Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Finding Your Way Through the Old Testament
When I was 12, 1 wanted a Bible for Christmasand
received one of those beautiful, gilt-edged volumes with the wonderful
aroma of aged leather. I was thrilled. Just holding it in my hands
was a solemn experience.
My gift was an old English translation whose wording
and phrasing could not by any stretch of the imagination be termed
Undaunted, I picked up my cherished gift, opened it
to page 1, chapter 1, and began, resolving to read one chapter
per day until I finished. This I did, completing the task two
years and eleven months later.
This approach led to a neatly ordered concept of what
the Bible contained, right? Not exactly. Had I known then what
is obvious to me now, I could have saved myself a lot of confusion.
I had plunged in, assuming I was about to read a book cover to
cover, unaware that I was actually entering a library where not
one, but 72 books awaited me: books of poetry, books of song,
letters, allegories, historical sagas and more.
I had sailed blandly along treating them all alike
under the impression that, no matter where you open it, the Bible
is the Bible is the Bible. I know now that there are better ways
to approach the Bible and to avoid that kind of pitfall.
Familiarity is the key. The more at home you feel
in any library, the easier you'll find your way around. If familiarity
is the key, the door that it opens is literary form. With the
type of book you're reading clearly in mind, the door is wide
open to pleasurable, profitable Scripture reading.
It's helpful to know that the Old Testament is divided
into four groups:
1) The Pentateuch (Greek for
five rolls or books), also known as the Torah (Hebrew
for the Law);
2) The Historical Books;
3) The Wisdom Books, or The Writings;
4) The Prophetic Books.
Knowing what we can expect to find within each of
these groups puts us on firmer footing as we strive to find our
way around the Old Testament.
Before we begin, we should remember that what Christians
call the Old Testament is, in reality, the Hebrew Scriptures.
The word "testament," moreover, can also be interpreted as "covenant"
(a solemn agreement between two parties). It is this notion of
covenant, or the union between God and the Chosen People, that
underlies the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole.
The Greek prefix penta means
five (as in Washington's Pentagon or Chrysler's penta-star), so
we are not surprised to find five books in this set: Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These works are the heart of
the Hebrew Scriptures and the most treasured traditions of Judaism.
Genesis. In the Pentateuch, we
discover the very earliest memories in the Judaeo-Christian era.
Genesis 1:1-11:26 contains stories so old they are subtitled Primeval
or Prehistory, referring to that period predating written records.
The tales told in these first Genesis chapters found their way by
word of mouth from generation to generation for a very long time
before being committed to writing.
Until recently. the books of the Pentateuch
were ascribed to Moses, and certainly much that they contain is
attributable to his influence. However, we really don't know who
the authors were. Thanks to modern biblical scholarship, we now
recognize four distinct threads which were eventually woven into
a single account. These four (Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomic)
probably reflect oral traditions as preserved in different geographic
Since final work on the Pentateuch's
written version wasn't completed until the sixth century B.C., it
was difficult to reconcile divergent accounts of a specific episode
into one. As a result, Genesis sets side-by-side two creation stories
(Gn 1:12:4a and 2:4b3:24) and merges two flood epics,
one which speaks of saving two of every species (Gn 6:19) and one
which calls for rescuing seven pairs (Gn 7:2-3). As Catholics, we
do not take these prehistoric accounts literally although they richly
convey God's truth.
At Genesis 11:27, it's as though the
curtain has fallen on the prologue to the biblical drama and risen
on Act One: the Age of the Patriarchs, an era which probably began
in about the 19th century B.C. A patriarch was a father figure for
an extended family or clan which included a multitude of servants
or slaves needed to tend large herds and flocks. The constant need
to feed and water these animals made life in the patriarchal system
nomadic. The first historical biblical figure we meet is the leader
of one of these family units. His name is Abram, later Abraham,
and it is with him that the covenant relationship with God begins.
The remainder of the Book of Genesis deals with the four generations
of patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Esau and Jacob (later called Israel)
and the 12 sons of Jacob, progenitors of the tribes of Israel. The
focus is on Jacob's favorite son, Joseph, through the latter part
of this book. As Genesis ends, Joseph, together with his father,
brothers and assorted relatives, are living a life of ease and comfort
in Egypt's Land of Goshen.
Exodus: Enter Cecil B. DeMille.
Between the last lines of Genesis and the opening of the next book,
Exodus, four centuries disappear and the situation of Jacob's descendants
is radically different. Now called lsraelites because all are from
the line of Israel (Jacob), these Hebrew people are considered a
threat to Egypt's security and are virtually enslaved. In terms
of its ongoing significance, the Book of Exodus is one of the most
important in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Here Moses comes into his own, a mighty
saga which is repeated annually in TV reruns of Cecil B. DeMille's
The Ten Commandments. The Hollywood version may be a little
long on special effects and cast members, but it has the essentials
reasonably well lined up. Exodus means departure, and it's
off into the desert for the Israelites. The high point of the book
is Moses' meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. It is there that the
fullness of the Covenant is proposed, a relationship between the
Chosen People and their God freely entered into in love and mutual
respect. Once the people ratify God's proposal, this Covenant with
all its requirements becomes known as the Law, which would govern
Israel religiously, socially and often politically for over a thousand
Leviticus: The law. The third
volume of the Pentateuch, Leviticus, examines the Law in some detailmore
detail, as a rule, than most readers are up to. As a result, Leviticus
is rarely first choice for bedtime reading, but it does provide
particulars necessary for a real understanding of this long-standing
relationship between the people of God and their Lord.
Numbers: Counting heads. The Book
of Numbers takes its name from two censuses, one in Chapter 1 and
a second in Chapter 26. This book carries on the story of the Israelites'
sojourn in the Sinai Desert and can be considered an extension of
the tale begun in Exodus.
Deuteronomy: The second law. Wherever
you run into the prefix deutero in the Bible, it means second,
so here, in the last book of the Pentateuch, we find a rehash of
a lot of material already covered, but it's done in a much different
manner. The Law is gone over once more, this time in a series of
discourses given by Moses as he appeals to the people to live up
to the Covenant. As the book ends, the Promised Land (Canaan) is
in view, Moses' successor (Joshua) has been appointed, Moses delivers
a farewell address (Chapters 3233) and exits the biblical
The Historical Books
Joshua: Journey's end. Some say that with the
Book of Joshua we enter the realm of the Bible's historical books;
others say that doesn't happen until we reach the First Book of
Samuel. Wherever he lands, Joshua is a historical figure and a
prominent one. To him fall two heavy responsibilities: 1) to get
the Israelites into the Promised Land and conquer such obstacles
as lay in his path, and 2) to divide the newly occupied land among
the tribes. God selected a very different leader from Moses for
these vital tasks. Joshua was a military man, exactly what the
times and situation called for.
Judges: But no courts. When we think of judges,
the image is usually that of black-robed figures, gavels in hand,
presiding over courtrooms. Upon opening the biblical Book of Judges,
we must erase that image completely. These judges are the furthest
thing from magistrates. They are charismatic leaders, often of
a military nature, whose assignment is to get the Israelites out
of one jam or another. Following the death of Joshua, there is
no central authority over the tribes, no leader or governing body.
What remains is a loosely knit confederation of weak
tribal units constantly preyed upon by their stronger neighbors.
This cycle of being raided and invaded is God's way of getting
their attention after major breaches of the Covenant which more
often than not had something to do with idolatry, the worship
of false gods. Thus sin came and punishment followed. Having their
backs to the wall frequently led to fervant repentance and prayers
for relief. Help, according to this book, arrived in the form
of a judge who took matters in hand (and the offending tribe as
well) and whipped everything into shape. Among the more prominent
were Deborah, Samson and Samuel.
Once the judge died or departed, the cycle began again.
If nothing else, the Book of Judges is a forceful reminder of
humanity's tendency to learn little if anything from previous
Ruth: An interlude. In symphonic concerts,
after the orchestra has been working its way through some pretty
ponderous pieces, the program may call for an interlude, a light
and airy bit to give both musicians and audience a break. The
four-chapter gem called the Book of Ruth is our interlude. It
has almost a fairy-tale quality beginning "Once in the time of
the judges..." (Ruth 1:1). Contrary to what was said earlier,
this is bedtime reading, short and sweet, with a genuine heroine
and better-than-average hero.
Samuel One and Two. If there was doubt before,
none remains that we are at this point securely within the group
known as the Historical Books. These books are historical largely
because they deal with actual events. They are not, however, history
books in the modern sense in which incidents are neatly logged
in chronological order with all dates verified.
What we have in the Historical Books is salvation
history, again the story of God, the Israelites and their ongoing
endeavor to live out their Covenant. To that end, biblical writers
included those episodes which served their purpose, downgraded
or eliminated those that didn't. Happenings which were considered
of major importance sometimes appear several times.
The Historical Books, running from First Samuel through
Second Maccabees, cover an awesome span of history, beginning
at about 1020 B.C. and ending at around 142 B.C., nearly bumping
up against the Christian era. Most helpful in our journey through
them is a good biblical atlas, not just one or two all-purpose
maps in the back of the Bible, but a full set showing changes
in names, boundaries and political fortunes.
The two Books of Samuel were, in all probability,
originally a single work and may be seen as transition books,
wrapping up the period of the Judges and introducing the monarchy.
Samuel himself plays a dual role: last of the Judges and a prophet
as well. Though not a leader of all the tribes in the sense that
Moses and Joshua were, Samuel nevertheless commands the respect
of most tribal leaders, and it is to Samuel that they voice their
desire for a king. Samuel reminds them that they already have
a king, God, and that they live in a covenanted relationship with
that monarch under the Law.
What the Israelite leaders really want is someone
to fend off the pesky neighbors who have been disturbing the peace
throughout the two centuries of the Judges. Samuel warns them
they'll live to regret their request, but he nonetheless anoints
Saul as Israel's first king, a reign that starts well, but ends
badly, resulting in Samuel plodding off to Bethlehem to anoint
the youngest of Jesse's sons as Saul's successor. And so the greatest
of Israel's kings mounts the throneDavid, who will be revered
through Jewish history as the king of the golden age. The remainder
of the books of Samuel recount David's colorful career.
Kings: One and Two. These books are the immediate
successors to the books of Samuel. In fact, some older Bibles
list all four volumes as First, Second, Third and Fourth Kings.
History continues as the books open with David's farewell address
and death and continue with the anointing of one of his many sons,
Solomon, as the next king.
Most of us have heard of Solomon's wisdom and wealth.
He has both in abundance (although his wisdom dims noticeably
toward the end of his life). Solomon raises Israel to its period
of greatest prominence in the Mediterranean world. He builds and
builds and builds, but at great cost to his subjects, who pay
for it through staggering taxes and conscripted labor. So, upon
Solomon's death, a delegation approaches his son, the new king,
Rehoboam, begging relief.
Rehoboam, upon consultation with his advisors, takes
what is probably the worst advice given in the entire Bible, telling
the people that, if they think they had it tough under dear old
dad, they haven't seen anything yet. Whereupon, ten tribes do
a little consulting of their own and decide, "Who needs this?"
They straightway secede and establish a kingdom of their own in
the north. Hereafter, there will remain two nations: Israel in
the north and Judah in the south.
The remainder of the Books of Kings documents the
times of the two nations and their ultimate downfall. Israel is
conquered by superpower Assyria in 721 B.C., and most of its citizenry
is relocated to other parts of the vast Assyrian Empire, never
to return as tribal units, thus becoming known as the ten lost
tribes. Judah lasts about a century and a half longer, only
to fall into the hands of a later superpower, Babylonia, and most
Judeans are marched into exile for some eighty years, ending the
Chronicles: One more time. The Books of Chronicles
essentially recap most of what you just read in Kings. They originate
from a source which also gives us the next two books, Ezra and
Nehemiah. The chronicler condenses the tale, adds a little more
theology and includes the end of the Exile narrative.
Ezra and Nehemiah. Thus, Chronicles sets us
up for the post-exilic period of Jewish history and points us
right at Ezra and Nehemiah, where we learn about the return of
the Judean exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of their homeland.
By this time, all tribal identities except that of Judah have
been blurred or lost and the descendants of Israel come to be
known by the name of that one tribe, Jews.
Tobit, Judith and Esther: A novel approach.
At this point, we get another interlude, a little light reading
and a break from all this heavy history. This interlude comes
in the form of three relatively short historical novels: Tobit,
Judith and Esther. Each is intriguing in its own way and good
for bedtime reading, but if you're all caught up in the historical
events, you can skip right past them temporarily and move directly
to the final volumes in this section.
First and Second Maccabees: The hammer strikes.
Be prepared for another time warp. In First and Second Maccabees,
the biblical writers have let something like three centuries slip
away without comment and now direct our attention to a time not
long before Jesus, the second century B.C. In these books, the
Jews are confronted with an attempt to undermine or eliminate
their culture, replacing it with the Greek (Hellenistic) traditions
so popular in the Mediterranean world of that time. Even the beloved
Temple is desecrated.
These books report the attempts of Judas Maccabaeus
(the name means hammer) and his brothers to regain religious
and political freedom. Their success culminates in the glorious
rededication of the Temple in a Feast of Light, celebrated today
The Wisdom Books or the Writings
The Wisdom Books or the Writings come from a type
of literature common in the Near Eastern world in the centuries
just before and after Jesus' time. In them, Wisdom is often capitalized
and personified and thereafter spoken of as a living being. Some
of these books really are Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs,
Ecclesiastes, Sirach and, of course, the Book of Wisdom
(probably the final contribution to the Old Testament canon,
written about 100 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt).
Each approaches the topic from a different angle.
Job ponders the mystery of why the good suffer. Proverbs
compiles short axioms as norms for moral conduct (in effect, the
Bible's Poor Richard's Almanac). In Ecclesiastes,
Qoheleth mourns the vanity of everything that is not God, concluding
that only God lasts; everything else is transient. Sirach
scoops up the wisdom of past centuries and encapsulates it. The
Book of Wisdom is lyrical in its hope for immortality,
the most forceful statement on belief in an afterlife found anywhere
in the Old Testament (Wis 35).
The Song of Songs and the Psalms are
strictly speaking not Wisdom literature. The first is an epic
love poem, celebrating ideal love between woman and man, which
is also seen as an allegory describing the love between God and
The Psalter, on the other hand, is a collection (actually
five collections) of song lyrics. Many psalms were used in Temple
worship, and the Psalter as it exists today is rather like a modern
hymnal preserved with only the lyrics, the melodic line missing.
The 150 psalms of the Bible were composed over some 500 years
and are of a variety of types: praise, thanksgiving, lamentation,
odes to the king and so on. It has been said that if all the Old
Testament were lost to us and only the psalms remained, we would
still have nearly all the essential history and theology of those
The Prophetic Books
Most modern Bibles group the prophetic books at
the end of the Hebrew Scriptures. They are divided into the major
prophets and minor prophets. The major prophets (Isaiah,
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) are listed first; major not because
their messages are more important, but simply because they are
lengthier. From Hosea through Malachi, 12 minor
prophets' writings, shorter in length, follow one-by-one.
The prophets in the two groups above are also known
as the writing prophets. But Scripture also teems with prophets
from whom we have not one written word: Elijah, Elisha, Nathan
and so on.
The main role of the prophets was not to predict the
future but to "speak for God" on the issues of the day. Hence
prophets should be seen against a backdrop of the times and places
in which they lived and worked. It is important, for instance,
to read Jeremiah in relation to the events preceding the Exile
as described in 2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36. Every prophet
was a product of his time. His primary message to God's people
dealt with the current situation and that alone, so when interpreting
the prophetic books for our benefit, we should first learn what
the initial intent of that message was: What problems of his time
was a particular prophet addressing?
Coming up for air. Our trip through the Hebrew
Scriptures has been so rapid that it leaves us breathless. Even
so, this little library of 45 books should be a bit more familiar
and a bit less bewildering. Since, for Christians, the New Testament
lies hidden in the Old, a season like Advent is a perfect time
to leaf through the books we've talked about. During Advent, we
live out a miniature version of the centuries of waiting for the
fulfillment of the Covenant in the coming Messiah. So pick up
your Hebrew Scriptures and dive in. You'll be surprised how soon
you'll feel right at home.