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The Language of Old

Posted by Dr. Wade Smith on

One of the struggles of Native American peoples is preserving their individual languages. Of course, language is more than words. Language embodies the culture of a people, preserving the past, shaping the future and giving meaning to the present. Language passes on the stories that tell, explain and interpret the formative events of a people. Thus, language reveals the character of a people and binds them together. When the common language and stories of a people die, the future of that people is in jeopardy.

With this in mind, the observation by Brent Strawn that the Old Testament is like a dying language caught my attention. In his book, The Old Testament is Dying, Strawn raises the concern that for many contemporary Christians the “Old Testament has ceased to function in healthy ways in their lives as sacred, authoritative, canonical literature.”

Strawn rightly argues that for Christians the Old Testament serves as a foundational document for understanding the world and the New Testament. Consequently, the death of the Old Testament would jeopardize the future of the New Testament and the people who call themselves “Christians.”

The remedy is to reclaim the language of the Old Testament by emphasizing its stories and learning its history. But, more than merely recognizing names and places, preserving Old Testament literacy means understanding its language and themes.

As an example, the language of covenant permeates the Old Testament. The Lord God entered into covenant with Abraham, promising to bless him and his descendants as the conduit through which God would bless all the peoples of the world. This covenant was renewed through Isaac and Jacob. The covenant was renewed again through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Once more, the covenant was renewed through King David. Finally, the prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant written on the hearts of men and women.

Without an understanding of the Old Testament language of covenant, we would not understand that the New Testament covenant of Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant with Abraham to bless all the peoples of the world. Through Jesus every person is invited into covenant relationship with God. And as the Old Testament gives witness, covenant relationship is the means through which God blesses, redeems and transforms lives.

Additionally, the Old Testament language of covenant reveals much about the nature and character of God. The covenant God is loving, kind, and faithful. He blesses those who honor and obey His commands. The covenant God is a gracious and generous God.

We also learn that the covenant God is patient, merciful and forgiving. When the Hebrews failed to honor their covenant with God, God still honored His covenant with them. God endures the unfaithfulness of His covenant people and allows them to suffer the consequences of their sin and rebellion. The covenant God waits patiently and responds to the cries of His people to rescue, redeem and renew covenant with them.  

The language of covenant is just one example of the importance of emphasizing the Old Testament as we seek to better understand the world and the New Testament. In a culture that speaks the language of contracts, the language of covenant offers a different way for us to consider our relationships with God and with each other.

Is the Old Testament healthy or dying in your world? May it be part of the heritage and future that you are speaking into your children.