Last year I did a post called “How Much Should We Be Searching for Jesus in the Old Testament?”. That post was prompted by the insatiable desire I see on the part of some people to find Jesus in everything they read in the Old Testament. One of the most common requests I get is for a book that reveals how each part of the tabernacle represents Jesus.
Yesterday we received in the store a new book from Richard L. Schultz entitled Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. As I was scanning through it I found this excellent page on this perennial problem. He opens the chapter by telling about a self-published book he saw called I Have Found an Elephant in the Bible. At first he thought it was just a joke but as he read on he discovered the author was quite serious. He was stunned. By what?
“Examining the description of the behemot (the Hebrew word for ‘beastly beast’) in Job 40:15, which he takes to be an elephant, he asserts with confidence that ‘Behemoth and JESUS CHRIST are the one and same thing’ (or, the elephant symbolizes Jesus). After all, both Behemoth and Jesus spent time in the Jordan River (Job 40:23; Matt. 3:13) and both are ‘first among the works of God’ (Job 40:19; compare Col. 1:15). Thus his study of the elephant in the Bible offers ‘the key that will unlock the Hebrew Scriptures and give us a complete picture of JESUS CHRIST.’ This man’s book presents a rather unusual expression of a conviction that is widespread within the Christian church, namely, that Jesus Christ is the subject and center of the entire Bible and not just of the New Testament. Many Christians thus seek to ‘find’ him on virtually every page of the Bible–even in the description of the behemot!” (25-26)
That’s the problem. Here’s how Schultz proposes to correct this. I think it is a mark of exegetical sanity.
“This approach is experiencing growing support today and is based on the twin convictions that (1) Jesus is the central theme of the Bible and (2) all of Scripture points to him. The former is true to a degree, although Old Testament scholar Gerhard Hasel is probably more accurate in declaring that ‘God is the center of the OT as its central subject.’ The second conviction is based on an overinterpretation of Luke 24:27–‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ This lead a pastor to declare in a sermon I heard recently, ‘If you don’t find Jesus on the page of Scripture you are reading, keep reading it until you find him there.'”
“This goes well beyond finding Jesus in predictive prophesy; it turns all Old Testament texts into predictions of, or more precisely, pictures foreshadowing the coming of Jesus. Accordingly, in Numbers 11:8 (‘The people went around gathering it [the manna], and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil’), the manna represents Jesus. After all, John 6:33-35, 48 teaches that he is the Bread of Life. Moreover, the grinding, crushing, and cooking in Numbers 11:8 represent Jesus’s sufferings on our behalf. But what does the olive oil represent in the case of Jesus? And how did the people gather him up? The book of Hebrews and other New Testament texts give a warrant for some degree of christological (that is, Christ-centered) interpretation of Old Testament texts. This is usually called typology (see chapter 5 for further explanation). But there appear to be no limits on the creative and speculative interpretation to which this can lead.”
“What exactly does Luke 24:27 claim? A similar verse later in the same chapter may help to clarify the point Jesus was making: ‘Every thing must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44). Jesus points here to the scope of the Old Testament’s anticipation of the Messiah’s coming: all three major subdivisions of the Hebrew canon look forward to him. In Jesus’s postresurrection Bible study, he was not asserting that every biblical text is ‘about’ or ‘pointing to’ him. Instead, he was explaining to his disciples those passages throughout the Scriptures that spoke of him in order to clarify the world-altering nature of the prior week’s events.” (33-34)
From what I’ve seen of this book already I love it. I’ll probably read it through this weekend. Out of Context is from Baker Books. It is a paperback with 160 pages and sells for $13.99.
Richard L. Schultz (PhD, Yale University) is the Blanchard Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He is a regular contributor to scholarly journals and theological and biblical dictionary projects. He lives in Wheaton, Illinois.