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The Seekers' Guide to the Bible

What is in the Old Testament


A Protestant's Bible contains 39 books in its Old Testament some of which most people have not even heard of - Zephaniah and Habakkuk do not exactly slip off the tongue. On the other hand there are many stories in the Old Testament that seem very familiar to most of us, like the Tower of Babel, Daniel in the Lions' Den and Jonah and the Whale. The major problem for many Christians is that the God of the Old Testament does not seem to be very much like the one who Jesus tells us about in the New Testament. This is an age-old problem. In the second century AD, the heretic Marcion preached that the Old Testament God was indeed a different and lower being from the one revealed by Christ. Many Gnostics took this even further and spoke of a hierarchy of divine beings. They claimed to worship a higher power than other Christians did.

Despite this, orthodox Christians have always insisted their God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Moses. Sceptics take delight in pointing to Yahweh's alleged misdemeanours in the Old Testament. From the unenlightened aspects of Mosaic Law (Exodus 21:20, Numbers 15:32) to the death of relatively minor miscreants (2 Kings 2:24); all come in for criticism. It is not my purpose here to study all these instances in detail, although such detail can be found on the Internet (try Tectonics Ministries for instance), but rather to examine how the Old Testament was formed, what the historical background is and most urgently exactly what it contains.

Let us begin by examining the five sections into which the Old Testament can be divided up - the Law, the Histories, the Prophets and the Wisdom and the Writings. Actually, I am going to interpret these divisions very loosely and not concern myself with the traditional allocation which I have always felt to be rather confusing.

The Law or the Pentateuch

The first five books of the Bible are variously called the Pentateuch, the Law (the Torah in Hebrew) or the Books of Moses. They are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy and to the Jews they have the same significance as the Gospels do to Christians. Genesis is familiar to us all and contains many of the best-known stories from the Bible:

  • The six day creation (1:1 - 2:3);
  • Adam and Eve (2:4 - 3:24);
  • Cain and Abel (4:1 - 4:16);
  • The great flood (6:1 - 9:17);
  • The tower of Babel (11:1 - 11:9);
  • Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20 - 19:29);
  • The near sacrifice of Isaac (22:1 - 22:18);
  • Jacob's ladder (28:10 - 28:22)
  • The story of Joseph (37:2 - 47:31)

Genesis is also one of the most controversial books because no one can decide just how much of it is fact and how much allegorical. Let me state here categorically that I do not believe the stories of the flood and creation happened in any literal sense. But I do believe that they hold important messages for us and in the most basic way they are true. God did create the world and more prosaically the deluge is probably a folk memory of a real event (although I would not go as far as those authors who have explicitly identified Noah's flood). The stories of Abraham and his family are too small in scale to have left any mark in the archaeological record history but that hardly means that they did not happen.

When reading Genesis, it is important to remember that to the men who wrote it, everything was caused by God. Today, when a volcano erupts or a river floods we usually blame nature and do not interpret the event as a divine punishment. But in Genesis everything - good and bad - is directly attributed to God.

Another point to note is the essential earthiness of the stories. The people involved are often not heroic but liars and cheats. There is also rather more sex and prostitution involved than one might expect! Sex is something which is very important to us and so there is quite a lot of it in the Bible. However, in Genesis, sex causes all sorts of problems and just because it is described as happening here does not mean we should be approving. We must wait for the Song of Songs to read about just how good sexual love can be.

Exodus can be roughly divided in two. The first twenty chapters tell the story acted out by Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments. After that things seemed to get rather bogged down in the minutiae of the Law. The Ten Commandments themselves are at 20:1. Everyone has heard on these but hardly anyone whether devout or heathen seems to be able to name more than a few. Test yourself and see.

The next book, Leviticus, is completely taken up by rules and regulations. Numbers has rather more narrative and recounts the forty years in the wilderness. It can get rather depressing and repetitive as the Israelites trudge around and misbehave. The final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy. The bulk of the book is again taken up by even more of the Law and it repeats and revises what has gone before (the Ten Commandments are repeated at 5:6). It also contains the most famous and important prayer of the Jewish people at 6:4. It is called the Shema and as commanded here, all devout Jews have these words on their door frames.

The Histories

The Bible contains two separate but overlapping histories. The first is sometimes known as 'the Deuteronomistic History', because it seems to be similar in style to the book of Deuteronomy, or alternatively as 'the Former Prophets'. Consisting of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, it roughly covers the period from the arrival of the Israelites in Palestine to the fall of Judah in 587BC.

The second history consists of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. It covers the period from the reign of David up to the return of the exiles from Babylon in the fifth century before Christ. Its writer or compiler is usually considered to be one man, commonly denoted as the Chronicler for obvious reasons. He has often received a bad press next to the Deuteronomistic historian and considered de facto less reliable. This is because he seems to have used the books of Samuel and Kings as his primary source. However other lost books are referred to in Chronicles and used with care it can provide extra and useful information. In fact, the old Catholic name for these books was the Paralipomenon which is Greek for "things left out" of the Deuteronomistic History.

The existence of two different histories has inevitably led to 'contradictions' between the two. These undeniably exist and sceptics with nothing better to do take delight in identifying them. The problems range from typographical errors to large differences in emphasis between the two historians. In general, it is usual to prefer the Deutoronomistic historian's interpretation in the event of conflict as he is not averse to detailing facts detrimental to his subject and, as previously mentioned, was clearly writing earlier.

Many famous biblical stories are found in this part of the Bible and especially in the Deuteronomistic History. It starts with the Book of Joshua which includes the story of the fall of Jericho is told at 5:13 - 6:26, although much of this book is about how the land was carved up between the twelve tribes of Israelites. Next, the Book of Judges is about the period before the first kings of Israel. During that time the various tribes only came together at times of need under a charismatic leader chosen by the Lord. The cycle is replayed over and again in this book - the Israelites slip into moral corruption, they start getting hammered by foreign invaders, they repent and so God sends a Judge to save them. There are twelve Judges in all but only three get much coverage - Deborah (4 - 5), Gideon (6 - 8) and most famously, Samson (13 - 16). The end of the book paints a depressing picture of the Israelites fighting among themselves and turning aside from God.

1 Samuel beginnings with the birth of the last judge, Samuel, and ends with the death of Saul, the first king. It is Samuel who anoints Saul after the people demand that they have a king like everyone else. But Saul does not measure up and God orders that Samuel anoint David instead who was out tending sheep at the time. David shows he has arrived by his victory over the Philistine champion Goliath (17) which causes Saul to become jealous of him. He has to spend the rest of the book on the run until the Philistines manage to overtake Saul and he commits suicide.

2 Samual opens with David proclaimed King of Judah. He quickly consolidates his power over all Israel and takes the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites to be his capital. The rest of the book is a remarkably frank account of the ups and downs of David's reign including his murders and adultery with Bathsheba. This frankness has led some scholars to believe that the book is a contemporary account written before David had attained his iconic status as a perfect king. Certainly, 1 Chronicles paints a much more sanitised picture of David and his deeds that does not dwell on his crimes.

The first half of 1 Kings is about Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, whose reign is seen as the apogee of ancient Israel. It was he who built the Temple at Jerusalem (6) and was visited by the magnificent Queen of Sheba (10:1 - 13). However, his policies led to high taxes and after his death (11:43) the kingdom split into two - Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The North slipped into decline after Ahab and his wife Jezebel reintroduced the worship of Baal even though the prophet Elijah showed how God was far more powerful with a spectacular display on Mount Carmel (18:16 - 18:40). Elijah calls on Elisha to succeed him as a prophet before he ascended to heaven at 2 Kings 2:11. Elisha continues to preach and perform miracles including a rather harsh reaction to being jeered (2:24) and raising a child from the dead (4:34).

Israel is finally destroyed by the Assyrians who also threatened Jerusalem itself. The story of Jerusalem's deliverance from the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18 - 19 is particularly interesting because it is also told from the other side in a cuneiform inscription from Nineveh. Needless to say the Assyrian and biblical accounts put a different spin on things with the Bible crediting God and the Assyrians claiming King Hezekiah of Judah saved the city by paying them tribute.

After this crisis Judah undergoes something of a spiritual renaissance under King Josiah. During his reign a book of law, assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy, is discovered during restoration work at the Temple. However it is not long before the Babylonians reduce Judah to client kingdom status and finally carry its people off into captivity.

The Prophets

There are sixteen books in the Old Testament which I have collected under the title of the Prophets. Of these, twelve are usually grouped together and called the Minor Prophets. You will find these at the end of the Protestant Old Testament and they used to be all included on one scroll. Many people will not even recognise the names of some of these characters, although one of them is the subject of a very famous story about a whale. The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

The Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are much more famous and their books much longer.

Isaiah lived in the eighth century BC and his book contains many passages thought to prefigure the coming of Jesus. The best known of these is the Song of the Suffering Servant at 52:13 - 53:12 while the predictions about Tyre in chapter 23 have been the subject of much discussion on the Internet. Isaiah has a radical message which has meant that his book has become the favourite text of both feminists and liberation theologians.

Jeremiah is best known for endlessly predicting impending disaster to the extent that his name is now attached to anyone perceived to be a doom merchant. What this attribution misses is that Jeremiah was absolutely right and the book concludes with the fall of Jerusalem in 586BC that he had foretold. The book was not written by the prophet but compiled from his life and works, perhaps by his secretary Baruch whose seal has actually been discovered in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the early exile at the beginning of the sixth century BC who started his book by emphasising the otherness of God best summed up by the terrifying first chapter. This alien vision has persuaded some, like Erich von Daniken, that God really does come from outer space.

Daniel is one of the best known books of the Bible and deservedly so. It contains some gripping stories about the lions' den (6:16), the fiery furnace (3:19) and also Balthazar's feast (5:5) where the writing appeared on the wall as brilliantly portrayed by Rembrandt. The second half of the book is made up of apocalyptic visions including the famous seventy weeks prophecy at 9:24.

The Wisdom

The Wisdom is usually defined as encompassing Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes but the three books are very different. The Proverbs are a guide to life that suggest moderation mixed with some good old fashioned values. We can debate endlessly about how these sayings apply today but very few readers will find that they contain nothing of value. The biblical book is made up of at least five collections traditionally attributed to Solomon, Agur and a certain King Lemuel.

Job has deservedly been called one of the greatest works in world literature. Practically nothing is known about when it was written or by whom. It is a fable and Job is not a historical character.  That does nothing to diminish the power of one of the most difficult books of the Bible. The plot is simple - God sets out to test Job to see if he cracks. This poor man, who God describes as the best of his servants, has every misfortune heaped on him and worse than even that, has some dreadful friends who try to advise him. All the usual explanations for Job's suffering are offered and his friends are convinced it is a punishment for sins he does not know he committed. Instead, Job insists on his innocence and rants at God. In the finale, God himself arrives and, putting Job's friends in their place, tells the wretched man that suffering is not something he will understand and he should not expect answers when even the questions are beyond us. The lesson is as relevant today as ever - we will not solve the problem of evil this side of the grave.

Ecclesiastes is even more morose. Declaring that there is nothing new under the sun, the author despises everything in life as vanity. Today we would say that life sucks and then you die. Despite the best efforts of many theologians, no one has ever found much to redeem this book from its awful pessimism. It proves that, if nothing else, the Bible is brutally honest.

The Writings

The remaining books of the Old Testament do not really fit into any category. They consist of two short stories about feisty women - Ruth and Esther, the happy Song of Songs, the sad Lamentations and the incomparable Psalms. Ruth is set at the time just before King David and is the about the efforts of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi to find security in Bethlehem. Esther is a tale of power politics in the Persian Empire where the Jews look set to be the victims of a pogrom. Apart from being the most entertaining read in the entire Bible it is also notable for never mentioning God.

The Song of Songs is about sexual love. Yes, I know there have been endless attempts to allegorise it and try to make it into a metaphor about God and the Jews. I do not buy any of this. I challenge any man to read (or better recite) chapter four to his beloved and then explain to her that it is symbolic of God's passion for his people. Furthermore, I find it perfectly appropriate that this most important part of our lives is expressed in the Bible and better expressed than anywhere else.

Finally, I come to Psalms which is the longest book in the Bible and contains no less than one hundred and fifty songs. They vary from cries of pain to shouts of happiness while some are positively bloodthirsty. The problem many people have with this book (including me) is that there is no rhyme or reason to the Psalms and how they are organised. It makes reading through them in order a bit of a pointless activity. I am sure that the best way to get to know them all is to turn up at evening song every day for six months at an Anglican cathedral. Everyone who has read a few has a favourite and mine is number 51.

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James Hannam 2001.
Last revised: 09 June, 2013 .