Believe it or not, it’s the middle of the semester. That means midterm time, and on Thursday I turned in our take-home, open-book, open-notes midterm. The assignment essentially was to write an essay about what we’d learned in class and through our readings so far, but the prompt was more than a page long. Good times!
It occurred to me, however, that as a summary of what I’ve learned thus far, it might be worth posting here as a helpful summary of things we’ve discussed – and the things I’ve learned that I didn’t have the time or memory to post about. I’ve edited it a little, mostly to remove parenthetical citations, which are important to the professor but wouldn’t have much relevance to you without some sort of bibliography. Also, I added some links, where appropriate and some bolding for emphasis to make it easier to get through.
The prompt boils down to this basic assignment: A friend walks up to you and says, “Why should I study the Old Testament? I believe it’s the inspired word of God, and I know the stories we learn as kids, so why should I bother learning anything else?”
Dear Anonymous Friend:
At its most basic level, the Old Testament was written to tell a story – to record the history of Israel and, in so doing, shape its identity for the generations to follow. But these purposes go much deeper. Because Israel’s story isn’t just their story; it’s our story. And rejecting it as simply a series of childhood fables makes our own faith story shallower and less meaningful.
The scholarly consensus, as I understand it, is that the Old Testament was largely written during or after the Jews were exiled to Assyria and Babylon, perhaps as late as after the return from Persia. Though it might not seem like it, dating the testament is an important consideration because the circumstances of the authorship influence heavily what we can see of its purposes.
As a series of exilic or postexilic works, the Old Testament is more than mere recitation. It is the preservation of tradition, yes, but it is also the uncomfortable embrace of a theology that seems to have failed its writers. Through that prism, the Old Testament can be seen in a way as one massive etiology echoing through all eras of history: Why are things this way? How could this happen? Where was God?
For identity establishment, the Pentateuch serves a key role, as it describes not only how God spoke Israel into existence – the call of and covenant with Abraham – but how God’s grace lifted the nation out of slavery and back to the land, this latter no small consideration.
But more than simply a story of God’s love, faithfulness and grace, it is also a story of Israel’s responsibility as it struggles to keep its covenant with him. In fact, the Old Testament hammers these three things home over and over again: Israel is God’s people, they are rescued by grace from their chains, and they have responsibilities to fulfill in their relationship with their creator and savior. As I said, their story is our story, too.
“But,” you might respond, “so what? I understand all of this from the stories I already know.” And so you might. But there are troves of details bringing this story to a much greater depth than simply skimming the surface of the well-worn childhood tales.
For example, the well-known opening of the Bible begins with a battle – between chaos and creation:
“When God began to create the heavens and the earth – the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2, Common English Bible)
Throughout the creation stories of Genesis 1-2, a study of details can bring to life the poetry of the stories. As was discussed in our Intro to Old Testament class, God uses the first three days to form (light, water and sky, dry land) and the second three days to fill (sun and moon, fish and birds, animals and people). By instituting the Sabbath, the story becomes distinctly Judaic. And the placement and naming of Adam – “humanity” – and Eve – “life” – indicate a coequal relationship that has been obscured over the millennia.
Likewise, a closer study of some of the more difficult stories in the Old Testament can lead to clearer insights about the authorship and motives of the text – important questions the answers to which would be lost if these stories were simply glossed over or disregarded altogether.
For example, God determines to create for Adam a “helper” in Gen. 2:18. This could be – and arguably has – been used to justify discrimination against women, but God himself is described as a helper to Moses in Exodus 18, and numerous times by the psalmist. Does this mean, perhaps, that God has a higher view of what a helper is than we do?
Likewise, our professor highlighted the use of “seed” in the Pentateuch, particularly the symmetry between the lines of Seth and Cain; the identical number of generations leading from Adam to Noah and from Noah to Terah; and the use of Noah’s son, Ham, as something of a scapegoat for Israel’ s campaign of violence against his descendants.
This latter example shows the importance of recognizing the culture and context in which the Old Testament books were created because doing so reveals the potential biases of the authors and sheds light on why they chose to emphasize certain aspects.
In both the story of Canaan’s ancestor incurring a curse because he exposed Noah’s nakedness and the disturbing tale of the rape – or perhaps not – of Dinah, we can see the hands of the authors, asking us to accept their thesis: the corruption of the Canaanites and the evils of associating with them, especially marrying them. Of course, that thesis isn’t necessarily even accepted by other authors of the same books. Moses marries foreign women without trouble, and God’s actions toward Hagar are anything but condemnatory.
Even in the Dinah story, there are ambiguities, not least of which is why Jacob calls a curse down on Levi and Simeon for their violent vengeance against Dinah’s rapist and his family, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that scholars now question whether the sex actually was forced.
These many details also help build connections, within passages of the Pentateuch, between different parts of the Pentateuch and between the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament.
The parallel creation stories of Genesis 1-2 contain many differences – the state of the earth, the order of creation and the portrayals of God chief among them. Yet they also show God bringing order to chaos, working his will in a world that seems not to know him and directing events to bring into existence humanity and making it possible for them to know him.
The themes of creation continue to resound in the rest of the Pentateuch and, ultimately, the Old Testament. Of particular interest to me is a topic we discussed briefly in class, the continuing battle between creation and chaos in the Pentateuch: God tames the waters of chaos in Genesis 1, then drowns the world in them in Genesis 7. In Exodus, while Pharaoh casts the future of Israel into the waters, its savior floats safely across them – my professor notes the Bible calls Moses “good,” another connection back to the creation. As the plagues end, Moses leads the Israelites to the edge of the sea, where chaos threatens, but God again tames these waters, parting them so his people can walk safely across. Finally, the Pentateuch itself also ends at the edge of the water, with Israel waiting to cross the Jordan and seize the Promised Land.
Crossing the sea becomes a significant part of Israel’s identity, and the Deuteronomic history and prophets reflect this. As we discussed in class, God refers to himself in the context of the exodus (the God who brought Israel “out of Egypt”) more than in any other way (I count roughly four dozen times from 1 Samuel through Haggai and dozens more within the Pentateuch itself), and the theme of God conquering the forces of the sea is repeated in Job, Psalms and Isaiah.
Other examples of connections through the Old Testament: The Psalms retell – or tell in a slightly different way – the legends of creation and the Flood, and the prophets are continually citing the Pentateuch in pronouncing doom over the two kingdoms against which they are called to prophesy.
Study of the Old Testament is not limited simply to studying the Old Testament. As an ancient text relating the stories of an ancient Near Eastern people, it occurs within a context that includes historical and archaeological evidence, as well as parallel stories found in neighboring cultures.
Extrabiblical creation myths provide fertile ground for comparison and contrast. Similarities show clearly the Bible’s reliance on an ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos. Yet those Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite myths are filled with violence and war, whereas the Pentateuch describes God creating with the power of his word, no warfare needed.
Still other parallels, such as the Enkidu creation story in the Epic of Gilgamesh, provide new depth to other aspects of the creation accounts, in this case Genesis 2, where similarities seem to reveal (at least according to the scholars I studied) a close link between wisdom, or “knowledge,” and sexual maturity, thus opening many new paths of study to explore.
Scientific and archaeological evidence, meanwhile, cast doubt – if not entirely rule out – the historicity not only the creation and Great Flood stories, but also the accuracy of the Israelite conquest as described in Joshua. This could be troubling to those whose faith is staked on a literal reading of the Bible, but it also can free the texts from the strictures of history, releasing them to be seen as the beautiful poetry, metaphor and historiography they were intended to be. And studying such evidence can help us see how Israel’s own legends reveal a changing view of God himself and how he works in our world.
Along with extrabiblical evidence, scholarly research has transformed the way we study the Old Testament. In particular, source criticism, which provides insight into the possible authorship, compilation and timing of the text, can radically reshape our storybook views of the Bible.
Studying such research allows us to view the Old Testament as a “living document” of sorts, revealing the biases, political considerations and struggles of the authors as they led a nation struggling to recover its identity. We can see not only how the text has shaped the faith of the Israelites, but how their faith shaped the text. You may disagree, Anonymous Friend, but to me that is a far more enriching study than seeing these books as simply the records of Moses, Joshua and Samuel as they describe events occurring within their lifetimes.
For example, Ska’s breakdown of the parallel Flood narratives of Genesis 6-8, as well as the parallel sea-crossings of Exodus 14, are highly convincing and open the text to exciting new possibilities for exploration. What schools are behind these parallel narratives? Why did the editor(s) decide to merge the two instead of simply choosing one? What can we learn from these stories if we acknowledge they may simply not have happened the way we’ve always assumed?
Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis, though scholars no longer agree on its accuracy, presents an evolutionary view of the law that can transform the way you look at those texts. What if, as Wellhausen hypothesized, the original law was “natural, spontaneous, free and authentic,” and the increasing centralization and ritualization of Judaism was a sign of degeneration? What does this mean for our view not only of the law, but of Paul’s comments on the law vs. grace in the New Testament? How does this connect with the common prophetic refrain that God would prefer obedience over sacrifice?
Finally, feminist and other poststructural criticism forces us to open our minds to radically different interpretations of the text than we could discern simply from reading the childhood stories. These methods often provide new light for difficult passages such as the “bloody bridegroom” pericope of Exodus 4 or the punishment of Lot’s wife in Genesis 19. A child-storybook view of the Old Testament simply cannot account for these stories; as a result, they are often shunted aside.
The Pentateuch, which has received much of the focus here, does so because it is the basis for Israel’s theology and history. We see its themes of chaos vs. creation throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and much of the Old Testament is consumed with the story of Israel struggling to live up to the ideals presented in the laws of the Pentateuch. God himself in the rest of the Old Testament constantly refers to his actions as recorded in the Pentateuch, whether reminding his people of his grace in the exodus or their responsibility through the covenant.
Yet extrabiblical evidence and scholarly research makes clear the Pentateuch likely was written centuries after the events it portrays would have taken place – indeed, written well after most events described in the Old Testament would have taken place. To the extent that parts of it are faithfully retold oral tradition, they have likely been exaggerated and embellished over time. Other pieces, meanwhile, are fully mythical, while still others appear to reflect the political considerations and biases of a much later time, when the authors were attempting to craft a story that made sense in light of the decimation of Jerusalem and the exile of its residents.
The conclusion, then, is that the Pentateuch is something of a prequel for the rest of the Old Testament, designed to form the identity of Israel and shape its idea of God, its place in the world and its view of the future.
In so doing, it is also the foundation of our story, the opening act in a millennia-spanning production that culminates in the final victory of Christ over the chaos of uncreation.