Introduction to the Old Testament

What we know as the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is a collection of 66 different books.  In them is the story of Israel, the people God called to be his witness as he revealed himself to them.  It is not a sanitised account - we read as much about their failures as their successes - but as we read the story, we will encounter much that rings true still today.

Jews and Christians regard the writings collected in the Old Testament as containing the authentic word of God.  In his wisdom, God chose to communicate with people in particular places, at particular times, through the events and culture of those places and times.  Most of it was originally written in Hebrew, a little in Aramaic, and was later translated into Greek in the second century BC.

Dating specific events is not always easy, or even possible.  The reigns of King David and King Solomon were around 1010-970 and 970-931BC, so events prior to the establishment of the monarchy occurred more than 3000 years ago.

The two major events which reverberate through much of the Old Testament are the Exodus and the Exile.  The Exodus from slavery in Egypt, whatever the historical reality may have been, was later understood to be the key event which brought Israel together as a people, descended from the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Joseph.  The Exile in Babylon, many centuries later, saw Israel dispersed, with some people left behind, but many people displaced.  While the Exodus was interpreted as God redeeming his people from oppression, the Exile was interpreted as God punishing his people for their lack of faith, lack of justice, and failure to listen to him.

The Israel that settled in the land of Canaan was a group of tribes - extended family groupings.  Each tribe ruled itself through the customs of the ancestors, and particularly through the Law as it developed.  Anyone deemed to have broken a law or a rule was judged by a group of elders at the gate - on the edge of the community.  As time passed, some of these judges became known outside their immediate communities, and the book of Judges tells us more about them.

Eventually, however, people began to want kings like other nations.  The books of Samuel describe the development of Israel from a collection of tribal families into a centralised state with a monarchy, temple religion and an army.  The growing power of certain tribes and of urban centres of power were behind this, as was the pressure of the Philistines who also lived in the area we now know as Palestine.

The tribes were united into a united kingdom under David and Solomon, following the establishment of the monarchy under Saul.  Following the death of Solomon, however, the north and south became separate kingdoms with independent monarchies.  The northern kingdom of Israel, or Samaria, fell to Assyria in 721BC.  The southern kingdom  of Judah fell to Babylon in 586BC.  Subsequently, under the Persians who succeeded the Babylonians as imperial rulers in the middle east, people were allowed to return to Judah and to rebuild their life there.

The books which make up the Old Testament were written over a very long time, recording material which had been passed down the generations orally.  Older writings have been edited and developed by later writers, so many of the books are the product themselves of a long period of time and more than one author.  The earliest writings are probably among those preserved as poetry, such as the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.

The first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch (meaning five books) or the Torah (the Hebrew word for the Law), are about beginnings - the beginning of the world and of human life, and the people who became Israel when they entered the Promised Land.  They also explain the gift of the Law and its place in Israelite life.  These stories were not written down at the time, but were recounted over generations.  Then they were written down, different people remembered and emphasised different things, which is why we get parallel accounts, rather than a single narrative.

The historical books, Joshua and Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, tell the story of the Israelites after they entered the Promised Land up the Exile.  Because of the rich history these books themselves have, we should not expect there to be a single history, with a neat succession of dates - instead we find discrepancies and omissions - but regardless, this is a unique account of how a people tried and failed to live as God's holy people.

The prophets were people called by God to call his people to account.  Some lived in the northern kingdom of Israel, some in the southern kingdom of Judah.  The most significant are those who words are collected in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

There are also a number of books which are partly poetry and partly what is known as Wisdom Literature - the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, the Song of Songs.

No comments:

Post a Comment