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If God is the hero of the Old Testament, what about the hundreds of other men and women who give the Hebrew Bible its epic scope? One way to recognize how influential these biblical personalities are is to recall how many Adams, Davids, Ruths, Rebeccas, and Rachels you have known and grown up with. Such names have remained popular over the centuries at least in part because their biblical namesakes were regarded as heroes and heroines, as worthy models of behavior.
HEROISM WITHOUT HERO WORSHIP
Perhaps you have heard of something called hero worship. You are a hero worshiper if you are so excited by a person's strengths that you cannot see his or her weaknesses. Today the objects of hero worship are usually popular music, film, and sports stars, but in ancient times they tended to be kings, conquerors, and tribal leaders. It was common among ancient peoples to regard the ruler as a kind of god, and many hymns were composed to honor the Mesopotamian kings and Egyptian pharaohs.
The writers of the Old Testament were very much aware of the dangers of hero worship. Since the religion of the Hebrews was based on monotheism, or belief in one God, there could be only one fit object of worship: God Himself. Viewed in this light, the tendency to worship earthly kings, even worthy ancestors, left the way open to polytheism and idolatry. Thus, in the Old Testament, only God is faultless. Every human personality- even the greatest of the Israelites- is shown to have human failings. Moreover, the greater the leader, the stricter the standards applied.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Consider a few examples you will encounter in your reading. Adam and Eve, regarded by the Bible as our first parents, are created by God in His own image, but their disobedience leads to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and to a curse on all humankind. Notice how Noah is called "a just man and perfect in his generations" (Genesis 6:9) when God chooses him to build the ark that will protect a remnant of God's creation from the coming flood. Later, however, when the flood waters have subsided, Noah will become a wine maker, and his sons will find him lying naked and drunk. The magnificent Moses, chosen by God to bring freedom and law to the children of Israel, is not permitted to enter the Promised Land because he disobeys a divine command in one of his typical displays of anger (Numbers 20:7-13).
You will not find any biblical character more remarkable than David, the shepherd, poet, warrior, rebel, and king. For many centuries in Western Europe, writers on politics cited David and his son Solomon as the supreme models of good government. But if you read carefully, you will see that neither man is free from blemish. The prophet Nathan bitterly denounces King David for lusting after the beautiful Bathsheba and arranging to have her husband murdered (2 Samuel 12:1- 15). As for Solomon, although the Hebrew Bible praises him as a wise king and judge, it also makes clear that his use of forced labor in building splendid royal cities paved the way for the period of divisiveness and rebellion that followed his death.
As you read about each of these biblical personalities, you should attempt to weigh the hero's weaknesses and strengths to arrive at a balanced judgment. Generally, the Old Testament presents each character as worthy to the extent that he follows the ways of God, and as flawed to the extent that he substitutes his own desires for the divine will. In assessing how each biblical figure achieves heroic stature or goes astray, you should also ask yourself what each episode reveals about the nature of the Old Testament God and the kind of obedience He demands.
Imagine the money a clever tour promoter could make with a well-publicized trip through Old Testament lands. The pilgrims would start with a picnic lunch in the Garden of Eden; spend the night on Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark came to rest; cross the Red Sea at the precise point where the Israelites crossed it; and ascend Mount Sinai, following in the footsteps of Moses. If you think you'd like to take or organize such a tour, better think again: after years of intensive research, scholars have not been able to establish the exact location of any of these places.
PROBLEMS IN BIBLICAL HISTORY
Eden, which means "delight" in Hebrew, probably stems from the Sumerian word Edinn, a general name for the fertile plain of Babylon. There is a mountain called Ararat in eastern Turkey, but no reputable scholar has been able to prove that Noah's ark stopped there; more likely, the Old Testament means the Armenian mountains that belonged to an empire the ancients knew as Urartu. As for the Red Sea, which separates Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula, most experts now say the correct translation of the Hebrew yam suf is "Sea of Reeds," location unknown. Nor has the exact route of the Exodus been established. Although, by tradition, a peak in the Sinai Peninsula called Jabal Musa (Arabic for "Mountain of Moses") is thought to be the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments, there is no proof, and modern opinion remains divided. An interesting mixed case is the town of Jericho, one of the world's most ancient fortified cities. At Jericho, archaeologists have found mud-brick dwellings and public buildings that are nearly 9000 years old; but no trace of the walls supposedly destroyed by Joshua around 1200 B.C. has ever been discovered.
If you want to argue that much of the Old Testament is merely legend, not fact, all this evidence is grist for your mill. But you should also be aware of the many biblical sites that archaeologists have confirmed since the nineteenth century. The settlement called "Ur of the Chaldees" in Genesis 11 has been identified as an ancient Mesopotamian city near the right bank of the Euphrates River; it is known that Ur fell to nomadic invaders around 2000 B.C., about the same time that, according to the biblical narrative, Abraham and his family set out for the Promised Land. Remains of an Israelite fortress have been found at Kadesh-barnea, an oasis in the northern Sinai Desert that the Bible mentions as a gathering place for the Hebrews after they left Egypt. Some of the most important finds have been made at Hazor and Megiddo, two cities in northern Israel that were built by King Solomon during the tenth century B.C. And, of course, there is no doubt about the location of Jerusalem, which King David chose as his royal capital. This city, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, has long been studied by archaeologists, and today Jerusalem is once again the capital of a Jewish state.
THE WORLD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament contains many dozens of place-names, and it would be foolish to try to memorize them all. But as you read, you should try to fix in your mind a rough geography of the biblical world. At the center of the biblical world, physically as well as spiritually, is the land of Israel. Israel's political boundaries have shifted over the centuries, but you won't go far wrong if you think of the land as bounded by the Great or Upper Sea (now the Mediterranean Sea) to the west, the Jordan River to the east, Lebanon to the north, and the Sinai Desert and Red Sea to the south. As you may have noticed already, this land has many names: Canaan, the Promised Land, Israel, Judah and Israel (in the time of the divided kingdom), Judea and Samaria, Palestine (from Roman times until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948), and the Holy Land.
Why is so much of the Old Testament taken up with war and conquest? One reason is that Israel was at the very center of the economy of the Middle East. Copper was mined in the Sinai, and wheat, barley, dates, and fruit trees flourished. The ancient Hebrews were a pastoral people, and if you recall that David was originally a shepherd, you will not be surprised to hear that sheep-raising also played a major role in the economy. Passing through the land of Israel was a route now known by the Latin name Via Maris ("way of the sea"), the main trade route linking Egypt in the southwest with Assyria in the northeast and with the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia in the east, extending along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Lower Sea (now the Persian or Arabian Gulf). This means that Israel was buffeted by cultural influences from each of these great civilizations, even as it fell prey to each empire's program of military and economic expansion. Because the Via Maris was a route for people as well as commerce, Israel was also a target of migrating tribes who had left their own lands because of exhaustion of grazing lands, natural disaster, or military defeat. All these economic, political, and cultural factors combined to enhance the importance of what was otherwise a rather small and insignificant land.
PEOPLES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Old Testament records many warnings to the Hebrews not to intermarry with neighboring peoples, in order to avoid polluting the worship of Yahweh with alien cult practices. The fact is, however, that the ancient Hebrews not only intermarried with but also learned from their neighbors, and the history of the ancient Hebrews cannot be understood apart from the history of other Near Eastern peoples.
Interaction with the Egyptians began as early as the time of Abraham and was most intense during the centuries between Joseph and Moses. This rich civilization, which developed more than 5000 years ago, was based on cultivation of the Nile Delta. The enduring monuments of that civilization are the pyramids, built by the Egyptian kings (pharaohs)- who were believed to descend from the sun-god Ra- as their own huge tombs. Traditionally, Egyptian religion was polytheistic. However, one pharaoh, Akhnaten, did try to stamp out polytheism and impose on Egypt the uniform worship of a single solar deity. One fascinating aspect of this period for students of the Old Testament is that Akhnaten reigned during the fourteenth century B.C., at a time when the children of Israel may already have become slaves.
Contact with the peoples of Mesopotamia likewise began as early as Abraham. Notable among the many peoples who inhabited the Fertile Crescent were the Sumerians, whose empire collapsed around 2000 B.C., and the Babylonians, whose first and greatest ruler (during the eighteenth century B.C.) was Hammurabi. The Chaldeans dominated the Mesopotamian region from the ninth to the sixth centuries B.C., warring with the Assyrians to the northwest. From the Chaldean dynasty arose the new Babylonian empire, under Nebuchadnezzar, that ravaged Jerusalem and forced the Hebrews into exile. Having conquered Assyria and Judah, the new Babylonian rulers were themselves conquered in the sixth century B.C. by the Persians. The Persian era, which lasted for a little more than 200 years, was brought to an abrupt halt by Alexander the Great, who spread the civilization of the Greeks throughout the Near East.
Other biblical peoples you should know include the Philistines, "Sea Peoples" who settled the coastal region as the Hebrews were penetrating the interior of Canaan, and who were among the Israelites' fiercest rivals; the Philistines figure prominently in the stories of Samson, Saul, and David. The Phoenicians (called Sidonians in the Old Testament), who lived to the north, along the coast of what is now Lebanon, were renowned as sea traders; their impact on the culture of the Near East included development of the alphabet, the invention of glass, the making of dyes (including the prized Tyrian purple) and the worship of Baal and Astarte. Related to the Phoenicians were the Canaanites (worshipers of Baal and Ashtoreth), whom the Israelites conquered and absorbed. From the Arameans, who first settled in the area now known as Syria, came the Aramaic language, in which some passages of the Old Testament are written.
The Old Testament is an epic work, from which many morals and historical lessons may be drawn. This chapter can't possibly list them all. As you read the Old Testament, you should be sensitive to the many persistent major themes:
These themes are all essential to an understanding of the Old Testament as a work of literature; you should try to remember them when reading the assigned passages, reviewing for an exam, or choosing a term paper topic. But it is also important to keep in mind a few basic ideas that underlie the Old Testament as a work of religious thought.
It's easy to see that the prophetic books of the Old Testament have a point of view. In a narrow sense, the viewpoint represented in each prophetic book is that of the prophet himself. But in a broader sense, in each of these books you can hear a prophet, speaking for God, tell the people that God has punished or will punish them for their wickedness and will redeem them if they repent. The central message is that there is an unbreakable connection between the evil that people do and the misfortunes that befall them, and between the good things that people do and the rewards they receive. An even broader message is that the events of history are not just random happenings: they follow a pattern, they convey a meaning, they reveal God's will.
But what is the meaning of history? On this question, the writers of the Bible do not seem to have shared the same point of view. For example, a critical question in the history of the ancient Hebrews was whether Israel should have a king. Throughout most of the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C., the Hebrews were a loose confederation of tribes ruled by "judges," who were not jurists but charismatic leaders. The main argument against having an earthly king was that Israel was already under the protection of the Almighty. When Samuel, a judge and prophet, tells the Lord that the people are demanding a king of their own, he receives this answer:
Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. (1 Samuel 8:7)
By the time of David, however, the monarchy had become so strong that the king was regarded by many as the embodiment of God's will. Thus, those who supported David and his successors wrote of the period of the Judges, when Israel had no king, as a time of anarchy and disorder. On the other hand, those who, echoing the views of the prophets, denounced the later rulers as corrupt and faithless tended to yearn for the time when Yahweh, fittingly, was Israel's true king. Both these strands run through the historical books, and the conflict between the positive and negative views of kingship underlies the treatment of heroes like David and Solomon as great but seriously flawed men.
On other questions, too, the Old Testament does not speak with a single voice. The Deuteronomic belief that obedience to God will invariably be rewarded is challenged in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The message of such writings as Ezra and Nehemiah is that the Hebrews must take pains to separate themselves from all foreign influences. The books of Ruth and Jonah, on the other hand, suggest that Jews can learn from non-Jews and that the lives of all people are precious to God.
THE CRITICAL RESPONSE
The nineteenth-century German critics of the Old Testament seized on conflicts such as these as evidence that parts of the Hebrew Bible were written by different hands at different times. The conflicting points of view, they held, reflected Israel's changing view of itself over the centuries. You might say they regarded the Old Testament as a kind of diary of the Jewish people. If you have ever kept a diary, you know how your outlook can change from day to day with a change in the weather, the swing of a grade, a family argument, the making or breaking of a friendship. As you read the Old Testament, observe carefully how the Bible's view of the Hebrew kings, priests, and people changes as Israel rides the roller coaster of history from slavery to empire, from exile to redemption.
Trying to describe the writing style of the Old Testament is like trying to describe the contents of your local library- the style varies from book to book, sometimes even from chapter to chapter and verse to verse. In fact, the Hebrew Bible has been compared to a library, consisting as it does of writings by different hands in different forms at different times.
One biblical form that should be very familiar to you is that of the chronicle, written in a kind of "and this happened... and that happened..." style. In the following example from the book of Joshua (3:1-3), each AND has been capitalized to emphasize the repetitive pattern:
AND Joshua rose early in the morning; AND they removed from Shittim, AND came to Jordan, he AND all the children of Israel, AND lodged there before they passed over.
The books of Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings are written entirely in this historical style, but the same kind of chronicle shows up in many other places. An extreme case can be found in the long lists of generations between Adam and Noah and between Noah and Abraham (Genesis 5, 10, 11). If you've ever told or heard someone else telling a long and oft-repeated story by saying "and then I did this... and then I did that...," you'll understand why scholars see in this repetitive style the signs of a long oral tradition. Such genealogies and chronicles were passed down orally from parents to children for centuries before the Hebrews had a written language. (Remember that while Abraham probably lived about 2000 B.C. and the Exodus took place before 1200 B.C., the oldest known Hebrew inscription dates from the tenth century B.C.)
The chronicle is only one of many kinds of writing in the Old Testament. A common style in the Pentateuch is the law code, recognizable in the King James Version by "thou shalt... thou shalt not..." and in more modern translations by "you shall... you shall not...." Interwoven with the historical and legal materials of the Pentateuch are beautiful descriptions of natural creation, realistic depictions of family quarrels, dramatic encounters among the patriarchs and between individual patriarchs and their God, and poetry of rare joy and triumph.
THE BOOKS AND THEIR FORMS
The Book of Isaiah combines moral sermonizing with inspirational poetry of the highest order, and the Book of Jeremiah mixes historical narrative and political commentary with poetry that is at times anguished and introspective. One book of the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms, consists wholly of poems directed to God. The Song of Solomon (also called Song of Songs) is an anthology of exotic love poetry, lush and sensuous in its imagery (2:1-4):
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
The Book of Lamentations, on the other hand, consists of songs of grief and mourning. The Book of Proverbs, an example of the Bible's "wisdom literature," is a collection of essays and sayings probably used as a kind of textbook of good behavior. As you read these sayings, some of which should already be familiar to you, notice how the many different kinds of parallelism in the prose carry the meaning forward.
Remarkable, too, are the books of Esther, Job, and Jonah, tightly organized works that can be read almost like a novel or short story. Consider, for example, in Jonah, the way the character of the prophet (who is chosen by God but tries to flee his mission) contrasts with the people of Nineveh (who are condemned by God but quickly embrace repentance and salvation). Just as the phrase "the presence of the Lord" recurs at key points in Jonah as a signal in following the story, so the phrase "and the Lord was with..." appears in the historical books whenever the Old Testament wishes to foreshadow a character's success.
Because of the variety of forms and styles, there is no single way to read the Bible. Different books must be read in different ways, using different tools of literary analysis.
TRANSLATIONS AND EDITIONS
In all human history, no book has been so widely read as the Bible. By the mid-1980s, the Bible had been translated, in whole or in part, into about 1800 languages and dialects. Books of the Bible have appeared in some 300 different English-language versions, ranging from the most scholarly translations to condensed or simplified texts and popular paraphrases.
THE KING JAMES VERSION
Of all the translations of the entire Bible into English, none has had greater impact than the King James Version, which was published in the early seventeenth century, in the age of Shakespeare. Under the sponsorship of the English king James I, a team of 54 scholars, working in separate groups at Cambridge, Oxford, and Westminster, drew on Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin sources in order to produce a translation that would convey in English the rhythm and power of the Old Testament original. Upon publication, the King James text became the "Authorized" version, to be read in Anglican churches. Many editions of the King James translation have been printed, including the notorious "Wicked Bible" (1631), from which the word not in "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14) was mistakenly omitted; the error cost the printers a L300 fine.
OTHER ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
The King James Version was not the first Bible in English. The earliest complete English translation, the Lollard Bible, appeared in the fourteenth century; another reformist translation was produced in the 1530s by William Tyndale, a follower of Martin Luther. Subsequent translations in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries reflected the splintering of Christendom as a result of the Reformation. A Calvinist version, the Geneva Bible, appeared in 1560; an Anglican translation, the Bishops' Bible, in 1568; and the Douay version, a translation prepared by English Catholic emigre's, in 1609.
The language of the King James Version was old-fashioned even in its own time, and although its influence on the development of English literature has been profound, its use in worship services has steadily diminished. Our own century has brought a tremendous new burst of biblical translation. There are several reasons for this. First, the English language has changed- a change you become very much aware of when trying to understand King Lear and Macbeth, both written while the King James translation was under way. Second, biblical criticism and archaeology (including the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls) have offered translators new tools for understanding the original texts. Third, a new spirit of cooperation between Christians and Jews and among the various branches of Christendom has inspired scholars of different faiths to work with and learn from each other. Appearing in recent decades have been the Revised Standard Version (1946-52), based on the American Standard Version (1901) and the King James; the Jerusalem Bible (1966), representing an English translation of the French Dominican version; the New American Bible (1970), another Roman Catholic translation; the interfaith Anchor Bible, a multivolume translation and commentary whose publication began in 1964; and a three- volume translation of the Holy Scriptures sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society of America (1962- 82).
TRANSLATION AS INTERPRETATION
Even when it includes no specific commentary, each translation is an interpretation. The translator's choice of one word over another can have an important effect on the meaning of a passage. Consider, for example, the sixth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13), translated in the King James Version of 1611 as "Thou shalt not kill." This commandment has been cited at various times as an argument against capital punishment- the death penalty- and in support of pacifism, or the refusal to take life under any circumstances. A more recent edition, called the New King James Version and published in 1982, renders the same text in a different way: "You shall not murder." A look at any good English dictionary will show you that while killing can mean the taking of any life for any reason, the word murder specifically means the unlawful killing of a human being. Now, you might still want to use Exodus 20:13 in arguing against the death penalty or in favor of pacifism, but the newer translation (which has much scholarly support) makes your task considerably more difficult.
VERSIONS OF THE TWENTY-THIRD PSALM
No passage in the Old Testament is more familiar than the Twenty-third Psalm, which in the King James Version begins, "The Lord is my shepherd." As you read the translations that follow- only a few of many different versions that could have been cited- ask yourself how the translators' choice of form and diction affects your impression of the passage:
Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke (c. 1599)
The Lord, the Lord my shepherd is,
Douay Bible (1609)
The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing.
King James Version (1611)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Bay Psalm Book (1620)
The Lord to me a shepherd is,
Revised Standard Version (1952)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
Jerusalem Bible (1966)
Yahweh is my shepherd,
Anchor Bible (1966)
Yahweh is my shepherd,
What if the Old Testament had never been written?
Suppose all record of the life and thought of the Hebrew people were suddenly to disappear. You travel to Italy to savor the masterworks of Michelangelo, but his magnificent sculptures of Moses and David are absent, and there are spaces in the Sistine Chapel frescoes where Adam and the Hebrew prophets were shown. In London, scheduled performances of Handel's Messiah and Israel in Egypt have been abruptly canceled. In Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress, dozens of shelves are now empty, for not only have all the Bibles in all their translations vanished, but so have all editions of Milton's Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, Racine's Esther and Athalie, and Mann's Joseph and His Brothers.
THE OLD TESTAMENT AND WESTERN CULTURE
To measure the influence of the Old Testament, however, you need more than a brief listing of works of art, music, and literature on biblical themes. The plain truth is that the influence of the Old Testament in Western culture is incalculably vast. For a thousand years of European history, no one who could read at all was unfamiliar with the Bible in church Latin. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as printing technology developed, translations of the Bible into English, French, German, and other languages spread both literacy and new religious ideas.
No book has had such a distinguished international roster of translators. By far the most important German translator was the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, whose edition (1522-34) influenced the development of the German language as profoundly as the King James Version shaped the growth of English. The King James translators were among the finest scholars of their age. Outstanding Jewish translators of the Old Testament have included Moses Mendelssohn, a major figure of the eighteenth- century German enlightenment, and the twentieth-century German philosophers Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.
THE OLD TESTAMENT OUTLOOK
In dwelling on the history of the Old Testament as a book, we barely hint at how it has shaped our way of thinking. Without this record of the ancient Hebrew thought, there could be no Judaism; without Judaism (and its messianic beliefs), there could be no Christianity; without Judaism and Christianity, there could be no Islam. Without the Old Testament, the lives and beliefs of today's more than 1 billion Christians, 550 million Muslims, and 14 million Jews would be profoundly different. Nor would the difference be confined to religion, for religion has a profound influence on culture. The Sabbath in the Old Testament has become part of our weekend. The prophetic ideals of righteousness, justice, and peace find expression in our charitable agencies, court system, and the United Nations.
The Old Testament's uncompromising insistence on the supremacy of one God, one law, and one truth continues to shape our way of thinking about the world, even about science. (If you doubt this, ask yourself how advanced the science of meteorology would be if weather forecasting focused on the caprices of the sun-god, the rain-god, and Thor the thunder-maker.) Today, few scientists regard the Bible as an infallible guide to natural science; even so, the search for unified theories in cosmology, particle physics, biology, and other branches of science draws power from the ancient Hebrew conviction that the universe follows a clear and consistent pattern that people were meant to understand. As Albert Einstein, the father of relativity theory, said, "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world."
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© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.