The Old Testament may be studied as literature, as history, as the record of an important stage in the evolution of religion, as the revelation of God to the race, or as a practical aid to the individual in living the true life. Each angle of approach calls for different methods and yields its correspondingly rich results. Studied in accordance with the canons of modern literary investigation, a literature is disclosed of surpassing variety, beauty, and fascination. After the principles of historical criticism have been vigorously applied, the Old Testament is found to contain some of the most important and authentic historical data that have come down to us from antiquity. To the general student of religion there is no group of writings that equals in value those included in these ancient Scriptures. As a simple, clear revelation of the character and will of the Divine Ruler, present and regnant in all life, the Old Testament is surpassed by only one other volume, and that is its complement, the New.
[Sidenote: The supreme aim of Old Testament study]
It is, however, as the guide to right thinking, and being, and acting, that the man of God may be perfect, completely equipped for every good work, that the Old Testament is and always will be studied by the majority of people. In so doing they will be realizing its primary and supreme purpose. Like true religion, it is not an end in itself, but simply an effective force, drawing and binding individual men to God and to the right. Any method of study that fails to attain this definite and practical end does not achieve the chief aim of the Old Testament writings.
[Sidenote: Necessity of studying the Old Testament as an organic whole]
This practical and personal end, however, cannot be attained at a leap. It is impossible to achieve the best results by taking a truth or a passage here and there and applying it at once to the individual. Both the Old Testament and the individual are something organic. Each book has a unity and a history that must be understood, if a given passage is to be fairly interpreted or its truths intelligently applied, Individual books are also related to others and to their historical background. Also, as has already been shown, to appreciate fully the vital message of a given writer it is necessary, not to know his name, but his place in history, his point of view, his method of expression, and his purpose. The Old Testament and Israelitish history as a whole are the best and most essential interpreters of individual books and passages. The most serious handicap to the ordinary Bible teacher and scholar is the lack of this broader, systematic, constructive knowledge. Much earnest, devoted study, especially in the Old Testament fields, is deficient in inspiration and results, because it is simply groping in an unknown land. It is all important, therefore, to ascend some height and spy out the land as a whole, to note the relation of different books and events to each other, and to view broadly the great stream of divine revelation which flows out of the prehistoric past on through the Old and New Testaments to the present.
[Sidenote: Remarkable adaptation of the Old Testament to different ages and degrees of moral culture.]
In order effectively to apply the truths of the Old Testament to life, it is also necessary to regard the point of view of the individual to be taught. This fundamental principle of all education was fully appreciated and applied by Israel's great spiritual teachers. The result is that the Old Testament contains truths marvellously adapted to every age and type of mind. The importance of the religious culture of the child is emphasized by the comparatively large proportion, of writings especially fitted to hold the attention and arouse the imagination and shape the ideals even of the youngest. Nearly half of the Old Testament consists simply of narratives. Those inimitable stories, which come from the childhood of the race, have a perennial fascination for the child of to-day. They find him on his own mental and moral plane, as they did the primitive child, and by natural stages lead him on and up to the higher standards and broader faith of Israel's later prophets and sages, and thus prepare him to understand and appreciate the perfected life and teachings of Jesus.
[Sidenote: The prophetic stories the children's Bible]
In the modern use of the Old Testament, the faithful application of this fundamental principle also leads to a most practical conclusion; the stories peculiarly adapted to children are not the mature, legalistic narratives of the late priestly writers, but the early prophetic stories, which begin in the second chapter of Genesis. If children are taught only these, they will not be disconcerted by widely variant versions of the same events. Above all, they will be delivered from the inconsistencies and erroneous impressions which are often the cause of stumbling to the child. The later process of unlearning, which is always dangerous, will be avoided. If the problems presented by the priestly narratives be reserved until they can be studied from the broader and truer point of view, they will be readily solved, and the great positive teachings of these later didactic stories will be fully appreciated.
[Sidenote: The prophets the best story-tellers]
The subject-matter, therefore, supremely suitable for the earliest moral and spiritual culture of the child, is clearly the simple and yet profound prophetic stories of the Old Testament. It is very questionable whether the many excellent paraphrases now current are a gain or a hindrance. The ancient prophets and the generations who have retold them were inimitable story-tellers. To attempt to improve upon their work is futile. A simple, clear translation is all that is required. [Footnote: A Children's Bible is now being prepared according to the plan suggested above.] The interpretation and application of their practical teachings can best be left to the intuition of the child and the direction of the intelligent parent and teacher.
[Sidenote: Their effective methods of presenting truths]
It is also astonishing how readily even a little child appreciates the essential lessons, as, for example, those regarding the nature and consequences of sin, presented by the story of the Garden of Eden. Under the charm of the attractive personalities that figure in them, and the stirring achievements, so dramatically presented that they command breathless attention, the early prophetic narrations unconsciously and, therefore, all the more effectively, instil into the mind of the child the most essential truths regarding God and life and duty. At the same time, as they study in order the deeds of the heroes and makers of Israel's history, they are becoming familiar with the real background of the earlier revelation recorded in the Old Testament.
[Sidenote: The present position of these stories]
Therefore scattered throughout Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, and the older sections of Ezra, Nehemiah, and I Maccabees, are to be found in rich profusion the material for the earliest years of Bible study. These should naturally be supplemented by the stories of the prophets, found in such books as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Haggai. Their sequel and culmination are the corresponding stories in the Gospels and Acts.
[Sidenote: Study of the direct personal teachings of the Old Testament]
In connection with the earliest study of the achievements of Israel's heroes and spiritual leaders, many of their greatest teachings would be appropriated and applied, but when the years of early adolescence are reached, the prophets in their sermons, the priests in their laws, the usages in their proverbs, and the psalmists in their psalms, each have certain personal messages, superbly adapted to the critical, formative years, when childhood begins to unfold into maturity. To make this material available, judicious selection and interpretation are required. The organism of each book and of the child must both be carefully regarded to make the adjustment perfect. Naturally this most vital line of study would be the introduction to a corresponding study of the direct, personal teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
[Sidenote: Study of the origin and growth of the Old Testament]
This intensely practical work could profitably be preceded or followed by a study of the origin and growth of the different books and groups of Old Testament writings and the gradual stages whereby these Scriptures attained their present form and authority. The guides in this investigation should not be the Jewish rabbis or even the traditions of the Church Fathers. We have been misled too long by the pious guesses of the mediaeval saints; but rather the testimony of the Bible itself and the evidence of contemporary writings should be the guides. The spirit should also be frank and constructive. The results cannot fail to be practically helpful in a great variety of ways. Thus on the basis of facts, in the light of history, and by the use of those methods of research which alone command respect and acceptance in other kindred lines of investigation, the questions which come to every thoughtful boy and girl will be fairly and truly answered. In this way those experiences which are inevitable in this critical age will deepen and broaden rather than destroy the foundations of individual faith.
[Sidenote: The historical method of approach]
With this general introduction, many students and classes will find it profitable to approach the Old and New Testaments from the distinctively historical point of view. Beginning with the unfolding of the civilization and religion of ancient Babylonia, they will study in conjunction the history, the strong personalities, the literature, and the thought of each successive period. The advantages of this method of study are many. Each book will be read and its messages interpreted in the light of the conditions and forces that constitute its true background. The different characters will live again, and the significance of their work and words will be fully appreciated as they are viewed in the clear perspective of history.
[Sidenote: Its practical aims and results]
Above all, such a synthetic study of the unfolding of the supreme truths of revelation lays a foundation for the individual faith as broad as human experience. This is to attain one of the chief aims of all study, which is to put the individual into practical possession of all that is vital and best in the experiences and achievements of the past, that, thus equipped, he may go forth to fight the battle of life, valiantly and successfully.
[Sidenote: Its natural sequel]
This last course of study would call for several years, and, more than that, for enthusiasm, devotion, and real work. It would also take the student in time through the New Testament period, with its literature and commanding personalities and events, and perhaps beyond to the great epochs of Church history. Many would not stop until they had studied the latest chapter in Church history, the noble missionary activity and achievement of the past and present century.
[Sidenote: Advances courses of study]
When the Bible had thus been studied, the scholars in our schools would not be ready to graduate, but rather to enter upon that still deeper and more fundamental study which would mean an ultimate conquest of the broad field that it represents. Then it might be safe and profitable to adopt the topical method and study some one of the vital themes that are treated from many different points of view in the various parts of the Bible.
[Sidenote: Study of Old Testament history]
It will, however, probably be found easier and more natural next to take up in succeeding years the detailed study of the nine or ten great groups of writings which are found in the Bible. The natural and easiest method of approach to those of the Old Testament would be through a careful, constructive study of the history of the Israelitish race, perhaps beginning with the definite historical period of Saul and Samuel and concluding with the advent of Rome. Far better than any modern history of Israel is that marvellous history written by its own historians, which begins with the book of Samuel and ends with I Maccabees. Analyzed and arranged in their chronological order, these narratives tell the story with rare fascination and suggestiveness. [Footnote: Volume II of the "Student's Old Testament": contains the narratives from Samuel through I Maccabees, thus arranged.]
[Sidenote: Study of the prophecies and earlier narratives]
On the basis of this detailed study of the historical background, the work and teachings of the prophets could next be traced in their true and chronological order. No Old Testament field is more neglected and none is more intensely interesting, when once the student understands the problems and aims of each great prophet. None has a more practical message for to-day, provided its supreme truths are interpreted into modern terms and conditions. After becoming intimately acquainted with the Hebrew prophets, it would be possible to go back and study with a new understanding and appreciation the early narratives which gather about the beginnings of Hebrew history. Then the intricate problems of the first eight books of the Bible would vanish in the light of a fuller knowledge. Above all, that which is essential and permanent would stand out in clear relief.
[Sidenote: Study of the devotional literature]
From the earliest fruits of prophetic activity it would then be profitable to turn to the later, represented by Lamentations and the Psalter. Here the best results require a classification of the different psalms according to their themes, so that their teachings can be studied systematically and as a whole. In this field of study the student comes very close to the heart of the Old Testament and the heart of the God who speaks through it.
[Sidenote: Study of the wisdom literature]
Less spiritual and yet intensely interesting and practical is the great department of the Old Testament known as the wisdom literature. He that walketh with the wise shall be wise (Prov. xiii.20) is as true to-day as when first uttered. This literature is a great mine of truth, almost entirely neglected by the Christian world. Systematic classification is the first requisite for the profitable study of the Proverbs and the later Wisdom of Ben Sira. From these the student may pass on to the fuller treatment of the omnipresent human problem, so sublimely presented in the book of Job, and to the many fundamental questions raised by Eccleslastes and the Wisdom of Solomon.
[Sidenote: Study of the Old Testament laws and institutions]
Last of all a year might well be spent in the study of the unfolding and concrete application and illustration of Israel's ethical and religious principles in the legal codes and institutions of the Old Testament. Many of these have found a higher expression, some are but symbolic, but others still have permanent authority and value. Studied as a whole and on the basis of a logical classification, this little understood field would also cease to be a jungle, and Instead would yield its own practical spiritual fruits.