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The Old Testament



No work of Western literature has appeared in more editions or evoked more comment than the Bible. Not only have a vast number of books been written about the Bible, but virtually every important thinker in the Western tradition has left some comment about the Bible and its impact on his or her life and thought. The following quotations are only the barest sampling of comments on the Old Testament. Some of them may surprise, even shock you. All are intended to open the discussion for you, not to end it.


Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel? In order that the nations of the world should not have an excuse and say: "Because it was given in Israel's land, therefore we did not accept it."

From the Midrash (Jewish traditions)

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

From The Gospel According to St. Matthew 5:17-19, quoted from the King James Version

Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant [with Abraham and his descendants] had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second....

In speaking of a new covenant he [Christ] treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

From The Letter to the Hebrews 8:6-7, 13, quoted from the Revised Standard Version

Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to the Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.

St. Augustine, from De Genesi ad litteratum, 415

Why... did the Torah begin with the account of the Creation? In order to illustrate that God the Creator owns the whole world. So, if the peoples of the world shall say to Israel: "You are robbers in conquering the territory of the seven Canaanite nations," Israel can answer them: "All the earth belongs to God- he created it, so He can give it to whomsoever He wills. When He wished He gave it to them, then when He wished He took it from them and gave it to us."

From Rashi's commentary on Genesis 1:1, 11th Century

Every Israelite is under an obligation to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, in sound health or ailing, in the vigor of youth or very old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, as also a man with a wife and children to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and at night for the study of the Torah....

Maimonides, from the Mishneh Torah 1:8, 1170-1180


The English Bible is a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its purity and power.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, from the Edinburgh Review, 1828

I had gradually, come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.

Charles Darwin (1809-82), from his posthumously published Autobiography

Throughout the history of the western world, the Scriptures... have been the greatest instigators of revolt against the worst forms of clerical and political despotism. The Bible has been the Magna Charta of the poor and of the oppressed.

Thomas Henry Huxley, from Controverted Questions, 1892

Even those who do not believe that the Bible is the revelation of God, will admit that it is the supreme revelation of man.

William Lyon Phelps, from Reading the Bible, 1919

In the Old Testament stories the peace of daily life in the house, in the fields, and among the flocks, is undermined by jealousy over election and the promise of a blessing.... [T]he perpetually smouldering jealousy and the connection between the domestic and the spiritual, between the paternal blessing and the divine blessing, lead to daily life being permeated with the stuff of conflict, often with poison. The sublime influence of God here reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of the sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but basically inseparable.

Erich Auerbach, from Mimesis, 1946

All human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase, God in Search of Man.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, from God in Search of Man, 1955

To regard the Tanak [Hebrew Bible] as sacred is reasonable, but its sanctity ought to be impressed on us by study, rather than assumed beforehand. Too easily the vocabulary of religion- words like righteousness and sin- tends to become mere slogans, devoid of meaning. To call the biblical writings Sacred Scripture is to put over them a curtain which can conceal their form and meaning. Such unthinking attribution of sanctity compounds the obscurity of the Tanak. Any ancient library is hard to read and understand. Because the contents of biblical life and thought are already blurred through antiquity and distance, an unconsidered attitude [that] the writings are "sacred" can move the onlooker even beyond haziness into blindness itself.

Samuel Sandmel, from The Hebrew Scriptures, 1963

The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?

Northrop Frye, from The Great Code, 1982

[The Old Testament Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, English Teacher
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

The following experts reviewed the Book Notes manuscript on the Old Testament. The volume does not necessarily reflect their views, however.

Barry L. Bandstra
Assistant Professor of Religion
Hope College
Holland, Michigan

Alice L. Laffey
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, Massachusetts

Sid Zalman Leiman
Chairman, Judaic Studies Department
Brooklyn College
Brooklyn, New York

[The Old Testament Contents]



The Anchor Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964-. A modern multivolume scholarly translation still under way.

The Holy Bible. New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1961. Includes the Old Testament in the Douay (Catholic) version of 1609.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Authorized King James Version. Edited by Rev. C. I. Scofield, D.D. New York: Oxford University Press, 1945. Includes commentary, cross- references, and traditional chronology.

The Interpreter's Bible. Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952-56. The King James and Revised Standard versions side by side with detailed commentary.

The Jerusalem Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. A modern Dominican Catholic translation.

The Torah: The Five Books of Moses. The Prophets: Nevi'im. The Writings: Kethubim. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962-82. A modern translation of the traditional Hebrew text.


Aharoni, Yohanan, and Michael Avi-Yonah. The Macmillan Bible Atlas. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Clear and authoritative maps and texts keyed to passages of the Old and New Testaments.

Encyclopaedia Judaica. 16 vols, Jerusalem: Keter, 1972. Up-to-date scholarship from a Jewish point of view.

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. 4 vols. with supp. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-76. Short scholarly articles on important Old and New Testament topics.

McKenzie, John L., S.J. Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Macmillan, 1965. A handy illustrated one-volume guide to some 2000 biblical topics.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 15 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Numerous biblical topics viewed from the standpoints of Catholic theology and modern scholarship.

Woods, Ralph L., ed. The World Treasury of Religious Quotations. New York: Hawthorn, 1966. A well-indexed compendium of short quotations from diverse sources.


Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Sensitive analysis of Old Testament themes and narrative techniques.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981. Well-documented history of the people of Israel as revealed in the Old Testament and other historical records.

Everyday Life in Bible Times. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1967. Beautifully illustrated guide to the social history of the biblical period.

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. Complex investigation of biblical archetypes and metaphors and their impact on the Western creative imagination.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher's troubling commentary on the Abraham-Isaac story.

Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with supp. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Historical documents from the Near Eastern and Egyptian traditions.

Rashi's Commentaries on the Pentateuch. Edited by Chaim Pearl. New York: Norton, 1970. Rashi, a popular Jewish commentator, has also influenced Christian scholars.

Sandmel, Samuel. The Hebrew Scriptures: An Introduction to Their Literature and Religious Ideas. New York: Knopf, 1963. Old Testament interpretation by a distinguished rabbi and educator.

Thompson, Leonard L. Introducing Biblical Literature: A More Fantastic Country. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978. Sensitive discussion of biblical language and symbolism.

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978. Analysis of Old Testament texts from a feminist perspective.


ECC [The Old Testament Contents] []
[List of Quotes from the Bible]

© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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