The Greatest Story Ever Told?

The Old Testament

Clergy Letter for September, by the Rev’d Derwyn Williams

I wonder: what do you think makes a good story? What makes a tale that grips your attention and makes you come back to it time and time again?

If the soap operas are anything to go by, key ingredients might be romance, conflict, love, loyalty, lust and loss, with a sprinkling of sex, violence and betrayal to spice things up. These elements seem to keep millions of faithful viewers interested for decades. And they are features you’ll find in the novels and films that captivate those people for whom Emmerdale or Hollyoaks are a foreign country. Someone once said that there are only 7 kinds of story – overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth – and all the stories ever told just mix them up in different ways. They’re certainly all there in the scriptures.

I’ve been spending the last three months immersed in the Old Testament (OT), learning some Hebrew, reading the text of the Hebrew Bible, and studying scholarly books about Old Testament Theology. It’s been an immense privilege for which I am very grateful.

It’s taught me all sorts of lessons, which I hope will filter into my preaching, praying and teaching in time to come. Top among them has been a desire simply to make the OT better known. It really is the most incredible story – filled with all those elements which make soap operas compelling – and many more. The romance of Ruth and Boaz, the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, the love of Hosea for Gomer. The loyalty of Elijah and David’s lust for Bathsheba and betrayal of Uriah. If you want a good read, there’s nothing better. And even if Eastenders runs for another 30 years, I really don’t think it will match the long-term popularity of Genesis (and I don’t mean the band). For the OT doesn’t just tell us an infinitely intricate and fascinating human story (though it surely does): the OT also tells us how God’s hand is upon that story at every stage. You see, as well as having great stories, the OT is part of a grand overarching story – of which you and I can be a part, if we wish.

Though the OT comes from a different culture and may be hard to understand, it can be helpful to see the OT as Acts 1 to 3 of a six-Act drama. The Old Testament gives us Act 1: ‘Creation’, Act 2: ‘Fall’ and Act 3: ‘God’s salvation begins through Israel’. The New Testament carries on this story with Act 4: ‘God’s salvation is completed in Jesus’, Act 5: ‘The Church lives in the Spirit’ and finally Act 6: ‘God consummates everything in the new heavens and new earth’. Understanding which Act of the drama you’re reading about is key to interpreting the different strands of scripture, and drawing appropriate lessons for Christian living. For example, the OT laws about not eating shellfish and not wearing mixed fibres apply to Act 3, where God is calling a distinct nation, Israel. He wants them to serve him in visible holiness and purity, which he defines in Leviticus. In Act 5 (where we are now living) the principle of God’s people being holy and pure remains – the church is a new Israel. But particular laws which were key in Act 3 have had their day, and need to be interpreted in that light. So Christians can eat prawn cocktail and wear cotton-polyester clothes with a clear conscience! But we still need to ask how we shall live with distinctiveness, if we too are to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

There’s so much that could be said about the OT – and I hope I’ll find the right moments to share some of it. But why not take a dip into it yourself? Dig out that children’s Bible and re-familiarise yourself with some of the great stories. Or take a plunge into the full text: Ruth, Jonah and the Joseph stories (Genesis 37-50) are manageable places to start. Or maybe your home group would like to take an OT theme – ‘Abraham’ by Meg Warner could be a starting point, or ‘Joseph’ by Sara Savage. Both those books are good for individual reflection too. Perhaps as congregations (and preachers!) we should try to make sure we really focus on Sunday OT readings and not just the Gospel (note to self!). One way or another, might we hear afresh the wonderful story of the Old Testament – the indispensable beginning of the greatest story ever told?


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