Rev Dr Kris Sonek OP, Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at Catholic Theological College (CTC), wants to challenge the way we view the Old Testament. While many people, including some people of faith, might dismiss the Old Testament as violent and outdated, Dr Sonek is keen to introduce readers to the great riches of these foundational texts. As part of Catholic Theological College’s upcoming Engaging Your Faith series, he will be presenting a webinar that he hopes will prompt participants to reassess their prejudices about the Old Testament while helping them to unlock and better appreciate its treasures.
‘The Old Testament has an image problem for many people,’ he concedes. ‘It seems both boring and barbaric; the story is bloody and far removed from modern problems and challenges.’
Contributing to this perception is the fact that many people’s exposure to the Old Testament has been partial and haphazard. ‘We listen to the Old Testament in a liturgical context, usually during Mass,’ he points out. ‘However, more often than not, the Old Testament readings are taken out of context, so there is little continuity from day to day, let alone from Sunday to Sunday.’
This problem is often exacerbated by a lack of instruction on how to understand and interpret these sometimes baffling passages, he says. ‘There is seldom any introduction or explanation of Old Testament texts given in the Church. Most priests focus on the gospel rather than on the first reading from the Old Testament.’
Some people will persevere and decide to read through the Old Testament on their own, although this approach can present challenges of its own. New readers will often make a good start, only to run into trouble a few books in.
‘The stories in the book of Genesis, the first biblical book, are a bit perplexing but, on the whole, interesting. The second biblical book, Exodus, has a similar feel,’ Dr Sonek says. But by the third book, Leviticus, readers can find themselves stumped by passages such as the one in which the author instructs readers to ‘offer from the sacrifice of well-being, as an offering by fire to the Lord, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is around the entrails; the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the appendage of the liver’ (Leviticus 3:3–4).
At this point, Dr Sonek says, even the most well-intentioned readers might ask themselves whether this is ‘really Holy Scripture—the Word of God to inspire us—or just an ancient cookbook’.
If you have had this experience, he says, you are not alone. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. Afterall, the experiences that deepen and develop our faith and knowledge the most are often those that stretch us the most, and Dr Sonek believes that there are good reasons, both religious and cultural, for taking the task of reading the Old Testament seriously. Far from being boring or frustrating, an exploration of the Old Testament can be enlightening and even exhilarating when we are equipped with good tools and a better understanding of what we are doing.
One important reason to take up (or persist with) reading the Old Testament, Dr Sonek, says is that God speaks through these texts. If we take seriously the Church’s conviction that Scripture is the inspired word of God, then we should expect to hear God speak to us through all the books of the Bible, including those of the Old Testament.
‘There are passages that contain sublime theology,’ Dr Sonek says, citing the Psalms and Book of Isaiah as examples. ‘There are also passages that speak of God in a way we would label as “primitive”,’ he says—such as Judges. ‘However, this allows us to see how the understanding of who God is and what God does develops in the Old Testament.’
He also points out that to understand the New Testament fully, we need to understand the Old Testament. ‘When Jesus speaks in the gospels, he very often alludes to Old Testament texts,’ he says, ‘and his words should always be interpreted in the context of the Old Testament, which was the Scripture of Jesus at the time.’
The same goes for understanding the outlook of the early Church. We sometimes forget that the New Testament was written only gradually, Dr Sonek says, and that ‘the Holy Book of the first generation of Christians was the Old Testament’ (called ‘the Septuagint’ in the Greek translation).
The Old Testament also asks and answers some of our most basic existential questions. Written over hundreds of years and including the voices of many authors in a variety of genres, it covers a lot of ground when it come to the human condition and our relationship with God. As Dr Sonek points out, the books of the Old Testament raise and respond to many of the important questions that have long fascinated humanity: What is the meaning of life? Why do we suffer? What happens after death? How can we live happy lives?
There are also important cultural reasons to engage seriously with the Old Testament and to become familiar with its stories and imagery, Dr Sonek argues, since it plays an important role in the history of Western culture.
‘Many past and present writers, thinkers and artists have been steeped in the language and imagery of the Bible,’ he says. ‘It is impossible to fully understand Western literature, art and music without at least a basic familiarity with biblical and Old Testament themes.’ Moreover, its cultural significance is ongoing, he says, with the Old Testament continuing to influence art, film, literature and theology, which in turn ‘influence the way we think and act, and the way we understand ourselves and the world around us.’
With all these good reasons to explore the Old Testament, what are some of the ways we can make the task more interesting and fruitful?
Dr Sonek suggests that readers of the Old Testament equip themselves with widely accessible tools such as a study Bible, biblical commentaries and biblical dictionaries. He says a good start might also be to explore some of the helpful ‘Bible videos’ that can be found on YouTube and that present biblical books and themes in an easy and engaging way. And, of course, attending his upcoming webinar would be a great way to get the ball rolling and to pick up some pointers on how to get the most out of reading the Old Testament.
Dr Sonek hopes that participants will come away understanding that the Old Testament is a living document and can’t just be dismissed as a relic of the past. ‘There is no doubt that it speaks about the past,’ he says. ‘But in the hands of intelligent and sensitive readers, it can actually become a source of inspiration and a blueprint for the future.’
‘Reading the Old Testament’ with Rev Dr Kris Sonek OP will be presented online on Wednesday 18 October at 7.30pm, as part of CTC’s upcoming Engaging your Faith series of short, online presentations.
Presented by experienced CTC lecturers on a variety of topics such as philosophy, spirituality, biblical studies, Christian meditation, theology, interfaith relations, and issues in science and religion, the Engaging Your Faith series will invite participants to reflect on what it means to be people of faith in the contemporary world.
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