection of the unchanging character of God. Because His character never changes, His truth never changes with the passing of time. He dwells in eternity and as the Alpha and Omega He transcends time. Therefore, all that He reveals about Himself, His attitudes, His feelings, His likes and dislikes, remain the same throughout the ages. The Bible, one book with sixty-six subdivisions, is designed to reveal God’s view point about everything that is essential for man to know in order to please Him (Col. 1:9-10).

The Bible is a unified book which reflects the unchanging mind of our Eternal God.

God gives us Scripture so that we may know His mind. He has not given us a history book. Although many things in Scripture are historical, He did not have them written in His self-revelation for historical purposes. He uses historical events to reveal His timeless truths and to teach us wisdom. This means that everything in Scripture relates first of all to God and includes something of importance He wishes to teach us about Himself and how He thinks.

The implications of this foundational premise is that when we read the Old Testament, we must remember that God is speaking to us (Heb 1:1). Since He never changes, everything He has recorded in Scripture should be care fully studied to discern what He wants us to learn about Himself.

The UP-SA Method of Interpreting the Old Testament

The method I have found most helpful in knowing how to apply the Old Testament teachings to my life is what I call the UP-SA method. The abbreviation UP stands for a universal principle that reflects a truth based on God’s unchanging character. The abbreviation SA stands for a specific application which is derived from a universal principle. Each verse in the Old Testament reflects either a universal principle or is a specific application of a universal principle.

When you encounter a verse that seems to have no relevance to you because you live in a different country with a different culture and different worship practices, do not ignore or dismiss the verse. Ask yourself, “Is this verse teaching a universal principle or is it a specific application of a universal principle? Universal principles are unchanging and transcend all cultures and time limitations. Specific applications, on the other hand, are not binding upon all cultures.”

Specific applications change when situations change. But the universal principle from which the specific application was derived remains unchanging. It is only after the universal principle is understood that one can determine whether the verse is itself a universal principle or a specific application of a universal principle. Be sure you do not confuse a universal principle with a specific application. There is a difference!

Do not confuse a universal principle with a specific application.

An Illustration: Interpreting Deuteronomy 22:1-11

Let’s apply the UP-SA method of interpretation to Deuteronomy 22:1-11 to learn how to think about Scripture.

Deuteronomy 22:1-4 gives us specific applications of the universal principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. You are to treat the property of another person as you would have your own property treated. If your neighbor needs emergency help, you offer the help you would appreciate being offered if you found yourself in a similar situation.

Deuteronomy 22:5 teaches us the universal principle that God requires dress distinctions between the sexes. Men are not to wear that which pertains to a woman nor are women to wear that which pertains to (or is the cultural distinctive of) a man. Violation of this universal principle is labeled an “abomination unto the LORD thy God.” In Western culture, the dominant symbol of a man’s attire is a pair of pants. The dominant symbol of a woman’s attire is a dress. This symbol is still used internationally to indicate the difference between male and female toilet facilities. This is also the reason why many people oppose secular culture’s attempt to blur this distinction through the unisex movement. Many feel that women, in Western cultures, should not wear pants because this violates Deuteronomy 22:5.

Deuteronomy 22:6-7 gives us specific applications of the universal principle of the proper management of God’s earthly resources. Ecological principles of game management are part of the truth God wishes mankind to follow. One is to allow for further reproduction of whatever animal species one uses for food. Wanton killing or thoughtless killing of animals (for whatever purpose) is forbidden by God.

Deuteronomy 22:8 gives a specific application of the universal principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. We are required by God to protect others from hurting themselves while on our property. To that end, if one has a roof-top patio where friends are invited, one must fence in the roof-top to provide protection against accidental injury. Understanding the universal principle behind the specific application teaches us that God expects us to cover any holes in our yard that someone could fall in at night, to fence in swimming pools, and in general to be concerned about the safety of others while on our property.

Deuteronomy 22:9 gives a specific application of the universal principle of the proper management of God’s earthly resources. Two issues may be at stake. First, improper mixing of seeds in crop planting can result in serious depletion of vital nutrients from the soil. God expects us to take care of the land so that later generations will find the soil still fertile and usable. Second, mixing seeds in a field greatly increases the likelihood of cross-pollination between different kinds of plants during blooming. For most plants this would result in egg chromosomes not having a proper chromosome from the pollen to match up with and thus being unable to line up properly on mitotic spindles. If this occurs, the plant cannot go through cell division and no fruit, or little fruit will be produced by many of the plants. Since God promised bountiful harvests to His people if they obeyed him, He gives this guideline without giving the Israelites an advanced scientific course in plant biology.

Deuteronomy 22:10 gives a specific application of the universal principle of the proper treatment of the animals God created. To avoid cruelty to animals, one is not to hitch an ox and an ass together while plowing. They have different strengths, sizes and walking gaits and one will hamper the other. Other applications of the universal principle of kindness to animals is the prohibition of needless kicking, hitting,
or otherwise misusing animals. All cruelty to animals is prohibited.

Deuteronomy 22:11 prohibits wearing a garment with a combination of wool and linen. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew text does not prohibit the mixture of diverse materials in general (as the KJV implies); it specifically prohibits the combination of wool and linen.1 Is this a universal principle or a specific application? It is not easy to say.

There are several views why the mixture of wool and linen are forbidden.

One opinion indicates that a fabric made out of these two materials blended together increases the power of passing off electricity from the body and in hot climates exhausts the strength.2

Another view is provided by the Jewish rabbi, Rambam. He states that in ancient times sorcerers, in performing their witchcraft and in communicating with demons, frequently used garments composed of both wool and linen. To prevent us from being associated in any way with these evil practices, the Torah forbids us from wearing clothing containing this mixture.

A third view is that there is no rational reason for the prohibition. It was simply one of those commands that God expected people to obey out of faith in His wisdom.

A fourth view, and perhaps the most probable view in light of the two verses immediately preceding this verse which also prohibit the uniting of diverse types of things together because negative results occur, suggests the prohibition was to teach the concept of separation. Wool and linen come from separate kingdoms in nature, one from the animal, the other from the vegetable kingdom.

It may be that separation or the concept of the necessity of an “unmixed” moral character is being foreshadowed. Paul seems to key in on this concept in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 when he prohibits the uniting of a believer with an unbeliever, righteousness with unrighteousness, light with darkness, or Christ with Belial. God wants His people separate from everything that defiles or makes one spiritually unclean. Granted, the UP-SA method of interpretation does not solve all problems of interpretation.

However, the process of trying to determine if a verse is a universal principle or a specific application does require that one engage himself or herself seriously and prayerfully with the text. Until a satisfactory answer can be achieved, perhaps the New Testament principle of “if it’s doubtful, don’t until you resolve the doubts” (Rom. 14:23) should apply.

Every verse in the Mosaic Law, indeed, in the whole of the Old Testament, should be approached with the premise that God is seeking to reveal how He thinks and should therefore merit our thoughtful consideration and study. The UP-SA method, although not an easy or quick solution to all problems of interpretation, does support Paul’s premise that all of the Old Testament is still profitable “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The UP-SA method of interpretation takes seriously the premise that the Bible is a unified book which reflects the unchanging mind of our Eternal God.

 


 

  1. Deut. 22:11, a recapitulation and explanation of the Mosaic Law, serves as a guide for the proper understanding of the more ambiguous wording of Exod. 19:19.
  2. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown on Leviticus 19:19.
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.