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Learn to interpret Old Testament law and history

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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What is your favorite verse in the Bible? I’ll bet I know one it’s not. Exodus 23:19 commands, requires, orders us: “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” This prohibition is so important that it is repeated in Deuteronomy 14:21. This statement is the reason why kosher dietary laws prohibit eating meat and dairy together.

When I was last in Jerusalem, our tour group ate at McDonald’s, where cheeseburgers are not on the menu. Why would the Bible prohibit this practice? Because this ritual was part of the fertility cult practices of the pagan Canaanites. They believed in “sympathetic magic,” the idea that their actions could influence the gods and nature. They thought that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk would ensure the continued fertility of the flock.

What does a commandment like this mean to you and me tonight? How are we to interpret such statements? We have now come to that section of our course titled “special hermeneutics,” where we discuss principles which are appropriate for specific genres of Scripture. We begin this evening with Old Testament history and law.

Understand biblical narrative

First, let’s begin to understand biblical narrative. Judaism and Christianity are unique among the world’s religions in their emphasis on history. It is the consistent declaration of Scripture that God created the world and that he continues to interact with his creation. History is “his story.” The events by which he has revealed himself through history make up that genre called narrative.

The Bible contains more narrative than any other literary type. Biblical “narrative” can be defined as revelation in the form of historical events and stories. Over 40% of the Old Testament is composed of such literature.

Old Testament stories are found on three levels:

  • The universal plan of God. Here we read about creation, fall, sin, redemption, the Christ event, the growth of the church.

  • The dealings of God with Israel. Here we learn about his call of Abraham, the Exodus under Moses, the establishment of the land under Joshua, and the further history of God’s chosen people.

  • The dealings of God with people. Here we discover individual stories all through Scripture, from Adam and Eve to Paul’s ministry in Rome.

Old Testament narrative possesses five important characteristics. First, they are centered in the action of God, not of humanity. He is the actor and the hero of every story. For example, the central figure of the plagues against Egypt is not Moses or Pharaoh, but God. He uses these men to accomplish his purpose in preserving and using his people. The story is about the God of creation, not the details of his dealings with his creation.

Second, biblical stories are limited in focus to the work and will of God. They do not give us all the details of an event. For instance, the Genesis account does not tell us what happened to the dinosaurs, as such information is extraneous to the narrative by which God created the heavens and the earth. We don’t learn all we would like to know about the fall of Jericho or Daniels’ survival in the lion’s den, just enough to know that God worked miraculously for his people.

Third, Old Testament narrative intends to invite us into the experience it records. In interpreting biblical stories, it is vital that we understand their setting, characters, and plot. This fact illustrates the importance of grammatical/historical study of the text, as we seek to enter its world personally. The more we learn about the details of the story and the characters it describes, the better we understand the narrative and its meaning for our lives today.

Fourth, Old Testament narrative is usually descriptive rather than prescriptive. These stories illustrate truth more often than they teach it directly. For example, the story of Jonah never “tells” us to do anything. It describes God’s love for the Ninevites and his work in calling and using his recalcitrant prophet, then leaves it to us to discern and apply the lessons of the narrative. The story of David and Bathsheba certainly does not prescribe adultery; rather, it describes this heinous sin and its disastrous consequences. Biblical stories show us the dealings of God with people, then the Spirit applies these lessons to our lives.

Fifth, biblical narrative is best interpreted as a unit rather than as individual truths or lessons. The overarching event is more important than the details which move the story forward. For instance, we learn from the Red Sea miracle that God is more powerful than the mightiest army on earth. The story does not intend to warn us against the use of chariots or their modern-day equivalents. The fact that Israel marched around Jericho seven times does not mean that we must pray seven times, or that whenever we do God is obligated to give us whatever we ask.

Take these steps to interpret biblical stories:

  • Seek the intended meaning of the story, using grammatical, historical, and theological principles. Setting, characters, and plot are important to understanding any story. Study them within their context, seeking the theological truth they intend to convey.

  • When the story illustrates truth rather than prescribing a practical action, seek corroborating biblical witness which is prescriptive in nature. For instance, does the Bible elsewhere command us not to commit adultery? Does it warn us directly that the consequences of sin are severe?

  • Look for New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament lesson. Such a commentary is not always intended by the New Testament, but often it sheds significant light on the Old Testament event. For instance, what did Jesus say about the nature and significance of adultery? How do his words bring the story of David and Bathsheba into focus for Christians?

  • Apply the theological message of the story to your life in practical ways. For instance, are you being tempted by lust today? If so, learn from David and Bathsheba that such sin leads to disaster. If for a man “after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), how much more so for us?

Avoid common mistakes

Allegory” is an approach to interpretation which focuses on hidden or spiritual meanings within the literal text. This method is couched in the Platonic worldview, wherein the “idea” is reflected by the “shadow” of the material. According to Plato, we should always seek the higher “spiritual” truths and not focus on the physical world or text.

Taking this approach to the Bible, Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt began seeking ways to discover the “spiritual” meaning within the material words of Scripture. Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-A.D. 50) was the foremost advocate of this approach. He considered the literal meaning of the text to be helpful only for the immature The mature disciple would want to find the “higher” spiritual truths of Scripture.

Unfortunately, this approach to Scripture is especially common with biblical narrative. I once heard a well-known Baptist pastor and denominational leader preaching on the episode where Moses threw the log into the bitter water, turning it sweet (Exodus 15:22-25. The preacher claimed that the log represents the cross, and that the death of Jesus turns the bitter waters of death into the sweetness of heaven. While it is of course true that Jesus’ death is the means by which we receive eternal life with God, this fact was not at all part of the Exodus narrative. The preacher found spiritual meaning where it was not intended by the writer of the text.

Decontextualizing” is the mistake of ignoring or deemphasizing the historical and literary context of the passage. This common error has given rise to much theological confusion.

For instance, David grieved the death of his dear friend Jonathan with the words, “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). Taken alone, these words could be used to claim that David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship. But reading his lament in its context gives us a very different picture.

Marriage in ancient Israel was arranged primarily to benefit the tribe, increasing its strength and size through procreation. Ties with other families were often arranged for political benefit and purpose. A man’s wife was seldom his best friend or soul mate, as David’s tumultuous relationships with wives and women illustrates. On the other hand, Jonathan was David’s best friend, confidant, and peer.

There is no hint whatsoever in Scripture that either David or Jonathan had any homosexual tendencies. David’s lustful relations with Bathsheba and others demonstrate his heterosexuality. And Jonathan had at least one child (2 Sam. 9:3-4), demonstrating that he was a husband and a father. Reading the text in its context gives us the clear intention of the passage.

False combinationalism” is another common mistake interpreters make in studying biblical narrative. This method combines elements from within a story or stories to create a meaning not intended in the narrative.

David praised God for preparing a cup for him in the presence of his enemies (Psalm 23:5), then claimed that he would dwell in the “house of the Lord” forever (v. 6). False combinationalism would say that our enemies are always in the house of the Lord. In truth they sometimes are, but this fact is of course not intended by David’s psalm.

Understand Old Testament law

More than 600 commandments are found in the word of God, conveyed primarily in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Learning how to apply them to our lives today can one of the most difficult challenges for biblical interpreters.

First: these laws are typically conditional in nature. A “suzerainty” covenant is one which contains promises made by a sovereign to his subordinates, conditional upon their obedience to him. (The name comes from “suzerain,” meaning overlord.).

Second: Old Testament laws serve to prepare us for the New Covenant in Christ. As we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, so we interpret laws in light of Jesus’ teachings and mission. For instance, the Old Testament commands us not to murder (Ex. 20:13). But Jesus fulfills this law with his prescription against anger (Matt. 5:22). Good interpretation requires that we look to the New Testament to give us the fullest intent and application of Old Testament laws for our lives.

Third: Old Testament laws retain the force of precept when they are renewed in the New Testament. For instance, the NT renews specifically each of the Ten Commandments. And Jesus renewed the First, Second, and Third Commandments with his prescription that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).

Fourth: Old Testament laws retain the force of principle when they are not renewed in the New Testament. For instance, kosher dietary laws were extremely significant to Hebrew life (cf. Lev. 11). But these laws are not renewed in the New Testament, and in fact are specifically not enforced for Gentile followers of Jesus (Acts 15:28-29). While they are not required for Christians today, they teach the principle that God cares about our diet and health, and wants us to behave in ways which are distinct from the pagan culture in which we live.

Fifth: laws given to a specific person or groups retain illustrative principles for life today. For instance, the command against sacrificing an animal outside the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 17:3-4) clearly cannot be obeyed literally now that the Tabernacle is no more. But this law teaches us that God wants us to bring our offerings to him in worship today.

Interpret Old Testament law

As with narrative, our first interpretive step is to understand the intended meaning of the text using grammatical, historical, and then theological tools. We want to know what the law intended to say to its original audience.

Second: determine if this law is repeated in the New Testament for followers of Jesus, and if so, in what way. If it is, interpret it as a binding law for us. If it is not, seek the principle intended by the law for the children of Israel, and apply that principle to life today.

Third: apply the law to life within the context of grace. Obedience does not earn God’s favor–it positions us to receive what God’s grace wants to give (cf. Eph. 2:8-9).

An example: Leviticus 19:19 commands, “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Why? Because mixing animal breeds, seeds, or materials was thought to “marry” them so as magically to produce “offspring,” bounty in the future. God’s people were not to participate in the pagan practices of their day. The principle still holds today.


One more example of the relevance of special hermeneutics to interpreting Old Testament narrative and law: Leviticus 11:7-8 says, “The pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” Why?

Pigs were more likely to carry disease in the arid climate of the Sinai desert and the land of Canaan. For instance, they spread trichonisis, a parasitic disease which causes worms to grow inside the body. They also carry tapeworms and organisms which can cause epilepsy, and can cause toxoplasmosis, a disease resembling pneumonia.

They were favored for religious sacrifice by groups whose practices the Israelites were not to copy. We know that pork was considered sacred by the Babylonians, who would allow its consumption only on certain “sacred” occasions. The ancient Egyptians held similar beliefs; the Jews were to be separate from them in every way. The Canaanites used pig bones as amulets to confer protection from the spirits. (Archaeologists have unearthed a tomb containing up to 2000 Jewish soldiers killed by Assyrians or Babylonians; pig bones were scattered on their remains to desecrate them and prove the superiority of their pagan gods to the Hebrews’ god.)

And it may be that pork would have caused allergic reaction to Semitic peoples; note that lamb is the least allergic of all major meats.

What is the abiding principle for us today? God cares for your body and health. Think about that the next time you drive up to a donut shop. And God wants you to be different from your fallen culture. As my youth minister once asked us, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

You can eat pork today. What can’t you do as a disciple of Jesus?