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The Old Testament




Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians agree that Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch, was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. However, most modern scholars believe that Leviticus was compiled by P, the priestly writer, during the fifth century B.C. It is safer to say "compiled" rather than "composed" because defenders of the documentary theory concede that several parts of Leviticus were written earlier and may be based on ancient oral tradition. One of these older sections is the so-called Holiness Code, chapters 17-26; among its distinctive features is the frequent repetition of variations on the phrase "I am the Lord."

The English title of the book is based on the name Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. You may remember from Genesis 34 that Levi and Simeon avenge the rape of Dinah by massacring the newly circumcised men of Shechem; Jewish tradition regards the subsequent landlessness of the Levites as punishment for this treacherous action. If you have read the episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32), you may recall that the tribe of Levi is no less zealous in executing God's vengeance at Moses' behest. While the Israelites wander through the wilderness, the Levites are responsible for maintaining the Tabernacle. After the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, the Levites become the Temple priests; they are faithful supporters of the monarchy, upon which their livelihood depends. The association of the Levites with the priesthood underlies the content of Leviticus, for which the title "Priests' Manual" would be equally appropriate. In Hebrew, the title of the book is Vayikra ("And He called"), the first word in the Hebrew text.


Leviticus has undoubted value as a document of social and religious history, especially in relation to the development of the idea of holiness. For some believers, Leviticus also remains a guide to personal conduct. As literature, however, its interest is extremely limited. The narrative thread of Genesis and Exodus is suspended in Leviticus, which is almost entirely legal in content. Prescribed in this book are the laws of ritual sacrifice, other religious observances, the ordination of priests, permitted and forbidden foods, and pure and impure health and sexual practices. Today, only orthodox Jews make an effort to adhere fully to the letter of the law. Even the orthodox recognize that the destruction of the Second Temple, the abolition of the priesthood, and the ending of ritual sacrifice in Judaism mean that many of the commandments of Leviticus cannot be fulfilled- at least not until the Messiah comes and the Temple is restored. Christians, believing that the Messiah has already come, interpret the laws of ritual sacrifice as prefiguring the crucifixion of Jesus. On sexual matters, the influence of the Bible- especially some attitudes toward women and the condemnations of homosexuality at 18:22 and 20:13- is still widely felt.

NOTE: Many people believe that the "Golden Rule" originated with Christianity. In fact, the Golden Rule makes its first recorded appearance in the Old Testament, at Leviticus 19:18: "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." The Golden Rule is cited by Jesus at Matthew 19:19 and repeated elsewhere in the New Testament.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The Book of Numbers derives its title from the census that God commands Moses to make in chapter 1. In many ways, however, the Hebrew title Bemidbar, meaning "In the Wilderness," offers a more accurate description of the contents. The book begins about a year after the Exodus from Egypt and then leaps forward to the fortieth year of wandering, when the Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Narrative and legislative passages are joined in a way that defies easy analysis.

Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch and, as such, is seen by traditionalists as coming directly from God through Moses. Most biblical critics assign much of the book to P, the priestly writer. The consensus of the critics is that Numbers was compiled after the Babylonian Exile, but that many of its parts are centuries older. Demonstrating exactly which parts come from which period has proved difficult and controversial.


The first ten chapters of Numbers dwell on the census, the special regulations for Levites, the obligations of Nazarites (for more on this topic see the discussion of Samson in the Book of Judges), the construction of the Tabernacle, and various other matters. Finally, at 10:11, the Israelites depart from Sinai. A search party is sent into the land of Canaan, but the majority report is so pessimistic and the response of the people so fainthearted that the Israelites are condemned to another thirty-eight years of wandering. By chapter 21 the narrative has jumped ahead to the fortieth year in the wilderness, and much of the remainder of Numbers describes the beginnings of the long war to conquer the Promised Land.

Let's stop for a moment and think about the extraordinary way that Numbers portrays the children of Israel. Suppose someone asked you to write- or film- the Epic of America. Your task is to show to all Americans, now and in the future, how their ancestors fled oppression in Europe, braved the stormy Atlantic, and crossed the North American continent, subduing and settling the wild frontier. Would you cast these pioneers as faithless cowards and complainers, delayed in conquering the continent not by the danger of the mission but by the anger of their God? Probably not.

And yet that is very much the picture the Bible gives us of the Israelites in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. In chapter 11 the Israelites grumble about their boring diet of manna, demanding the fish and flesh they had in Egypt. In chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron vent their jealousy of Moses; she is punished with leprosy, and Aaron receives a divine rebuke. When most of the search party reports that giants inhabit the land of Canaan, the people are ready to give up their mission (14:1-2, 4):

And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.

And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!...

And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.

Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, attempt to reassure the Israelites that if the Lord is with them, they cannot fail- a message the people are in no mood to hear. Again, as in Exodus 32, Yahweh threatens to destroy the children of Israel, and again Moses intercedes. But God can barely contain His anger and disappointment (14:22-23):

Because all those men which have seen My glory, and My miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted Me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to My voice; Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked Me see it:

Thus, except for Caleb and Joshua, an entire generation of Israelites- including all those who came of age in Egyptian bondage- is condemned to die in the wilderness, never having reached the Promised Land.

Why does the Old Testament, the Hebrew scripture, portray the Hebrews in such an unfavorable light? One answer is a reminder that, from the biblical standpoint, not Moses, not Joshua, not Caleb, not any of the Israelites, but God Himself is the hero of the Hebrew Bible. A second answer is that the Bible, always realistic about human nature, insists on showing the scars that slavery left on this particular generation. In short, it portrays the Hebrews as they were, not as (under the covenant) they could be. A third way of looking at the text is as a portrait of ordinary people reacting in ordinary ways to a situation that demands more of them than they are capable of giving. Of course they fall far short of heroism, but do you feel that if you were in their shoes you would do any better? The important thing is that although a generation has been punished, God has left the covenant open- which means that an ideal of human behavior is still within view.

Moses, too, falls short of the divine standard. That is the significance of the episode at the water of Meribah (chapter 20), when because of his moment of anger and disobedience, Moses is forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. The deaths of Miriam and Aaron are noted in the same chapter. At 27:15-23, Joshua is solemnly appointed as Moses' successor.

NOTE: One striking episode in Numbers deserves special mention: the tale of Balak, Balaam, and the talking ass (chapters 22-24), a folklike story recounted in a mixture of poetry and prose. By this point, the Israelites, taking their roundabout route to the Promised Land, have already conquered the Amorite king Sihon and are threatening Balak, king of Moab. Alarmed, Balak hires Balaam to put a curse on the invaders. Balak's plan is repeatedly thwarted by the Lord, who converts each curse into a blessing. As for the ass, her speech- which is also the work of the Lord- comes as a poignant plea to Balaam to stop beating her, after their progress is halted by an angel whom Balaam at first cannot see. Commentators have focused not only on the miracle of the animal's speaking but also on the irony that this presumably dull-witted animal sees what the rider cannot.

[The Old Testament Contents]



Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch. Tradition assigns this book to Moses' last days, when the Israelites camped in the land of Moab (present-day Jordan) and prepared to enter Canaan. According to Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites had asked permission of the king of Edom to pass through his territory but had been refused. Thus they were forced to take the roundabout route from Kadesh- barnea southeastward to the Gulf of Aqaba and northward toward Mount Nebo. It is from the summit of Mount Nebo, across the Jordon River from Jericho, that Moses is permitted to view the Promised Land.

The name "Deuteronomy" derives from the Septuagint and means "second law." (The Hebrew title is Devarim, meaning "Words," from 1:1, "These be the words which Moses spake....") Organized for the most part as an extended farewell address by Moses, Deuteronomy repeats and amplifies the laws given in the three previous books. A major concern of Deuteronomy not found earlier is the centralization of worship. Although the text does not mention Jerusalem, which did not become the capital of the Israelite kingdom until the reign of David about two centuries later, Deuteronomy does make several references to "the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place His name in" (16:6) as a site for pilgrimage and worship. Suppression of satellite cults and support for the Temple were key issues while the Kingdom of Judah survived, and most modern commentators attribute Deuteronomy to this period- and particularly to the reign of the seventh- century king Josiah- rather than to the time of Moses.

NOTE: Prominent in Deuteronomy is the theme that if people disobey God's word they will be punished, but if they are obedient they will be rewarded. Watch for this theme as you read not only Deuteronomy but also the histories from Joshua to 2 Kings.


The first three chapters of Deuteronomy summarize what has happened to the Israelites since the first revelation at Sinai. Moses then goes on to outline the responsibilities the covenant imposes on the people of Israel. Notice how the account of Moses' own failure at Deuteronomy 4:21 differs from that in Numbers 20:7-13. In a second speech, beginning at 5:1, Moses recites the Ten Commandments: among the significant differences between this version and that at Exodus 20 are the mention of deliverance from Egypt and rest for one's workers as reasons for honoring the Sabbath day (5:14-15) and the reversed order of the bans on coveting a neighbor's wife and house (compare Deuteronomy 5:21 with Exodus 20:17). As his second speech draws to a conclusion (chapters 9-10), Moses denounces the faithlessness and rebelliousness of the people and recounts his role in preventing God from destroying them because of the golden calf.

NOTE: Deuteronomy 6:4 brings the central tenet of Judaism, known as the Shema. Various translations of the Shema have been offered. The King James Version gives "The Lord our God is one Lord"; a modern Jewish translation provides "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone." But what does this line really mean? Does it mean "Yahweh is our God, and Yahweh only"? Or does it mean that Yahweh is unique and indivisible? Does it imply, as the medieval commentator Rashi thought, that "He is 'our God' now, and not yet the God of all nations, but in the future He will be 'the Lord alone'"? All these interpretations may be correct, and you may have another of your own.

For more on the development of Hebrew monotheism, see the section "God in the Old Testament" in this Barron's Book Notes volume.

Moses' third and longest farewell speech extends from chapters 12 through 25 and is the final law code in the Torah. Chapters 27 and 28 comprise a long series of blessings and curses, while the next two chapters reemphasize the importance to Israel of loyalty to God and to the covenant. Chapter 31 confirms the passing of the mantle of leadership to Joshua and the transmission of God's law to the Levites, who are to read it in public assembly once every seven years (31:10-13). The predominantly oratorical style of Deuteronomy is interrupted in Chapter 32 by the "Song of Moses," a hymn of praise. Chapter 34 records not only the death of Moses but the passing of an era in Israel's patriarchal history (34:10):

And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.

The last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which deal with Moses' death and mourning, pose no problem for documentary theorists, who deny that Moses (or God) is in any literal sense the author of the Pentateuch. But these lines do pose a dilemma for traditionalists, who must explain how Moses can have written a description of his own death. Some rabbinical commentators have insisted that God dictated these words to Moses; others attribute them to Joshua or acknowledge the possibility that even later writers made additions to the basic text.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The Book of Joshua is classified as the first of the prophetic books (Nevi'im) in the Hebrew Bible and the first of the historical books in both the Protestant and the Roman Catholic versions. Ancient Jewish tradition credits Joshua with writing his own book, except for a few passages describing his own death and passages of Eleazar, the priestly son of Aaron. Most critics since the nineteenth century have regarded the Book of Joshua as a compilation, like the Pentateuch, from various sources. There is, however, no consensus as to which sources these are or which periods they represent.

In Exodus, Joshua is Moses' faithful attendant, accompanying him up and down Mount Sinai. In Numbers, Joshua and Caleb are the only members of the search party to give a favorable report of Canaan, and thus are the only ones of their generation permitted to enter the Promised Land. The Book of Joshua portrays Moses' successor as both a military leader and a prophet, to whom God speaks directly and through whom God addresses the people of Israel.

NOTE: According to Numbers 13:16, Joshua was born Oshea (or Hosea), son of Nun, of the tribe of Ephraim; he is given the name Jehoshua (or Joshua), meaning "Yahweh is salvation," by Moses. This name change recalls Genesis 17:5-15, where God gives Abram and Sarai the new names Abraham and Sarah, and Genesis 32:28, where the angel with whom Jacob wrestles gives him the new name Israel. Such name changes in the Old Testament indicate an important change in someone's character or destiny.


The first half of the Book of Joshua portrays Joshua's commission by Yahweh, the crossing of the Jordan River, and the rout of the Canaanites by the Israelite invaders. It is now generally thought that the infiltration and settlement of Canaan by the various Israelite tribes took place during the twelfth century B.C. Although the Bible depicts Joshua as a central figure in this campaign of conquest, many modern commentators believe that the historical Joshua played a much more limited role. At 10:36-37, for example, Joshua and the whole people of Israel are credited with capturing Hebron. At Judges 1:10, however, the defeat of Hebron is ascribed to Judah. The conquest of Ai (chapters 7-8 of Joshua) is especially problematical because archaeologists have shown that the fortified city of Ai (which means "ruin") was destroyed in the twenty-fourth century B.C. and was only briefly an Israelite village in the time of Joshua, some 1200 years later.

Surely the best-known section of the Book of Joshua is chapter 6, describing the conquest of Jericho. (For a brief discussion of archaeological problems related to Jericho, see the "Setting" section in The Old Testament Background.) The military tactics employed are extraordinary- indeed, miraculous. Speaking through Joshua, the Lord commands the Israelites, bearing the Ark of the Covenant, to circle the city once each day for six days. On the seventh day, the Israelites, including seven priests blowing seven trumpets of rams' horns, make seven circles round Jericho, shouting for the Lord on the last pass around the city. (If you've forgotten why seven is such a significant number in the Old Testament, review Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 20:8-11.) In the words of the famous black spiritual:

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,
And the walls come tumbling down.

NOTE: Those of you who have seen the fantasy-adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark should be well familiar with the Ark of the Covenant and the magical properties attributed to it. As described in Exodus 25, the ark was an acacia ("shittim") wood chest, decorated with gold, in which the tablets of the law were placed. During the period from Moses to David, the ark was carried from place to place and frequently accompanied the Israelites into battle. After Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem, the ark was placed in its innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. Nothing is known of its subsequent history, and it apparently was no longer in the Temple by the time of the Babylonian conquest. The Hebrew term for the ark, Aron ha-Kodesh, today signifies the part of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls are kept.


The second half of the Book of Joshua offers a detailed description of which parts of Canaan the Israelites did and did not subdue, and of the boundaries between the various tribal landholdings. Roughly speaking, the area of Israelite control during the twelfth century B.C. extended a maximum of 30 miles east and 40 miles west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. At this time, the Israelites were organized into 12 tribes, or clans, which claimed descent from the sons and grandsons of Jacob. Only the tribe of Manasseh held any land along the Mediterranean coast, which was dominated by the Sidonians (Phoenicians) in the north and the Philistines in the south. In the southeast, Moab and Edom were outside the limits of Israelite control. In addition, several fortified cities remained as Canaanite strongholds, separating the Israelite domains.

There is some confusion as to precisely where, in terms of modern geography, the various tribes settled, but it appears that the northernmost tribes were Dan (after the migration described in Judges 17- 18), Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar. Occupying a central position were Manasseh, the largest single landholder, and Ephraim. Farther south were Judah and Simeon (probably absorbed by Judah at an early date), all west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea; and Gad and Reuben, which lay to the east. The Levites, who were landless, received portions of cities from the other tribes (Joshua 21). All these tribes survived as a loose confederation until the establishment of the monarchy late in the eleventh century B.C.

NOTE: Chapters 23 and 24 present Joshua's last words to the Israelites; the farewell addresses of Moses and David, at Deuteronomy 31 and 2 Samuel 23, respectively, are other excellent examples of the form. In the Old Testament, the farewell address, or valedictory, enables the hero to recall the past and survey the future of his people.

The death of Joshua at the age of 110 is recorded at Joshua 24:29. Joshua's death is also mentioned in Judges 1:1. Similarly, the passing of Moses and the succession of Joshua are mentioned both in the last verses of Deuteronomy and the opening chapter of the Book of Joshua. Modern critics believe these apparent transitions reflect the efforts of an editor to turn these separate documents into a continuous historical narrative.

[The Old Testament Contents]



When you hear the word judge, you probably think of a black-robed figure listening to lawyers argue a case in a courtroom. When you come to read the Book of Judges, however, this image can be very misleading. The biblical judges (known as shoftim in Hebrew) were not legal professionals. Instead, these charismatic figures were prophets and warriors. None of the judges ruled over all Israel. But when members of one or more tribes were in peril, these heroes saved them through moral and military leadership.

Rabbinical tradition attributes the whole of Judges to Samuel. Modern critics regard the book as a collection of materials, some of which- notably the Song of Deborah and Barak (chapter 5)- are quite ancient. The bulk of Judges, according to some scholars, was compiled during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.


Judges not only continues but actually overlaps with Joshua. The slow process of settling in Canaan did not end with that earlier volume, and many of the episodes in Judges- Deborah and Barak against Hazor, Gideon versus the Midianites, Samson and the Philistines- form part of an ongoing history of contact and conflict between the Israelite tribes and neighboring peoples during the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. For this reason, whatever its folkloric and legendary qualities, the Book of Judges is a very important historical document.

You can read the entire Book of Judges as the working out of a cyclical view of history. When the people turn away from God, the Lord first sends an enemy, to punish them. Then the oppressed people cry out to God, who sends a leader (or prophet) to deliver them. Once rescued, the people pledge their loyalty to the leader and to God, for whom he speaks. But prosperity brings forgetfulness and corruption, and the cycle is repeated all over again.

NOTE: Judges is blunt about the particular sin for which Israel is punished: "they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them" (2:17). Especially seductive were the fertility gods and goddesses of Canaan. From the biblical point of view, worshiping fertility idols was a direct violation of the Ten Commandments, hence of Israel's covenant with Yahweh; the practices of the fertility cults, involving sexual rites with temple prostitutes, were also objectionable on purely moral grounds. Why, then, were the Israelites so easily swayed? Intermarriage with foreign tribes surely played some role, as did simple human weakness. A third answer can be found in the recognition that, as a herding people, the Israelites had no practical experience of settled agriculture until they entered Canaan. In learning agriculture from their neighbors, the children of Israel were also learning the worship of Canaan's fertility gods- to their own God's extreme displeasure.

In probing the historical and moral dimensions of the Book of Judges, you should not lose sight of the fact that this volume has some of the Old Testament's most colorful characters and exciting stories. There is Deborah (chapters 4-5), the only woman among the judges and the only woman portrayed in the Bible as an important military leader. In the same chapters appears Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who resourcefully murders the captain of Hazor after pretending to give him sanctuary. In chapter 6 you meet Gideon, who subdues the Midianites by equipping his army with trumpets, pitchers, and lamps. (The master strategist of this surprise attack is, of course, the Lord.)

Chapter 11 presents the tragedy of Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah, a mighty warrior, rashly pledges that if God will allow him to defeat the Ammonites, he will offer as a sacrifice "whatsoever cometh forth of the doors" of his house to meet him on his return. When Jephthah arrives home victorious, who should come out to greet him but his only and beloved daughter! You might wish to contrast this story with that of the binding of Isaac. In Genesis 22, the commandment to sacrifice the son was made by God, and hence could be revoked by Him. In the Jephthah story, on the other hand, the vow is made freely- though foolishly- by Jephthah himself, and hence cannot be revoked.

Chapters 13-16 bring the most colorful character of all: Samson. When you read of Samson ripping apart a young lion with his bare hands, binding foxes' tails together with torches, and killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, you may be tempted to see him as a kind of Paul Bunyan or Incredible Hulk. This is an entirely legitimate way of thinking about Samson, who seems to be more brawn than brain. Nevertheless, you should pay close attention to the miraculous circumstances of Samson's conception. Customarily, the vows to serve Yahweh, avoid strong drink, abstain from all unclean things, and never cut one's hair were made by a Nazarite in adulthood, often for a limited period of time. (Regulations for Nazarites, a devout sect, are listed at Numbers 6:1-21.) But Samson, his mother learns from an angel, is to be a "Nazarite unto God from the womb" (13:5). Thus Samson's great strength comes from the Lord, and all his legendary deeds are said to be the Lord's doing. A Freudian sees Delilah's betrayal of Samson as a kind of symbolic castration. Within the context of the Bible, however, the shearing of Samson's seven locks cripples him because it cuts to the heart of his Nazarite power. Renewed growth of his hair (16:22) and renewed faith in God (16:28) are jointly responsible for Samson's fulfillment of his mission, his act of self-sacrifice that brings down the Philistines' temple.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The placement of the Book of Ruth represents a major difference between the Hebrew canon, on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic and Protestant canons, on the other. In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth appears among the Ketuvim, sandwiched between the Song of Songs and Lamentations; the book is classified as one of the five scrolls (Megillot) and is traditionally read on the holiday of Shavuot, a spring harvest festival. Catholic and Protestant Bibles (including the King James Version) make Ruth the third of the historical books, between Judges and 1 Samuel.

The opening verse establishes the time link between Ruth and Judges: "Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled...." The historical connection with 1 Samuel, in which David makes his first appearance, is reinforced by Ruth 4:17-22, which traces the descent from Ruth and Boaz to David. Biblical commentators have long recognized that the attempt to provide an ancestry for David was a main purpose for writing the book.

Controversy continues over when the Book of Ruth was written. Certain distinct features of the book's use of Hebrew have been taken as evidence for the influence of Aramaic, hence to a relatively late date of composition- perhaps as recent as 250 B.C. Other scholars, regarding the same expressions as signs of an ancient Northern Hebrew dialect, argue for the ninth century B.C. Still others place the book in the fifth century B.C.., after the return from Babylonian Exile; these writers contend that in a period when Ezra and Nehemiah were vehemently preaching against intermarriage, the author of Ruth was making a plea for toleration by pointing out that a non-Jew may be a model for Jews of fidelity to the Lord. The story makes clear that the great King David was the product of the marriage of a Jew and a convert to Judaism.


In itself, the story of Ruth and Naomi is touching in its simplicity. To escape famine, Elimelech of Bethlehem (in Judah), his wife Naomi, and their two sons migrate to the land of Moab. There the two sons take Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah. In time, Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving the three women on their own. After the famine ends, Naomi decides to go back to Judah, telling Orpah and Ruth to remain in Moab with their own mothers. Orpah reluctantly agrees, but Ruth insists on going with her mother-in-law (1:16):

And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.

Ruth and Naomi return to Judah, where Ruth gleans- that is, gathers leftover grain- in a field owned by Boaz, a prosperous farmer from the same family as Elimelech. Impressed with the daughter-in-law's devotion to Naomi, Boaz shows Ruth special kindness. Eventually, she marries Boaz, who takes claim to the land left by Elimelech.

NOTE: Gleaning was a way for the poor to support themselves. Every landowner had an obligation at harvesttime not to pick the fields clean but to leave some of the crop for "the poor and stranger" to gather. See, for example, Leviticus 19:9-10.

The story is full of charming details that establish a distance between the time of the telling and the time described; notice especially 4:7, in which Boaz puts on his kinsman's shoe to seal a bargain. Underlying this custom is the institution of levirate marriage, according to which a childless widow was required to marry her late husband's closest kinsman, so that her husband's line could be passed on and his inheritance kept within the family. Since Boaz was not the closest relative, he had to ask his kinsman's permission before he had the legal right to marry Ruth and reclaim Elimelech's estate.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings may originally have been a single four-part narrative, 1-4 Kingdoms. Tradition credits Samuel himself with authorship of those parts of 1 Samuel that describe the events of his own lifetime; this attribution, however, is viewed skeptically by modern scholars. It is now widely assumed that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings were compiled in the sixth century B.C., but that the compiler drew on documents as much as 400 years older. According to the critical view, the four books' inconsistent treatment of the idea of kingship reflects the shifting fortunes of the monarchy during the period when the source documents were written. (For a more detailed discussion of attitudes toward kingship, see the section "Points of View" in The Old Testament Background.) It is also possible that the basic history was written at an early date but amplified by later chroniclers with differing viewpoints.

The two books of Samuel treat Israel at a pivotal point in its development. The text of 1 Samuel opens where Judges leaves off, in the middle of the eleventh century. Israel has no centralized state- indeed, virtually no formal government. Agriculture and urban life are still primitive, and at this time the Israelites may not even have had a written language. Less than 100 years elapse between the beginning of the first book and the close of the second, but in that time Israel becomes a monarchy under David, with a new central capital at Jerusalem. To administer such an empire requires a complex system of record keeping, and a new class of literate bureaucrats to maintain it. Almost overnight, it seems, the Israelites transform themselves from a disorganized group of quarrelsome tribes into a powerful empire to which the kings of Edom, Moab, and Ammon pay tribute. For this period of Israelite history, the two books of Samuel are the indispensable source.

Inevitably, discussion of 1 and 2 Samuel focuses on the three personalities who dominate it: Samuel, the last of the judges; the tragically flawed Saul; and David, the shepherd, musician, warrior, rebel, poet, and king. (For more on David as a poet, see the discussion of the Book of Psalms.)


Chapter 1 marks Samuel, like Samson, as a Nazarite, dedicated to a life of service to Yahweh. His mother, Hannah, like Sarah and several other Old Testament women, is barren until God intervenes- a sign of the greatness that Samuel will attain. Hannah sends Samuel to live at Shiloh with Eli, an aged priest, and his corrupt sons. One night the Lord appears before Samuel, telling the boy that He will bring judgment on Eli's family because of the wickedness of Eli's two offspring.

NOTE: Chapter 3 begins quite strikingly with the acknowledgment, according to the Revised Standard Version, that "the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision." This serves to indicate that Samuel, to whom the Lord does speak directly, was rare in his own time. It is also a sign of a change in the way the people of the Bible viewed God's role in history. In the later books of the Bible, Israel's political leaders do not speak with God directly but instead hear the word of the Lord through the prophets. You may already have noticed in the Book of Ruth that although a divine plan is fulfilled- Ruth marries Boaz so that she may bear the line from which David springs- God Himself has no direct part in the action.

After a description of the evils that befall the Philistines when they capture the Ark of the Covenant (chapters 4-7), the text returns to Samuel, who has become a prophet, priest, and judge. By chapter 8, Samuel has grown old and has made his sons judges. But, like Eli, Samuel is not blessed in his children (8:3):

And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre [money], and took bribes, and perverted judgment.

The aging of Samuel and the corruption of his sons pose a crisis for the tribal leaders, who, fearing anarchy, demand that Samuel choose a king. What Samuel, speaking for God, tells the people is as powerful an indictment of arbitrary power as has ever been written (8:11-18).


Saul is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:2 as "a choice young man," taller than any of his fellows. Nowhere does the Bible deny that he is a man of virtue and valor, and it is clear from 9:17 that he is God's own choice to govern Israel. Why, then, is Saul such a tragic figure? The immediate cause of Saul's downfall is related in chapter 15. Although Samuel has formally given up the office of judge, he continues to convey to Saul the will of Yahweh. Samuel tells Saul that God wishes him to wipe out the Amalekites completely, "man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (15:3). The battle goes splendidly, but instead of annihilating the Amalekites, Saul spares their king, Agag, and the best of their animals- the latter, he tells the furious Samuel, so that his troops could make a sacrifice to the Lord at Gilgal. Samuel, unmoved, curses Saul and kills Agag himself. All that happens to Saul thereafter- his fits of madness, the jealousy that so torments him, his death by his own sword in battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:4)- can be traced to this act of disobedience, which is not Saul's first but is surely his most grievous.

NOTE: The argument between Samuel and Saul contains one of the most powerful pieces of symbolism in the Bible. As Samuel turns away from Saul, the king grabs a corner of the prophet's robe, ripping the fabric. You can imagine Saul standing guiltily, pathetically, a shred of cloth in his hand, as Samuel angrily tells him, "The Lord hath rent [torn] the kingdom of Israel from thee this day" (15:28). The same symbolism underlies the passage in 1 Kings 11 that foreshadows the division of Solomon's kingdom.


The Bible introduces David to his royal destiny not once but twice. At 1 Samuel 16:1, in the wake of Samuel's rejection of Saul, the Lord sends the prophet to Jesse of Bethlehem to choose Jesse's son David, a shepherd, as Saul's anointed successor. (Notice that David is the youngest of Jesse's eight sons, consistent with the biblical pattern you have seen earlier in the Ishmael-Isaac and Esau-Jacob stories, among others.) At 1 Samuel 16:17-18, to soothe his fits of depression, Saul sends for David, whom a servant of the king describes as "a mighty valiant man, and a man of war"; note that in 17:39, however, David is portrayed as a novice in warfare. More puzzling still, after David slays Goliath with a slingshot, the text at 17:55-58 gives the unmistakable impression that Saul is meeting David for the first time, even though David has been identified as Saul's armor bearer at 16:21. Most modern commentators are content to explain this apparent contradiction as the product of two distinct traditions that the biblical editor has placed side by side.

The story moves more swiftly and surely from chapter 18 on. Notice the subtlety with which the relationship between Saul and David is presented. Again and again the Bible tells us that the spirit of the Lord has left Saul and lodged with David. But from Saul's increasingly paranoid point of view, David is like a cancer eating away at the royal household. He becomes the best friend of Saul's son Jonathan. He marries Saul's daughter Michal. His popularity increases with every new military exploit. And when Saul plots to kill David, the younger man can count on Michal, Jonathan, and Samuel, as well as the Spirit of God, to protect him. The increasingly desperate king knows he is fighting a losing battle.

NOTE: You have probably heard the expression "divine right." This phrase embodies the idea that the ruler represents God on earth and derives from God his right to govern. European monarchs could point to God's choice and protection of David as evidence that the Bible gives sanction to the divine right of kings. So powerful is this sanction that even a bad king like Saul enjoys it: David, who has every reason to seek revenge, shrinks in horror from killing Saul because the latter is "God's anointed." But if you look closely at 1 and 2 Samuel, you will see that a monarch keeps his divine right only if he rules in accordance with the will of God as expressed by the law and the prophets. Samuel not only anoints Israel's first king, Saul, but also participates in his overthrow.

Once David leaves the royal household, he is both a fugitive from Saul and the rebel leader of a band of outlaws, gathering up "every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented" (22:2). As you read the remaining chapters of 1 Samuel, you should pay careful attention to what can only be described as a breathtaking biblical balancing act. On the one hand, David is in open rebellion against Saul and even enters the service of the Philistines. On the other hand, David never attacks any Israelite settlements, and although he has ample opportunity to avenge himself on Saul, he is careful to avoid the moral stain of killing the reigning monarch. In the end, the king's suicide is the perfect solution to a delicate dilemma, sparing Saul the ultimate shame of falling to Israel's uncircumcised enemy, and sparing David the blood guilt of being responsible for his death.

NOTE: As the Philistines marshal their forces against him, the desperate Saul disguises himself (1 Samuel 28), seeks out a witch, and commands her to summon up the spirit of Samuel, whose death has been recorded in chapter 25. Notice the ironies in this En-dor episode. Saul had formerly banished all "those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards" on pain of death. Moreover, the angry Samuel not only refuses to help Saul but also heaps new curses upon him.

The opening chapter of 2 Samuel marks a turning point in the history of Israel. The age of the judges is over. The death of Saul means that Israel no longer has two anointed kings but only one- David. The anointing of David, conducted privately by Samuel in the first book (16:13), is now repeated publicly, as David, no longer an untried youth, returns to Judah in triumph (2 Samuel 2:4). In the chapters that follow, David consolidates his reign over all Israel, making Jerusalem his center of power. To this new capital he brings the Ark of the Covenant, although his request to build for it a permanent home, a holy temple, is denied by Yahweh, speaking through the prophet Nathan.

Through a combination of diplomatic skill and military valor, David's kingdom rapidly grows into an empire. But which of David's children will inherit it when he dies? The problem of succession, unprecedented in Israel's history, is complicated by David's sin in arranging the death of Uriah so that David can freely marry Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, who is already pregnant with David's child. As punishment for this gross abuse of power, the child dies within a week of birth (12:18).

But that is only the beginning of David's troubles. Nathan has warned David at 12:10 that "the sword shall never depart from thine house," and the pattern of family misfortunes thus foreshadowed begins in the very next chapter. David's oldest son Amnon- the first in line of succession- rapes his half-sister Tamar, and two years later her brother Absalom has Amnon murdered. Forced to flee the royal household, Absalom organizes a rebellion, proclaims himself king at Hebron, forces David to flee Jerusalem, and takes possession of the royal capital and the royal harem. At a climactic encounter in the forest of Ephraim (chapter 18), the rebellion is crushed, and Absalom- despite David's orders to the contrary- is slain in battle. The Bible heart-rendingly portrays David's inconsolable grief at the news of the death of his son (18:33):

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

NOTE: Have you already noticed how fitting it is that David, a rebel against Saul, should be punished by having his own son lead a rebellion against him? You might also recall the family quarrels in some other Old Testament households- those of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is important to remember that in the biblical scheme of things, these are not just family feuds. Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob's twelve sons are not only brothers but the founders of whole nations and clans.

The quarrel within David's household (which fulfills Nathan's prophecy at 2 Samuel 12:7-12, after David's adulterous affair with Bathsheba) has important political results. Absalom's rebellion reveals and exploits some of the resentments stirred up by the expansion of David's kingship. And, of course, the deaths of Amnon and then Absalom leave open the succession question, which is not decided until the third part of the Book of Kingdoms, which has come down to us as 1 Kings.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The dividing point between 2 Samuel and 1 Kings is the death of David and the enthronement of Solomon. In political terms, 1 and 2 Samuel show the rise of the United Kingdom of Israel, while 1 and 2 Kings show its division and consequent decline. The pivotal figure in this reversal of fortunes is Solomon himself, whose reign is portrayed in 1 Kings 1-11:43.

Rabbinical authorities attributed to the prophet Jeremiah the authorship of 1 and 2 Kings, which are placed among the Nevi'im in the Hebrew Bible. In Roman Catholic and Protestant editions, 1 and 2 Kings are the sixth and seventh of the historical books. The prevailing scholarly view is that the two books of Kings were compiled from various sources in the time of King Josiah (whose reign is described in 2 Kings 22:1-23:30), but that additions were made in the middle of the sixth century B.C., after Jerusalem had fallen.

SOLOMON (1 KINGS 1-11:43)

The Solomon of folklore makes his appearance at chapter 3, when, in response to the new king's prayers, the Lord grants him "a wise and an understanding heart" (3:12). Almost immediately, the Bible presents an example of Solomon's fabled wisdom, the judgment between the two prostitutes, each of whom claims to be the mother of the same child. Solomon's solution- to cut the child in two!- appalls the true mother, who declares that keeping half a dead baby is in no way preferable to letting her rival have all of a living child. Hearing her expression of selfless love, Solomon justly awards her the infant. Such insight into human nature profoundly impresses the king's subjects (3:28):

And they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

If Solomon's statecraft had equaled his understanding, Israel might have retained its unity and prosperity far longer. The Bible marvels at the magnificence of the Temple built for Yahweh, at the unparalleled splendor of the royal household, at the spectacular alliance with Sheba (probably Saba, in southwestern Arabia). But as chapters 9 and 11 make clear, all this luxury has its price. Solomon's ambitious building projects depend on forced labor and heavy taxes; when royal revenues fall short, Solomon is forced to sell some northern cities to the king of Tyre. Solomon's marriages to foreigners and importation of foreign craftsmen involve a policy of toleration for foreign cults. Today, living in a land where different faiths flourish in a spirit of mutual respect, you might think of this policy as one more tribute to Solomon's wisdom. But the prophets and pietists among the Israelites didn't think this way at all. They thought that allowing foreign cults to flourish in the Promised Land was the root cause of all Israel's subsequent misfortunes.

NOTE: The literary parallelism between 1 Kings 3:3 ("And Solomon loved the Lord") and 11:1 ("But king Solomon loved many strange [i.e., foreign] women") can be seen as an expression both of the duality of Solomon's character and of the strength and weakness of his reign.


Solomon's death at 1 Kings 11:43 caps a reign of more than four decades. Even during Solomon's lifetime, a northerner, Jeroboam, had plotted against him. When Solomon's son and successor Rehoboam refuses to ease the disproportionate financial burdens of the northern tribes, they split off from the southern kingdom (Judah) and choose Jeroboam as their ruler. The remainder of 1 Kings and the whole of 2 Kings trace the history of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrian conquest, and then the history of Judah to the Babylonian Exile. (For more on this traumatic period in Israelite history, see "The Old Testament and Its Times" in The Old Testament Background.) In the prophetic view that dominates these two volumes, the collapse of both kingdoms represents the failure of the children of Israel, not the failure of Yahweh. Assyria and Babylonia are the instruments of God, employed both to punish an errant people and to clear the way for religious revival.

As you read these books, with their highly judgmental tales of royal ambition and corruption, be on the lookout for certain episodes of particular literary or historic interest. Notice especially the contest of miracles in which Elijah, speaking for God, triumphs over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-41); the covetousness of King Ahab and the treachery of the Baal-worshiping Queen Jezebel in the episode of Naboth's vineyard (21:1-29); Elijah's ascent to heaven and the passing of the mantle of prophecy to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-13); Assyria's triumph over the Northern Kingdom (17:1-6); the era of reform in Judah under King Josiah (chapters 22-23); and the fall of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar (chapters 24-25).

The Old Testament is not noted for its humor, but the contest (1 Kings 18:1-41) between the zealous Elijah and the false prophets of Baal has a sharp satirical edge. The ninth-century setting is serious enough: God, who has punished the Northern Kingdom for its Baal worship with three years of drought and famine, urges Elijah to meet with Ahab to show the king the folly of his ways. Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to prepare a bull for ritual sacrifice and then- by prayer alone- to set it afire. Throughout the morning the Baal worshipers chant and leap about, calling on their god. Cry louder, Elijah taunts them; perhaps Baal is talking, or taking a trip, or sleeping. As you read 18:27-29, you should be able to hear the sarcasm in Elijah's voice and see the mingled amusement and disgust on his face as these hundreds of idolaters take even more grotesque but equally ineffective measures to summon the absent Baal. Finally, Elijah, a lone prophet of the Lord, with quiet dignity and calm assurance lays out the sacrificial bull, has the wood beneath it soaked with barrels and barrels of water, and then with a single prayer causes a fire to consume not only the bull and the woodpile but all the stones and water below. Amazed, the people offer their fervent (if temporary) allegiance to the living God and are rewarded with a "great rain" (18:45). As for the 450 unlucky prophets, Elijah has them killed, supremely confident that Baal will not break his stony silence to save them.

[The Old Testament Contents]



The two volumes of Chronicles hold the eighth and ninth positions among the historical books in the Roman Catholic and Protestant canons, preceding Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Masoretic text, on the other hand, 1 and 2 Chronicles follow Ezra and Nehemiah as the last books of the Ketuvim, and thus as the concluding works of the Hebrew Bible. This placement reflects the books' late date of composition. Although the events described in Chronicles extend back to the generations of Adam, the text was written while Israel was under Persian rule. The rabbis of the Talmud credited Chronicles to Ezra and Nehemiah; most modern scholars place the date somewhat later, in the fourth century B.C. It is generally believed that 1 and 2 Chronicles were originally one book; probably included in this single volume were the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which are similar to Chronicles in style and outlook.


Little in Chronicles is of literary interest. The author of Chronicles made use of the four books of Kingdoms- that is, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings- as well as other documents to retell the history of Israel from Adam to Ezra. The Chronicler, writing from a priestly perspective, is less concerned with political history than with establishing a direct tie between God and the people of Israel, the exclusive legitimacy of David's royal line, and the central role of Temple worship. (The author shows no interest in the Northern Kingdom.) The portrait of David is idealized: he plays a much more important part in the establishment of the First Temple than he does in 2 Samuel, and the embarrassing episodes of Bathsheba and Absalom are not mentioned.

Chapters 1-9 of 1 Chronicles consist mainly of lists- genealogies, census enumerations, the duties of the Levites. The reign of David is described in chapters 11-29. The first nine chapters of 2 Chronicles portray the reign of Solomon, while chapters 10-36 summarize the subsequent history of the Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem's fall to Babylon and Babylon's fall to Persia. The mention at 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 of the decree of the Persian king Cyrus is based on the opening chapters of Ezra and will be discussed there.

One famous character who makes his first appearance in the King James Version at 1 Chronicles 21:1 is Satan. At 2 Samuel 24:1, the command to take a census of the Israelites appears to come from God Himself:

And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

By 2 Samuel 24:10, however, David is convinced that he has done wrong, and that by conducting a census (perhaps for purposes of taxation, forced labor, or a military draft) he has incurred the wrath of the people and of the Lord. The Chronicler must have been troubled by the idea of David's being punished by God for something that God had commanded, so he smooths out the theology by having Satan stand up against Israel and provoke David to conduct the census.

NOTE: The name Satan is related to a Hebrew verb meaning "to oppose" or "to obstruct." The term "the satan" appears in the Hebrew Bible most often in the sense of an opponent, a tester of virtue, even a prosecutor in a court of law. (For more on Satan as a tester of virtue, see the discussion of the Book of Job.) The word "devil," in the singular, never appears in the King James or Revised Standard versions of the Old Testament.



ECC [The Old Testament Contents] []

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