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The Old Testament

Updated on December 20, 2009

The Bible, or Holy Scriptures, the sacred writings that are the foundation of Christian and Jewish belief. The word "Bible" is derived from the Greek biblia ("books"). The books that make up the Bible were written by many different authors between perhaps the 9th century B.C. and the 1st or 2nd century A.D. The basic canon, or official list, of the books of the Bible contains the writings that are considered to have been divinely inspired. The earlier books form the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. The Roman Catholic Old Testament contains additional material that is not in the Hebrew Scriptures. The material is called deuterocanonical, meaning that it was accepted as canonical after the rest. In Protestant Bibles such material is called the Apocrypha and is either left out or printed as an appendix to the Old Testament.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament contains an account of the creation of the world, followed by stories of the life and history of early men and of the ancient Hebrews, who entered Canaan in about the 18th century B.C. The first records were preserved chiefly by word of mouth, although scholars date a few documents from perhaps as early as the 14th century B.C. In probably the 10th century B.C., Hebrew priests began to keep written temple records and histories of kings. In the 9th century they began to write down their oral traditions as well. Three centuries later the collection of all this material into books was begun, probably also by temple priests. They compiled almost every book out of the works of several men who had lived at different times over several hundred years, but they carefully edited the texts to give a unified religious point of view.

These books, together with the writings of prophets, poets, and philosophers, came to be considered a cohesive body of Hebrew Scripture. They were in the Hebrew language, except for a few late passages in Aramaic. They were copied through generations on parchment rolls to be read in the synagogues, or places of Jewish worship. Later the Scripture was copied on sheets and bound into volumes for individual use.

Basic to the Old Testament is the idea of a sacred covenant, or agreement, between God and the Hebrews. God promises the Hebrew patriarch Abraham to give his descendants the land of Canaan forever in return for their loyalty. The covenant is renewed when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and promises favor to those who keep them. The first two commandments, requiring the Hebrews to worship God and to refrain from worshiping idols, express the Hebrew effort to maintain monotheism.

The Hebrews expressed their developing relationship to God in a variety of ways. In the Hebrew Bible their works are grouped into the three categories of the Law, the Prophets, and the Sacred Writings, or Hagiographa, according to the kind of material and the order in which it was collected.

The Law

Legends, history, and legal regulations make up the first five books of the Bible. They are called either the Pentateuch, from the Greek words meaning five and books, or the Torah, from the Hebrew word meaning law or instruction. The Pentateuch describes the period when the Hebrews were loosely organized bands wandering about the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Much of the material is written in simple, vivid language that stresses action and strong emotion.

The first accounts are ancient tales that Jews and Christians consider to contain revelations from God. For example, they believe that the stories in Genesis of God's creating the world, Adam's eating the forbidden fruit, and God's expelling man from Eden and later sending a great flood reveal the divine truths of the creative power of God, the sinful nature of man, and the divine punishment of sin. Subsequent semihistori-cal narratives include the stories of Abraham's entering Canaan, Jacob's travels, Joseph and the Hebrews in Egypt, and Moses leading the Hebrews in the Exodus from Egypt back toward Canaan, all under the guidance of God.

The most important element of the Pentateuch is the Law itself. The basis of the Law is the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses as the Hebrews were encamped at Mount Sinai after the Exodus. There are other religious, civil, and penal regulations in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Law of Moses is strict, demanding stern punishment and repentance for sin before God's forgiveness can be gained. The Pentateuch also contains early tribal war songs, such as the Song of Deborah, which refer to battles the Hebrews fought with other peoples as the Hebrews approached Canaan or after their entry.

The Jews traditionally believe that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, who probably lived in the 13th century B.C., and they regard it as the most sacred part of the Bible. Modern scholars think it was based on early material but written much later, from the 9th century B.C. to the 5th century B.C.

The Prophets

The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings contain historical accounts of the Hebrews in Canaan. In the Hebrew Bible these books are called the Former Prophets. They contain passages in which tribal judges and prophets urge the Hebrews to give up worshiping the many nature gods of their polytheistic neighbors and to return to their monotheistic covenant. With God's blessing, Saul and David lead the Hebrew tribes against the other inhabitants of Canaan and the vicinity and unite the tribes in one kingdom. David's lament for Saul and Saul's son Jonathan, who were killed in battle, is a remarkable example of poetry from this period.

The wealth and importance of the Hebrew kingdom at its height in the 10th century B.C. are shown by the description of Solomon's Temple and the reception the king gives to the visiting Queen of Sheba. Led by Solomon and later kings, however, the Hebrews lapsed into idolatry and moral corruption. They were divided into the two kingdoms of Israel, which was conquered and absorbed by the Assyrians by 721 B.C., and Judah, which fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Many Jews, or people of Judah, were exiled to Babylon.

The books of the Latter Prophets, as they are called in the Hebrew Bible, refer to this period of decline and crisis. In them a number of Hebrew prophets vainly warn the people to keep their covenant with God lest He destroy them. At the same time such prophets as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah try to teach the Hebrews that God is not a jealous tribal divinity but a universal God who is to be worshiped with righteousness and love. Some of the prophets promise that God will send a Messiah, or anointed king, to relieve the sufferings of the people and that God will then make a new covenant with them to usher in a golden age.

The Sacred Writings

Except for the Books of Chronicles, which retell Hebrew history from the point of view of temple priests, the Sacred Writings, or Hagiographa, in the Hebrew Bible contain mainly poetry and a body of practical wisdom. The Book of Job is a loftly poetic dialogue, occurring in the 6th or 5th century B.C., between the just man Job and his friends. In spite of many sufferings, Job maintains his faith in a loving, all-powerful God. Although the poetic Psalms have traditionally been ascribed to David, the great Hebrew leader of the 10th century B.C., the sophisticated praise of God they express indicates that many of them were written from the 4th century B.C. to the 2nd century B.C., after the Jewish Exile in Babylon. Similarly, the lyrical love song bearing Solomon's name was probably written in the 3rd century B.C.

The characteristic style of all Old Testament poetry is the use of parallel word structures in which the meaning of later phrases either repeats or contrasts with preceding phrases. For example, one of the Psalms declares: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein. . . ." Biblical poetry also uses rich sense images, as when the psalmist sings to the Lord and bids the floods clap their hands or when the lover in the Song of Solomon likens his beloved to a dove, a garden; or sweet-smelling spices.

The Sacred Writings also include books of practical wisdom in prose form, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Written from perhaps the 10th century B.C. to the 2nd century B.C., the books give ethical advice and stress the vanity of worldly goods and pleasures. Late historical and prophetic books, such as Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, complete the Sacred Writings. Apocrypha. The books of the Apocrypha reflect the history and thought of the Jews from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st century A.D. Such books as I and II Maccabees describe the Jewish revolt against the kings of Syria, who tried to impose on the Hebrews a Hellenistic culture, or a mixture of Greek and Eastern customs. The legends of Tobit and Judith illustrate God's care for those who love Him, while the more philosophical Ecclesiasticus teaches wise conduct. There are also prophetical texts promising the coming of the Messiah, or savior.


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    • Presigo profile image

      Presigo 8 years ago from Spokane, Wa

      I feel you have shared a very factual view of the Old Testament. Having read the Old Testament I for one apreciate your approach here. I hope that it stimulates interest in people to go and explore it for themselves, All Blessings