11 The Bible: The Old
The influence of
Christianity on Western culture is enormous. It can be seen in the
many echoes of stories and sayings from the Bible, and more
generally from the presence and teaching of the Church. It is so pervasive
that no limits can be set to it. It is, however, important to
realize that the Bible alone does not contain or express all
that is implied by the word "Christianity", since the church has
gone on developing its teachings and structures until today. In each historical
period, society and individuals are found asking different
questions to which the churches give different replies,
expressed in different literary forms, just as literature too
develops and varies across the centuries.
In the Bible, which
some writers, such as Milton, knew by heart, there is a great
variety of materials: symbolic stories, fictional narratives,
historical romances, official documents, ritual laws, social
codes, prophetic oracles, social satire, moral instruction, love
poetry, religious poetry, historical chronicles, personal
memoirs, traditional narrative in the Old Testament;
collected Sayings of Jesus, narratives of his life and death,
personal memoirs, letters both personal and open, prophecy in
symbolic form, in the New Testament. Students of Western
culture wishing to approach the Bible in order to understand the
works influenced by it face a challenge.
The Text of the Old
While all Christians
read the same New Testament, different denominations read different forms of the Old
reason for this goes back to the origins of the Church. At the
very beginning, the Easter message was "The Risen Jesus is
Messiah and Lord." The first task was to convince the Jews that
Jesus was the promised Messiah, that his sufferings and death
had been foretold by Israel's prophets in the Scriptures. That
demanded a close reading of the Jewish Scriptures, and a
re-interpretation of them, since the Jews had mostly been
expecting a celestial leader to come as Messiah, a new David who would
throw out the Romans and re-establish Jerusalem as the City of
God. The thought of Paul, in particular, on the
distinction between Law and Grace led the early Church ever
farther away from Judaism as the Church opened more and more to
people who had never had any contact with Jewish thought. It
seemed that in Jesus, God had established a completely new
'Covenant' with humanity, one which not only fulfilled but
virtually replaced the Covenant and laws received by Moses
recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, that was limited essentially
to Jews and those who chose to join them. Slowly the collection
of fundamental Christian writings, the four Gospels, the Letters
by Paul and other Apostles, came to be seen as the record of
this 'New Covenant'; the Latin for 'Covenant' is testamentum
and so it was only natural for the holy Scriptures of the Jews
to receive the name 'Old Testament' by contrast to the 'New
Testament'. It is, however, a name which Jews feel to be
dismissive and therefore insulting.
(Greek-speaking) Jews and their disciples, who formed the bulk
of the first generation of Christians, read the Jewish
Scriptures in Greek, in
a version called the Septuagint. Here they found all
the books that had originally been written in Hebrew translated into
Greek, but also they found translations of some books first
written in the Aramaic
language spoken by the Jews after the Exile, and some books that
were probably even originally composed in Greek, or at least the
Hebrew originals have been lost.
There was no finalized "canon" of exactly which
books formed the "Holy Scriptures." The Septuagint, and its
Latin parallel the "Vulgate", was the Old Testament of all
Christians until the 16th century.
The Jews, after the
destruction of Jerusalem, lived scattered in Diaspora, fiercely
preserving their identity in a hostile world. The Hellenic world
passed away, and other times came. Certain Jewish families (the Massoretes)
were charged with the transmission of the Scriptures, and copies
of the Hebrew books of
the Bible were carefully made (the text itself was holy, every
letter of it) and passed down by them from generation to
families felt that the Bible could only be truly God's holy word
in the Hebrew text. They
therefore did not transmit the non-Hebrew works included in the
The Christian scholars
of the German Renaissance (c.1500), Reuchlin and others,
who sat down to learn Hebrew from the Jewish Rabbis (teachers)
living in Europe, received from them the text of their Hebrew
Bible, and felt that this represented the "original" form, which
the Septuagint had "corrupted" in some way. They set aside the
parts of the Old Testament that were not found in the Hebrew
Bible, calling them "Apocrypha" (meaning "hidden
writings"), although the Church had been reading them from
the very beginning of its history as integral parts of the
today, the Catholic and
consider the "canon" (authorized list) of Scriptures to
include the books of the Septuagint, whether written in Hebrew
or not, while the Protestant churches exclude the Apocryphal
books from their Bibles, or put them in a separate section. The order of the
books in the Old Testament also varies, for the same reason.
The Books of the
The first five
books of the Bible are called the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses (because
traditionally they were said to have all been written by Moses).
In the New Testament they are known as "The Law", the "Torah";
Jews this is the most sacred part of the Bible. The English names
given to the different books of the Pentateuch are mostly from
the Latin; as we shall see, the divisions into books are often
determined by the size of scrolls rather than by the contents.
The Pentateuch as a
whole was composed over many centuries, and although its
redactors have tried to blend the various kinds of
material into a unified form, the different strands are still
clearly visible. One of the most obvious signs of diverse
sources is the use of different names for God. For
example, in the first Creation Narrative, God is always called 'Elohim' (meaning 'God'), while in the second, God is
called 'Yahweh-Elohim', and after that come long
narratives where he is called simply 'Yahweh'.
It seems clear
that the earliest form of written text underlying the Pentateuch
was composed around the time of Solomon
(c.900 - 1000 BC). At that moment the worship at the local shrines
was being suppressed in favour of the central Jerusalem temple and
there may have been a desire to ensure the preservation in written
form of stories and legends that had hitherto been transmitted
orally. The redactor
responsible for this material is usually known as the Yahwist
("J" from German 'Jahwist') because that is the name used
for Israel's God, even before the story in which the Name is
revealed to Moses. These sections are marked by a vivid, popular
style, God is shown in a very
close relationship with those he chooses. The Mountain of
God is always called Sinai. J tells stories in which God directs
Israel in a History of Salvation that leads toward the
establishment of David's kingdom in Jerusalem.
very different kind of tradition,
known as the Elohistic ("E") underlies the later
parts of Genesis, from chapter 20, and portions of Exodus. Here God is known as
Elohim and the Mountain of God is called Horeb. This
(fragmentary) material originated in the northern kingdom of
Israel after the death of Solomon and the division of his
kingdom into two, and is hostile to the monarchy.
which also uses the name Elohim is usually called Priestly
since it stresses very strongly the Law and the worship of
Israel. The first Creation Narrative was composed within this
tradition, with its liking for solemn formulae.
Chapter 1:1-2:3 offers a formal,
theological narrative of the Creation of all things, all
creatures, by God, an expression of the unity of creation and of
the universal power of God. The basic structure of the narrative
is that of the seven-day week. Seven was a sacred number, and
the week was the fundamental unit of the Hebrew calendar.
The story is clearly
designed to be a 'scientific' account, in the Aristotelian
manner, emphasizing the unity of the Many by grouping things
within broad general categories. The living creatures are
introduced in a hierarchy determined by the way in which they
reproduce; first come plants with seeds and fruit, then the
egg-laying fish and birds, then the mammals, and finally humans,
who are recognized as mammals by being created on the sixth day.
The Creation ends on the Sabbath, the resting from work on the
seventh day (Saturday). Since Sunday, the "first day of the
(new) week", was the day of Jesus' Resurrection, it became
the day when Christians rest and attend worship. It is not the
Old Testament Sabbath.
1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty,
darkness was over the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, "Let there be light"
and there was light.
God saw that the light was good
and he separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light "day"
and the darkness he called "night".
And there was evening, and there was morning
the first day.
6. And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters
to separate water from water."
So God made the expanse
and separated the water below from the water above.
And it was so.
God called the expanse "sky."
And there was evening, and there was morning the second day.
9. And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered together
and let dry ground appear."
And it was so.
God called the dry ground "land"
and the gathered waters he called "seas "
And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, "Let the land produce vegetation:
seed-bearing plants, and trees on the land
that bear fruit with seeds in it, according to their various
And it was so.
The land produced vegetation:
plants bearing seeds according to their kinds.
And trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning
the third day.
14. And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky
to separate the day from the night;
and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years,
and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky
to give light on the earth."
And it was so.
God made two great lights,
the greater light to govern the day
and the lesser light to govern the night.
He also made the stars.
God set them in the expanse of the sky
to give light on the earth to govern the day and the night,
and to separate light from darkness.
And God saw that it was good.
And there was evening and there was morning
the fourth day.
20. And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures,
and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky."
So God created the great creatures of the sea
and every living, moving thing with which the water teems,
according to their kinds,
and every winged bird according to its kind.
And God saw that it was good.
God blessed them and said,
"Be fruitful and increase in number and fill
the water in
and let the birds increase on the earth."
And there was evening and there was morning
the fifth day.
24. And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures
according to their kinds:
livestock, creatures that move along the ground,
and wild animals, each according to its kind."
And it was so.
God made the wild animals according to their
the livestock according to their kinds,
and all the creatures that move
along the ground
according to their kinds.
And God saw that it was good.
26. Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,
and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the
over the livestock, over all the wild animals of the earth,
and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them,
"Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air,
and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Then God said,
41 I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole
and every tree that has fruit with seed in it.
They will be yours for food.
And to all the beasts of the earth
and all the birds of the air
and all the creatures that move on the ground,
everything that has the breath of life in it
I give every green plant for food." And it was so.
God saw all that he had made
and it was very good.
And there was evening and there was morning
the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing;
so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.
And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy,
because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had
Chapter 2:4-3:end contain the other, older story of the
creation of humanity, with the symbolic names Adam (Man) and Eve
(Living), their life in "Paradise" (garden) with visits from
YHWH (the name is not used in Chapter 1), the story of the Tree
of the knowledge of good and evil, the temptation of Eve, the
Fall, the punishment and the Expulsion from the Garden. A mysterious story,
combining many elements, not at all a "full explanation" or a
"myth" in the usual sense.
It stands at the beginning of the Bible as an expression
of a truth about humanity: people do not do what they know to be
God's will, and the result is unhappiness, suffering,
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were
LORD God made the earth and the heavens, no shrub of the field had
yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung
up; the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no
man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and
watered the whole surface of the ground.
And the LORD God formed a man (Adam) from
the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath
of life, and he became a living being.
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and
there he put the man he had formed.
And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the
ground, trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
In the middle of the
garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil ....
(15) The LORD God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to
work it and take care of it.
And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat
from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of
the knowledge of good and evil for when you eat of it you will
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a helper
suitable for him....... (21) So the Lord God caused the man to
fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took one of
the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh.
Then the LORD God made
a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought
her to the man ....
(25) The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Chapter 3: The Fall
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the
LORD God had made.
said to the woman, "Did God really say You must not eat from any
tree in the garden?"
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in
the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree
that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or
you will die.'"
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to
the woman. "For God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be
opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food
and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,
she took some and ate it She also gave some to her husband, who
was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were
opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig
leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the
man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking
in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD
God among the trees of the garden.
But the LORD God called to the man, "Adam, where are you?"
He answered, "I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because
I was naked; so I hid."
And he said, "Who told you that you were naked?
Have you eaten from the
tree that -1 commanded you not to eat from?"
Adam said, "The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit
from the tree, and I ate it." Then the LORD God said to the woman,
"What is this you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent
deceived me, and I ate."....
So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the
ground from which he had been taken.
After he drove the man out, he placed on the
east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword
flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Chapter 4:1-16, the story of Cain and
Abel, the first murder, the picture of "fallen humanity" begins,
with a growth in disasters and moral corruption leading up to
the story of Noah. The
idea of social responsibility and of interdependence is present
from the beginning, as also the irrationality of evil.
Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
In the course of time,
Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the
brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.
The LORD looked with
favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he
did not look with favour.
Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry?
Why is your face
If you do
what is right will you not be accepted?
But if you do not do what is right, sin is
crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must
Now Cain said to his brother, "Let us go out to
the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his
brother Abel and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother, Abel?
"I don't know," he replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
The Lord said, "What have you done?
brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.
Now you are under a
curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to
receive your brother's blood from your hand.
When you work the
ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.
You will be a restless
wanderer on the earth."
In Chapter 5 there
strange lists of people reported to have lived for 900 years,
the oldest being Methuselah, who has become proverbial.
Chapter 6:1-9:17 contains the epic of Noah,
a story which is close to that found in Mesopotamia, (see the
Gilgamesh Flood Myth in Chapter 1) where terrible
floods were very common. It
should be seen as a symbolic new beginning offered to humanity
by God, the hope exists that even the worst disaster is not the
end of God's love and promises.
Noah is shown as a man of faith, and a craftsman able to
build the Ark, but not as an extraordinary person, Noah is a
normal human being, the Bible is not interested in the "heroic".
Chapter 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel, an allegory
of the multiplicity of languages by which people are divided,
both a blessing and a curse.
Here, as in the stories about Eve and Noah, we must note
that humour is not absent.
Abraham and the initial
With the end of
Chapter 11 we enter a new stage in the narrative of Israel's
past. What had
been told until now applied to all humanity, was not linked to
"history" in the way that what follows claims to be. Now the Bible begins
the history of salvation worked out in reality, not
myth, through faithful individuals and families, the Patriarchs
(fathers). This is
essentially a family epic, in prose, preserving many memories of
an early period in human history when life was nomadic and
pastoral, and here too there is none of the heroic exaggeration
of other cultures. The
only "extraordinary" thing noted about Abraham, for example, is
his trust in God.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
the Patriarchs, are seen as the founding fathers of the
families (tribes) making up the later Amphictyony of Israel. Israel is a later
name given to Jacob. As
in all such foundation histories, the symbolic is mixed with the
important, there is here nothing of the usual Myth, no unions
with gods, no supernatural origin, only the appearance of a
group of people seeing itself as being in a special relationship
with God, who has made them a promise of blessings. The meeting with God
Chapter 12:1-7, the beginning of the Abraham
story, expresses the promise of God in a very undramatic way,
with no details about how God appeared. Abraham
sets out, returning to the nomadic life which was already being
replaced by sedentary farming.
setting out is seen as a expression of his trust in God, who has
promised him another life in another place.
In the saga of
Abraham, there are many adventures, in which he is sometimes
seen meeting God in humble ways (chapter 18), and even arguing
with him, making God change his mind (chapter 18:25-end). For a long time
Abraham has no son, there is the puzzle of who will inherit the
very late, God enables him to have a son, Isaac.
Chapter 22:1-18, tells how God "tests"
Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Child sacrifice was
common in the tribes of Canaan, this story is designed to
discourage it, but later the Church saw in it a "type" of the
love of God who was ready to give up his only Son. "Typology"
involves finding a new meaning in a story by events happening
later, so that events of the Old Testament are found to be
"allegories" of what happens when Jesus comes.
The last part of
Genesis (chapters 37-50) consists of another literary type, an
adventure story or popular romance in which a person is
separated from his family, becomes very powerful, then confronts
the family in this new position; once the relationship is
discovered, there is reconciliation. The story of Joseph, sold by his
brothers into slavery in Egypt where he becomes the servant of
Pharaoh thanks to his interpretation of dreams, is one of the
world's first "comic" stories.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his
brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's
wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
Now his father Israel
loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been
born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented
robe (a coat of many
colours) for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved
him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a
kind word to him.
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they
hated him all the more. He said to them, "Listen to this dream I
had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when
suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves
gathered around mine and bowed down
His brothers said to him, "Do you intend to reign over us? Will
you actually rule us?" And they hated him all the more because of
his dream and what he had said. Then he had another dream, and he
told it to his brothers. "Listen," he said, "I had another dream,
and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down
When he told his father as well as his
brothers, his father rebuked him and said, "What is this dream you
had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and
bow down to the ground before you?"
His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the
matter in mind.
His brothers sell
Joseph as a slave, then dip his coat in blood to suggest that he
has been eaten by an animal. He becomes a slave in the house of
Potiphar, a high official in Egypt, but soon rises to a posiion
of great responsibility. There he undergoes a difficult
situation with Potiphar's wife:
Now Joseph was well‑built and handsome, and after a while his
master's wife took notice of Joseph and said, "Come to bed with
me!" But he refused. "With me in charge," he told her, "my master
does not concern
with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to
my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has
withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How
then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" And
though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed
with her or even be with her.
One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none
of the household servants was inside. She caught him by his cloak
and said, "Come to bed with me!" But he left his cloak in her hand
and ran out of the house. When she saw that he had left his cloak
in her hand and had run out of the house, she called her household
servants. "Look," she said to them, "this Hebrew has been brought
to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I
heard me scream for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out
of the house."
She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home.
Then she told him this
story: "That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport
of me. But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak
beside me and ran out of the house."
When his master heard the story his wife
told him, saying, "This is how your slave treated me," he burned
with anger. Joseph's master took him and put him in prison
In prison, Joseph
correctly interprets dreams for the Pharaoh's cup-bearer and
baker. The cup-bearer is restored to his position and recalls
the event when Pharaoh has a strange dream. Joseph explains that
the dream means that Egypt is going to experience a long famine,
and should take appropriate measures. Pharaoh makes Joseph his
chief minister. The same famine strikes Jacob (Israel) and he
sends ten of Joseph's brothers to buy grain in Egypt, keeping
the youngest, Benjamin, at home.
Joseph allows them to
buy corn, but then accuses them of being spies, keeps one of the
brothers as hostage, and commands them to return to Egypt with
Benjamin. They have not recognized Joseph, of course, yet they
suddenly recall him:
They said to
one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother
Joseph. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for
his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has
come upon us." Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin
against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an
accounting for his blood."
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he
was using an interpreter.
turned away from them and began to weep, but then turned back and
spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound
before their eyes.
Yet on their way home, they find that
the money they paid for their grain has been put into their
sacks. Confused, they return to Egypt with Benjamin, and double
the money, 'in case it was a mistake'.
When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his
house, "Take these men to my house, slaughter an animal and
prepare dinner; they are to eat with me at noon." The man did as
Joseph told him and took the men to Joseph's house.
Now the men were frightened when they were taken to his house.
They thought, "We were brought here because of the silver that was
put back into our sacks the first time. He wants to attack us and
overpower us and seize us as slaves and take our donkeys."
So they went up to Joseph's steward and spoke to him at the
entrance to the house.
sir," they said, "we came down here the first time to buy food.
But at the place where we stopped for the night we opened our
sacks and each of us found his silver‑‑the exact weight‑‑in the
mouth of his sack. So we have brought it back with us.
We have also brought
additional silver with us to buy food. We don't know who put our
silver in our sacks."
"It's all right," he said. "Don't be afraid. Your God, the God of
your father, has given you treasure in your sacks; I received your
silver." Then he brought Simeon out to them. The steward took the
men into Joseph's house, gave them water to wash their feet and
provided fodder for their donkeys. They prepared their gifts for
Joseph's arrival at noon, because they had heard that they were to
When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had
brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the
ground. He asked them how they were, and then he said, "How is
your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?"
They replied, "Your
servant our father is still alive and well." And they bowed low to
pay him honor.
As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother's
son, he asked, "Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me
about?" And he said, "God be gracious to you, my son."
Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and
looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept
there. After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling
himself, said, "Serve the food."
Joseph plays the same
trick as before, sending them off with their money placed in
their sacks; but this time he puts his own cup in Benjamin's
sack. His steward rides after them, discovers the cup, and
accuses them of stealing it. They all ride back to the city,
where Joseph decrees that Benjamin must become his slave, the
others can go. They tell his it would kill their father to lose
Benjamin; they even offer to all become his slaves, if only
Benjamin can go home.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his
attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone leave my presence!"
So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his
brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and
Pharaoh's household heard about it.
Joseph said to
his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still living?" But his
brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified
at his presence.
Joseph said to his brothers, "Come close to me."
When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one
you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be
angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save
lives that God sent me ahead of you.
For two years now there has been famine in
the land, and for the next five
years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent
me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save
your lives by a great deliverance.
"So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me
father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all
Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, `This is what
your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down
to me; don't delay.
shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me‑‑you, your
children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you
I will provide
for you there, because five years of famine are still to come.
Otherwise you and your
household and all who belong to you will become destitute.'
"You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that
it is really I who am speaking to you. Tell my father about all
the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything
you have seen. And
bring my father down here quickly."
Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and
Benjamin embraced him, weeping.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them.
Afterward his brothers talked with him.
This story is
remarkable, both by its "change in fortunes" themes and by the
emotionally touching scenes involving Benjamin (the youngest
son) and the old father Jacob. It is extremely well structured. The story is put here
to explain why the "children of Israel" were in Egypt.
For Israel, the memory
of the central events of Exodus (Passover and escape from
slavery in Egypt) was the basis of their religious and national
any other nation, the stories on which Israel's religion was
based were not Fables but History, and even when centuries of
"oral transmission" have added some fabulous details, the basic
historical nature of the Exodus epic is clear.
Moses comes at a
moment when the "Habiru" in Egypt are most totally oppressed,
exploited and desperate. Because
God is with him, he is able to lead those who follow him out on
a journey reflecting that undertaken by Abraham. It is only when the
risk has been taken that God appears to them all at Sinai and
establishes the "Covenant" which binds all the families involved
into a single group with a united religion. Moses is often seen as a
magician, especially in the rather grim competitions of the
Plagues sent on Egypt (chapters 7-11); but the early
story of the Burning Bush (chapter 3) is central,
expressing the special vocation of Moses to whom the Lord (YHWH)
reveals his Name. In
the name is thought to express a person's essential being; here,
the ancient tribal god's name YHWH is given a deeper meaning by
being linked to the Hebrew verb "to be". With Moses,
"theophany" becomes more concrete than in the stories of
becomes the starting-point of a new history.
Chapter 12, the story of the Passover,
when the Egyptian Pharaoh at last agrees to let the people go,
marks a change from "romantic" to "cultic." The events in Egypt
are told in a popular way, with little reflection as to why all
these plagues are necessary; but the passover meal is not a
"story" but a fact of every Jew's life, until today. Originally a
springtime festival before the shepherds set out for the summer
pastures, the Passover is kept at the full moon of the first
month (March-April). The
family is together at home, the Passover lamb is sacrificed, but
no bone is broken, there is a special ritual of thanksgiving
prayers before and during the meal, at which "unleavened bread"
is eaten, and a number of cups of wine are shared. Then the head of the
family relates the Saving Deeds of the Lord so that the children
will remember them. "Salvation"
in the Old Testament means "being saved" from some quite
concrete difficulty or danger, usually as a nation (Israel). In the centuries of
Diaspora, the Jewish hope was kept alive by the final greeting,
"Next year in Jerusalem."
This Passover event
gave the Christian church important elements. Jesus, dying on the
Cross just before the feast of Passover, became the "real" Lamb
of God, the "sacrifice" that saved all. The meal of the
Passover that Jesus shared with his companions at his Last
Supper became the regular Christian celebration, celebrated
every week as a memorial of the Resurrection, with the cup of
wine and the unleavened bread forming the basic materials of the
Mass (Eucharist, Lord's Supper).
Some of the words said daily at Mass are from the ritual
of the Passover ("Lift up you hearts", "Holy, holy, holy.")
The crossing of the
Red Sea (or more probably
'Reed Sea', a marshy area along the route from Egypt to
Sinai) is told in chapter 14, with rather less drama than
Hollywood suggests, and the people begin their journey through
the desert. The
Old Testament dislikes idealization, the Israelites in the
desert are extremely human in their regret for the "fleshpots of
Egypt", the easy life of days gone by. The love of the Lord is shown in the gifts
of Manna and quails, his feeding of people who without him would
Chapter 19 brings them to Sinai, and
Moses goes up the mountain to meet with God and receive the Ten
are listed at the beginning of Chapter 20, as the
introduction to the many laws listed in the chapters following:
And God spoke all these words:
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out
of the land of slavery.
"You shall have no other gods before
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything
in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD
your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of
the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate
me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love
me and keep my commandments.
"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD
will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall
labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to
the LORD your God. On it you
not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your
manservant or maidservant, nor
your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six
days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all
that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the
LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
"Honor your father and your mother, so that you
may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
"You shall not murder.
"You shall not commit adultery.
"You shall not steal.
"You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet
your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or
donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
the Contract between God and his People, Israel, was expressed
after Solomon in the daily sacrifices offered by Levites
(priests from the tribe Levi) in the name of the People in the
great Temple at Jerusalem.
This is represented by the detailed cultic laws
contained in the chapters which follow.
The only other
narrative of the wanderings in the desert in Exodus is that of
chapter 32, the story of the Golden Calf, still today a
popular symbol for the ease with which people set up false
"idols" and run after them.
After this disaster, there comes a renewal of the
Covenant and a new set of laws.
God, clearly, does not give up.
The Rest of the
Originally, there were
not clear divisions between all these stories, but the size of
the scrolls on which they could be written made it necessary to
divide them. The
last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy (the second
Law), comes after lists of laws making up Leviticus, and
many varying stories about the life in the desert (Numbers). Deuteronomy is much
easier to read, it is certainly written by a unifying author. It is in the form of
Moses' last declarations, in which he reminds Israel of all
God's saving mercies and warns them of the disasters that will
come if they do not keep the commandments and worship the Lord
theme is made poignant by the fact that this book was discovered
and read in 622, not long before the
destruction of Jerusalem, but too late for much to be done. It was probably
written in much its present form under Hezekiah (c. 700) using
the old stories handed down from the time of the desert and of
the Exodus itself (1300-1200?).
Early History of
The books Joshua
and Judges tell the early history of the Israelites'
invasion and occupation of Canaan. These stories are
often heroic, and popular.
They oversimplify reality, but always from the point of
view of faith. The
basic pattern is God-centered, he leads the people by inspired
leaders; when the people fail to obey God or his leaders
("Judges" means inspired leaders) they get into trouble. They then see their
mistake, repent, and the Covenant is renewed.
Typical, and most
famous, of these stories is that of Samson (Judges
13-16) who is a universal figure, brave, weak about
women, witty. His
capture by Delilah has inspired several films; his final
imprisonment and death are the subject of Milton's only
tragedy, "Samson Agonistes."
After the beautiful
little romantic narrative of Ruth, designed to introduce
the story of David, we come to history of a more familiar,
The two Books of
Samuel begin with the figure of Samuel, called a
"prophet" but better seen as a form of "Judge." It is his task
to introduce the king, this being seen as a better
constitutional form for the newly unified tribes and peoples of
Canaan. They end
with David as king, after telling the dramatic events of the
"reign" of Saul, his psychological breakdown, and replacement by
the young hero who as a young man had faced Goliath and killed
him with a stone (chapter 17).
Nothing in the Bible
can equal these books for their "human interest", they read
like a novel, full of adultery and murder, rape and treachery,
pride and folly. David
himself is a man of passion, cruelty and despair. The main
religious theme in these books is that of God's choice of
individuals; David is sinful, passionate, but he is God's
"Anointed" (the word Christ, Messiah in Hebrew,
means just that), the King who is responsible for leading God's
People. David too
is the inheritor of a promise, and for Christians Jesus is the
fulfillment of that promise; that is why Jesus is born (in
Luke's Gospel) in Bethlehem, the "city of David", into the
family descended from David.
The two Books of
Kings are also neither separate from each other
nor separate from Samuel, which they continue. The first book tells
the end of David's reign, and continues the history through all
the kings of North and South until the destruction of Samaria in
722, and of Jerusalem in 587.
The theme here is not
that of Samuel. The
are seen as the fault of the kings, who let the people go
astray. But the
Covenant and the Commandments continue; the code of Deuteronomy
is clearly affirmed: one God to be worshipped at one Temple. The problems come
from the introduction of foreign gods and cults, or from the
worship of the Lord performed away from Jerusalem, especially in
result is a moralizing reading of historical events, quite
unique in its time. At
the same time, stories are introduced about "prophets" who are
men of holiness, in contrast to the king. Elijah and Elisha
work miracles that are echoed in those of Jesus, they are true
Men of God, although they are poor and they suffer. The message here is
of hope in God's love, and these books must have been vital in
the Exile, which they show is not the defeat of the Lord, but
his vindication. God
is holy, even if his People is not.
The two Books of
Chronicles tell much the same history, from Adam
until David in the form of genealogies, then in a highly edited
historical narrative. The
message here is again that God is one and that his Temple is in
Jerusalem; probably this was intended to encourage the Jews
returning from Exile to be careful not to repeat the sins of the
past. The. story
here serves to preach repentance and conversion.
is continued in the two books which follow, Ezra and Nehemiah,
originally part of Chronicles.
They tell the story of the return from the Exile,
thanks to Cyrus the Persian's edict (538), first of a group that
rebuilt the Temple (rededicated in 515), then of others under
Ezdra (458). Of
course, many others had remained in Judah. Perhaps about
60-80,000 were in Babylon, another 30-40,000 remained in Judah. In 445 Nehemiah
brought another group back to Jerusalem, and the city walls were
rebuilt and society reorganized according to the old ideas. Finally there were
celebrations of the Covenant and repentance in 425.
These books are
different from the previous histories, in that they are written
close to the events they describe, they are vital evidence for
their message is religious.
In the Exile, Israel had become aware of itself in a new
way. No longer
simply a population, but a "church" with a Bible (much had been
written just before the Exile, most of the other parts were
composed in nearly their present form during or just after the
Exile). Many of
those returning were not moved by religious ideals, so that the
writers and religious leaders had to try to move them, inspire
them. There is no
longer an independent state of Judah, even. Here is the
birthplace of "Judaism", the Jewish identity that can survive
centuries of persecution and exile; the system that Jesus
confronts in the new Testament, with the "Scribes" (experts in
God's Law) and the "Sanhedrin" (Council of Elders with
This section of the
Bible is completed by short, late, "romances" of Tobit, Judith,
Esther, mostly written in Greek.
Seven books are
grouped to form the poetry of Israel, between the historical
books and the Prophets. In
Jewish and Protestant Bibles these are reduced to five, since The
Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
are not accepted, one because it is written in Greek, the
other because it was composed too late to be included in the
"sacred" texts. Both are remarkable works and well worth
The Book of Job is one
of the great books of world literature, quite unique in the
Bible and read by people who would never look at any other part
of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It starts and ends with prose
narratives describing an overturn of Fortune; Job has
everything, sons, wealth, flocks, servants, and suddenly he
loses it all. At
the end, Fortune returns and everything is restored. The main substance,
though, lies in the poetry between, dialogues and monologues in
which Job and his companions, then God himself, debate the
question "why do the innocent suffer?"
This was a familiar
question, across Mesopotamia and Egypt similar debates are
found, and in the prophets and Psalms too the question is
raised. But this
book, whose author is nameless but who seems identified by
suffering with the gentile Job, goes much further in its
challenge to conventional religion. Even the Proverbs, like the whole
deuteronomic tradition, suggest that the person who obeys the
Law of the Lord will be blessed with success, health and wealth,
that suffering is a punishment for sin. Job simply stands
there and objects that he has done no wrong, that death is a
mystery, that as a human being he is entitled to some answers. In this, Job is more
the first "Romantic Hero" than Prometheus could ever be.
Job said: "If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery
be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the
seas‑‑ no wonder my words have been impetuous. The arrows of the
Almighty are in me, my spirit drinks in their poison; God's
terrors are marshaled against me.
Does a wild donkey
bray when it has grass, or an ox bellow when it has fodder? Is
tasteless food eaten without salt, or is there flavor in the white
of an egg ? I refuse to touch it; such food makes me ill.
"Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant what I
would be willing to crush me, to let loose his hand and cut me
off! Then I would still have this consolation‑‑ my joy in
unrelenting pain‑‑ that I had not denied the words of the Holy
"What strength do I have, that I should still hope? What
prospects, that I should be patient? Do I have the strength of
stone? Is my flesh bronze?
I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven
despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even
though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty. But my brothers are
as undependable as intermittent streams, as the streams that
overflow when darkened by thawing ice and swollen with melting
but that cease
to flow in the dry
season, and in the heat vanish from their channels. Caravans turn
aside from their routes; they go up into the wasteland and perish.
The caravans of Tema
look for water, the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope.
They are distressed, because they had been confident; they arrive
there, only to be disappointed. Now you too have proved to be of
no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid. Have I ever
said, `Give something on my behalf, pay a ransom for me from your
wealth, deliver me from the hand of the enemy, ransom me from the
clutches of the ruthless'?
"Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I
have been wrong. How painful are honest words! But what do your
you mean to correct what I say, and treat the words of a
despairing man as wind? You would even cast lots for the
fatherless and barter away your friend.
"But now be so kind as to look at me. Would I lie to your face?
Relent, do not be unjust; reconsider, for my integrity is at
stake. Is there any wickedness on my lips? Can my mouth not
Like the Platonic
dialogues, though in a different way, Job teaches by not giving
any solution. The
friends of Job, in speeches presenting the "orthodox" arguments,
are the original "Job's Comforters" (no comfort at all) and in
the New Testament, the Epistle of James (5:11) mentions Job's
"patience" which has also become proverbial, though not
accurate. The most
familiar moment in Job's speeches comes in 19:25-27:
Then Job replied: "How long will you torment me and crush me with
words? Ten times now you have reproached me; shamelessly you
If it is
true that I have gone astray, my error remains my concern alone.
If indeed you would exalt yourselves above me and use my
humiliation against me, then know that God has wronged me and
drawn his net around me.
"Though I cry, `I have been wronged!' I get no response; though I
call for help, there is no justice. He has blocked my way so I
cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped
me of my honor and removed the crown from my head. He tears me
down on every side till I am gone; he uproots my hope like a tree.
His anger burns against me; he counts me among his enemies. His
troops advance in force; they build a siege ramp against me and
encamp around my tent.
"He has alienated my brothers from me; my acquaintances are
completely estranged from me. My kinsmen have gone away; my
friends have forgotten me. My guests and my maidservants count me
a stranger; they look upon me as an alien. I summon my servant,
but he does not answer, though I beg him with my own mouth. My
breath is offensive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own brothers.
Even the little boys scorn me; when I appear, they ridicule me.
All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned
against me. I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped with
only the skin of my teeth.
"Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen
the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle? What is the way to the place where the
lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are
scattered over the earth? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of
rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no
man lives, a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate
wasteland and make it sprout with grass? Does the rain have a
father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the
ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters
become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?
"Have pity on me, my friends, have pity, for
the hand of God has struck me. Why do you pursue me as God does?
Will you never get enough of my flesh?
"Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a
scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or
engraved in rock forever!
"I know that my Redeemer
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my
skin has been destroyed, yet in
my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own
eyes‑‑I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!"
Even the imagined reply
of God, when it finally comes in chapters 38-40, is not a reply but
only a challenge to the limits of the human mind and physical
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this
that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a
man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if
you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its
footings set, or who laid its cornerstone‑‑ while the morning
stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
"Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the
when I made
the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for
it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, `This far you
may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'?
"Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its
place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the
wicked out of it? The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment. The wicked are
denied their light, and their upraised arm is broken.
"Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the
recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended
the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.
"What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness
reside? Can you take them to their places? Do you know the paths
to their dwellings? Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!
crowned him with honour and light;
"Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you
loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations
in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know
the laws of the heavens? Can you set up dominion over the earth?
"Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a
flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do
they report to you, `Here we are'? Who endowed the heart with
wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to
count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
"Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of
the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a
thicket? Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to
God and wander about for lack of food?
There is, God seems to
say, no real explanation for human suffering. If there is, it is
too difficult for humans. Instead, the Lord talks at length
about the marvels of nature, the mysterious creatures known in
Hebrew as Behemoth and Leviathan. Job simply submits to the
superior Mystery and all his losses are restored. It was only
the Cross and Passion of Jesus that finally offered believing
insight into what the answer to Job's questions might be. Even
then, the sense of suffering is not something that can be
explained in words.
The poetry of Job's
elegies on human destiny and frailty is sublime; the writers of
the 18th century, very fond of the word "sublime", always
explained it by referring to Job. William Blake, particularly,
pondered Job's words and reflected them in his engravings and
The 150 Psalms are
"hymns" of Jewish worship. They were originally sung in the
Temple during worship, they express some of the deepest
religious feelings of God's People. They are greatly varied in theme. Some read as if they
were deeply personal complaints, others are national
celebrations or royal victory songs, some express deep trust in
God, others ask questions, some demand vengeance or justice,
many are laments in sickness and despair. They continue to be
sung and prayed daily by many people. They have always been a main source for
the Christian church's prayers and meditations. The numbering of the
Psalms differs in the Hebrew and Greek versions, and therefore
today in Catholic and Protestant versions, where the traditional
Catholic numbering is mostly one behind that found in most
The 22nd / 23rd Psalm
is the most famous:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside still waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil
for you are with me;
your rod and staff
will comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever
The 8th Psalm expresses
the Bible's basic "anthropology": Humanity is made "a little
lower than the angels," but is destined "to be crowned with
How great is your name, O Lord our God,
how glorious your name!
Set high over all the earth,
majestic to highest heaven;
you fashion the praises of babes,
you silence the boasts of your foes.
When I see the moon and the stars,
the sky which your hand has formed
what is man, then, that you love him,
the children of men, that you care?
Less than an angel you made him,
all things created are his:
'Take charge of the world I have made.'
Both sheep and cattle you gave him,
and even the wildest beasts,
birds flying, the fish of the sea,
with all that dwells in the deep.
is your name, O Lord
how glorious your name!
Traditionally, the author
of the first Psalms was David, the greatest biblical
poet and musician, and certain Psalms carry his name in their
title, although it is not easy to find his hand in them. Most of the Psalms
seem to have been written in their present form either during or
after the Exile. The
poetry of the Bible is best seen in the Psalm, with repeated
parallelisms of a kind also found in the classical couplet.
must have originally been collections of traditional sayings,
common in oral culture. To
these have been added many artificially composed as a means of
instructing young people in good living. Didactic intentions
are common in the Bible. Some
of the proverbs are most diverting, some compare well with the
terseness of Greek epigrams.
Proverbs already make the distinction between the
Fool and the man of Wisdom which is much developed in the later
books, such as the Wisdom of Solomon. There, the
figure of Wisdom is developed in a personifying direction,
becoming a companion of God in his creating Work as well as the
guide of wise men. In
the end, this personification of divine Wisdom is one aspect of
the "Word" evoked by John at the beginning of his Gospel.
Ecclesiastes is a work that many have
loved for its asperity; it is a companion of the book of Job in
raising difficult questions, but it is more radically skeptical
about human affairs. The
book begins and ends with "Vanity", the emptiness of human
business, and true Wisdom seems reserved for the melancholic
on-looker who sees existence for what it really is. All life is seen as
lying under the universal law of death, the writer/speaker
(Ecclesiastes meaning "preacher") suggests that great detachment
is necessary. He
is a man of simplicity and faith, close to many modern satirical
writers in their standpoint of ironic detachment. He is perhaps the
first religious satirist.
The Song of
Songs is the direct opposite. At the surface level,
it is a series of erotic love poems in the form of exchanges
between two shepherds, with the speakers difficult to
claims to have been written by Solomon, which seems unlikely. It is marvellous
poetry, but not at all religious in subject-matter. Therefore people have
always read it as an Allegory, God being one of the lovers,
Israel the other; then, after the coming of Christ, Christians
said that it could be read typologically as a celebration of the
love between Christ and the Church. Most people today simply read it for its
unrestrained lyricism and sensual imagery:
The Song of Songs:
from Chapter 2
Listen! My lover!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the
mountains, bounding over the hills.
My lover is like a
gazelle or a young stag. Look!
There he stands behind
our wall, gazing through the windows,
peering through the
My lover spoke and
said to me,
"Arise, my darling, my
beautiful one, and come with me.
See! The winter is
past; the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the
earth; the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves is
heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its
the blossoming vines
spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my
darling; my beautiful one, come with me."
My dove in the clefts
of the rock,
the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face,
let me hear your
voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
Catch for us the
foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are
My lover is mine and I
am his; he browses among the lilies.
Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee, turn, my lover,
and be like a gazelle
or like a young stag on the rugged hills.
For Jesus, the word
"Bible" did not exist; he either talks of the "Scriptures" or
the "Law and the Prophets." The Law was given by God, through
Moses, the Prophets were the men sent from God to call Israel
back from sin and point the right way forward. The prophet was
always, then, a speaker, someone with a "message", a word
from God. In all
religions there are messages from the gods, oracles or signs. In Israel there were
professional prophets from early times, probably, but the great
prophets of the Bible are more like the Voice of Conscience than
anything else. They
are by nature dissidents and oppositionists.
The books called the
Prophets are most complex because the prophets themselves did
not usually write, but they had followers, disciples who made
collections of their sayings and adventures. The books Isaiah and
Jeremiah are especially long and complicated, it
is almost impossible to pick them up and read them through
with any real understanding. The prophets' sayings were
always uttered in a social, political context and always had
some kind of inner drive forcing the prophet to express them. These are not ideas
which the prophet happened to formulate by thinking, they are
not the result of a rational process. That would not make them "the Word of the
Lord." The prophets live in a special relationship with God, it
is his Spirit who "inspires" (breathes into) them. We cannot imagine,
then, the prophetic moment, we have only the word as it was
later recorded. This
is also often poetry.
The idea that a
"prophet" is able to foretell the future is incorrect, he is
first of all a "soothsayer" ('sooth' means truth). There soon arose,
especially in the case of Jeremiah, conflicts about who was
right, since the prophet often spoke out against the king and
the governmental policy, he was often in a minority and taken
for mad. Only
future events would show who was right. Here the deuteronomic
vision was important, the idea that a people could follow or go
astray from the Way of the Lord.
Prophecy is an attempt at social reform and
purification, in the name of God. The tone may be denunciatory or hortatory.
Only in the early days
of the Church, after the Resurrection and in the first
inspiration of the Spirit, there was a real question about who
Jesus was, how his life should be understood? The prophets were
important for this, Isaiah especially was found to have
"prophesied" about him, centuries before. Indeed, Jesus in the
Gospels quotes from Isaiah more often than from any other book
of the Scriptures. This
Messianic theme, of which the prophets and their disciples must
have been quite unconscious, gave a new dimension to Christians'
readings of these books.
The name "prophet" is
given to two different kinds of figures in the Old Testament. First, in the
histories, we have Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, "men of God" who are
set in contrast to the kings but who are not usually involved in
giving messages. Second,
behind the texts of the Prophetic books, we sense men of fire
who cannot be silent in the face of looming disaster. They try to
communicate their message in many ways, by many styles of speech
but also by gestures, or by actions, so that their lives become
This book is very
complex, yet the richest in many ways. There are two main parts: chapters 1-39
and chapters 40-66, although chapters 56-66 also
seem to stand apart. The
first part seems to deal mostly with events in the years around
prophet (Isaiah) tells of his vocation in a vision of God in
In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the LORD seated on a
throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the
were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered
their faces, with two they covered their feet, with two they flew.
And they called to one
Holy is the LORD
Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of
their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was
filled with smoke.
"Woe is me!" I cried.
For I am a
man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and
my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand,
which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
With it he touched my
mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is
taken away and your sin atoned for."
Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying, "Whom shall I send? And
who will go for us?
And I said, "Here am I. Send me."
There are passages
both before (chapter 5, the Parable of the Vine) and
after (chapter 7-12, the coming of the child 'Emmanuel')
which are echoed in the New Testament.
The person we can only
call Deutero-Isaiah (Second Isaiah) must have lived in
Babylon during the Exile and returned to Jerusalem with the
first group, if chapters 56-66 are by the same person. The climax of his
historical vision is the coming fall of Babylon (539) and the
return of the exiles, so that the main theme is one of Consolation. The style is highly
important are the sections usually called The Songs of the Suffering
Servant, in chapters 42:1-6, 49:1-7, and above all chapter
He grew up like a tender shoot before us,
like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire.
He was despised and rejected by men
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised,
and we esteemed him not.
He carried our infirmities
and bore our grief,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
struck down by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him
and by his wounds we are healed.
Here the Church was to
find a key to the mystery of Jesus as a suffering Messiah, where
Israel had looked for a triumphant one. These passages are in
themselves mysterious, which helped the Church to turn them into
Messianic typology. There
are also many other magnificent passages, foretelling the joy of
the Return from Exile and the universal mission of the future
Israel (chapter 60). In
chapters 63-4 Isaiah addresses the Lord as "our Father", which
is not common before Jesus.
Important in the
Second and Third Isaiah prophecies is the future perspective. The faith of Israel
had been turned towards the past, the memory of Moses and Egypt,
or of David. From
this time on there is a future to be looked for, a Coming, a Day
of the Lord "Behold,
I will create new heavens and a new earth" (Isaiah 65:17). Many of these words
have become familiar by their use in Handel's "Messiah." The
rhythms of English are especially marked by the style of Isaiah,
which is one of the highest in the whole Bible. It is the book
that Jesus quotes from most frequently in the Gospels.
The book of Jeremiah
is almost as difficult to disentangle as Isaiah, since very many
prophetic sayings of various origins and styles have been
grouped under the name of the great Jeremiah. Jeremiah's own
message and life can be found in scattered passages, where he
stands out as a reluctant prophet, born in obscurity (chapter
public career began when he preached in the Temple and at once
provoked opposition (chapters 26-7). He lived at the time
when the crisis of the Exile was approaching. King Josiah
(640-609) had tried hard to restore the worship of the Lord in
the Temple, especially after the finding of the scroll of the
Law (parts of Deuteronomy) in the Temple in 622, but after
Josiah was killed fighting the Egyptians, the reform was
abandoned and injustice returned under Jehoiakim, whom Jeremiah
began to criticize.
Jeremiah stands out as
the "typical" prophet, proclaiming divine and moral absolutes
and denouncing political or social abuses. He had to endure
persecution, his life was in danger, but he refused to be silent
and denounced those who "prophesied" what the powerful wanted to
hear. During the
last revolt of Jerusalem, (589-7), he recommended surrender
to Babylon, and was thrown into prison. He bought land as a
sign that he believed in a future for his people in Jerusalem,
and after the fall of Jerusalem was taken to Egypt, not into the
Babylonian Captivity, where he died, after writing to the
exiles in Babylon.
The third of the
"great" prophetic books is that of Ezekiel, who speaks
to the Jews of the first deportation (597), before and after the
final fall of Jerusalem. His
tone is strong, partly because he has to struggle for the
attention of people tempted to give up all hope. He has many visions
to report, in a language much more tormented and mysterious than
that of, say, Isaiah's vocation.
It is interesting to compare the heavenly visions of
Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. He looks forward to a restoration of
Israel with the Temple as the centre of its life.
The remaining books of
the Old Testament are a collection of twelve or so prophetic
books, together with the book of Daniel, and the history
of the Maccabees (not in the Hebrew and Protestant
Bible). Of these,
Daniel and Jonas are the most familiar.
Daniel is divided into two
parts, the first telling stories set in the time of the Exile,
the second looking towards an "End of the World", an Apocalypse.
Among the stories (not historical, the book of Daniel was
written around 166 B.C.) we find that of Daniel in the Lions'
Den (chapter 6), the Three Children in the Fiery
Furnace (chapter 3), and Belshazzar's Feast
(chapter 5). In
all these, the power of Israel's God is stressed. In the remaining
chapters (7-12) we have narratives of an "Apocalypse"
(Apocalypse means unveiling), an End of Time in which God
finally establishes his Kingdom, overturns the wicked and
"raises up" the just. This
book anticipates the Book of Revelations at the end of
the New Testament, and both reflect attempts to deal with the
difficulty of hoping for the best in a wicked world.
Jonas, like Daniel 1-6,
is a fictional narrative. The story of the three days spent by
the prophet in the belly of the whale has always appealed to the
The Social Vision of the
prophets were speaking out before, during, and after the Exile,
which represents the disaster that justifies their warnings and
tests their hopes. We
may divide them into:
Amos, Hosea, First
Isaiah, Micah, Zephania, Habakkuk.
B. Exilic Prophets
characteristic of all the above writings is the importance of
"social justice" in the will of God. They were witnesses of deep corruption, of
cheating, exploitation, cruelty.
In Hebrew there are two words of great importance; one, mishpat
(justice) is the result of a trial in which judges
examine a situation of conflict and try to decide who is acting
wrongly, who is in the right.
It is allied to "human rights" because society always
inclines to abuses of power, the weak are always being wronged
by the rich and powerful.
This is a "wrong relationship" and its opposite, a "right
relationship" is what is covered by the second word, sedaga
Israel existed in relationship, with God and with
relationship with God was kept right by faithful worship and by
observing the ritual laws; the relationship with God must,
obviously, be reflected in the social relationships of God's
The poor and
helpless ("orphans and widows") had a more than symbolic role in
Israel. They were,
from the texts in Exodus already, the sign and test of Israel's
"godliness" (holiness). God's
People was a "holy People", the weak and the strong together. If the strong exploit
and hurt the weak, they are offending God; the weak, by
definition, cannot exploit and hurt the rich and powerful. The Covenant
with God was essentially a "Social Contract" with very clear
consequences in society.
In the cities of
Canaan, society was living a "market economy" and very quickly
the prophets saw (they were "seers") the hypocrisy of
"religious" people involved in making profits at the expense of
the poor. In
Athens, at about the same time, the result was revolution and
tyranny. But in
Israel, there was the additional factor of the invisible, divine
in Israel was not Areopagus or Agora, it was the Throne of
Almighty God. The
Prophets saw the scandal of worship offered by people who in
daily life were the cause of misery, starvation and pain to the
poor of God's People.
Amos is the first
"Prophet-Seer" whose messages are recorded in a "Book", although
the stories about Nathan at the time of David record the same
attitudes. He was
speaking before the end of the Northern Kingdom. The first Isaiah saw
the same abuses, and the luxury in which the rich people were
3:16-24 is an astonishing list of the ornaments worn by the
women of rich families. Unequal
distribution of wealth is absolutely unacceptable to God, and
therefore to the Prophet.
He is not being "puritanical", his question is "Where
does the money come from?
How is it acquired?"
weights, inflated prices are universal abuses. Isaiah also saw with
horror that the rich were buying land (5:8). Still today, a
nomadic culture cannot accept the idea that land "belongs" to
any individual person. Land
belongs to all. Especially
God's Land. So it
is that Micah (around 700 B.C.) identifies the evils
with city-living, the rich are all there, busy inventing new
ways of robbing the poor.
He too sees that the Lord will not tolerate this for
long, that some kind of judgement must come.
Zephaniah, living at the time of
Josiah's belated reforms, sees the almost universal corruption,
both social and religious.
He begins then to realize that only the poor can really
be called "God's People", not because they are poor but because
they are not corrupted by wealth and power. Here we find the idea
of a Remnant. Disaster may come, but God will remember
his Promise and not destroy his People entirely. This distinction
between "true Israel" and "socially successful Israel" was to be
most important, also for the Gospel and the Church.
To read the Prophets,
especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, without this social dimension,
would be to understand nothing.
They want to see God's will done "on earth as in Heaven"
(the Lord's Prayer). "Sin"
is what people do to other people, especially when they
claim to be religious: "on the day of your fasting, you do as
you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in
quarrelling and strife, in striking each other with wicked
fists... Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose
the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set
the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share
your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderers with
shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe him?... if you spend
yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the
oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and
your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide
you always" (From Isaiah 58, the "Third Isaiah"). This is the reason
why, in Luke 4, Jesus begins his public preaching by quoting
For Western culture,
the Old Testament has always been seen as a preparation for the
New Testament; in the Middle Ages it was studied as the early
Church had analyzed it, as a collection of "types"
anticipating the coming of Jesus, as a preparation for the
Gospel. This is
mainly because the conflict between Christians and Jews in the
early days was so much centered on the meaning of the Old
Testament texts. If
it is not seen in this way, it may be read as a collection of
stories and poems, or as a source book for history and religious
dialectic of the Old Testament does not centre on such issues as
"good and evil", "Heaven and Hell", "Life and Death", or "the
individual and society." Israel is always being challenged by
the holiness of God, and the Old Testament is unique in viewing
human life in this way. The
laws of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, are partly about worship
and partly about social living, but they are all about Holiness. The reason for laws
controlling daily life is not order but holiness, God's People
must live in the image of their God. Even though certain prophets stress the
importance of Justice in society, that too is dictated by the
demands of God.
Time in the Old
Testament is always historical; if there is a Golden Age, it is not Eden (the
stories about Adam and Eve are never mentioned anywhere) but
those moments when Israel and God were one, in the Exodus, or in
the days of David and Solomon; and it is clear that people were
always ready to turn away.
The relationship between Man and God shown in the Old
Testament is intensely fragile. Because of this, and the passing
centuries only stressed it, there came the other, "apocalyptic"
future "Day of the Lord" became the object of hope, and the
source of strength for present struggles.
At the heart of the Old
Testament, like the New, is the mystery of human pain. If Job's message is
that none can understand it, Isaiah's Suffering Servant declares
that suffering accepted can be socially profitable ("By his
wounds we are heated"). Hosea
goes even further, seeming to show that God himself suffers.
For the Old Testament is
not a work of literature but a complex record of centuries of a
nation's life in relationship with the living Lord. It is entirely centered
on the conviction that there is a relationship between the people
of that nation and the Author of all things, the Lord, God. That relationship is
not invented by the people, it is no Myth. It was not even much
desired by the people, who kept running away from it. Time after time, in
various ways, God returned to his people, inviting them to
remember his love for them, his choice of them. The
tenderness, the Mercy of God is the theme here, yet even the
prophets at times are shown as virtually begging God to go away
and leave them in peace. But
that too is not possible, if indeed God is the Life of his People.