How to read the Old Testament?


I do not believe that ‘all of’ the Old Testament is literal but metaphorical. Likewise (like many people) I do not place much value on the mentions of ‘rape’ ‘incest’ or ‘gratuitous violence’.
But some bits ARE wise…like some of what Solomon has to say in his songs. And Jesus said he was there to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament, not destroy them.

But with such a mixture of good things and garbage, how to know when you can trust a piece of Old Testament as ‘important’ infomation or a useful piece of wisdom concerning God’s word (with His almighty stamp of approval!) or whether its a curious opinion from a strange (to us) brutal culture?


There is no such thing as “garbage” in God’s divinely inspired word… There are passages which its inherent meaning is harder to come by because of the cultural differences we have with the inspired authors, but nonetheless are God’s message to us.

There aren’t that many passages of violence throughout the OT, people tend to over-emphasize very small bits where that does happen (in percentage, it’s in about 3.4% of all versicles, if I remember correctly), but their meaning is ultimately coherent to the fulfilled Gospel. To have a full (or, at least, a bigger) understanding of these parts of Scripture, we could follow Origen’s advice to see these passages from the perspective of the Lamb, whose book locked with seven seals can only be open by the Lamb itself (I’m referencing the Book of Apocalypse, where this is said). This is more elaborated in this video.

Furthermore, check what exact type of book are you reading. The Bible is a library of sorts, not a book, so don’t treat it like it. All books are usually written by different authors, in different times, with different intentions. Treat each one individually. Don’t treat Genesis the same way you would treat the Chronicles, or Job the same way you would to Isaiah. There are books (like Isaiah) which are not directly intentioned to be read cover to cover because it’s not structured in that manner, while others (like Job) required you to do just that to make any sense of it - you get tottally different pictures if you just read the first 3 chapters of Job, than if you read the first 12, 30, or the whole 42 - the narrative develops in a linear manner, and things only start to make sense towards the end, having in mind what you’ve read up to that point.

These are just basic guidelines, but I hope I helped minimally. Any more specific questions, and I’ll see if I can answer them! :thumbsup:


I think Fr. Barron does a lot of justice to this particular subject. It’s also important to keep in mind (it is for me, anyway) that the literal historical nature of many of these things is not what is of primary importance in the OT. But just because you don’t read Genesis (for instance) to gather your scientific opinions of the world around you does not mean that God didn’t breathe these Words for a specific purpose in the plan of salvation. That’s the big thing to keep in mind: everything that is in the Bible is there because God knows that it will draw people closer to reconciliation with Him, even if it doesn’t make sense to you personally.

I think a good example of this is Lot’s wife in Genesis. As Sodom was facing its own fate, Lot and his family were told to not look back, but flee. Lagging behind, she looked back at Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. Now, the important message that we, as pilgrims, take away from this narrative is that this is a story about sin and the importance of its total, uncompromising rejection. When you turn around, look back at the world of sin you’ve left behind you in regret and indecision, then your foothold in the struggle is jeopardized. You could look at the story in a hyper-literal sense, and your takeaway may be that God is capricious and vengeful. But that wouldn’t be correct.

The important thing is that there are spiritual messages to be found, even if they don’t always seem totally apparent. Try to read with nuance and confidence that, as this is the Word of God, it is present for our own good.


I tend to think if the OT was written to be metaphorical, then the NT would also be the same, fortunately, I dont think this is true, I believe most of the OT is literal and factual, along with the NT. I think some christians try to justify it by claiming most is metaphorical, mainly because they dont like much of it and it doesnt seem to fit well with our modern society…when maybe thats the real problem.


I think it’s important to highlight the commonly-stated reality of the Bible in general, but the Old Testament especially: it is a library, not a single book. The Old Testament runs a wide spectrum of genres. I think a lot of the confusion is what exactly the term “interpret literally” means. If by “literal and not metaphorical,” you mean that every single book of the OT is to be interpreted as purely a history lesson that doesn’t tend toward spiritual analogy and universal truths, then I don’t think that’s correct, personally.

Take the Book of Job, for instance. Literary masterpiece: yes. Journalistic, meticulously literal recounting of actual events: no. From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“The Book of Job, named after its protagonist (apparently not an Israelite; cf. Ez 14:14, 20), is an exquisite dramatic treatment of the problem of the suffering of the innocent. The contents of the book, together with its artistic structure and elegant style, place it among the literary masterpieces of all time. This is a literary composition, and not a transcript of historical events and conversations.”

Job is likely to have been a real person, absolutely. I will concede that. But to say that the conversation that takes place between God and Satan in the prologue is literal is a major over-simplification of the spiritual and literary purpose of this particular book.

Every book deserves nuanced, individualized attention from the reader, placing it squarely in its context and intent. I don’t believe that just having a white-wash, “Take it all as a history text-book,” does it justice, in my opinion. Even when a story is literal history, there are still spiritual (“metaphorical”) lessons as the underpinnings. God gave us the Word to help us. Just because it may or may not, in any given book, be a literal recounting of events, doesn’t somehow rob it of its vital importance to humanity and the story of our salvation.


well along with study of God’s word, look at how the early Christians interpreted those passages by reading the early church fathers on those subjects in the OT that interest you.


A good commentary is handy.


Ive always thought it kind of odd, God gave us the word (the bible) to help in our salvation, but problem is, the bible can be interpreted so many different ways, and really, can be interpreted to fit almost any kind of belief a person could have…that is very strange to me, if it was meant to help mankind, I think it would have been more straight forward, and easy to understand/ interpret, and authors would have made it clear if the particular verse or book was metaphorical, literal or otherwise.

It doesnt do anyone any good to just keep everyone guessing and speculating…in fact, that alone may lead some away from the book, leaving them frustrated and unable to determine what the intended message was.


I don’t think there’s any “garbage” there at all.
And the strange and brutal cultures described are still with us in case you hadn’t noticed.
Read it as the story of humanity told by different authors (some literal, some metaphoric, some poetic, some prophetic).


If you go down that path of questioning, though, why doesn’t God just do away with faith and make the mysteries of creation and reality empirically and objectively present to the entire human race? What’s the point of the mysterious nature of Christianity? Why did Jesus speak in parables rather than simply preach straight-forward theological lectures?

Mark 4:11:

And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables

I think the points you raise also highlight the importance of Sacred Tradition and the Church. For many, every single individual’s interpretation of Scripture can be used to justify just about any action or belief, and Biblical interpretation devolves into an endless battle of argument and schism. That is why we have Tradition and Apostolic Succession, because the Church is specially equipped to interpret Scripture in a way that the laity is not.

Catholic Bibles with extensive, authoritative commentary, coupled with the Catechism, solves much of this dilemma for many people, I think. Struggle is part of our journey as pilgrims. If we were handed an existence of complacent understanding, what would be the purpose of hope, faith, and conviction? You take those things away from Christianity, and humanity’s love for God is not freely given, but rather something else entirely.


I have found that it has always served me well to always give Scripture the benefit of the doubt and not give secular history and science the same trust. History books are always changing and there are plenty of revisionist historians with agendas. Science is definitely always changing and everyone has agendas in that field too. I see absolutely no danger in believing Scripture literally as long as all senses of Scripture is taken in consideration. And since I am a poor exegete and am not good at interpreting Scripture on my own, prefer to glean from the Early Church Fathers and Medieval exegesis.


The entire Bible, namely, the Old and New Testaments, is the inspired word of God and should be read as such, i.e., as the word of God.

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