Why the Old Testament is as relevant as ever to the modern world

Trinity College Theological School’s Bromby Senior Lecturer in Old Testament, Dr Rachelle Gilmour, explains how the Old Testament draws parallels to this new world we find ourselves living in.

The Old Testament has never been so relevant. It covers plagues, detailed regulations for hand washing, community quarantines, and enforced periods of ‘rest’ in which normal work is not allowed. Aspects of the Old Testament that may have seemed so foreign just a few months ago, have now also become major concerns in our daily lives.

But the Old Testament has always been relevant, filled with narratives, poetry and prophecy that strike to the heart of human experience – especially the experience of those who have a sense of God but don’t always know how, why or where this God should be worshipped.

One of the dominating events in the Old Testament is the ‘exile’, when the people of Israel were conquered by a neighbouring empire: their temple destroyed, their community structures abandoned, and many of the people taken from their homes to live forcibly in a foreign land. From this context, the Old Testament gives us the language of lament: words for the unimaginable grief that overtakes so many; words that bring us back full circle to a faith in God even in the unknown.

The Old Testament also provides wonderful songs of joy and hope, even through difficult times. There are words of tender comfort from God to the people; words of joyous praise in the psalms of the people sung to and about God; and beautiful visions of a restored future. Joy and hope are expressed, even in times of very real darkness.

Finally, the Old Testament challenges us in our ethical responsibility and faithfulness to our creator. In the face of impending disaster, the prophets call on the people not to wander from their God. They exhort the people to social justice and critique the reigning establishment. The looming threat of judgment in the form of exile prompts the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah to exhort:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean

remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

learn to do good;

seek justice,

rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

We are not the first generation to ask, ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘What do we do now?’; and even, ‘God, why are you doing this to us?’ We are not the first generation in which the suffering of others flows from exploitation by a few. Attention to the riches of the Old Testament allows us to hear the voice of the God of Jesus Christ as it was heard by many generations.

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