Old Testament Interpretation (Like Everything Else in Christianity) Begins and Ends With Jesus Christ
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. (John 5:39)
In the Church’s view, the whole of Israelite history, as contained in the Old Testament, is about Jesus Christ. The relationship of the Old Testament to the New is one of promise to fulfillment, and of type to anti-type. Put another way, we interpret the Old Testament neither in the same way the ancient Israelites did, because we are looking at it with hindsight; nor in the way Jews do today, for everything in it takes on new and fuller meaning in the light of Christ. Everything in Orthodox Christianity begins and ends with Jesus Christ, and the Old Testament is no exception.
… the Hebrew Scriptures are also to be understood and interpreted in relation to Jesus Christ, who is both their source and their fulfillment. He is their source because he is the Logos, the eternal Word of God, who serves both as the agent of creation and as the ultimate content or referent of the prophetic oracles. And he is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures because at the deepest level of meaning they point forward to him and to his saving work. Christ, therefore, provides the true key to the inner meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Accordingly, Christ himself is our “hermeneutic principle” or principle of interpretation, in that it is he who reveals the true sense of all inspired Scripture. (Breck, John, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) pp. 9-10)
Every passage of the Old Testament as well as the New bears direct or indirect witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is Truth itself in incarnate form. ”I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” he declares, Jn. 14:6). (ibid., p. 33)
The Fathers also insist that the God with whom all the Old Testament figures deal is God the Son. It was God the Son who walked with Adam and Eve, God the Son who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God the Son who instructed Noah to build his ark.
All of these three stories bear typological meanings. That is, they each prefigure Christ, are each “types” of Christ or of something related to Him. The bush that burned without being consumed, for example, typifies how Mary became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus, her body alight with Him, without her virginity being destroyed or in any way diminished. Noah’s ark symbolizes the Church, bearing her passengers safely to the other side of the turmoil of life and death. The story of God liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt foreshadows Christ liberating His people from bondage to sin and death. Some fathers, with regard to some biblical accounts, go so far as to say God’s main purpose in arranging or permitting these events was for our sake, to prepare us for Christ’s coming, so we would understand what Jesus was doing.
The Early Church was not particularly interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. The early Fathers didn’t necessarily deny it, but what interested them was always what the Old Testament had to say about Jesus. They looked for Him and found Him throughout.
Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech-- unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:12-16)
The Old Testament is to be interpreted according to Christ, and not vice-versa! As Christ said in a parable, nobody patches an old garment with a new piece of cloth, because the patch will shrink and the rip will be made worse. Old clothes must be patched with old fabric. Similarly, nobody puts new wine into old wineskins, or the wineskin will burst and the wine will be lost; but new wine must be put into new wineskins, to preserve both. (Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37-38) Christ is the New Wine; He transfigures the Old Testament. We must not interpret Him by it, but it by Him, “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
Christ Himself began the process of giving new, deeper interpretations to the Old Testament; or, rather, of bringing out what was implicit there all along but hidden. The Fifth Chapter of Matthew contains several examples of Jesus giving the Old Testament deeper meanings than others had seen there before. Perhaps the most startling example of His re-interpretation of the Scriptures came when Jesus preached against divorce.
They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so...” (Matthew 19:7-8)
In other words, God spoke to ancient Israel with great and gracious condescension, in His decrees making generous allowances for His people’s spiritual weakness and immaturity, and in His language often putting things in over-simplified, too-crude words to make it understandable to them. Meat is for adults; infants cannot digest it and need milk instead. The Old Testament is spiritual milk. The meat must await the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Another quite startling re-interpretation Jesus gives to the Old Testament is contained in one of His claims to divinity: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw [it], and was glad.” (John 8:56)
Jesus also appropriated the title “Son of Man,” giving new meaning to that figure in the book of Daniel, Chapter 7.
After His resurrection, as He was walking with two of His followers on their way to Emmaus, Jesus continued the process of interpreting the Old Testament for them. Here is His response when they spoke to Him (whom they did not yet recognize) of their distress that Jesus had been crucified.
"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself.
St. Paul also found new, Christian meaning in the Old Testament. For example, in I Corinthians 10, he says the Israelites, by passing through the sea, “were baptized unto Moses.” (10:3) Then, speaking about the rock in the desert which Moses struck with his stick and it gushed forth water for the thirsty Israelites, St. Paul says, “That rock was Christ.” (10:4) In verse 6, he adds, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” St. Paul is much more concerned with the function of these events as examples today than as history; in fact, the part he mentions in verse 3 about the rock following Israel is pure legend.
In Galatians 4:21-31, St. Paul makes what he himself calls an allegory (v. 24) of the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.
Most of the Epistle to the Hebrews is devoted to interpreting Old Testament worship in terms of shadows and patterns of “things to come”, especially in chapters 9 and 10. Moreover, it is in the name of spiritual maturity that St. Paul urges his Jewish readers to adopt this typological understanding of the old Testament. (Hebrews 5:12- 6:2)
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
So Christians from the beginning have followed Christ and St. Paul in telling the old story in a new way, in a way that begins and ends with Jesus Christ. They have set aside parts of it (such as ritual laws) as no longer relevant to Christians (Galatians 4:10); they have found new meanings in other parts of it.
For example, Christians see Psalm 22 as an astonishingly detailed prophecy of the Crucifixion. But before Jesus was crucified, there was no way to interpret that Psalm in that way. Similarly, in Isaiah 7:14, Christians see a prophecy concerning the birth of Christ: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” But before Christ came, the prophecy only meant that God would destroy King Ahaz’ enemies within the time it would take for a maiden to marry, conceive, give birth to a son, and teach him the difference between right and wrong. Christians have always reinterpreted the Old Testament.
St. Basil the Great gives us a fine example of what it means to reinterpret Old Testament understandings of Divine Justice in the Light of the New, which Light is Christ. The “disasters” God is said to bring us are to put a stop to evil or at least contain it, or to correct us, not literally to gratify some divine hostility.
Famines and droughts and floods are common plagues of cities and nations which check the excess of evil. Therefore, just as the physician is a benefactor even if he should cause pain or suffering to the body (for he strives with the disease, and not with the sufferer), so in the same manner God is good who administers salvation to everyone through the means of particular chastisements. But you, not only do you not speak evilly of the physician who cuts some members, cauterizes others, and excises others again completely from the body, but you even give him money and address him as savior because he confines the disease to a small area before the infirmity can claim the whole body. However, when you see a city crushing its inhabitants in an earthquake, or a ship going down at sea with all hands, you do not shrink from wagging a blasphemous tongue against the true Physician and Saviour.
And you may accept the phrase ‘I kill and I will make to live’ (Deut. 32:39) literally, if you wish, since fear edifies the more simple. ‘I will smite and I will heal’ (Deut. 32:39). It is profitable to also understand this phrase literally; for the smiting engenders fear, while the healing incites to love.
It is permitted you, nonetheless, to attain to a loftier understanding of the utterance. I will slay through sin and make to live through righteousness. ‘But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (Il Corinthians 4:16). Therefore, He does not slay one, and give life to another, but through the means which He slays, He gives life to a man, and He heals a man with that which He smites him, according to the proverb which says, ‘For You shall beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from death’ (Proverbs 23:14). So the flesh is chastised for the soul to be healed, and sin is put to death for righteousness to live.... When you hear ‘There shall be no evil in a city which the Lord hath not wrought’ (cf. Amos 3:6), understand by the noun ‘evil’ that the word intimates the tribulation brought upon sinners for the correction of offenses. For Scripture says, ‘For I afflicted you and straitened you, to do good to thee’ (cf. Deuteronomy. 8:3); so too is evil terminated before it spills out unhindered, as a strong dike or wall holds back a river.
For these reasons, diseases of cities and nations, droughts, barrenness of the earth, and the more difficult conditions in the life of each, cut off the increase of wickedness. Thus, such evils come from God so as to uproot the true evils, for the tribulations of the body and all painful things from without have been devised for the restraining of sin. God, therefore, excises evil; never is evil from God.... The razing of cities, earthquakes and floods, the destruction of armies, shipwrecks and all catastrophes with many casualties which occur from earth or sea or air or fire or whatever cause, happen for the sobering of the survivors, because God chastises public evil with general scourges.
The principal evil, therefore, which is sin, and which is especially worthy of the appellation of evil, depends upon our disposition; it depends upon us either to abstain from evil or to be in misery.
Of the other evils, some are shown to be struggles for the proving of courage... while some are for the healing of sins... and some are for an example to make other men sober. (If anybody can give me the reference for this, which I have lost, I shall be grateful.)
Some Fathers of the church, notably St. Gregory of Nyssa, bid us make heavy use of allegory in interpreting the Old Testament. St. Gregory does just that in his most famous work, The Life of Moses, in which he brings out allegorical and spiritual meaning and application from every incident in Moses’ Life.
Other Fathers agree that Christians ought to value the stories in the Old Testament more for their spiritual than their historical or literal meanings. “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense... those who have a mind understand this.” (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 83.)
If one fails to allow the revelation in Christ quite frankly to re-work the Old Testament, to let Christ be the Light of the World, by Whom and in Whom all else is properly understood, ones reading of both Testaments will be seriously misguided and the correct doctrine of salvation will be in jeopardy.
Now please go and read Fr. Stephen's far better (and shorter!) post for some different points on the same subject here.