Obstacles to Understanding the Old Testament

obstacles to understanding the old testamentI am currently reading Time Travel to the Old Testament, which is an accessible introduction to the Old Testament by Chris Sinkinson. His goal is to help readers engage with the Old Testament as a Christian text—a shared goal we have here at LiveAGreaterStory.com.

Early in the book, Sinkinson lists several obstacles for the normal reader to overcome in reading and understanding the Old Testament. The list is his (from pages 18–21), but the descriptions are mine.


For those of us reading the Bible in the Western Hemisphere, the stories of the Old Testament happened half a world away. And, since they happened several millennia in the past, the stories often refer to locations now lost to history. By spending time learning biblical geography, we can gain a better understanding of where these stories take place.

Legal Codes

Every Christian reading the Old Testament must engage with the numerous religious and moral laws put on Israel in the Pentateuch. We need to see how they fit within the storyline of the Old Testament, as well as in the greater Christian story.

Barbarity and Violence

One of the most common charges against the Bible is the apparent violence condoned and commanded by God in the Old Testament. A Christian reader needs to engage these issues: how to reconcile the behavior of God’s people in the two testaments, how to view these commands by God in the Old Testament, and how to view violence in light of the Cross.


The Hebrew poetry contained in the Old Testament are of a substantially different genre than other forms of poetry with which we might be familiar. It takes some time—and guidance—to learn what the authors are trying to accomplish with Hebrew poetry.

Complexity of Old Testament History

There is a lot going on in the Old Testament: hundreds of characters, several wars, and the rising and falling of empires. Surveys of the Old Testament help sort through the myriad stories and information to reveal the storyline.

Odd Behavior of Old Testament Heroes

The Old Testament provides an unvarnished look at most characters, at times even going to great lengths to highlight their weaknesses. Christian readers of the Old Testament need to reconcile the sinfulness of the Old Testament characters with their flashes of obedience and faithfulness to God.

I think Sinkinson has done a fine job of noting some of the main obstacles facing Christians reading the Old Testament. I would just add two more that I think are crucial:

Ancient Context of the Old Testament

When we read the Old Testament, we are reading the stories, poems, and history of a very different world. The concerns of the ancient Israelite authors were not always the concerns we are thinking about in a modern/post-modern world. A commentary devoted to the Old Testament culture can help readers gain more insight into the world of the Old Testament.

Modern Assumptions of the Old Testament

The flip side of the previous obstacle, this one concerns how our culture can influence our understanding of the Old Testament. So our reading of the story of Noah can be shaped by movies, attempts to build a replica of the ark, and even nursery decorations! These influences create preconceived ideas of what the text says, even if these images are not rooted in the text themselves. Only by reading the Old Testament with fresh eyes can we start to break down these preconceived notions.

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have you Subscribed via RSS yet? Don't miss a post!