THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament is a collection of selected writings composed and edited by members of the Hebrew-Jewish community between the twelfth century B.C. and the beginning of the Christian era. It includes such diverse materials as prophetic oracles, teachings of wise men, instructions of priests and ancient records of the royal courts.
Some material is historical, some is legendary; some is legalistic, some is didactic. For the most part the literature was written in Hebrew, but a few passages were written in Aramaic, a kindred language which came into common usage among the Jews during the post-exilic era (after the sixth century B.C.).
The term “Old Testament,”1 or more properly “Old Covenant,” is a Christian designation, reflecting the belief of the early Christian Church that the “new covenant” mentioned in Jer. 31:31-34 was fulfilled in Jesus and that the Christian scriptures set forth the “new covenant,” just as the Jewish scriptures set forth the “old covenant” (II Cor. 3:6-18; Heb. 9:1-4). Jewish scholars prefer the term “Tanak,” a word formed by combining the initial letters of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Law), Nebhiim (Prophets), and Kethubhim (Writings).
The Bible, as we know it today, is the end product of a long process of writing, editing and selecting of literature primarily concerned with Jewish religious concepts, and, as such, it has a long literary history. It cannot be assumed that a group of men composed writings echoing what they thought God was dictating. The Bible reflects historical situations, human events, men’s reactions to these happenings, and the belief that God was also involved in events.
The literary history of the Bible can be said to have begun in the time of Solomon when two men, or groups of men, produced what was to become the nucleus of the Old Testament. One concentrated on the story of David, drawing, no doubt, from court records and other sources, to produce a rather matter-of-fact and intimate account of David’s rise to power, the weaknesses and strengths of the man and his family, and the successful coup by which his son, Solomon, gained the throne. The other writer or writers delved into the oral and written traditions of the past to enrich the understanding of the present. Stories of patriarchal ancestors, songs and folk-tales of the tribes, explanations concerning the origin of the world, and accounts of the action of God in the affairs of men, were gathered and woven into a saga explaining how the nation Israel came to be, and how God, who had acted in the past on behalf of his chosen people, was acting in the present and could be counted upon to act in the future. The theologized tradition or “sacred history,” as it has been called, was probably utilized in the festivals and cultic rites of the temple.
But the writing did not stop in the tenth century. New events and new monarchs required the extension of national history, and a developing theology saw new facets of the relationship believed to exist between God and the nation. Some materials were undoubtedly discarded over the years, for the Bible reflects selectivity of materials, as we shall see. Study of the sacred literature and new historical events developed new insights and resulted in the addition of new materials. an extension of the creation narrative, detailed genealogies to account for various nations, and new traditions about the patriarchs to explain how history had developed. Even David’s story was reinterpreted as David became, more and more, the prototype of the ideal king and, ultimately, of the Messiah. Other literary forms were added: sermonic utterances of the prophets, teachings from the schools of the wise men, devotional hymns of the temple, parables, and material related to the nation’s understanding of itself and its divine purpose.
Differing theological insights are often apparent, so that as one writing reflects a universalistic spirit, another stresses particularism. Over and over again, however, it is made clear that the writers believed that traditions of what God had done for his people in the past symbolized what he could be counted upon to do in the future. Thus, a people in captivity to the Babylonians could see that as God once delivered others from the Egyptians, he would do the same for those presently enslaved. The literature had, therefore, a dynamic rather than a static quality; being more than a record of the past, it constituted a narrative of the activity of God on behalf of his people.
In its present form, the Old Testament opens with religious traditions concerning the origin of the world and of mankind. In broad literary strokes, the transition is made to the beginnings of the Hebrew people with the adventures of the patriarchs-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-as they dwelt in the land of Canaan. Because of famine, the Hebrews migrated to Egypt where Joseph attained high office and his descendants were treated well. Change in Egyptian leaders altered their attitude to the newcomers, and the Hebrews were pressed into virtual slavery. Led by Moses, they escaped to the wilderness. After Moses’ death, under the leadership of Joshua, a successful invasion of Canaan gave them control of the land, a mastery maintained with great difficulty and many wars. Ultimately, internal and external pressure became so great that a single leader, a king, became a necessity. Under Saul, David, and Solomon, Canaan was united into a single empire.
When Solomon died, the Hebrew kingdom split into northern (Israel or Ephraim) and southern (Judah) sections, and during the next few centuries the great prophetic figures (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, etc.) proclaimed their messages. Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and was absorbed by the Assyrian empire, never again to become a nation. In 586 B.C. Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians and Judaeans (Jews) were taken into exile in Babylon, where they managed to maintain their identity.
Release came with the conquest of Babylon by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C. The exiled Judaeans were permitted to return to their homeland, re-establish themselves, and rebuild Jerusalem. Two leaders in the restoration movement, which reached its peak about the middle of the fifth century, were Ezra and Nehemiah. For two centuries, or until the coming of the Greeks tinder Alexander the Great in 333 B.C., ‘Judah was ruled as a Persian province and the Jews enjoyed comparative freedom in matters of religion and social conduct. The introduction of Greek culture brought drastic changes. When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his kingdom was divided among his generals and Judah was eventually controlled by the Seleucids of Syria. From this time onward, Greek social and cultural patterns made inroads into Jewish life, causing anguish and suffering to those who opposed change. Unable to endure the situation any longer the Jews rebelled and won freedom. For a short time, under Maccabaean leadership, Judah enjoyed the status of an independent nation, only to come under the control of the Roman empire. Here we leave the Old Testament period and enter the Christian era. However, as we shall see, there is far more than history or the interpretation of historical events within the literature of the Old Testament.
Importance of studying the Old Testament
- It contains the history and religion of Israel and God’s dealing with his chosen people, the Jews.
- It gives meaning and backing to the New Testament.
- The revelation of the nature and Character of God is contained in the old Testament.
- The Old Testament is of a permanent significance because it consists of pure and spiritual religion and its condemnation of all cold and external formalism.
- It permits us to share the enthusiasm of the men who discovered the fundamentals of our religion and the character of God.
- It is the foundation of all the scriptures.
Versions of the Old Testament
There are two versions of the Old Testament which are the Alexandria Version and the Jewish Canon.