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The Old Testament Made Accessible, Relevant, and Theological...for Today
In the 2011 I helped form and lead an alternative ministry school for an urban church ministering in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our vision was to create a Bible school for people who wanted to serve in ministry, but either couldn't afford Bible college or didn't have the necessary academic background for it.
We formed a four-part module experience that included Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, and practical ministry. I'm pleased we had ten fine graduates that first year!
Part of the success of our alternative ministry education experiment was due to the textbooks we used for each module. I know from student testimony that our Old Testament module was a hit with the twenty-somethings because of John H. Walton's and Andrew E. Hill's Old Testament Today.
That's no small feat! Because as the authors write, many who come to the Old Testament as students are "frustrated by its laws, bored by its history, or confused by its prophecy" and have "written off the Old Testament as irrelevant to the modern world," concluding that "the God of the Old Testament is a tyrant." (9)
Next week Tuesday this unique textbook among Old Testament surveys releases as a newly revised second edition. Given my teaching experience, I am certain this new edition will continue to help make the Hebrew Scriptures exciting for a new generation for three crucial reasons:
Old Testament Today (2nd Edition) makes the Old Testament accessible, relevant, and theological...for today. Which is why, from one ministry and academic practitioner to another, you should use this book.
The Old Testament Made Accessible
The authors wonder if the Old Testament "has been largely lost to the church" because "people simply don't know what to do with it." (xiii) And the reason they don't know what to do with it is because its teachers often fail to make its ancient customs, mores, laws, and history reachable and attainable to its students. Walton and Hill remedy this situation.
They begin with a helpful orientation to the big story line of the Old Testament with a flyover view of the major events of the children of Israel. From there a helpful discussion on genre, cultural backgrounds, ancient near eastern history, and the nature of writing and books helps further orient your students so they can access the Hebrew story.
Perhaps the most important way Walton and Hill make the Old Testament accessible, however, is in their use of outlines, timelines, charts, key plotline terms, and maps. These pedagogical devices reduce the complexities of the Old Testament into manageable, bite-sized chuncks of information that are easily digestible by your eager students.
This user-friendliness helps the authors fulfill one of their promises: "Students will not be overwhelmed by names and dates, but in contrast will be impressed with the way the Old Testament uniquely reveals the God of the universe." (xiv)
The Old Testament Made Relevant
One of the reasons this textbook sings is because every section concludes with a "Relevance and Application" chapter. Because this is an Old Testament for today, Walton and Hill go to great lengths to make it relevant to your students' lives, and help them make it relevant for others, too.
For instance, in the chapter on the Pentateuch one heading asks "What are all of these laws doing in my Bible if the Law is obsolete?" The authors helpfully walk your student through a "principle of transfer," in which they take the specific ancient laws and "make a cultural transfer to formulate a general principle about what the law reveals about God to us," for today. (124)
Later in "Prophetic Literature Today," Walton and Hill help your students apply the indictments of Israel's prophets and understand why they are as relevant today as they were for the ancients. They identify five major categories of indictments "that God hates or those attitudes and actions that displease him": unfaithfulness to God; oppression of the defenseless; devaluing, depreciating, degrading, demeaning deity; misplaced reliance; and confused priorities. (300-306)
It is a challenge for any teacher to help connect the ancient world to our modern world, yet Walton and Hill do so in a way that maintains the integrity of the original text and makes that text incredibly relevant today.
The Old Testament Made Theological
Walton and Hill maintain, "For the Old Testament, the most important big picture is not a historical one; it is a theological one." (12) We help students study the Old Testament not for its history, but for its picture of God and the answers it provides their burning questions about this God.
Walton and Hill expose your students to this God theologically, rather than merely historically, by tracing the story line and plotline of the Hebrew Scriptures:
The story line will trace the content; the plotline will trace the message. In the end, it offers us a worldview—an understanding of God and ourselves. A story line is made up of an array of facts; a plotline is made up of an array of convictions. The objective of the story line is to let the reader know what happened; the objective of the plotline is to persuade the reader what to believe.
This distinction between content and message, facts and convictions, happenings and beliefs is an important one. Because the guiding conviction of this textbook is that the God of history is what's important, not history's facts.
This conviction shines particularly bright in the narrative section. Each narrative book contain a "purpose" section in addition to the expected "story line" section in order to plumb the theological depths of the Hebrew Scriptures For instance, Walton and Hill explain the purpose of Esther shows "that God can accomplish his purpose just as easily through 'coincidencees' as he can through grand miracles of deliverance." (227) And for the book on the Moabite, "The purpose of Ruth is to show that when people are faithful, God is faithful." (203)
"Biblical narrative literature is not simply a record of or discussion of the past," the authors write. "It is God's revelation of himself. Do you want to know God? Listen to his story." (231)
This posture toward the Old Testament is probably what I appreciate most about Walton's and Hill's book: They help students of the Hebrew Scriptures listen to God's story in order to know God Himself, while doing so in a way that's incredibly accessible and obviously relevant to their 21st century lives.
Those twenty-something graduates of our urban ministry school know the God revealed through the Old Testament far better having interacted with Old Testament Today, and so will your students.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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