Most of us understand that the New Testament teaches us how to live. The problem is that we carry this understanding into the Old Testament, where we fail to understand much of anything at all.
That's naturally how it goes. Because if you're reading the Old Testament trying to figure out how to live, you're going to be sorely disappointed. We lean on the Law, as we call it, as a guideline to holiness but the Law was never intended to be our instruction.
It was meant to be our reminder.
The Law, and indeed all of the Old Testament, are not practical theology; they are revelatory theology. They tell us who God is, who He intended to be in the face of our sinfulness, and what to expect from Him. So when you read these Scriptures, you can't read them looking for yourself; you have to read them looking for God.
Let's start with the Law, since that seems to be a sticking point. Most famously, the Ten Commandments that sound like they're telling us how to live. Anyone ever covet their neighbor's donkey? Anyone? How about murder? You ever murdered anyone? Man, these are easy! There's two rules right there I am unlikely to break.
Unless they aren't rules at all. Unless, say they are statements about the nature of God. A command not to covet your neighbor's donkey is further a word to keep your eyes in your own fence. To look at what God is doing in your life. To realize all that you have and understand that it is enough. To begin to see God as the God of enough. Sufficient. Gracious, even, because let's face it - you have a lot. I have a lot. A command not to murder is a reminder about Who really controls life. God does. God is the God of life, and He is not interested in turning it over to you.
Each of the commandments can be seen this way. Each reveals a deeper truth about God, even more than a rule about how to live. The reason it's so easy to see them as rules is because that's what it felt like to the Israelites. Living between the Fall and the Cross, they didn't have the luxury of living redeemed. That means that to be God's took a great deal more discipline, to make up for the place where there was not yet mercy. (To our eyes.) They had to be aware of the way God continually revealed Himself because He had not yet been fully revealed.
Let's look at some other scenes from the Old Testament in light of this idea.
There is the Garden of Eden, which reveals a God who desires to walk with us. There is Abraham, who reveals the God of the Impossible - that a fatherless man would become the father of nations. There is David, who reveals the God of the Improbable - that the smallest would become the greatest, that the little shepherd boy could lead the whole of God's people.
There's Moses, who shows us the God of Extreme Lengths - a God whose love is so fanatic for His people that He sends locusts and flies and frogs, that He parts seas, that He pours water from a rock. Elijah, who reveals the God who Shows Up - a God who comes to defend Himself, to speak to us, to show His name. Joshua shows us the God who Fights For Us - a God who causes walls to fall. God even tells Hosea that the prophet is the reminder of the God who Never Stops Loving Us. Samson reminds us of the God that makes us Secretly Strong - a God who dwells in us in quiet ways and makes us able because He is able.
Over and over and over again, God is revealed in the stories of His people in the Old Testament. And that's what we, reading the words so many years later, are supposed to be looking for. Most of us miss this because we're looking at the stories through our eyes.
We're trying to figure out how to walk with God, forgetting that He's already walking with us. We're trying to figure out how to do the impossible for God, forgetting that He's already doing the impossible in us. We're trying to figure out how to do the improbable for God, forgetting that He's already doing the improbable!
We're reading, wanting to be like Moses, who has all of these powerful encounters with God (in a burning bush, on the mountain, in fire, in smoke) and completely neglecting the God who is that power. We want to be Elijah, willing to stand up to a whole crowd of haters with such boldness. But we forget that Elijah could only stand because God was already standing there. We try to figure out how to fight for God, how to faithfully lead into battle like Joshua. But Joshua didn't lead that battle; he followed God into it. We try to make our lives a metaphor for God like Hosea's was, forgetting that God writes His own stories; if we want to be a part of it, we must simply loan Him our pen. And we pull into our strengths in the hopes that we will be something for God, but it is God who has already made us something for Him.
We're missing all of this because we're reading with human eyes and with the gift...and the curse...of the New Testament in our hearts. We're reading the Old Testament, hoping it will show us how to live but it never will. The Old Testament will only ever show us how He lives. How He loves. How He is. It's not practical theology; it's revelatory. It doesn't tell us who we're supposed to be; it shows us who God is. Again and again and again and again. Over and over and over.
That's how to get the most out of your Old Testament. Stop reading it looking for yourself. You're not Abraham or David or Moses or Joshua or Elijah or .... Read it looking for God. He Is.