The earliest people of the Middle East were tribal and nomadic, and they chiefly identified themselves not according to the lands they inhabited — as we usually do today — but from their parentage for many generations. Even today tribal cultures are frequently far more aware of genealogies than we tend to be today. The people that came to be known as the Hebrews (Habiru) traced, and still trace, their ancestry back to a “wandering Aramaean” named Abraham; the culture and religion that grew up among his descendents cannot be separated from the single remarkable idea that an infinite and unique God had chosen them and set them apart as a family for a special relationship with him. Judaism is still not merely a system of belief: it is still seen as a relationship, based at least largely on membership in that family.
The history of the Hebrew people, then, is primarily the story of this relationship, and the writings they produced — certainly one of the most remarkable bodies of written material from any people of equivalent antiquity — is directed toward unfolding that relationship. And while one may well argue that this eastern nomadic tribe is not, properly speaking, in the western tradition, its final impact on the western tradition is so enormous that we cannot possibly ignore it.
The essentials of the story of the Hebrews as the Jews told it, and still tell it, are these: God called Abraham, and while he was yet a childless man, promised him a son, and from him a descent that would be “numberless as the stars”. The promise of a son was in due course fulfilled, and he had multiple children. A few generations later, the entire tribe went into Egypt, where they multiplied and became “a mighty nation”. When they suffered under persecution from the ruling regime, their people escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses as directed by God; leading them through trials in the wilderness for forty years and endowing them with law and purpose, this same God brought them at last to the promised land — the land of their inheritance.
This is the central story of the Jewish people — the story by which the community of Jews defined itself and continues to do so. Its subsequent history was a complex one, marked by lapses from faithfulness and returns to it, and culminating (in a secular sense) in the kingdom of David and Solomon, about 1000 B.C., in the land that is modern Israel, centered in Jerusalem — long before the heyday of Classical Greece or Rome. Later the kingdom fell to internal strife and external force: it first split into two (Israel and Judea); then a critical portion of the people were taken off into captivity into Babylon; a generation or so later they were released, and returned to their homeland to rebuild. This kingdom in turn fell subject to the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon (ca. 325 B. C.) and his generals; later Rome came to rule the area, and eventually wound up dismantling the Jewish state more or less permanently. Only in the last three generations, after almost two thousand years, has a Jewish state once again come to occupy its ancient holy city.
The collection of books that we call by the aggregate name “Bible” were in fact written over a number of years; the portions modern Christians call the Old Testament are (generally speaking) the whole of the Hebrew scriptures. Judaism and the two other great world religions that grew out of it — Christianity and Islam — are unique in the emphasis they place on the written word as part of our access to God, and taken together the three are often referred to as the “peoples of the book”. Probably no other religion (except perhaps Mormonism, itself in many ways an offshoot of Christianity) places such stock in its written documents.
Opinions differ, even among serious believers, on how these books were written and how we should understand them; it is not the point of this course to establish specific interpretive standards for the Bible. Merely because what follows treats the Bible as being (in the broadest sense) literature, you should not assume that I think that it is only literature. How the Bible figures in your own faith is not something this course can prescribe for you, and it would be presumptuous of me to try. You may find some of this material helpful in your own faith, or you may not. Here we will treat the books of the Bible as literary products insofar as we can discern in them structures, forms, and themes; and we will at times talk about different ways of interpreting the Bible — not as prescriptions for how you should do so, but to help you form an historical understanding of how others have done so through the course of the western tradition.
In order to forestall possible problems, let me add:
None of this is done to shape, alter, or trivialize your modes of belief, and it is absolutely essential that in our discussions of this material in class we exhibit not only appropriate respect for the scriptures themselves, but also for other people who hold views we do not agree with. Put differently: while I am not enough of a relativist to believe that these differences are unimportant, I do believe that we can adhere to a standard of courteous interaction, even where we may disagree.
Historically, the Jews seem not to have seen the scriptures as quite the unified product many modern Christians see: Jewish tradition distinguishes an assortment of several different kinds of writing — the books of the law; the books of the prophets; the books of history; and the so-called “wisdom” writings, including such things as the book of Proverbs.
The books of the law form the Torah — that, is, the first five books of the Old Testament: they outline God’s relationship with the Jews, and the terms on which that relationship is to be conducted. They contain enough history to put the law in context; but, taken as a whole, the central thrust is prescriptive: that is, it tells the community of Jews, “This is what you must do.” Most practicing Jews still believe that the law is binding on them to some extent, and the most orthodox govern their lives minutely in accord with its terms. It is exacting and precise, and demonstrably aimed not only at producing an acceptable moral and ethical standard of behavior, but also at preserving the unique identity of the people as a whole — as the children of Abraham and the Lord’s chosen people.
The books of the prophets are somewhat different. The casual western understanding of the term “prophet” has done much to confuse what the actual prophets were about. The word “prophet” (Gk. prophetes) means “speaker-for”, and it is important to remember this. On such a view, a prophet is not so much one who can predict the future as one who speaks, under specific divine instruction and authority, on behalf of God. The chief message of the prophets was one of moral uprightness and faithfulness, and when the people (or a significant portion of it) had turned away from God, it was through the prophets that God called them to repentance.
The other books of the Old Testament vary from one to another. The book of Psalms is, in effect, a prayer-book — it expresses a remarkable range of human experiences, and is primarily a book of people (including, but not limited to, David) talking to God. The book of Proverbs is a collection of useful advice — some of which seems purely practical in nature. The book of Job — not itself obviously set in the context of Hebrew society at all — is a philosophical and theological book about the problem of evil in the world. In all the Old Testament offers a remarkable range and collection of literature and literary types and genres, all centered on the unique relationship of an ancient people with God. As the course progresses, you will probably notice two things: first, how unlike this material the Greek and Roman literatures are; and second, how deeply the literature of emergent Christianity tapped into these sources to help reshape its own vision.
From this matrix there emerges a wide range of intriguing ideas as well. The Hebrews, certainly, did not invent the idea of law; but several interesting things emerge from the Old Testament notion of law that eventually permeate the western tradition. As you read in the Bible, consider these general questions for thought and discussion. They will figure in class discussions:
Sincere believers throughout the ages have differed (sometimes quite vehemently) on whether the book of Genesis is meant to be taken literally in every particular or not. It is far beyond the scope of this course to try to settle that question. Whether the description of the origins of the world and of humanity are to be taken as a stepwise and complete description of creation is not something we can settle to everyone’s satisfaction, and so we will leave it aside in this course — not because it is not important (it must be important, one way or the other), but because the debate typically generates more heat than light, and because we have another task before us — one we can achieve even though we may disagree on certain points of this sort.
I think we can say that the author of Genesis makes a certain number of irreducible points that are central to what comes after — and that it is critical to understand these:
For those who have grown up in a Christian context, even embedded in a “post-Christian” culture, these claims may appear less remarkable than they really are. Even an atheist today may take it for granted that any claim for a deity would presume that he was infinite, that he was the creator of the world, that we can in some way could know him, and that he would in turn show particular care for us. Such assumptions merely illustrate the extent to which Judeo-Christian assumptions have penetrated popular thinking in this regard.
None of this was obvious, though, to the world into which these shocking revelations first came. Almost every other religion in the ancient world offered a plurality of gods — that there could possibly be only one would have seemed to them bizarre and inexplicably poor. A multitude of gods was a way of explaining, by analogy, the diversity of experience — the number of types of things the world had to offer was mirrored in the variety of the pantheon. It is just this point that the Hebrew vision of God most perfectly fails to address, substituting instead a notion of a God who engenders multiplicity for its own sake as an outgrowth of his creative process — who multiplied species of plants and animals, and who was capable of inscrutable motivations beyond all power of people to interpret them.
Most other ancient religions claimed that the gods were a consequence of the universe, not its creators. The gods of the Greeks, for example, were the offspring of the Titans, who were in their turn the children of Heaven and Earth. The earliest Egyptian religion depicts gods who were animals, or partly animal, while Greek religion depicted gods that assumed a human form — but neither originally posited a god who was in any way transcendent, infinite, or without the restrictions of a physical form. And while some ancient religions suggested that the gods cared about people and occasionally meddled in human affairs, none of them offered gods who were wholly good; most of the gods are shown as full of human weaknesses: they deal with people in exchange for what they can get out of them — sacrifices and recognition, in particular; they are often petty, and sometimes aggressively evil.
One should not overstate the case: philosophical thinking did eventually begin to erode those ancient visions, at least partly under influences from the east. Egypt’s old religion was briefly eclipsed by the radical religious reforms of Akhnaten; Plato overtly presented a god or gods in transcendent terms; Aeschylus’ vision of Zeus, for example, is far more like the transcendent deity of Genesis and Exodus than like the Zeus of Homer. Still, these were brief and unsteady visions: Hebrew conception of God was quite simply unlike anything the world had known before.
The book of Exodus picks up the story of the Hebrews some generations after Joseph and his brothers have gone to Egypt. We are merely told that Israel (a people, not a land) has become “a great nation” there, and that they are serving as slaves.
Exodus has one primary narrative thrust, and it is an extraordinarily powerful one — the liberation of a people from slavery by the hand of an all-powerful God. It is absolutely central in the narrative of God’s formation of and relationship with Israel: the covenants with Abraham are affirmed, compounded, and deepened in the Lord’s dealings with Moses. Perhaps nothing so clearly expresses the staying power of this vision as the fact that, to this day, Jews worldwide gather at Passover to recall these events, and to remember, family by family, the narrative of the Lord’s deliverance, which in turn directly express the promises made to Abraham, and are, at the same time, something completely new.
Contents of this page © Copyright 1996, 2007 Bruce A. McMenomy.