Old Testament Life and Literature (1968)

Gerald A. Larue

 

Chapter 1 - What Is 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 Aramaic portions include Dan. 2:4b-7:28; Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26; Jer. 10:11; and one phrase in Gen. 31:47 "Jegar-sahadutha," translated "Heap of Witness."

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, reestablish 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.

 

DEVELOPMENT OF THE CANON

Writings accepted as authoritative for faith and teaching are said to be canonical, and when gathered together constitute a canon. The term "canon," the Anglicized form of the Greek word kanon designating a rod used for measuring, is related to a Semitic root appearing in Hebrew as kaneh, meaning a "reed." Used metaphorically in reference to religious matters, it signifies the measure or guide or standard for principles of belief and practice.

The number of books constituting the canon of Old Testament Scripture varies among different religious groups. The Jewish Bible contains twenty-four books;2 the Protestant Bible, thirty-nine books; the Eastern Orthodox Bible, forty-three books; and the Roman Catholic Bible, forty-six books. The difference between the Jewish and Protestant versions is easily explained: one book in the Jewish Bible entitled "The Twelve" (Dodecapropheton), actually contains twelve prophetic writings which, in Christian versions, are counted individually, and four other writings which are treated as individual units in Jewish Bibles are each sub-divided into two books by Christians (I-II Samuel, I-II Kings, I-II Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah) . The additional books in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Bibles include writings not accepted as canonical by Jews and Protestants, who place them in a collection known as "The Apocrypha." (See Chart 1.) The term "Apocrypha" as applied to writings is first known to us through the work of Clement of Alexandria ( Stromata iii, 5), a Christian theologian-philosopher living in Egypt at the close of the second and beginning of the third centuries A.D. In the preface to his translation of Samuel and Kings (Prologus Galeatus) in the fourth century, Jerome, the great Christian scholar who made the Latin translation of the Bible known as the "Vulgate" (see Part Ten), applied the term to books found in the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures but excluded from the Jewish canon.

Etymologically, "apocrypha" is derived from a Greek word meaning "hidden" or "concealed." The explanation as to why certain books were hidden may give to the word "apocrypha" either a complimentary or derogatory significance. In one sense, the books were hidden because they contained esoteric knowledge to be revealed only to members of a particular group. In another sense ' they were concealed because they were heretical writings not acceptable in the canon of scriptures. How parts of the Apocrypha came to be accepted by some and rejected by others is part of the story of the development of the canon. (See Part Ten.)

It is estimated that close to 1,000,000 Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt, during the third century B.C. Having been separated from Palestinian Judaism for many generations, the Alexandrian Jews spoke only Greek and could not understand the Hebrew scriptures. According to a legend preserved in "The Letter of Aristeas,"3 in response to a request that the Jewish scriptures be translated into Greek, seventy Jewish scholars (another tradition says seventy-two) went to Egypt and translated the first five books of the Bible (the Law or Torah). These books, believed to be the work of Moses, had achieved a relatively fixed form and canonical status during the fifth century B.C.

Subsequently other Jewish writings were translated: first the prophetic writings (the Prophets or Nebhiim), which had almost achieved canonical standing, and finally the Writings or Kethubhim, which incorporated all other authoritative religious documents. The tradition of the translation by the seventy was extended to include the entire Greek version which came to be known as "The Seventy" or in the Latin form as Septuaginta, now Anglicized to "Septuagint" and given a numerical abbreviation LXX.

 


CHART I. THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

Jewish            Protestant         Roman Catholic
The Law (Torah)         Genesis                 Genesis
                        Exodus                  Exodus
Genesis                 Leviticus               Leviticus
Exodus                  Numbers                 Numbers
Leviticus               Deuteronomy             Deuteronomy
Numbers                 Joshua                  Josue (Joshua)
Deuteronomy             Judges                  Judges
                        Ruth                    Ruth
The Prophets (Nebhiim)  I Samuel                I Kings (=I Samuel)
The Former (Earlier)    II Samuel               II Kings(=II Samuel)
Prophets:                I Kings                        III Kings(=I Kings)
 Joshua                 II Kings                IV Kings(=II Kings)
 Judges                 I Chronicles            I Paralipomenon
 I Samuel               II Chronicles              (= I Chronicles)
 II Samuel              Ezra                    II Paralipomenon
 I Kings                Nehemiah                   (= II Chronicles)
 II Kings               Esther                  I Esdras (Ezra)
The Latter Prophets:    Job                     II Esdras (Nehemiah)
 Isaiah                 Psalms                  ** Tobias (Tobit)
 Jeremiah               Proverbs                ** Judith
 Ezekiel                Ecclesiastes            Esther (with additions)
 The Twelve:            Song of Solomon         Job
   Hosea                Isaiah                  Psalms
   Joel                 Jeremiah                Proverbs
   Amos                 Lamentations            Ecclesiastes
   Obadiah              Ezekiel                 Song of Songs
   Jonah                Daniel                  ** Book of Wisdom
   Micah                Hosea                   ** Ecclesiasticus
   Nahum                Joel                    Isaias
   Habakkuk             Amos                    Jeremias
   Zephaniah            Obadiah                 Lamentations
   Haggai               Jonah                   ** Baruch (including the
   Zechariah            Micah                      Letter of Jeremiah)
   Malachi              Nahum                   Ezechiel
                        Habakkuk                Daniel
The Writings            Zephaniah               Osee (Hosea)
(Kethubhim)             Haggai                  Joel
                        Zechariah               Amos
Psalms                  Malachi                 Abdias (Obadiah)
Proverbs                                        Jonas (Jonah)
Job                     The Apocrypha           Micheas (Micah)
Song of Songs           * I Esdras (or III Esdras)   Nahum
Ruth                    II Esdras (or IV Esdras)Habacuc
Lamentations            * Tobit                 Sophonias (Zephaniah)
Ecclesiastes            * Judith                Aggeus (Haggai)
Esther                                          Zacharias (Zechariah)
Daniel                  * Additions to Esther   Malachias (Malachi)
Ezra                    * Wisdom of Solomon     ** I Machabees
Nehemiah                * Ecclesiasticus        ** II Machabees
I Chronicles            * Baruch
II Chronicles           Letter of Jeremiah
                        * Prayer of Azariah and
                        * The Song of the Three Young Men
                        Susanna
                        * Bel and the Dragon
                        Prayer of Manasseh
                        * I Maccabees
                        * II Maccabees  

* Books accepted by The Eastern Orthodox Church but not included in the Jewish Canon.
** Books accepted by Roman Catholics but not included in the Jewish Canon.

 


The contents of the Law and the Prophets had been determined by usage in the Jewish community prior to the LXX translation, but the limits of the Kethubhim had not been defined and books were included that were not to achieve canonical status among all Jews.4 When the Christian Church began to move into the Greek-speaking world during the first century A.D., the scripture used by the missionaries was the LXX. The authors of the New Testament Gospels drew upon the LXX to prove that Jesus was the Messiah and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, using some passages which the Jews argued had been inadequately translated from the Hebrew to the Greek (particularly Isaiah 7:14; compare with Matt. 1:23). The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. gave Judaism a new direction, centering in scripture rather than sacrificial rites, so that it became imperative to define the limits of the authoritative writings. Consequently, in 90 A.D. at Jamnia (Jabneh) , situated west of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean, a council met under the leadership of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai to determine the Jewish canon. Long debates ensued over the Song of Songs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Ezekiel. The books agreed upon by the Council constitute the Jewish canon of today. Concerning other writings, both Jewish and Christian, the Council stated:

The Gospel and the books of the heretics are not Sacred Scripture. The books of Ben Sira and whatever books have been written since his time, are not Sacred Scripture. (Tosef Yadaim 2:13)

Meanwhile the Christians continued to use the LXX including books of the Apocrypha rejected by the Jamnia Council. There was, however, some uneasiness among Christian scholars concerning certain of the books and just prior to the Protestant Reformation questions were being raised about the authority of the Apocrypha. Seeking to go back to ancient sources, Protestant reformers accepted the Jewish canon and relegated the Apocrypha to the status of writings without authority for doctrine, partially, no doubt, because certain unacceptable doctrines were based upon these writings.5 For Protestants, the writings of the Apocrypha are separated from canonical scriptures and held to be non-authoritative for doctrine.

The Roman Catholic Church took the opposite stand at the Council of Trent held in Tridentum, Italy from 1545 to 1563 and, partially on the basis of traditional usage among Christians, declared the books of the Apocrypha, with the exception of I and II Esdras and the prayer of Manasseh, to be canonical and pronounced anathema upon all who denied their status. The accepted books are labeled "Deuterocanonical"6 by Roman Catholic scholars who restrict the use of the term "Apocrypha" to designate writings purporting to be inspired but not accepted into the Roman Catholic canon. The latter writings are labeled "Pseudepigrapha" (False Writings) by Protestant scholars. Later, in 1672, at the Council of Jerusalem, the Eastern Orthodox Church accepted I Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Prayer of Azariah and The Song of the Three Young Men, Bel and the Dragon, and I and II Maccabees into the canon, for reasons that are not completely clear.7

Thus, the term "Old Testament" has a wider and a narrower meaning, depending upon who uses it. This book will discuss the literature common to Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, and the writings called the "Apocrypha" by Protestants and Jews or "Deuterocanonical" by Roman Catholics.

 

WHY DO WE READ?

For those with religious training received in Church or Synagogue, the answer to the question "Why do we read?" may seem obvious. One reads for religious, theological, devotional, or inspirational reasons, for spiritual edification, to nourish and nurture faith. The Jew recognizes Tanak as God's word revealed to Israel, requiring neither supplement nor fulfillment. It is used in public and private worship linking the individual Jew to the household of faith throughout history, providing strength in time of need, offering hope in moments of darkness, and giving assurance that the Covenant made with God in the past has relevance today.8

For the Christian, the Old Testament is that part of Holy Scripture known and quoted by Jesus and the New Testament writers. Often, it is viewed as the prologue to the New Testament, as a document which, pointing forward to Jesus, is to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament, where Old Testament promises find fulfillment.9 Through the Bible God speaks to man, and one may read of God's outreach or search for man, or, to reverse the idea, man's search for God.10

The very reverence and respect paid to the Bible in services of worship by Jew and Christian symbolizes its importance. The approach of the Synagogue or Church directs attention to the essentially religious nature of the Bible, to the fact that the Old Testament is the product of a community of faith reflecting theological convictions, and to the subsequent fact that this ancient document is still a powerful factor in shaping and sustaining beliefs. However, the purposes of Bible study as defined or understood by religious organizations do not determine the goals of the classroom.

Often hailed as a "literary classic," the Bible has been approached as great literature, and there have been those who have read with deep appreciation, particularly in the King James Version, the magnificent prose and poetry appearing in many passages. Biblical themes have been compared with those of other literary masterpieces.11 The impact of the Bible upon the literature of the Western world has been traced and recognition given to the permeation of our culture by this great document.12 Such an approach may ignore the intention of the authors of the Bible and the relevance of what they said to their own time, or, in stressing literary characteristics, may slight the religious convictions of the writers.

The remarkable historical record preserved in the Old Testament13 has led archaeologists and historians to study it for contributions to the understanding of Near Eastern history. The great American archaeologist, W. F. Albright, has commented upon the significant role the Bible has played in the identification of Palestinian sites,14 and in some instances the Bible has led to the discovery of ancient places by describing locations.15 But, as archaeologists would be quick to assert, the Bible is more than an historical record or a guide to buried cities.

Beyond the study of the Old Testament for the contribution it may make to personal and corporate piety or to literary, historical, and archaeological studies, is the recognition of the role this body of writings has played and continues to play in shaping human concepts and values through the adherents of three great religions that acknowledge its authority: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To study these ancient writings is, therefore, to study works that for centuries have influenced social, literary, musical, artistic, ethical, moral, and many other aspects of society.16 Understandably, no single introductory volume has been able to deal with the relationship of the Bible to all of these themes.17

It is the purpose of this volume to introduce the literature of the Old Testament, the vehicle by which the concepts of the ancient Hebrew-Jewish community are conveyed to us, in terms of the situations out of which these writings developed (so far as they can be known) , giving attention to the beliefs and commitments of the authors. Whether or not one believes that the religious, social and ethical concepts of the Old Testament are acceptable as authoritative guides for present day belief and conduct must remain a personal matter. If, from such study, one committed to the religious teaching of Church or Synagogue can gain enriched awareness of the foundations of his convictions, or, if one without such commitments can develop sensitive understanding of the basis of another's beliefs, and, if both are able to broaden their appreciation of concepts that are fundamental to western religious thought, perhaps this will be enough to answer the question, "Why read?" But, to read with understanding the words of another is, to some degree, to apprehend the person. if, through empathy and imagination, the barriers of time and space can be transcended and some identity with the writer - his mood, his situation, his thinking, his values, and the generating sentiment of his writing - can be attained, then it is possible to discover, not only another sentient human being, but, to an extent, oneself. The question then becomes, "Why not read?"

Endnotes

  1. The earliest use of the term "Old Testament" is attributed to Melito, Bishop of Sardis about A.D. 180. Tertullian, a Roman centurion who became a Christian, is believed to have been the first to designate the Christian writings as the "New Testament" (about A.D. 200).
  2. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century A.D. in his first book against Apion (Contra Apion), section 8, mentions twenty-two books. He unites Ruth and Judges, and Jeremiah and Lamentations
  3. A Greek document, probably written in Alexandria, Egypt, during the second century B.C. Cf. Moses Hadas, Aristeas to Philocrates (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961) .
  4. The Qumran Jewish community located near the Dead Sea, which produced the so-called "Dead Sea Scrolls," included among their writings all of the books of the Old Testament (with the possible exception of Esther), the book of Enoch and Jubilees, plus numerous writings of their sect including "The War of the Children of Light versus the Children of Darkness," many hymns, and a community rule book. It should be noted that at least some members of the early Christian community used the book of Enoch (cf. Jude, vss. 14-16).
  5. For example, the doctrine of Purgatory (cf. II Macc. 12:43-46).
  6. Indicating that they were written later. The other books in the canon are called "Protocanonical."
  7. See The Old Testament Canon, Part Ten, chap. 31 for greater detail.
  8. Cf. Leo Trepp, Eternal Faith, Eternal People (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962), pp. 78 ff.; H. J. Schoeps, The Jewish-Christian Argument (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963) , p. 4. For a different evaluation, cf. J. L. Liebman, "New Trends in Jewish Reform Thought," Reform Judaism (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1949) , pp. 58-65.
  9. Cf. Aldo J. Tos, Approaches to The Bible: The Old Testament (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963), pp. vii f.; H. C. Kee, The Renewal of Hope (New York: Association Press, 1959), pp. 49 ff.; A. Richardson, A Preface to Bible Study (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944) pp. 65 ff.
  10. R. M. Brown, The Bible Speaks to You (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 15 ff.; E. P. Blair, The Bible and You (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1953), pp. 27 ff.; S. Mowinckel, The Old Testament as the Word of God, trans. by R. B. Bjornard (New York: Abingdon, 1959); John T. Wilkinson, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (London: Epworth Press, 1960).
  11. Mary Ellen Chase, The Bible and the Common Reader (New York: Macmillan, 1944); C. A. Dinsmore, The English Bible as Literature (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931); Joseph Frank, Literature from the Bible (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1963).
  12. L. A. Nelson, Our Roving Bible (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1945).
  13. Records preserved in II Sam. 9-20 and I Kings 1-2 have been recognized as unique documents, conveying to the reader a sense of factuality that indicates intimate familiarity with the events described. Cf. John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), P. 163.
  14. Wm. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore: Penguin, 1960), pp. 227 ff.
  15. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1959), pp. 30 ff.
  16. Areas of academic inquiry affected by the Old Testament include: art, archaeology, comparative literature, ethics, history, music, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and, in a controversial way, biological and geological sciences, to name but a few.
  17. Cf. H. H. Watts, The Modern Reader's Guide to the Bible (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959) ; W. Irwin, The Old Testament: Keystone of Human Culture (New York: H. Schuman, Inc., 1952) for volumes cognizant of the cultural aspects.

Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968, 1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Gerald A. Larue.

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