Elmer L. Towns’ A Journey Through the Old Testament

Posted: November 1, 2012 by Ty in Spirituality
Tags: , , , , , , ,


For at least 6,000 years the stories found within the Hebrew Bible, commonly referred to as the Old Testament in many Christian Circles, has been a piece or the texts shaping the faith of those who worship within an Abrahamic faith community. The basic texts found within the Protestant Old Testament that this introductory text lends to is 39. Elmer’s A Journey through the Old Testament is a basic text that opens up a student’s eyes and mind to beginning to understand these foundational texts.

Written 23 years ago, it shows a little dating but also reveals the bias of the author. These are topics that will be touched on as a summary is made, the text itself is interpreted within light of itself and in the conclusion he question is asked and hopefully answered with the affirmative why it is useful to explore this text as part of one’s educational enterprise.


When one first picks up an overview or introduction text to the Hebrew Bible, a reader normally braces themselves for an onslaught of dates, dead people, and possibly dry archaeological dig sites. What Elmer managed to accomplish within his text’s format is more of a DC Comics retro 1980’s “Who’s Who” feel. This was accomplished by framing the material around the key characters of the stories.

Within the character driven synopsis Elmer has structured a verse by verse commentary for the key characters he highlights. Hidden within these commentaries are simple yet effective gems with his:

  1. Synopsis:
  • Ie: cycle of Judges

(Elmer, p.143)

  1. Perspective sections (highlight what the author believes are the main thrust of the text):

Ie: Servant type of Holy Spirit

  • Both are sent
  • Both come bearing gifts
  • Both come teaching about the Son
  • Both come to woo and convince

(Elmer, p. 83)

  1.  Outlines
  • ie: Leviticus (p.123) that lays out a rhythm of :

Access- the way to God (1:1-7:38)

Association – walk with God (8:1-23:44)

Apostasy – the warning from God (24:1-27:34)

These are easy to access and understand for the reader regardless of their familiarity with the subject matter. The order or rhythm for the work is that of how they first appear within the context of the story of the Hebrew Bible.

The text itself has two main points:

  1. That for a student to fully understand the New Testament they must read the Old Testament through their Post-Christ lens. This is illustrated through his rendition of Lucifer as a story of rebellion.
  2. That the hardest lesson of faith to learn is waiting on God.

The work itself appears designed to aid a subject based study methodology that one would craft around a certain character to learn from. This learning is textual and character driven to be able to come to one’s own conclusions about the works that make up the Hebrew Bible.


            At first blush with the innovative way the stories were presented one may assume that Elmer is“wolf” in sheep’s clothing. That is he is letting innovation lead the reader into a false sense of security before hitting them over the head with a rather outdated contextual message, as was the flavour of theological writings in the televangelist driven 1980’s. That is not the case, what is found is a profound character study that can challenge the reader into seeing the sometimes familiar story through new eyes.

For instance he shows a correlation through history of the church, and a story from the Testament by quoting Matthew Henry “all God’s people are praying people” (Elmer, p. 40) as a lead into the Abraham story on the eve of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This thought is clearly continued with Abraham’s conversation with God around the destruction of the two cities as prayer (Ibid, p.60). For prayer is the communication of our relationship with God, and as such can be open, flowing yet the great question is raised as Abraham debates God over how many righteous people are needed to assuage destruction why did he stop at 10? Did he think that if Lot’s family was counted that would be enough? Did he believe there was 10 people in the cities he was unrelated to that were after God’s heart? Or as the petitions drove on, and Abraham remembered the inhospitality of the cities did he have a Jonah/Ninevah moment and just no longer want to wrestle with God over their salvation?

Hard questions rose within the readers’ mind that may not traditionally come up within a Western Church where 90% of the time these texts are abused and used to show the “abomination” of homosexuality, which has nothing to do with the story. The inhospitality circled around security, gang rape, offering up of daughters, essentially drawing that the only care in life is for one’s own power not for the needs of the other.

Yet again, as we journey through the Torah, Elmer avoids the easy explanations and go to chapters within Leviticus to discuss the most atrocious of sins. Where most interpreters in the Western Christianity go to chapter 19’s sex laws, Elmer rests on a little know child sacrifice to Molech in 20:1-5 as the true apostasy before the Lord.

This has set a good rhythm within Genesis for the relationship of the people with God. Yet Elmer has a tendency of needing to tie these stories directly into teachings of the Christian Testament. Yes the early church grew out of Judaism, and was eventually kicked out of the synagogues and Temple yet does it always need to be read through the lens of the other. He stipulates this by correlating the Joseph story of Genesis with Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose.” (New International Version). Paul was writing to Roman believers with this line, as a classically trained Pharisee, from an upper class family background and a citizen of the Empire. Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt and rose to prominence within Egypt through his spiritual gifts from God. So yes it is possible in certain instances to read the Christian Testament into the Hebrew Bible, but one should always ensure the teachings align and that they are not just trying to make a puzzle piece fit an empty hole.

The last statement within Genesis was used in the summary section around the comparison of the servant and The Holy Spirit. This comparison at first reads seems unique and practical, but it does not hold water when one thinks of what the Holy Spirit does within the life of a believer and community. Yes the servant accomplishes these four fold ministries, but these are also just the beginning of the work of the Spirit. This is an example of attempting to over read the Christian Testament into the Hebrew Bible.

Another is seen as Elmer stating that the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible is Jesus pre-incarnation (p. 143). This is not a strong statement, as it eliminates the Host of Heaven from work, but it also discredits the writing of John 1 about the Word becoming flesh, and the work in Genesis 1 being used to create, and the teaching of angels (messengers) being lower than Jesus in Hebrews. It appears with this that Elmer found a writing crux and kept going with it.

From this we enter into the world of the Judges which is another time of waiting. The people have entered what can only be described as a Tween cycle of existence, where they constantly rebel and fall back into the family through the work of some of the most dysfunctional individuals for their time: (a) Othniel (nepotism); (b) Ehud (left-handed); (c) Barak (coward); (d) Deborah (woman); (e) Gideon (coward); (f) Jephthah (son of a harlot); (g) Samson (adulterer) (Elmer, p.144).

From this emerges the monarchy out of the theocracy with Saul (Elmer, p. 180) that holds the United Kingdom under only two other monarchs: David and his son, Solomon before it is ripped asunder (Ibid, p.181). Unfortunately where Elmer had been challenging norms and could continue to challenge the student’s suppositions and indoctrinations around certain stories when he hits David he falls back into a church rut of vaguest details.

David and Bathsheba hits a wall where he relies on innuendo, abstract language to not really lay out what actually came to play between these two (p.204). Elmer is still leaning on a patriarchal and in some estimation, misogynistic view that Bathsheba was at least partly willing and that it was a fling or affair, while inappropriate nothing more. What is missed is that the power of the throne was abused, not only abused, but a man targeted a woman to exercise their power for sexual gratification. This is a textbook definition within Canadian Law of sexual assault (otherwise known as rape). Where Elmer could have stepped out in courage, he retreated.

Within the Wisdom Literature Elmer holds to a Solomonic authorship stance on Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and Song of Solomon. He relates that is was a younger Solomon who wrote the song, but then in spite of order within the canon postulates Ecclesiastes as the prologue that spurred on the writing of Proverbs (p.217).

Which brings us into the division of the kingdom due to sibling rivalry (which could be a later literary effect to remind the believer of the journey of Cain and Abel) between Rehoboam and Jeroboam and it is through this division that the exiles happen where the Prophets speak to attempt to prevent. The unique highlights being that the Babylonians allowed Jeremiah to continue to live because they thought him an ally (Elmer, p. 261).

Post-exilic works such as Esther which was written to those still in Diaspora who had opted not to return to the Holy Land (Ibid, p. 278). For the work did not name God, yet God is the most prevalent character throughout with the actions of the characters and how Esther rose to prominence within the city for control of the king. It is also another reflective book from the Genesis stories when we think of how Joseph was given into slavery, what happened with Esther was no different, yet God was there working with her.

How does all this matter though to us today? Do we need to be able to see the Christian Testament illuminated within the works of the Hebrew Bible for it to bear relevance?


The answer for the writer of the two above noted questions is yes it does still matter and No we do not for it to still bear relevance. The challenge as was pointed out in the previous section Elmer has a well laid out text, where he pushes boundaries in some places, percolates thoughts in others. The unfortunate part is that where these gems happen, there is by far more times where he holds the party line that does not need to be held with just a bit of deeper digging, and more to the point should not be attempting to insert a Christian understanding upon a Judaic story.

The journey is still worth the price of admission for the questions it does read, but as with all textbooks (or media in general) this should be approached with one’s critical eye fully engaged to enter collegial dialogue with the work.

The last things that need to be remembered which can be seen as key for the believer within the Hebrew Bible. Within these stories that can seem barbaric, bloody, misogynistic, genocidal, hate filled… there is kernels of hope:

  1. We are a people of prayer, and it is within prayer that we can interact fully with God.
  2. God is alive in our lives and all things work towards our calling eventually.

Holding onto these things as one takes their life experience, faith, education and the Holy Spirit to experience the full revelations within for journey today and this text has added to the education peace for understanding.

  1. Greggory Hruby says:

    Interesting review of this literary work. Towns’ work is notable in the sense of approach to a survey of the Old Testament (Tanakh), yet it is litered with his personal opinion in much regard. It is worth a read but only in the sense of entertainment, for much of his assertions are fictional and opinions erred by the cloud of wisdom garnered by mankinds experiance and not revelation. For example; The very first character he discusses is this allucive “Lucifer”. It is well known that the opinion, and yes, opinion, of lucifer being the devil is a false assumption. Only in the last 700 years or so has this false teaching been adopted by the ecclesiastical order. The word lucifer is actually a latin word which was added during the 1611 translation and the septuagent translation. The Hebrew translation is literally “bright shinning one” or “morning star”. As we know, Jesus himself calls himself the morning star in the new testament book of Revelation. Therefore, this lucifer cannot and is not the devil, lest our interpretation err. There are many reasons this name, lucifer, was added to scripture. One in particular is: the translators did not want the illiturate reader at that time to assume that lucifer, the “morning star”, was Jesus. Which in turn would cause much more damage to the soul of the indivual.

    I will not go into the scripture to scripture teaching of who lucifer is but I will assert that scripture compairs this character to the King of Babylon and states this lucifer is a man. Furthermore, lucifer “the morning star” is refered to in scripture as being as beautiful as the most precious gems of the world… and on…. and on…. do your own study on this and you will see that the one who is refered to as lucifer is actually Adam himself in the begining when he was created perfect, without blame, more beautiful than any other creation of God. Of which God himself dwelt as one with him until Adam’s disobediant fall. Then, after Adam’s fall from grace God removed himself from man leaving only this worm ridden body we have inherited from that original man, mortal, destined to die – until restoration of what was in the beginning before that first original sin.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Towns’ work… fight the good fight, test all spirits to see if they are of God.

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