Praying with the Old Testament

“…Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad. Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” – John 8:56, 58

With these words, recounted in John’s gospel, Jesus startles the crowd with whom he speaks by claiming the status of divinity. He speaks of himself as an eternal being, not bound by the constraints of mortal time. He similarly speaks of himself as the fulfillment of the long-awaited hope of the people of Israel, going all the way back to their forefather Abraham.

Understanding the relationship between the New Testament and the Old can be very challenging. It has been a challenge for Christians from the first centuries of the Church; deep misunderstandings gave rise to some of the tropes of various historical heresies, which often still impact our thinking about God and scripture today.

But the whole of scripture is a gift from God. Though it can be daunting and challenging, engaging with the Old Testament as a wellspring of prayer can illumine truths about God, the Church, and ourselves, in ways we may never expect. This article will explore several ways that readers today might draw from the Old Testament treasures both old and new.

Encountering God in the Old Testament

“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” This doxology, in its various translations, is one of the single most common prayers offered throughout the entirety of the Church. It is a refrain chanted throughout the daily cycle of the Brothers’ common prayer. It’s quite a short statement, densely packed with fundamental Christian theology: praise is offered, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is declared, and the eternal existence, presence, and glory of God is proclaimed.

This is instructive for us, as we can look at this doxology and begin to understand the Christian belief about the nature of God. If the Holy Trinity, one God, is eternal, we can look to the Old Testament and expect to find signs of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, at work in the world and in the stories of God’s chosen people.

And this is what we find when we look into the Old Testament. From the first chapter of Genesis, it is God’s Spirit rushing over chaos at the creation of the world. The prophetic vision of the Ancient of Days and the One like a Son of Man in Daniel 7 is universally held by the Church to describe a vision of God the Son. Psalm 139 speaks of one’s inability to flee from God, in which the psalmist asks, “Where can I go then, from your Spirit?” The prophetic literature repeatedly mentions God’s Spirit being put upon the prophets, and those whom they anoint, as an indication of God’s blessing, protection, and power dwelling within a person. It should not surprise us to learn that the inspiration for the Rublev icon of the Trinity – perhaps the single most famous depiction of the Holy Trinity – is taken from an episode in Genesis 18, when heavenly beings (sometimes described in singular, sometimes as three beings) visit Abraham and Sarah to promise them a son, Isaac.

Most fascinating to me, though, is the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament. She is praised as one to desire, follow, and chase after. She is also described as creating the world alongside God, begotten of God but before all things, a being of simultaneous power and delight in Creation. The Church has long associated this figure with Christ, particularly as seen in the description in John’s gospel of the Logos, or in English, the Word. Listen to the words of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth … When [the LORD] established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Compare this with the prologue to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Both these terms, Wisdom and Logos, refer to a being that may be described as the ordering principle or agent of existence, both from the beginning of creation and into the present, continually guiding and shaping the order of existence. The names themselves, Wisdom and Logos (from which we get our word, logic), share similar meanings. The description of Wisdom as a desirable bride matches well with the description of Christ as a bridegroom. Our understanding that this figure of Wisdom is not some mysterious other being, some bit part in the heavenly drama, but the very same Christ – the eternal Logos, present from the beginning, dwelling with the God from whom he was begotten – begins to illumine a real sense of the eternity of the Trinity. Through careful reading, we see that the Trinity is not some Christian invention, but rather a continuation of the theology for God revealed in the Old Testament.

This understanding opens an invitation for our prayer. Prayer may be many things, but it must include some acknowledgment, some recognition, of the presence of God. Prayer is, first and foremost, about encounter.  When we behold these truths and remember the doxology proclaimed so universally throughout the Church, which affirms the eternal reality and glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we can begin to glimpse that glory, and in beholding, offer that prayer all the more.

Types and Symbols for the Church

Encountering God’s presence in the stories and events of the Old Testament assures us of God’s eternity through the past. But the Old Testament is not solely a documentation of past events. The longed-for hope of God’s victory and salvation is a recurring theme of the Old Testament scriptures; for Christians, this serves to point us back to the truths of the New Testament, and chiefly, the central hope expressed in the Gospel of Christ. This way of reading has been called “typology” throughout the history of the Church. Typology finds in the Old Testament early “types” or symbols for truths that are further expounded in the New Testament. A typological understanding of the Old Testament can provide helpful context and imagery that may enrich or renew our entry into these truths. In my own experience, well-trod parables and passages of the New Testament can become dry, and the infusion of the typology of the Old Testament can bring new and exciting life to truths that have become dulled through repetition. Let’s look at a few examples from the Old Testament to see how they may point us toward the message of Christ’s Gospel, perhaps even with greater understanding.

One of the most well-known types of the Old Testament is found in Isaiah 6, a prophetic vision of the Temple. In this vision, Isaiah beholds seraphim in the presence of God, chanting a song of God’s holiness and glory. The temple fills with smoke, and Isaiah laments, for he has seen God even though he has sinned and has “unclean lips,” and so is in terror. But a seraph takes a burning coal and touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips, and declares that Isaiah’s guilt is no more. These images were, for the Church, clear types pointing to the Eucharist. The song of the seraphim became a Eucharistic hymn, still used today, and the symbol of fire (as the presence of God that purges away the sins of the penitent and restores them to holiness) remains a potent and enlivening symbol of what Christians do and experience in taking communion. In this understanding, the Eucharist is not merely a shared meal, not merely the special privilege of the already-holy, but also a comfort to those who grieve their sins, burning brightly with the love and mercy of God. Further, just as Isaiah is now prepared and urged to speak prophetically to the world, so too are we dismissed at the end of the Eucharist to love and serve God, each of us commissioned for prophetic witness in our own world.

Another famous type in the Old Testament is in Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. This is a disturbing story for many, and difficult to understand in light of proclamations of God’s love. But when we see this near-sacrifice of Isaac as a symbol, pointing to the sacrifice of Christ, we might begin to understand. “Look,” the story seems to say, “look with fear and trembling at the horror of sacrificing a child. Behold the faith of both Abraham and Isaac in this story. Trust in these grim moments that God will provide the sacrifice. Trust that God knows the pain of your own sacrifices, for this too is a Father who has offered his Son.” This is how we may understand the stories that disturb us; when we look on the suffering, the self-emptying, the sacrifice of Christ, we can begin to understand anew the anguish of such a thing.

A third example comes in the story of Jael, found in Judges 4 and 5. This is a less well-known story, but one that has both the power to disturb and the power to offer clarity. Deborah, a judge of Israel, and Baruch, her general, lead an army against the Canaanites, led by the general Sisera. The Israelites are victorious, but Sisera flees and escapes, finding the tent of Jael and her husband, with whom he is allied. Jael, an Israelite herself, welcomes Sisera into her tent, where he falls asleep. Upon his falling asleep, Jael takes a tent peg and hammers it through his skull, killing him. When Deborah and Baruch learn of this, Deborah praises Jael and sings a song of the Israelites’ triumph over their enemies. This is challenging. The violence of the story, the subterfuge, the deceit, are difficult to embrace. But a few words in Deborah’s song give us more: Deborah, in praising Jael, refers to her as “blessed among women.”

This is not a common phrase in scripture; it only occurs three times. First, in the song of Deborah. Second, in the book of Judith, whose story is so similar to Jael’s that some scholars regard Judith as a sort of novelization of the older story of Jael. And third, in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, at the visitation of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. This last example, at first glance, seems like the odd one out; the visitation is a joyous story of new life and reconciliation, not one of death and strife. But Luke borrows this familiar phrase deliberately; he is comparing the victory of Deborah and Jael to the joy of Elizabeth and Mary. Like Deborah with Baruch, Elizabeth maintained the strength of faith in the face of Zechariah’s doubt, and they were given a son, John the Baptist. This triumph of faith then gives way to the more hidden, less expected, and greater, more final victory of Mary and her bearing of Christ. Through a subtle linguistic call-back, Mary is positioned not as a docile and passive participant, but as a victor, who, through clever cunning, undermined and defeated the head of the armies who threatened God’s people, just as Jael did. This inversion of expectations, this proclamation of victory in surprising ways, serves to flesh out the theology of the Incarnation. It is not just a joyful surprise, but a great triumph in the battle for God’s people and the whole creation.

This typological understanding of the Old Testament has been a major stream of the theology of the Church from the earliest days. More recently, this method has fallen out of favor to some degree in the Western Church. Concerns of misappropriating Jewish identity as an exercise of anti-Semitism are significant, and come from an admirable place. There are various modern practices – such as so-called Christian seders, the use of the shofar (increasingly common in evangelical circles), and even various hymns in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 that appropriate medieval Jewish and later Hasidic music for Christian worship – which come from more benign intentions while yielding deeply inappropriate results, representing a colonization of Jewish identity and religious practice. These practices are very clearly not “ours” as Christians. Conversely, the Old Testament scriptures, and our finding the truths of Christianity within them, stem from the maelstrom of conflict and honest disagreement within Israelite religion in the first century. With the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, only two branches of this religion were left standing in any significant numbers: the Pharisees, becoming what we now call Rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity. This resulted in intense conflict that spanned the next few centuries, and this conflict became severe persecution lasting more than a millennium, beginning shortly after the Roman Empire’s adoption of Christianity. We can, and should, lament this evil. But we shouldn’t lament honest disagreement about truth and meaning; indeed, approaching these disagreements with both honesty and charity is how genuine, abiding respect, rather than a distant and polite tolerance, can be forged between those who disagree. And embracing the Church’s own interpretation of the Old Testament without turning it into a cudgel to harm others is a way for Christians to embrace the genuine Israelite roots of our religion without crudely colonizing the religious expression of our Jewish siblings. There is no Church without the Old Testament; it is the story of how the Church has understood itself, as heirs of the covenant, and so as ones who can learn from the stories of the ancient Israelites in their own striving after God.

Stories for the People of God

The Old Testament contains meaningful stories of God’s work in the world, and meaningful signs that gesture toward the fundamental truths of Christianity expressed in the New Testament. Likewise, the Old Testament can be made our own; the stories of God’s people in the past can help us understand our own lives, both as individuals and as the Church.

In his poem, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne, the Elizabethan-era priest and poet, speaks of himself as a town, held by an enemy and longing to be conquered, liberated, retaken by God. In his book, War Songs of the Prince of Peace, our principle founder, Richard Benson, writes of the psalms, “if we recognize Christ as the true Psalmist … the abstract and earthly idea of deliverance from enemies is transformed into the Personal consciousness of the triumphant Redeemer.” Both of these understandings illumine one possible way of approaching these stories of old, of battles and wars and monarchs and prophets: we may begin to think of ourselves, as individuals and as the Church, as the holy land, the temple, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God. When we understand ourselves in that way, much of the violence of the Old Testament that is so initially off-putting can be a real reflection of our own strife.

There is one story in 1 Kings 18, of the prophet Elijah, where he competes with the prophets of Baal to see whose God can set a pyre ablaze and prove who is more powerful. Elijah is the lone prophet of the Lord, while there are hundreds of prophets of Baal. Elijah’s God is the victor. Up until this point, the story is relatively benign, if a bit fantastical, to modern ears. But then, Elijah has the spectating crowd seize the prophets of Baal, and put them to death. This is far more challenging. But if we see the land and people of ancient Israel as analogous to ourselves, we can begin to look deeper.

If we speak of our own inner lives, the striking violence here becomes a clarion call. The SSJE Rule calls the Brothers to “ruthless self-examination” in all areas of our life. As we wrestle with our own inner complexity, we can draw strength and comfort from imagery like that found in this scene: the firm faith of the singular prophet, victorious against the idolatrous crowd, itself suggestive of the many voices we may hear within our own hearts day by day. The encouragement, then, comes from Elijah’s actions: to extinguish these voices which draw us to our idols, whatever they may be, and to hold ourselves to account. The promise here is that God will not abandon us, even when we feel outmatched and the circumstances seem dire. By trusting in God, and extinguishing the false flames of the many temptations we may face, our pyre will burn brightly, for all the onlookers to see.

Similarly, an interpretation might be given not for our own personal sins, but for the body of the Church. We are no strangers to the scandals of abuse that have rocked Christian institutions; here we may learn from the uncompromising and confident faith of the prophets, who so regularly held their own people, their own political and religious leaders, to account. They did not do much looking outward, at foreign peoples, but rather focused their attention inward, on their own, so that the offering of the people of God would be a pure one. We too can learn from this, faithful to Christ’s teaching to pluck the log from our own eyes before we judge the speck in the eyes of others. This is the prophetic voice the Church needs in every age. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that we may learn to speak prophetically by looking to the example of the prophets.

Go and learn what this means

The Old Testament scriptures are, in many ways, deeply foreign to the contemporary Christian’s life. But this distance should not dissuade us from engaging; it should encourage us. It is our very lack of familiarity with these texts that can make them such a promising avenue for the voice of the Spirit to awaken us through our reading. The shocking circumstances of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection should confirm to us again and again the need to be challenged, surprised, and disabused of the same expectations we may bring. Delving into the scripture that Jesus himself used in his own prayer, even in his dying breath, may take us to places we didn’t expect, and in doing so, draw us nearer to the One in whom we dwell. If we are prepared to recognize it, the Old Testament can be a ripe opportunity to sit at the feet of our teacher, listening to the word of the one who has spoken from the beginning.

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