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HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Much of the following will be familiar to you if you have already read the "How to use Barron's Book Notes" section on this disk. We have included this information individually here because there are many unique things you should be aware of when using Barron's Book Notes for the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is a monument in the development of theology, morality, and law, the foundation stone of three of the world's great religions- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Moreover, it is an important documentary record, used by historians and archaeologists to understand the growth of civilization in the ancient world. But the Old Testament can also be read as a pageant of poetry and prophecy, of lyrical beauty and high drama- in other words, as one of the world's great works of literature.
You have to know how to approach literature in order to get the most out of it. This Barron's Book Notes volume follows a plan based on methods used by some of the best students to read a work of literature.
Begin with the guide's section on the Old Testament and its times. As you read, try to form a clear picture of the life and thought of the ancient people of Israel. The background should make it easier for you to understand the Bible's view of God, the world, and humanity's role in it.
Then go over the rest of the introductory materials- such sections as those on theology, personalities, setting, themes, style, and form of the work. Underline, or write down in your notebook, particular things to watch for, such as contrasts between peoples and personalities, key concepts of morals and law, and repeated literary devices. At this point, you may want to develop a system of symbols to use in marking your Bible text as you read. (Of course, you should only mark up a plain study Bible you own, not a fine collector's edition or a Bible that belongs to another person, to your school, or to your house of worship.) Perhaps you will want to use a different letter for each major theme of the book, a different number for each important literary device, a special color to signal important historical events. Put your marks in the margins so that you can find them again easily.
Now comes the moment you've been waiting for- the time to start reading the biblical text. You may want to put aside your Barron's Book Notes volume until you've completed the assigned reading. Or you may want to alternate, consulting the Book Notes analysis of each section as soon as you have finished reading the corresponding part of the original. Before you move on, reread crucial passages you don't understand. (Don't take this guide's analysis for granted- make up your own mind as to what the work means.)
Once you've finished the assigned sections, you may want to review them right away, so you can firm up your ideas of what the text means. You may want to leaf through the assigned readings concentrating on passages you marked with reference to major themes or historical patterns. This is also a good time to reread the Book Notes introductory material, which pulls together insights on specific topics.
When it comes time to prepare for a test or to write a paper, you'll already have formed ideas about the work. You'll be able to go back through it, refreshing your memory as to the exact words and events described, so that you can support your opinions with evidence drawn straight from the work. Patterns will emerge, and ideas will fall into place; your essay question or term paper will almost write itself. Give yourself a dry run with one of the sample tests in the guide. These tests present both multiple-choice and essay questions. An accompanying section gives answers to the multiple-choice questions as well as suggestions for writing the essays. If you have to select a term paper topic, you may choose one from the list of suggestions in the book. This guide also provides you with a reading list, to help you when you start research for a term paper, and a selection of stimulating or provocative passages from commentators, to spark your thinking before you write.
The Bible has been translated into English many times and in many different styles. Unless otherwise
noted, all biblical quotations in this Barron's Book Notes volume are from the Authorized (King James)
Version, the translation in which the Old Testament has made its greatest impact on English language
and literature. Personal pronouns relating to God (Me, Thou, He, Him, etc.) have been consistently
capitalized. You can read more about the different versions of the Old Testament in the section
"Translations and Editions," which can be found in the bibliography for this book.
THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF OLD TESTAMENT TIMES
- AGE OF THE PATRIARCHS -- Mesopotamia: Ur destroyed by Semitic Abraham leaves Ur for -- 2000 B.C. invaders Egypt and Canaan --------- / 1900 / --------- Isaac, Jacob, Joseph / 1800 \ --------- -- Egypt: Hyksos take \ 1700 power -- Mesopotamia: --------- Hammurabi code 1600 Hebrews enslaved in -- --------- Egypt 1500 -- Egypt: Hyksos expelled --------- EXODUS AND CONQUEST 1400 --------- Moses -- 1300 --------- -- Egypt: Raamses II Joshua in Canaan -- 1200 \__ Trojan War --------- Judges -- 1100 - UNITED KINGDOM --------- David -- 1000 Solomon -- --------- - DIVIDED KINGDOM 900 Israel and Judah -- separate --------- Israel Falls -- 800 --------- 700 "Book of the Covenant" -- --------- Judah falls -- -- Babylonia conquers 600 Assyria: Nineveh EXILE AND RETURN falls Decree of Cyrus -- --------- Pentateuch canonized __/ 500 \ -- Persia conquers \ Babylonia Ezra and Nehemiah -- --------- \ Golden age of Athens 400 / --------- / HELLENISTIC ERA 300 -- Alexander the Great Pentateuch translated -- --------- into Greek (Septaugint) 200 -- Antiochus IV Maccabeans -- --------- 100 B.C. -
NOTE: The traditional date for the birth of Christ is the turning point of the Western calendar, the year 1. Dates before then are labeled B.C.; dates after then are labeled A.D. The higher the date B.C. the earlier it is; the lower the date B.C., the closer it is to the Christian era. For years labeled A.D., the higher the number, the later the date is. Some histories of Old Testament times, especially those by Jewish scholars, replace the abbreviations B.C. and A.D. with B.C.E. and C.E., respectively.
THE OLD TESTAMENT AND ITS TIMES
Suppose a powerful army invaded your town, destroyed your house and those of your neighbors, sacked all places of worship, and carried your entire community off to a distant land. Uprooted and unhappy, you would face the desperate task of rebuilding your life in an alien environment. Of course, your most pressing task would be to provide for immediate needs- food, clothing, shelter. But you might also begin to ask some very painful questions. Who was to blame for this terrible disaster? Why did God allow it to happen? Had you somehow failed God, or had God failed you?
ORIGINS OF THE HEBREW PEOPLE
This is the crisis the ancient Hebrews faced about 2500 years ago. Their entire identity as a people was based on the idea, told in the book of Genesis, that God had promised the land of Canaan to their ancestor Abraham and his children about 1500 years earlier, in other words, around the year 2000 B.C. This promise took many centuries to fulfill. The Hebrews were a migratory people, and after Abraham's death many of them settled in Egypt, to the southwest. For many years the Hebrews prospered in Egypt, but changes in Egyptian society around 1500 B.C. led to a drastic decline in the status of all non- Egyptians and- according to the book of Exodus- to the enslavement of the Hebrews. Sometime between 1300 and 1200 B.C. the Hebrews, led by Moses, fled Egypt and settled in Canaan. During the next two centuries, through conquest and intermarriage, they gradually made the land their own. (This story is told in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel.) In the process, the Hebrews, who had begun as nomads with a society based on clans or tribes, developed a centralized kingship and worship based in Jerusalem.
For a few centuries the Hebrews, also called Israelites, were masters in their own land, the land of Israel. But weakened by economic rivalries, political divisions, and pagan influences, the Israelites fell prey to powerful enemy empires, first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. In the year 586 B.C. the armies of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the great Temple built by Solomon about 350 years earlier. Many hundreds of civic and religious leaders were killed, and thousands more were exiled to Babylon. This tragic story is recounted in several books of the Old Testament, notably 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Jeremiah. (The "2" given before the name of the book is a shorthand way of saying "Second Book of....")
THE FAITH OF THE HEBREWS
Central to the faith of the Hebrews was their belief that the land of Israel had been promised by God to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But now the Promised Land had been laid waste, and the exiled Israelites had every reason to fear that they would never see their homeland again. The Babylonians felt certain that their victory over the Israelites proved that the gods of Babylon were more powerful than the God of the Hebrews. How were the ancient Israelites to answer this challenge and preserve their faith?
If you have ever lived away from home for any length of time, you may have felt the impulse to assimilate- to take on the language, customs, and beliefs of those around you. Surely there were many Israelites who, starting out as alien captives in Babylon, became just like their Babylonian captors. But you may also have felt the opposite impulse- the urge to hold onto your former identity, to cling to those qualities that made you special and different from those around you. Many of the exiles had this same reaction. This is why the period of exile, far from undermining the Hebrew religion, ushered in a great religious revival. The Old Testament records the words and deeds of the prophets and political leaders who made this revival possible.
THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
No one is sure which sacred writings the Israelites brought with them to Babylon. The likelihood is, however, that the Book of Deuteronomy- the fifth book of the Old Testament- was among them. This book, a summary of the basic laws of Israel, takes the form of a long farewell address by Moses to his people before they cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Deuteronomy- or part of it- is probably the "Book of the Covenant" referred to in 2 Kings 23:2. (The notation "23:2" means the second verse of Chapter 23.) Many scholars believe that Deuteronomy was the first part of the Old Testament to be written down in anything like its present form. This does not mean, however, that Deuteronomy is the oldest part of the Bible. When the Israelites wrote down the Old Testament in its definitive form, they may also have included many older documents, along with a wealth of laws, legends, myths, folk tales, songs, poems, and proverbs that had been passed down orally from generation to generation.
Today, people make a clear distinction between history and legend, between myth and fact. After hearing a juicy bit of gossip about a rock group or a movie star, you might well ask, "Is that really true?" When you read in the Old Testament about Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, about Samson tearing apart a lion with his bare hands, or about the boy David slaying the giant Goliath with a slingshot, you may find yourself asking the same question. Biblical commentators have been seeking to separate fact from myth for many hundreds of years, and the biblical archaeologists now digging in the Holy Land are also trying to distinguish history from legend. Weighing all the textual and historical evidence to decide for yourself what is "really true" is a very important part of reading the Old Testament as history and as literature.
But you should bear in mind, as you read critically, that the peoples of Old Testament times did not separate fact from myth as we do. The Israelites who over the course of centuries established the text of the Old Testament thought they were weaving a seamless web. The creation of the world, the revelations to the patriarchs, the chronicles of the people of Israel, the visions of the prophets- all these, the ancient Hebrews believed, bore the unmistakable stamp of divine purpose. Today, many Christians and Jews believe the same thing, although believers differ among themselves as to whether the texts are all literally true and, if not, how much interpretation they require.
TORAH, NEVI'IM, KETUVIM
Within the growing body of Hebrew scripture, the first five books of the Old Testament had special importance. These five books, which are familiar to us by their Greek names- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy- were believed to have been given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai (also called Horeb) after the Israelites had escaped from bondage in Egypt. These Five Books of Moses are often called the Pentateuch, which is Greek for "five books." In the Hebrew language, however, these books bear the name Torah, a word that has great significance in Judaism, the religion evolved by the Hebrews, who are today known as Jews. The root of the word Torah is "to teach," and the term applies not only to the teachings themselves but also to the scroll from which the Five Books of Moses are read regularly in Jewish houses of worship all over the world.
The ancient Hebrews also had special names for other sections of the Bible. The narratives by and about the ancient prophets of Israel- men such as Isaiah and Jeremiah- were called Nevi'im, which means "prophets" in Hebrew. (Today we usually mean by a prophet someone who can foretell the future, but the Hebrews meant something quite different- one who speaks or acts for God. Be on the lookout for this special meaning of the word "prophet" when you read about Noah, Moses, and other "spokesmen for God.") Finally, a third section of the Old Testament, consisting of proverbs, songs, psalms, and historical and pseudohistorical narratives, was called Ketuvim, which in Hebrew simply means "writings." Borrowing letters from Torah, Nevi'im, and Ketuvim, the Hebrews came up with the anagram Tanak, which they applied to the entire Old Testament. The books of the Tanak- the Hebrew Bible- constitute the whole of scripture for Jews and are the basis of the Old Testament in Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian Bibles.
THE GREEK INFLUENCE
One term that does not stem from ancient Hebrew is Bible, The origin of this familiar English word is byblos, which in Greek means "book." The term byblos stems from the Phoenician city of Byblos (near present-day Beirut, in Lebanon), which was famous in ancient times as an exporter of papyrus.
You might be wondering at this point why so many words we use to describe the Hebrew scriptures come from Greek. The answer lies in the conquest of the land of Israel in 332 B.C. by the brilliant Macedonian Greek general Alexander the Great. The impact of Greek power and culture on the Hebrews was so overwhelming that Greek became a common language in Israel, and knowledge of Hebrew was confined to only a few scholars. To prevent knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures from dying out along with the use of Hebrew, scholars during the third century B.C.- the century after Alexander conquered the Holy Land- translated the books of the Bible into Greek. This translation became known as the Septuagint ("seventy") in honor of the 70 (or 72) translators who composed it.
THE OLD TESTAMENT AND THE NEW
Old Testament, a term commonly used in English but frowned upon in Jewish scholarship, has its origins in the birth and growth of Christianity during Roman times. Today it is common to think of Judaism and Christianity as completely separate religions, with different beliefs, holidays, and places of worship. But the fact is that Christianity developed out of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, and most of his early followers were Jewish. They had been raised to believe in the Jewish God (as opposed to the pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans) and to revere the Jewish scriptures. The disciples of Jesus did not think they were starting a new religion. Rather, they believed that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah (or, in Greek, Christos, or Christ) was the fulfillment of prophecies contained in the Jewish scriptures.
The split between Christianity and Judaism developed between A.D. 50 and A.D. 150, as the Jewish authorities rejected the claims made for Jesus and as the followers of Christ sought to spread their beliefs and define the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths. In the process, these early Christians developed their own body of writings, consisting of narratives of the life of Jesus and documents explaining their beliefs to fellow Christians, pagans, and Jews. The early Christians accepted the Jewish belief that God had made a special agreement, or covenant, with Abraham. (You should keep this idea of a covenant in mind as you read the Book of Genesis.) But the Christians also believed that the birth and crucifixion of Jesus marked a turning point in Jewish history. Because the Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, early Christians concluded that the Jews had forfeited their special relationship with God. Christians came to believe that those who showed faith in Jesus had inherited the covenant and, with it, God's special favor.
The word testament comes from a Greek root meaning "to bear witness"; in church Latin, testamentum means "covenant." By calling the ancient Jewish scriptures the Old Testament and the basic writings of Christianity the New Testament, the Christians were really saying that the new covenant- belief in Jesus as Savior and Christ- had replaced the old. Many Jewish writers, rejecting this Christian version of Jewish history, use the terms Hebrew Bible and Tanak (also spelled Tanakh and Tanach) rather than Old Testament.
ENDURING POWER OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Why should the Old Testament, portraying the experiences and beliefs of the ancient Hebrews, have retained its importance over so many centuries and among so many different peoples? One answer, maintained by many traditionalists, is that the Old Testament is the unchanging word of God. The Old Testament is thus the infallible record of God's revelations to and through the Hebrew people. This is the view of orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians. After reading the Old Testament, you too may share their belief, but that decision is yours alone to make. Nor is it necessary to believe that every word in the Old Testament is literally true in order to appreciate the power and beauty of its vision. Those who depart from literalist views maintain that even if the Old Testament is the word of God, it was written with the hand of man. How, they ask, can we expect it to be wholly free of human imperfection?
You might want to consider another way of looking at the uniquely enduring power of the Old Testament. At various times in history, Christians have come into conflict with Jews, Protestants have fought against Roman Catholics, and Muslims have warred with all three. But all these different and sometimes bitterly antagonistic peoples have looked to the Old Testament for aspects of their most basic identity. For the Jews, the Old Testament is a living record of peoplehood. Even in their periods of most profound suffering and widest dispersion, the Jews could look to the Tanak as a chronicle of their continuity as a people over a period of 1600 years, from the time of Abraham to the return from Babylonian exile. The early Christians looked to the prophecies of the Old Testament to establish their claim that God had foretold the coming of Jesus and chosen the Jews to receive this great new revelation. The Protestants of the Reformation period turned to the Old Testament to support their argument that the Roman Catholic Church had strayed from the word of God, and that the Protestants were themselves the true bearers of God's covenant. The Muslims also would find in the Old Testament a major source of their beliefs and identity. They honored the Hebrew Bible for its revelation to the world that God was one, and saw in the figure of Abraham's son Ishmael the founder of their race.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CANON
The next time you're in a library or bookstore, take a few moments to browse in the religious books section. If the library or bookstore is a good one, you'll see many different translations and editions of the Bible, along with the sacred books of other religions Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam. The surprising thing is that, like the Old and New Testaments, a great many of these texts were first written down or compiled during the 1200-year period between 500 B.C. and A.D. 700. Moreover, all these sacred books are anthologies. Some of these texts derive their unity from the presence of a central human figure- Buddha in the Buddhist sutras, Jesus in the New Testament, Muhammad in the Koran- but even these works of scripture are collections. The earliest Buddhist scriptures were not written down until centuries after the time of Buddha; the New Testament consists of writings about Jesus, not by him; and even though Muhammad is said to have dictated to his secretaries his revelations from God, or Allah, the definitive version of the Koran did not appear until about two decades after his death.
There are special problems in understanding how and when this anthology called the Old Testament came to be written. For centuries, the ancient Hebrews had no written language. The oldest known Hebrew inscription dates from the ninth century B.C., but the events described in the Torah extend back to 2000 B.C. and even earlier. Moreover, although commentaries indicate that the order of the Hebrew Bible was well established by the time of Jesus, the oldest known manuscript of the complete Hebrew text dates from the tenth century A.D., almost a thousand years later. Scholars have learned much about individual books of the Old Testament from the hundreds of separate manuscripts and manuscript fragments in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. But even the richest source of such evidence, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were inscribed between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, offers Hebrew and Aramaic versions of texts that must first have been written down centuries earlier.
SOURCES OF THE PENTATEUCH
When you write a research paper, you list your sources at the end. Anyone who examines your bibliography will immediately know the books, articles, and other documents you consulted before you wrote your piece.
But the Old Testament has no bibliography. No investigative reporter interviewed the authors to find out what sources they used. Although the Hebrew Bible makes mention of the "Book of the Covenant" and of Ezra's reading the "Book of the Law of Moses" to the Israelites in assembly (Nehemiah 8:1-8), no such ancient books have survived independently- that is, outside the Old Testament itself.
For the orthodox Jew and the fundamentalist Christian, this lack of authenticated documentary sources does not present a problem. Their answer is that the sole source of the Bible is divine inspiration. The Bible comes from God. Any speculation about other sources is irrelevant.
For modern scholars, however, the problem is acute. Archaeologists, historians, and students of comparative religion need to know why and how Judaism developed as it did. Obviously, they cannot go to a public library and "check" the sources of the Old Testament as your teacher or professor can check the sources of your research paper. What they can do, however, is to compare the Old Testament text with what they know of neighboring cultures in order to draw parallels and make connections between what the Bible says and what other cultures believed.
You can better understand the story of Noah (Genesis 7-8) if you know the flood stories written down by other Middle Eastern peoples. You can enrich your understanding of the covenant between God and the Hebrew patriarchs by learning about the kinds of legal contracts that other peoples used. And you can more fully appreciate the law code of the Pentateuch if you compare it to the great Code of Hammurabi, inscribed in Babylonia about 500 years before the time of Moses.
THE CRITICAL APPROACH
During the nineteenth century, a group of German scholars, focusing on what they saw as discrepancies of style and content within the Five Books of Moses, launched an attack on the belief that all the books of the Pentateuch had been given to Moses at the same time and exactly as we have them. Instead, these biblical critics argued- and most modern scholars now agree- that different parts of the Pentateuch were written down by different people at different times. (Which parts were written at which times, and exactly how these different narratives were woven together, remain subjects of dispute.)
The German critics identified several different "authors" of the Pentateuch and distinguished them by the names they applied to God. According to the critics' view, most of Genesis was written by "J," so-called because of that author's persistent use of YHWH, or Yahweh (the Y is given as a J in German). A second writer, responsible for part of Genesis and most of Exodus and Numbers, was called "E" because of repeated references to God as Elohim. (For more on the Old Testament names for God, see the section "God in the Old Testament.") Other important writers identified by the German critics were "D," the author of Deuteronomy, and "P," who was credited with authorship of the first chapter of Genesis, the Book of Leviticus, and other priestly documents. These authors were thought to have lived between the ninth and the fifth centuries B.C.
The German critics' argument that the Pentateuch was written by different writers at different times is sometimes called the "documentary hypothesis," but it is important to remember that no such clearly identifiable "documents" have survived. The J writer and the P writer, if they existed, left no other samples of their work and no clear statement- outside the Bible itself- of their beliefs and intentions.
Critical theory offers modern scholars a powerful tool for analyzing the Old Testament and tracing its chronological development. However, critical theory has been unable to dislodge the belief that the ultimate source of the Pentateuch was Moses or God, which is exactly what orthodox opinion, rejecting both the methods and conclusions of the biblical critics, continues to maintain. Even on its own terms, all that the "documentary hypothesis" has thus far been able to establish conclusively is that (1) for a long time the biblical traditions of the Hebrews were passed down either orally or in scrolls that have since been lost and (2) the language and outlook of the Hebrews changed over the very long period during which the different parts of the Pentateuch were edited and written down.
FORMATION OF THE CANON
Why are some books included in the Old Testament and not others? Who decided that the canon of the Old Testament- the number, order, and contents of the accepted books- had to be closed, and when was that decision made? If variant versions of a sacred text existed, how did the editors of the Old Testament choose which version to include?
Such questions become inescapable when we consider the fact that although Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish editions of the Bible agree on thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, the Catholic version includes several books and parts of books that Jewish and Protestant editions omit. Moreover, many other documents have at various times been considered for inclusion in the Old Testament. Some of these, now excluded from virtually all editions, are called Pseudepigrapha (literally, "falsely inscribed"); others, excluded by Jewish editions, considered canonical in Catholic editions, and consigned to a special edition in some Protestant editions, are called Apocrypha (literally, "unknown, spurious").
See illustration: Circle Diagram, The Old Testament: Canonical and Extracanonical Works.
The distinction between Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha is complicated, but you will not go far wrong if you look at the circle diagram. At the core of the Old Testament is the Pentateuch, thought by traditionalists to have come directly from God. In the ring surrounding the Pentateuch are the prophetic, historical, and wisdom books, which Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism all treat as divinely inspired. The Apocrypha in the next ring consists of books regarded by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther as being worthy of study but lacking the force of holy writ. (Also included in the Apocrypha are certain sections of the books of Esther and Daniel that are not considered canonical by Protestants and Jews. All three religious traditions consider the books themselves as part of the canon, however.) From a Roman Catholic point of view the books of the Apocrypha are holy writ, and from a Jewish standpoint these books are no different from the Pseudepigrapha, which all faiths agree have no place in the biblical canon. (The Pseudepigrapha are sometimes called noncanonical or extracanonical works.)
Most of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha fall into the categories of historical works or wisdom literature, which in the Hebrew Bible make up the Ketuvim. By the time of the Septuagint (the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), the canon of the Pentateuch and the prophets had been reasonably well established. The editors of the Septuagint must also have had some basis on which to select the Ketuvim, but we do not know what their criteria were. One thing we do know is that some books included were relatively late: 1 and 2 Maccabees, for example, deal with events in the second century B.C.
JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN BIBLES
By the time the New Testament was taking shape, the Jews had endured a calamity comparable to that of the Babylonian Exile. In A.D. 70, as the Romans moved to suppress a Jewish rebellion in and around Jerusalem, the Second Temple was destroyed, most Jewish communal institutions were wiped out, and Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans even more relentlessly than it had been by Nebuchadnezzar's troops more than six centuries earlier. Once again the Jews faced a spiritual crisis, and once again they responded with an attempt to reconstruct their religious life by codifying their scriptures. Commentaries that had been written on the Bible, as well as new interpretations by and anecdotes about the sages of Judaism, were brought together in two huge anthologies known as the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. In the academies of Palestine and Babylonia where the two Talmuds were compiled, rabbinical scholars also worked to establish a definitive version of the Bible in Hebrew. The task of perfecting this Hebrew edition, which is known as the Masorah ("transmission"), or the Masoretic text, went on from Roman times into the Middle Ages. Today, Jewish editions of the Hebrew Bible still follow the order of the Masoretic text. Medieval Christian editions of the Old Testament, on the other hand, were based on the Greek version, or Septuagint, as translated into church Latin. The Roman Catholic version of the Old Testament follows this medieval tradition, but many Protestant editions reflect a revival of Hebrew scholarship at the beginning of the Renaissance.
The criteria used to establish the Jewish canon after the destruction of the Second Temple are relatively clear. First, no book could be more recent than the time of Ezra- the fifth century B.C.- when, according to popular belief, divine inspiration had ceased. Second, the language had to be Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek. Third, the text had to have some history of use within the Jewish community. Fourth, the teachings had to be in the mainstream of Jewish religious thought as defined by the Pharisees, the dominant Jewish sect after Rome crushed Jerusalem. Application of the first criterion meant that some books included in the Septuagint were now excluded from the Hebrew Bible. Of course, exceptions were made, generally when a text failed one of the tests but met the others. For example, portions of Ezra, Jeremiah, and Daniel are in Aramaic.
The missionaries who carried the message of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world frequently referred to the Jewish scriptures. But these missionaries were often Greek-speakers, preaching to Greek-speaking audiences, and the scriptures they quoted were in Greek. Thus, even as the rabbis of talmudic times were narrowing down the Hebrew canon, the early Christians incorporated into their teachings the full range of Septuagint texts. The Septuagint formally entered the canon of Catholic scripture at the church council, or synod, of Hippo in A.D. 393. In subsequent centuries the authority of the Apocrypha- those books the Septuagint included but the Masoretic text didn't- rose or fell depending upon the status of Hebrew scholarship: the more prestige attached to the Hebrew texts, the more the books of the Apocrypha were called into question. The Protestant downgrading of the Apocrypha was based, in part, on the fact that the Catholic Church cited such Septuagint texts as authority for the idea of purgatory and certain other doctrines the Protestants denied.
* Books marked with an asterisk appear in the Septuagint the medieval Latin editions of the Bible but not in the Masoretic text. They have been accepted into the canon of the Roman Catholic Bible but not of the Protestant and Jewish versions. These books, as well as other writings, appear in some Protestant Bibles as appendices. The technical term for these additional works is Apocrypha, a Greek word that literally means "hidden" or "unknown." In this Barron's Guide, these books are considered as a group under the heading "Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha" at the end of the section Books of the Old Testament.
GOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Do you believe in God? If you answered yes to that question, do you also believe that God, in your own time, perhaps on this very day, could speak to you from a burning bush, bet with Satan to test your faith, free an entire people from slavery, make the seas divide, or destroy the world by flood or fire? If someone you knew told you that God had spoken directly to him, and that he was now speaking as God's prophet, would you believe him, or would you tell him he was crazy? If you were a father and God told you to prepare to kill your favorite young son as a sacrifice to Him, would you do it?
If you are beginning to feel a little confused or doubtful, don't be embarrassed. As you grow and develop, even as you read the Old Testament, your ideas about God may very well change. This is understandable, because a close reading of the Old Testament shows that the ancient Hebrews' own ideas about God changed over the centuries.
NAMES OF GOD
Of course, you know the Bible was not originally written in English, so the ancient Hebrews never wrote or heard the word "God." In the Old Testament, God has several different names. The ones that appear most frequently are
Experienced translators of and commentators on the original Hebrew text have long used the different names of God as clues to interpretation. For example, the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Talmud (second to fifth centuries A.D.) believed that the use of the name YHWH was meant to emphasize God's mercy, while the name Elohim reflected God's role as Judge. At Genesis 15:2 and 15:8, Abraham refers to God as Adonai; scholars have used the knowledge that adon in the Bible also means someone having legal authority (as we might say the "lord of the manor") to explain the covenant God made with Abraham.
MONOTHEISM VS. POLYTHEISM
In order to appreciate the revolutionary quality of Hebrew monotheism, or belief in one God, you have to know how other ancient peoples thought of the powers that ruled the universe. Except for the Hebrews, virtually all peoples of the ancient Near East during the biblical period were polytheistic; that is, they believed in many gods. It is no exaggeration to say that the ancient Mesopotamians recognized thousands of gods. Each city had a god. Each town had a god. Each village or tribe had a god. Each household had its own wooden or clay idols, which supposedly took on godlike powers if the right words were uttered and the correct sacrifices performed. Each aspect of nature had its own god or goddess; if enough rain did not fall, if the sun did not shine, if crops did not grow, if a woman did not bear children, this occurred because the gods of rain or sun or fertility were angry or, worse still, at war with each other. The kind of fear and frustration that belief in many gods could lead to is well expressed in this ancient Mesopotamian lament:
The god whom I know or do not know has oppressed me;
GOD AS A HERO
No such doubt afflicts the author of Genesis 1:1, the first line of the Old Testament: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." It has been said that God is the hero of the Old Testament, and in Genesis you will meet God in all His incomparable and solitary grandeur. No "proof" of the existence of God is offered, nor does Genesis bother to explain why God created the universe. Rather, the fact of creation is a given, the ultimate tribute to God's awesome powers. Nor does Genesis offer the slightest hint that in creating the universe, God worked indirectly, through the forces of nature (some writers have used this line of argument in attempting to reconcile the biblical account of creation with modern scientific discoveries in biology and astronomy). Creation is direct, through God's own word and spirit. Indeed, directness is the key to God's actions throughout the Pentateuch. God speaks directly to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, and to Moses. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are dictated directly by God to Moses and then delivered by Moses to the people of Israel.
CHANGING CONCEPTS OF GOD
In the later books of the Old Testament, however, you should see a different pattern beginning to emerge. Only rarely in these later books does God intervene directly in human affairs. God's presence is still felt in the Law of Moses, in the covenant with Abraham, in the divine mission of the people of Israel, in the inspiration of the prophets. But when the people of Israel turn away from God, their punishment comes not directly from the Lord but through the agency of warlike nations. When the people of Israel turn back to holiness, their reward is not some new miracle but brave leaders and a prosperous economy.
In these later writings, God appears not so much as an agent in history as an interpretation of history. You can see this difference between these two ways of thinking about God and history if you imagine a terrible automobile accident at an intersection where the traffic light is not working. In trying to find some reason for the car crash, you might, if you consider God to be an agent in the accident, say, "The hand of God must have reached down from heaven and switched off the light." Alternatively, you might treat God as an explanation for or interpretation of the accident by shaking your head sadly and saying, "It all must be part of God's plan." (Of course, you might not mention God at all, but might instead complain loudly to city authorities about poor maintenance of traffic control equipment!)
Many modern writers on the Old Testament and Israelite history believe that the ancient Hebrews' ideas about God changed in another important way. The appearance of God before Abraham and His agreement to protect the patriarch's descendants as long as they would follow His laws is consistent with the view of the God of Israel as a tribal god- in other words, as one god among many. Exodus 15:11 ("Who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the gods?") and Exodus 20:3 ("Thou shalt have no other gods before Me") can both be read as statements that other gods did exist, though none was so powerful as Yahweh. However, other parts of the Bible show a much broader conception. This can be seen in the opening of Genesis, where God appears not just as the defender of a particular clan or people but as the creator of the entire universe. Notice as you read the words of the prophets how the God of Israel is shown to be the God of all peoples, even those that do not know or accept Him.
Of course, you will have many occasions to consider the nature and powers of God as you read the Old Testament and the notes in this guide on each book of the Hebrew Bible. But there is one thing you should be aware of from the beginning. Although the Bible uses male words in referring to God- King, Father, He, His, Him- religious writers have long been troubled by the idea that to consider God as a male is to make him too manlike (or humanlike) and therefore to limit or diminish His powers. The use of exclusively male language also is a stumbling block for women who reject a society and theology based on patriarchy and female subordination. Several recent translations for purposes of worship have experimented with substituting "Sovereign" for "Lord," "Ruler" for "King," and "Parent" for "Father." This whole question is very controversial and will surely remain so for a long time to come.
[The Old Testament Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]