July 23, 2010

Genesis is the first book of both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. Its name means ‘origins’ or ‘beginnings’. The first eleven chapters trace the beginnings of the world and the human race; chapters 12 to 50 trace the origins of the Jewish people, through the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob/Israel and Rachel, and Joseph.

Although Genesis deals with the earliest times, the book probably did not reach its final form until the time of the Exile, or just after. It draws on two main strands of tradition: the ‘P’ or Priestly strand, and the ‘J’ or Jahwist (Yahwist) strand. Sometimes the two stand side by side, as in the two creation stories: Genesis 1-2.4a is the Priestly version, whereas Genesis 2.5 – 25 is the Yahwist version. Sometimes the two are intertwined, as in the story of Noah and the Flood in chapters 6-9.

The first eleven chapters are based around myths, often ones that were common to the Ancient Near East.  There is a Babylonian Creation story that has parallels with Genesis 1, and a Babylonian  Flood story found in the Gilgamesh Epic. Often these myths try to explain the origin of things, such as evil (the story of the Fall in 3, 1-24 and Cain and Abel in 4, 1-15) and different languages (the Tower of Babel in 11, 1-9). Though in outline the Genesis myths have much in common with other pagan stories, they have been reworked to fit the themes of this section, which are the goodness of God’s intention for creation contrasted with the inherent resistance to that goodness from humanity. So the section begins with two versions of the creation of the world, recounts several incidents that spoilt creation and God’s reaction to these, and ends with a new creation after the Flood.

Among the narratives are several genealogies. Although these purport to show relationships between families, they in fact are an attempt to explain the alliances  which existed between tribes and nations at the time the stories were written.

The fact that there are two different versions of creation, the great ages of people recorded in the genealogies, and the appearance of giants and talking animals in theses stories all show that they are not meant to be taken as history or science as we understand them. Rather, they set the themes that recur throughout the Old Testament of human disobedience, divine judgement and divine faithfulness and love.

The second section of Genesis is composed of sagas or family histories. At one time, it was thought that these narratives could be rooted in history, since certain features seemed to fit the culture of the Ancient Near East in the second millennium BC. However, current scholarship is of the opinion that the narratives have been reworked over many generations, and it is impossible to discover where and when they originated.

The family connections are also not to be taken literally. Rather, they establish connections between groups of people and tell of their relationship with the God who became known to Moses as ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’.

The first three sagas are cast in a conventional form, with episodes which tell of the securing of land, finding a wife and bearing sons to inherit. Although they are usually known as the story of the patriarchs, in all of them strong women play an important role. Again, the Priestly and Yahwist sources are intertwined in these stories. Sometimes it is possible to tell which is which by the focus of interest. Another distinction is the way that God  communicates with human beings: in the older Yahwist strand he speaks directly; in the more recent Priestly strand, he communicates through angels.

It is clear that a number of originally quite distinct stories, perhaps about different characters, have been brought together in these sagas. This is particularly apparent in the story of Abraham, who is at different times a merchant, a shepherd and a king in charge of fighting men. The stories have been brought together to support a theological theme, which is the divine promise to the ancestors of Israel. This promise has two parts: the promise of the land of Israel, and the promise of blessing for all nations through Abraham’s descendants. Jewish interest has tended to concentrate on the first and Christian on the second.

The Joseph saga, in chapters 36 to 50 is a much more polished narrative, and Joseph is a very different character from his ancestors, a man who lives both in the Hebrew and in the Gentile world. He is a pattern both for the Jews in exile, and for Christians in a secular world, of how to remain loyal to God, and to live a successful life in the world.  Like Jacob, he is a surprising choice to be the one who carries God’s promise forward, since he is not a very pleasant character.

However, his story is important, because it serves as a bridge between the stories of the ancestors,  the earlier covenants with Noah and Abraham and the story of the family of Jacob/Israel who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes, and the narrative of the Exodus  and the covenant at Sinai.


July 23, 2010

Exodus means ‘going out’ or ‘departure’ and this book describes the defining events in the Jewish religion – the freeing of the nation from slavery in Egypt and the covenant between God and the Hebrew people.

The book contains material from three of the four ‘sources’ of the Pentateuch, the ‘J’, ‘E’ and ‘P’ traditions. It was put together from oral and written sources over a long period of time, with the narratives and laws being reinterpreted  for the different situations in which the Jewish nation found itself. The final form was probably written during the Exile in Babylon in the  sixth to fifth century BC, with editing by the writers of the priestly tradition ‘P’.

Exodus contains several different forms of literature. There is myth and saga, poetry, both apodictic (absolute) and case law, ritual and liturgical writing. Some of it may come from the earliest Hebrew traditions; other parts from a much later period, when the Jews were settled in the Promised Land.

At one time, scholars thought they could date the Exodus, using archaeological evidence as well as clues from the narratives in the books. It was usually dated to the thirteenth century BC, which made the favourite candidate for the ‘Pharaoh’ Rameses II (though Sethos or Merneptah were also possibilities). Now scholars are much less certain about the dating, or even if the Exodus and Conquest were real historical events at all. A large number of scholars believe that, if there is any historical basis in the story, it involved only a small proportion of the people, perhaps only one or two of the twelve tribes who eventually joined together in Canaan.

Exodus can be divided into three parts, which correspond to three major themes of the Old Testament. The first (chapters 1-18 ) concerns deliverance, the belief that God has chosen the Jewish nation to be a special people and will deliver them in time of trouble. This section can be further divided into an introductory section which describes the enslavement of the Hebrews (Chapter 1) the birth of Moses and his early life (Chapter 2) and God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush and his commission to Moses and Aaron to free the Israelites (Chapters 3-4).

The wonders and then the plagues, which demonstrated God’s power to the Pharaoh are described in chapters 5-11. Some commentators have tried to fit the plagues into a logical natural sequence (for instance saying the Nile filled with red earth, so the frogs left the polluted water, then died, so you got flies, which gave people boils.) However, source criticism shows that at least two of the plagues were inserted at a late date by the priestly editors, so they should simply be taken as a demonstration of God’s power over all of nature.

Before the description of the actual departure from Egypt, there is the description of the Passover, which provides guidance for future celebration of the event. (12, 43-13, 16)

Chapter 15 describes the escape through the Red (or Reed) Sea, and chapter 15 contains a long psalm (the Song of Moses) and a shorter acclamation (The Song of Miriam) which both come from liturgical celebrations of the event.

This section ends with a narrative of the sojourn in the desert, in which Israel moves from oasis to oasis. Again, attempts to trace this journey have not been easy. A possibility is to see this as a metaphor for Israel’s relationship with God, with its repeated pattern of rebellion, God’s anger and God’s forgiveness. This section (15-19) contains the stories of the bitter water, manna and quails.

The second part of Exodus Chapters 19-24 concerns the theme of covenant. Chapter 19 tells of the preparations and Chapter 20 opens with the Ten Commandments or Decalogue. These were probably extremely short originally: “Worship no God but me” but have become expanded over time. This is apodictic law, expanded in chapters 20-23 by case law, The Covenant Code. This is probably the earliest code of Jewish law. Chapter 24 describes the sealing of the Covenant, with sacrifice and the blood of animals.

The third section of Exodus (Chapters 25-31 and 35 -40) are based on the theme of presence, which was of particular concern to the Priestly source. It contains instructions for the construction of the Tent, the Covenant Box and the Mercy Seat where God could be encountered. This theme is continued in the Book of Leviticus.

The section is interrupted by a narrative in Chapters 32 and 33, which tells how a rival sign of the Lord’s presence was constructed by Aaron while Moses was absent on the mountain. This may represent a different tradition, which was defeated when the Levitical priesthood became the dominant influence in Jewish religion. After this rebellion, the covenant is renewed and a second set of stone tablets is given.

Exodus provides the defining picture of Jewish faith, through which all other events in their history were understood. However, it also provides a pattern for Christian understanding of the ‘New Covenant’ brought about by the sacrifice of Jesus, who is seen as the Passover Lamb and whose death and resurrection are likened to a new Exodus; Exodus has also become a defining story for the many persecuted or enslaved Christian communities who encounter God’s favour whenever  deliverance from tyranny is  experienced.


July 23, 2010

This book, the third in the Pentateuch, takes its title from its subject matter. In both Latin and Greek it was entitled ‘Of the Levites’. It contains regulations for the Israelite priesthood, the cult, and the rules of cleanness and uncleanness for those who took part in the rituals and claimed to be part of the people of God.

It purports to be a continuation of the commands given to Moses at Sinai. However, commentators find that the book contains rules that come from a variety of circumstances during the history of the people of Israel, and conclude that Leviticus represents a codification of these laws, put together by the Priestly editors (the ‘P’ strand) during the time of the exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC.

There are two main parts to the book. Chapters 1-16 (together with chapter 27) form what is known as The Priestly Code, whereas chapters 17 – 26 are known as The Holiness Code. It is thought that the second code comes from a later period than the first; it seems to fit a situation of settled life in the land, rather than wandering in the desert.

However, both parts are concerned with defining how it is possible for human beings to interact with a holy God. The ‘holiness’  of God was defined as something completely separate and terrifying, dangerous to those who were not pure, or who did not follow the right procedures. Leviticus defines how the dangers of approaching God can be avoided, and how the nation and its members can purify themselves, and become reconciled with God after the relationship has been broken by sin.

The first seven chapters give regulations for offering sacrifice; first, sacrifices of meat and grain,  then offerings to obtain forgiveness for sins and trespass. Chapters 6 and 7 define how the priests are to offer sacrifice.

Chapters 8 to 10 talk of the choice and consecration of Aaron and his family as priests, with a strange story inserted (10, 1-7) which tells how two of Aaron’s sons offered fire which had not been asked for by God, and were killed by fire from heaven as a result.

Chapter 11  defines the animals which are not to be eaten by the Jews (the basis of the kosher laws), and chapters 12 to 16 describe various situations and illnesses which render people, clothes and houses unclean, and thus prevent anyone who comes into contact with them from participating in the cult. These include such normal occurrences as menstruation and childbirth, genital discharges and nocturnal emissions, diseases of the skin (which used to be called leprosy, but are now called ‘the dreaded skin disease’) and mildew in houses and on various materials. There are offerings and rituals for signifying cleansing from these things, and the provision that anyone who defiles the Tent of the Presence by entering it in an unclean state is to be killed.

Chapter 16 describes the rituals of the Day of Atonement, including the sacrifice of a bull and a goat, and the driving out into the wilderness of the scapegoat, who carries the sins of Israel on its head.

Both sacrifice and the scapegoat seem very alien to us Christians. However, much of the theology of the Atonement, explaining how Jesus’ death  brought salvation, is derived from an analogy with the sacrificial system, especially the sin offerings; and parallels are also drawn between the way Jesus is thought to have carried our sins, and the ritual of the scapegoat.

Chapter 27 gives rules for redeeming people, land and animals that had been dedicated to God; and for tithing, setting aside one tenth of the produce of the land and every tenth animal for God.

The Holiness Code, in chapters 17 – 26 contains a mixture of laws about all sorts of things, from idolatry, witchcraft and sexual relations to picking fruit, slaughtering animals and shaving. Some of them are still regarded as forbidden practices – incest, relations with animals, and infant sacrifice; others we take no notice of at all – shaving your beard, having tattoos, planting two different sorts of seeds in your garden or wearing clothing made of mixed fabric. On other forbidden practices, such as consulting the spirits of the dead and homosexual relations, Christians have differing views. However, it seems clear that we cannot say that a practice is forbidden by God because it appears in the Holiness Code, because we happily ignore large parts of it; we must have some other reason for forbidding such things.

The code includes punishments for those who transgress the code, usually death, and this also applies to those who ignore any transgressions.

Chapter 23 contains regulations for the major Jewish festivals, Passover, Pentecost, New Year, Day of Atonement and Tabernacles, and the story of a man who is put to death for cursing the name of God.

In chapter 25 we find the rules for letting the land lie fallow every seventh year (the Sabbath Year) and for restoring property to its original owner after 49 years have passed (the Jubilee). It is doubtful that these laws were ever actually put into practice.

Among all these strange rules is one chapter that appeals more to our modern minds. Chapter 19 contains rules for the treatment of the poor, aliens, the disabled and those with whom you have quarrelled, for fairness in business and respect for the old, rules which reflect the idea of God’s holiness being expressed in social justice, an idea much favoured by the prophets of the 8th century BC. Chapter 19, verse 19 sums this up in the words which Jesus quoted as the second great commandment. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. This, rather than the holiness procured by rituals, seems to be what our Lord considered important.


July 23, 2010

The English title of the fourth book of the Pentateuch is taken from the censuses of Israel that are set out in chapters 1 and 26 of the book, and the other lists of the tribes in various other places. In the Hebrew scriptures, the book is called ‘In the Wilderness’ and this reflects the main subject matter of the book, the  forty years that the Israelites spent in the desert after the Exodus, before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land.

The book divides obviously into two parts. Before Chapter 10, verse 11, it is mostly concerned with rules for worship, and is therefore a continuation of the material found in Exodus and Leviticus concerned with the revelation at Sinai. From then on, the material is focused on the journey through the desert.

The book can also be divided into material concerned with three places: Sinai, then closer to the Promised Land at the oasis at Kadesh Barnea in the Negeb, where the Israelites spent most of the 40 years; and finally just across the Jordan. So the narrative moves Israel  closer and closer to the goal of their wanderings.

Although much of the material in Numbers has come from the old  ‘J’ and ‘E’ traditions, in its final form the book is the work of the priestly editors (the ‘P’ strand).  Thus, the purpose of the book is to tell how the people of Israel became  a purified community, worthy to occupy the land of promise and to serve God.  The priestly editors worked while the Jews were in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC. So, while the book recounts the story of the journey of their ancestors, it also provides a guide for the exiles as to how they may regain their homeland, through obedience to the commands of God.

The viewpoint of the priestly editors was that the land had been lost because of the disobedience of the people, because they were not ‘holy’ enough. Another theme of the Book of Numbers is the division between the generation who left Egypt under Moses, who rebelled against God’s commands, and were therefore deemed unworthy to enter the Promised Land, and the new generation led by Caleb and Joshua, who were faithful and trusted God, and thus were allowed by God to enter Canaan. The two censuses at the beginning and end of the book can be seen as listing the two separate communities, the unfaithful and the faithful. Joshua and Caleb are there not just as historical figures but to provide ‘types’, examples to the faithful remnant in exile.

The narrative of chapters 11 to 21 tells why the older generation could not enter Canaan. It is a catalogue of rebellions, complaints and failures. Even members of Moses’ own family, Aaron and Miriam, were among those who complained and instigated revolt, and were punished by God: Aaron was deprived of the office of High Priest and died on the mountain of Hor, and Miriam was struck with leprosy. Natural disasters, such as an earthquake and a plague of snakes, are seen by the priestly editors as God’s punishment on his disobedient people.

The other thread in these chapters, and those before and after, is the need to keep strictly to the provisions of the ritual law. There are sections dealing with Levites and Nazirites, with sacrifice, Passover and other festivals, and the keeping of the Sabbath, as well as sections about who is to be considered unclean, and how a woman suspected of adultery is to be examined by a form of trial by ordeal (chapter 5).

Hebrew worship at this time was centred on two sacred objects: firstly the Tent of Meeting and second the Ark of the Covenant. The Tent was particularly associated with what became the Southern Kingdom led by the tribe of Judah, whereas the Ark was associated with the Northern Kingdom, lead by the Joseph tribes.

The history in the Book of Numbers recounts a first, unsuccessful attempt to invade Canaan. A group of spies entered the land, and reported it attractive and fertile, though strongly defended.  Joshua and Caleb were in favour of attacking from the South, trusting God was with them. However, the Ark remained in camp, and so the attack lacked divine favour, and the Israelites were defeated (Numbers 14 ).

The Israelites then  made a wide circuit to the East, to the land of other Semitic tribes like Moab and Edom, and won their first military victories when these peoples refused to let them pass along the ancient road known as The King’s Highway.

At this point the book recounts a folk story about the talking ass of the Babylonian magician, Balaam, who was summoned by the King of Moab to pronounce a curse on the invading  Israelites, so they would lose the battle. When Balaam refuses to listen to the message God sends him in a dream, his ass refuses to go forward, and God gives the ass the power of speech, to reveal that an angel is barring his way. This illustrates both the influence of Babylonian tales and beliefs on this part of the Old Testament, and also the belief that God has power not just over those who belong to the covenant, but over alien peoples as well (chapters 22-24).

The book ends with God’s assurance that when the Israelites cross over the Jordan, they will possess the whole of the Promised Land. However, with this assurance comes a warning that they are not to pollute the land. Only if they keep themselves as a holy people will the Israelites enjoy the blessings promised by the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6.24:

May the Lord bless you and take care of you;

May the Lord be kind and gracious to you;

May the Lord look on you with favour, and give you peace.


July 23, 2010

The name of the Book of Deuteronomy comes from the Greek for ‘second law’. It purports to be a series of addresses by Moses, given in the land of Moab just before the people of Israel enter the Promised Land. However, although the sources of the book may go back to the time of the covenant, the book itself was probably composed in the 6th or early 7th centuries BC.

The Second Book of Kings, chapter 22 describes how a ‘book of the law’ was found during restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BC. This book was taken by the king, Josiah, and read to the people, and formed the justification for a series of reforms of Jewish religion which he supervised. These involved purging it of all practices derived from Canaanite religion, and abolishing all the local sanctuaries around the country, centralising worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Another consequence of the reforms was that the Passover was restored as a major festival.

The core of this book is thought by scholars to be chapters 12 – 26 of our Book of Deuteronomy. They think this was a version of the Covenant Law which came from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and was probably read out during the covenant renewal ceremonies at either Shechem or Shiloh during the time of the tribal confederation. This is supported by the fact that the ‘holy mountain’ where the law is given is called Horeb, not Sinai as in the Southern Kingdom traditions. Around the core of the law are passages of history, some songs and a series of three addresses or sermons, which are put into the mouth of Moses. These are written in a style which is typical of the period in which the book was found, and contain ethical and religious themes which reflect those emphasised by the prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Therefore, scholars conclude that Deuteronomy is a reformulation of the Mosaic Covenant faith, rewritten by an unknown author to meet the needs of the people of King Josiah’s time.

The main thrust of the book is to remind the people of Israel that the covenant was made not just with their ancestors, but also with those who are alive today. Therefore, like their ancestors, the people face a choice: life or death, blessing or curse. To be faithful to the covenant will bring blessings: fertility, prosperity and continual enjoyments of the Promised Land; to be unfaithful to the covenant will bring the curse of war, pestilence, illness and eventually, loss of the land.

There is an emphasis on the theme of love in the book. God showed love to Israel in choosing them as his people. Therefore the people must respond by loving God. This is summarised in chapter 6 verse 4, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, etc.” This is the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith which is carried in the phylacteries and written on the door posts of Jews, and which Jesus used as the first of the Great Commandments. However, to be loved by God is not a comfortable thing; the book states that God is a jealous god and will not tolerate worship of any other god. Hence the religious reforms carried out by Josiah.

Secondly, the book emphasises that, having been chosen by God, Israel must be a holy people. They are not to intermarry with pagans, or adopt pagan practices, and the community is to be preserved in a state of ritual purity. The book therefore repeats the cleanliness laws of Leviticus as well as the legal codes of Exodus.

Thirdly, the book reminds the Israelites that they must not be proud, self-righteous, or self-sufficient. They must remember that God chose them and that they enjoy their special status because of his grace, not their own worthiness. They are to remember their state before the Exodus, and be especially kind to less fortunate members of the community, like slaves and foreigners. This reflects the concern for social justice shown by the 8th century prophets. One clue to the time in which the book was put together is the concern for the Levites – the country priests who were deprived of their living when the rural shrines were abolished. They, like the widows and orphans, must be provided for.

The publication by Josiah of the Book of Deuteronomy marked the starting point of the formation of the canon of Scripture. It is one of the books most often quoted in the New Testament, especially by Jesus. Apart from using the Shema, he also draws on Deuteronomy to answer Satan in his temptation in the wilderness before the start of his ministry.

At its best, Deuteronomy teaches that we should love and serve God without any hope of return, simply because God loves us. At its worst, Deuteronomy reflects an attitude to religious faith and practice that was frequently adopted both in Jewish and Christian history. This says that those who obey God will prosper and those who disobey will not. The problem is that this approach equates true religious faith with material prosperity; and, as the generations who came after Josiah found, this sort of faith tends to collapse in the face of disaster.

The Pentateuch

July 23, 2010

The first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are known by many names.

To the Jews they are the Torah – a word which is often translated as “law” but which really means much more – instruction, guidance, etc. The five books contain a number of different sorts of material. As well as civil and religious law, they also contain myths,  legends, sagas, folk tales, history, poetry,  songs, genealogies, census material, descriptions of sacred objects and instructions about ritual.

The scrolls of the Torah are the most precious possessions of a synagogue, and are usually covered with decorated velvet mantles, with bells attached so that everyone knows when the scroll is being taken out. The whole Torah will be read during a year in the synagogue.

Pentateuch comes from the Greek, and simply means ‘five books’.  This title came from the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria during the 3rd century BC, which is the version of the Old Testament used by Jews in the time of Jesus and by the early Christians.

The books are often known among Jews as the ‘Five Books of Moses’. The Orthodox belief was that Moses was the author of all five (except for Deuteronomy 34 5-12, which describes the death and burial of Moses, and is ascribed to Joshua). However, most scholars nowadays believe that the books were put together from many sources, oral and written, over a period of time.

Some of the oral material seems to have come from sources common to much of the Ancient Near and Middle East. For instance, there are close parallels between the story of Noah in Genesis and the story of Utnapishtim in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. There are also close parallels in written material, especially in the codes of laws; the civil law in Exodus has many similarities with the Code of Hammurabi, put together in Babylon in about 1690 BC, and discovered by archaeologists on a black diorite stele.

Our present Pentateuch probably dates from around 400 BC. This was the culmination of a process of collection and amalgamation of written documents that probably went on in Israel between the ninth and the fifth centuries BC. Scholars now identify four main sources which they believe lie behind the Pentateuch (though there are other minor documents also). These four are identified by the letter J, E, P and D.

The first source ‘J’ takes its title from the name it uses for God, the divine name Jahweh or Yahweh. It consists mostly of narrative, including the sagas of the patriarchs (Abraham to Joseph) and one version of the early myths like the Creation and the Flood stories. Its ideas of God are relatively primitive – God has a body and converses directly with humans. This source is believed to have come from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Some scholars think there is a sub-source which they name ‘S’ (for South or Seir). These stories are distinguished by the character of God, who seems either indifferent or hostile to human beings.

The second source ‘E’  also takes it title from the name it uses for God, which was Elohim (Hebrew for god). It is also largely narrative, and sometimes gives a parallel account of the incidents described in ‘J’. It is more poetic, and has a more exalted view of God, who no longer appears directly to human beings, but communicates through dreams or angels. It depicts Moses as a miracle worker, which ‘J’ doesn’t, and it ‘cleans up’ the characters of the patriarchs, who achieve their purposes through divine blessing rather than trickery. This source is thought to have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

The main part of the ‘D’ document was the book ‘found’ in the Temple at Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah in 622 BC (see 2 Kings 22-23). It was probably written shortly before this by a priest of the Temple, and is really a sermon on the Law of Moses. Its view has much in common with the prophets, particularly Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, and it reminds the people of the blessings they will enjoy if they keep the law, and the evils that will come upon them if they don’t. There are also indications that an editor who thought like the author of Deuteronomy inserted sections into the earlier books (e.g. Genesis 15, 18-21).

The final source is ‘P’ for Priestly. This source had a much more formal style than either ‘J’ or ‘E’. It avoids primitive ideas of God, and is interested in ritual and ceremonial, rather than stories. It inserts genealogies and numerical information into the earlier narratives (some of it highly unlikely to be historically true  e.g. the figure of six hundred thousand men, plus women and children, for the number of Israelites leaving Egypt at the Exodus). The first account of creation in Genesis 1 comes from this source. Although, like the other sources, it contains earlier material, in its final edition it is thought to be the latest element in the Pentateuch, dating from the time of the exile in Babylon ( 586-538 BC ).


July 23, 2010

The Book of Joshua traces the history of the Israelite people from the conquest of the Promised Land  to the death of Joshua (about 1250-1200 BC). It is the first book in the Deuteronomic History of Israel, though it incorporates material from an earlier (and in the view of modern biblical commentators, more accurate) history of the Conquest.

It describes the division of the land between the twelve tribes, and ends with Joshua’s farewell address and the renewal of the covenant at the sanctuary at Shechem.

Some parts of  Book of Joshua imply that virtually all of the Promised Land was conquered by forces from all 12 tribes of Israel, under the command of Joshua in three swift campaigns (chapter 21, 43-45). However, other statements in the book, particularly chapter 13, 1-7, which say that when Joshua was very old, there was still much territory to be taken, and chapter 23, verse 1, which says that much later the Lord gave Israel security from their enemies around them, imply that the conquest was much more drawn out.

Joshua describes several miraculous occurrences during the conquest. There is the story of the walls of Jericho tumbling down as the Israelites shouted and blew their trumpets (chapter 6 ). There is the miracle of the Jordan water stopping so the Covenant Box and the army could cross on dry land (chapters 3 and 4). Finally there is the description of the sun stopping in its course for 24 hours while the Israelite army defeated the Amorites (chapter 10, 12-14 ).

Archaeological evidence shows that the walled city of Jericho (as well as Ai, which the Israelites were also supposed to have destroyed) were in ruins well before the Israelite conquest. Jericho probably had wooden walls at the time of the conquest. The damming of the Jordan was probably the result of a landslide, and the sun stopping (which is of course impossible)  was a misreading of an ancient prayer for the sun to be concealed by mist to help the Israelite army to creep up on their enemies and surprise them.

However, archaeological evidence does support the accounts of Israelite conquests of some of the Canaanite hill cities, like Lachish, during the thirteenth century BC.

The story of the conquest of the Canaanite cities portrays Yahweh as a cruel and vengeful  God, who demands that every living thing in the conquered cities be killed and all the treasure given over to his worship, and who punishes any of the Israelite soldiers who disobey this ruling (see the story of Achan in chapter 6). The only people who are spared the destruction of Jericho are the prostitute Rahab and her family, because she helped the Israelite spies to escape. This is a portrayal of God we find hard to accept.

The description of how the territory was assigned to the tribes is probably a reading back of the situation when the Book of Joshua was written. Some of the tribes were probably already occupying the land. There are hints in the Bible of a division between the Rachel tribes (descended from sons of Rachel) and the Leah tribes (descended from sons of Leah) and it is possible that the Leah tribes did not take part in the Exodus, but were already in possession of land around Shechem. This land distribution still affects our world today, in the disputes between Israel and the Palestinians over settlements in the Occupied Territories.

The most important parts of the book, from the point of view of the religious history of the Jews  are the chapters which describe religious rituals (such as the circumcision of the new generation in chapter 5); the building of altars and the establishment of sanctuaries; and the reading of the Law to the whole people (8, 30-35). Particularly important are chapters 23 and 24, in which Joshua reminds the people of the history of the Exodus, and all the tribes swear loyalty to Yahweh. This was the first occurrence of the Covenant Renewal ceremony, which scholars believe took place annually at Shechem. This bound all the tribes, whatever their history, into the tribal confederacy (or amphictyony) which was loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to the Law given at Sinai.


July 23, 2010

The Book of Judges covers the history of the Israelite people from the death of Joshua (about 1200 BC) to the time of Samuel and Saul (about 1020 BC). It is the second book in the Deuteronomic History of Israel, and so illustrates the same theological viewpoint: that when Israel is faithful to the covenant, she prospers, but when she forsakes it, especially by turning to the worship of the Canaanite nature gods Baal and Asherah, she angers Yahweh, and he lets her be oppressed by her enemies. However, Yahweh is a merciful god, and when the people cry out to him, he sends a champion or ‘judge’ to lead them into victory.

At this period the Israelite tribes were united only in a loose confederation, known technically as an amphictyony. It was maintained by a periodic renewal of the covenant with Yahweh which took place at Shechem. The tribes shared the care of the religious sanctuary here, and at the regular religious festivals they rehearsed the history that bound them together, and acknowledged the common law that was binding on all the tribes. But otherwise they operated independently. When an external threat came, they could only be united by a strong charismatic leader. Among these are Othniel, Ehud, Deborah (the only female judge) Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.

The Book of Judges has taken the tales of heroes of the tribes, and fitted them into a pattern of the rise and fall of the tribal confederacy, implying that the judges ruled over all the twelve tribes. This is probably an oversimplification. In reality, sometimes the judges were able to appeal to other tribes for support, but mostly their leadership was local, and arose from a particular crisis situation for a particular tribe.

The title of ‘judge’ is quite confusing. The Hebrew original shofet actually means a leader, and the judges of this period exercised military leadership as well as arbitrating in legal disputes. What characterises a ‘judge’ in this period is that he or she is filled with the spirit of Yahweh, which gives them wisdom and enables them to perform superhuman feats. Therefore the office is individual and charismatic, not hereditary, and a judge can lose this power if he or she deserts Yahweh.

Judges begins with stories of military victories and then repeats the story of the death of Joshua (Judges 2, 6-9 = Joshua 24, 29-30). Then, the writer tells us, “the next generation forgot the Lord, and what he had done for Israel”.  The text says that the Lord left some people unconquered in Canaan to test the Israelites who had not been through the conquest. In reality, it is unlikely that the conquest of Canaan was as complete or successful as the Book of Judges describes, and that the process of conflict and assimilation went on for many centuries.

After three minor judges, Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, the first major judge whose actions are described is the prophetess, Deborah. Together with Barak, she led some of the tribes in the battle of Kishon against the Canaanite commander, Sisera. The story also tells of another feisty woman, Jael, who killed the fleeing Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head as he slept in her tent.

After another time of peace, the Israelites came under pressure from the Midianites and Amalekites, and Gideon was sent to rescue them. His story, told in Judges 6-8, includes the tale of how he chose his army by seeing how they drank the river, and how he pretended to have a bigger army than he did by concealing lights in jars and blowing trumpets in the dark.

Unusually, Abimelech, Gideon’s son, succeeded him as ‘judge’ but he was worthless, and his rule led to division among the tribes.

Then another couple of minor judges (Tola and Jair) come before Jepthah, whose success is marred by his promise to sacrifice the first thing that meets him on his return home. Tragically, that turns out to be his daughter (chapter 11).

Chapters 13 to 16 tell the story of the flawed hero, Samson. Interestingly, the details of Samson’s birth are given. He is born to a barren woman, and conceived after prayer to God; then he is dedicated to the service of God. This provides motifs that recur in the stories of Samuel and John the Baptist. Although the story says that Samson loses his charisma as a result of having his hair cut, it is clear that his weakness for the ladies in the real source of his downfall. Since communion with the gods through sexual intercourse was a feature of Canaanite religion, this highlights the cultural conflict between the Israelites and their Philistine neighbours.

The final three chapters tell the rather distasteful story of Micah, and the Levite and his concubine. Throughout these chapters the Deuteronomic editor repeats the theme, “There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did just as he pleased”.

This prepares the way for the Book of Samuel, which tells how Israel was saved by the coming of the royal dynasty of David.


July 23, 2010

The short book of Ruth is included among the history books of the Old Testament, but it is really a novel. In the Hebrew Bible it is included in the ‘five scrolls’ also known as the Megilloth, along with the Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. All these scrolls are read at one of the Jewish  festivals. Ruth is read at Pentecost, which celebrated the barley harvest, because the main action of the novel takes place at this time.

Many scholars believe that the book of Ruth was published in the post-exilic period, at a time when the Jewish leaders were insisting on racial purity, and the separation of Jews from foreign wives. Though the story may have originated nearer to the time in which it is set (the time of the Judges, before the monarchy was established under Saul) the opening phrase, “Long ago in the days before Israel had a king”, demonstrates that it was regarded as history by the time it was written down.

The book tells how Elimelech left  Bethlehem in a time of famine and settled with his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilon in the land of Moab. While there, the sons married Moabite women. The three men died in Moab, but when things improved in Israel, Naomi resolved to return to her homeland.

Her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, wanted  to accompany her, but Naomi tried to dissuade them, because they would be unlikely to find husbands in Israel. Only Ruth persisted, with  the famous words: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God”. (1.16)

They arrived at the time of the barley harvest, and Ruth went to glean in the field of her husband’s relative, Boaz.  There she came to the notice of Boaz, who showed her favouritism, because of her kindness to Naomi.

After the harvest was finished, Naomi persuaded Ruth to dress herself up, and approach Boaz as he slept and (in the euphemism used in the Bible)  “to uncover his feet”.  This established a contract of marriage between them, and after establishing that no nearer relative was willing to marry her, Boaz took Ruth as his wife.

Their first son was Obed, the grandfather of King David. The novel thus makes the point that Israel’s greatest monarch had a foreign great-grandmother. This point is also made in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel. So, as well as being a romantic story, the Book of Ruth can be seen as a plea for inclusiveness in the Christian community.

1 Samuel

July 23, 2010

The first Book of Samuel tells of the period in Israelite history when the loose association of tribes, led by judges, came together to form a united kingdom. It describes what  happened during the period from about 1050 to 1000 BC. The book contains some of the best-known stories of the Old Testament and centres around the activities of three men: the prophet Samuel, and the kings Saul and David.

The first chapter of 1 Samuel describes the birth of Samuel to his elderly parents, Hannah and Eli. This section provided a pattern for Luke’s account of the the birth of John the Baptist, and Hannah’s prayer of joy in 1 Samuel 2, 1-10 has many close parallels with the Magnificat (Luke 1, 46-55 ).

Samuel was dedicated from birth to the service of God, and grew up with the priest Eli at the sanctuary at Shiloh, where the Ark or Covenant Box  was kept.  In keeping with the philosophy of the Deuteronomic historian who wrote this book, Eli’s sons are shown as scoundrels, and it is because of their sin that the Israelites are defeated in battle, and the Covenant Box captured (chapters 1-4). However, the power of the Ark was so great, that eventually the Philistines decided it was better to return it to the Israelites. (chapters 5 & 6). Eli died from the shock of learning of the loss of the Ark and his sons’ deaths, and from this time onward Samuel ruled Israel as a judge.

Scholars detect two sources in the story of Samuel and his role in establishing the Israelite monarchy. In one, (called by scholars the Saul source) he is a minor prophet or seer who officiated in one shrine, but had clairvoyant powers. When Saul came to consult Samuel about finding a lost donkey, God told Samuel that this was the man who had been chosen to be king. Samuel anointed him secretly, but it wasn’t until after Saul had defeated the Ammonites in battle that he is proclaimed king before the people (11,13).

In the other tradition, known to scholars as the Samuel tradition, the Israelites came to Samuel, who had appointed his sons to succeed him as judges, and asked him to ‘give us a king as other countries have’ (8,5). Samuel warned them that they should have no king but God, and that a king would force their sons into his army and into creating wealth for him, and take their daughters to work in his palaces and rob them of their land. However, when the people persisted in their demands, Samuel selected Saul as king by drawing lots among the tribes, then among the families, till at last Saul was chosen(10, 17-27). The two sources are distinguished by having two different places for the proclamation of Saul as king: in the Samuel source it happens at Mizpah, in the Saul source at Gilgal. Saul’s reign is thought to have begun about 1030 BC and lasted until about 1010 BC.

Chapters 13 to 15 tell the story of Saul’s campaigns against Israel’s enemies, and the brave deeds of the king and his son Jonathan. However, they also tell of occasions when Saul and Jonathan disobeyed God (for instance by not slaughtering  every one of the enemy soldiers, their sheep and cattle). The Deuteronomic historian sees this as the reason why God turned against Saul’s dynasty, and chose David to succeed him as king (chapter 15). The account of Saul’s reign continues until the end of the book at chapter 31, but  chapter 16 introduces his successor, David, and the following chapters chronicle Saul’s gradual decline, as he succumbs to jealousy and obsession. In the view of the author of 1 Samuel, this happened because the divine spirit had left Saul and settled on David (16, 13-14).

Chapters 16 to 31 tell how the spirit of God enables David to to kill Goliath (chapter 17), to play music that soothed the soul ( 16, 15-23) and to have success in battle (18,13-14). It is clear that this account draws on several sources, since there are two different accounts of how David is brought to Saul’s court. It also tells of the friendship between David and Jonathan, and how the Lord’s protection allows David to escape from Saul’s persecution. Saul however, departs further and further from obedience to God; he slaughters the priests because they helped David (chapters 21-22) and he consulted a witch to try to see into the future (chapter 28).

The book does not show David in an entirely favourable light, however. It tells how he agreed to fight for the Philistines, and was even prepared to go into battle against Israel (chapters 27-29).

I Samuel ends with the account of the battle on Mount Gilboa in which Saul and Jonathan were killed.

The book clearly demonstrates the tension that exists throughout the Old Testament between pride in the royal line of David, which brought Israel an empire and a place of prestige among the surrounding nations in its golden age, and the opposing idea that Israel was not supposed to be a nation like other nations, but a people bound together by their covenant with God, and relying on God entirely to preserve them from their enemies.


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