"Introductory Remarks on the Old Testament"

By Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Ph.D., Professor of Religious Studies, St. Michael's College

We have been studying how myths and symbols function in various communities: religious communities, national communities, families, and others. We learned that the important thing was not so much whether a myth was historically accurate, but rather how the myth functioned in defining the community's values, and how it could be reinterpreted over time.

In the rest of this course we will be studying the history, myths, and symbols of one particular religious community: the Christians. There are nearly two billion Christians on the earth, and there is great diversity in the forms that this religion has taken, but all Christians do have at least one thing in common: they all give some central place in their thought, life, and worship to one individual human being who lived almost 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Jew in both an ethnic and a religious sense. All Christians learn about Jesus of Nazareth from a collection of ancient texts written in Greek called the "New Testament." They all worship the same God that Jesus worshipped, and they all believe that this God first revealed himself in an earlier collection of texts written in Hebrew (with a few chapters in Aramaic) called the "Old Testament." Therefore, if we are to study Christianity we must begin with the Old Testament. We must know something about the community of people who produced these texts, called by three different names in their history, the "Hebrews," or the "Israelites," or the "Jews." Jesus and his earliest followers were thoroughly familiar with these texts, and thus we must be also.

The term "Old Testament" is a Christian designation, because Christians have a supplement to it called the "New Testament." What Christians call the "Old Testament," Jews call the "Tanak," a Hebrew acronym for the three main parts of the collection: "Teaching (Torah)," "Prophets (Nebi'im)," and "Writings (Ketubim)." A more neutral scholarly designation is the "Hebrew Bible," since it is a collection of books (Greek="biblia") written in Hebrew. Protestants and Jews give the same list of books for the Hebrew Bible, though they arrange some of the books in a different order. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians have a number of extra Jewish books in their Old Testament canons, called the "Apocrypha." The reasons for this divergence are complex and will be explained as the semester progresses. All of the above faith communities agree on the sacred (or "canonical") status of the central books: the Torah (the first five books, attributed to Moses), the Prophets, and most of the miscellaneous "writings" as well.

Who wrote these books, and when? What basic ideas do they contain? In order to get a handle on this we have to understand in broad outline the history of the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews. The ancient Israelites and Judeans (=Jews) occupied the hill country away from the coast in the land of Palestine in what Europeans call the "Ancient Near East." The Ancient Near East included Egypt and other nearby nations of northern Africa, Asia Minor (today called Turkey), Palestine, Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, (where present-day Iraq is located) and Persia (present-day Iran). "Mesopotamia" in Greek means "between the rivers," the two rivers being the Tigris and the Euphrates. Egypt and Mesopotamia were two of the earliest centers of civilization in the world. As agricultural techniques improved, some people were able to settle down, stop their nomadic wanderings, and build the world's first cities. There was even enough surplus food to allow some people to become merchants, develop trades, crafts, and leisure time. Writing was first invented in Mesopotamia by a people called the Sumerians around 4000 BCE (that's 6000 years ago). Initially this "writing" was just marks in clay tablets for record-keeping, but soon much more elaborate writing systems developed, and from this time we get the first written records of human history: lists of kings, battles, cooking recipes, and business transactions. We also begin to get the first religious writings: stories about the gods and their dealings with humanity. Egyptian civilization began to flourish around 3000 BCE, and the Egyptians developed their own writing system, a form of picture writing later called "hieroglyphics." The great pyramids of Egypt, tombs for the Egyptian kings called Pharaohs, were built around 2700-2200 BCE.

Palestine lay between these two centers of civilization, and it was a crossroad for trade along the Fertile Crescent. The original inhabitants of Palestine are known in the Bible as "Canaanites," but at some point a new ethnic group emerged in the hill country: the Israelites. The earliest known reference to the Israelites outside of the Bible is found on the Merneptah Stele from Egypt, and it dates to around the year 1200 BCE. Exactly where these Israelites came from is a mystery. Archaeologists have found that their pottery and building styles were very similar to those of the Canaanites, and their language was probably similar, too. We know very little about their religion in this early period. Of course, the Bible contains an elaborate myth about the origins of these Israelites, but for the last 200 years scholars, including many Christian and Jewish scholars, have not accepted the biblical myths as accurate history, even though there may be some historical nuggets contained in the stories. Why is this so, and what is the so-called "real" story? It will be helpful if we first outline in broad strokes the mythic history contained in the Bible.

The Bible begins with a story about the creation of the universe and the first two human beings, Adam and Eve. The god who creates is named Yahweh in the Bible (orthodox Jews do not pronounce this divine name because for them it is too holy to be uttered). As time passes and human beings multiply, they begin to sin, so Yahweh decides to wipe them out with a flood (Genesis 6). The family of Noah is spared because he is righteous, and after the flood the earth is repopulated. In the last 150 years or so, numerous parallels to these biblical stories have been recovered from the Ancient Near East. The Babylonians in Mesopotamia had an almost identical flood story, but with different characters (the Babylonian "Noah" is named Utnapishti, and in the most ancient Sumerian version, the hero is called Atrahasis. Gods other than Yahweh cause the floods in these versions). It is almost certain that the Israelites borrowed the flood tale from their neighbors. The Egyptians and Babylonians told numerous creation stories, many with echoes in the Genesis account. The point of all this is that none of these cultures was reciting "history" as we think of it today, but rather they were spinning myths that helped define their culture, explain reality, and teach moral lessons. The fictional characters Adam, Eve, Noah, Utnapishti, and Atrahasis never existed, but the stories about them may still have great value.

In Genesis chapter 12, the Bible begins to focus on the mythic (perhaps also historical?) ancestor of the Israelites, at first named Abram (="Father is lofty" in Hebrew), then renamed Abraham (="Father of a multitude"). Perhaps the two different names stem from two originally different versions of the story that at some point were harmonized together. According to the story, Abraham was a descendant of Noah's son Shem, hence the descendants of Abraham (Arabs and Jews) are called "Semites." Abraham originally lives in Mesopotamia, so the story goes, but Yahweh promises Abraham that one day he and his descendants will inherit a promised land: the land of Palestine. Yahweh tells Abraham to pack up his belongings and move to the land of the Canaanites with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot. Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob are known as the Patriarchs; their respective wives Sarah, Rebekkah, and Jacob's four wives are known as the Matriarchs. In the story Jacob is renamed Israel, and his 12 sons are the mythic ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. This family moves to Palestine at Yahweh's command (around 1800 BCE?), and they live there for a while among the Canaanites, but later because of a famine Jacob and his family have to move down to Egypt. Jacob's son Joseph even becomes viceroy of Egypt in Genesis 37-50, one of the great literary masterpieces of the Bible. 400 years later, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob become enslaved in Egypt, and they cry out to their god Yahweh to rescue them. Yahweh appoints Moses as their leader to lead them out in a story called the "Exodus" (Greek="going out"). We will read this story in detail for next week. After the Israelites come out of Egypt (around 1300 BCE?), they gather at Mt. Sinai (also called Mt. Horeb) in the Sinai peninsula and there they receive all the laws and teachings (Torah) of Yahweh, beginning with the 10 commandments, and proceeding on to all the laws in the rest of the book of Exodus, and in the book of Leviticus. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, described in the book of Numbers, Moses delivers a last will and testament before dying (the book of Deuteronomy). The Israelites then stage a military conquest of Palestine under the leadership of Joshua, killing all the Canaanites at the command of Yahweh and taking possession of the promised land. This is a rough summary of the mythic story as found in the first six books of the Bible. The main point of the story is that Yahweh has a special covenant with his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they worship Yahweh exclusively and follow his laws, things go well for them, and Yahweh even produces miracles to help them win battles. When they neglect Yahweh, he becomes angry and punishes them, but his steadfast love for them remains. This story in all its details was well known and accepted as sacred by Jesus and almost all other Jews of his day.

In the last 200 years or so, ever since the Enlightenment in Europe, scholars have not been content to take these stories at face value, but rather they have asked critical questions about the stories, and they have developed the science of archaeology to study the ancient past. This relatively recent way of looking at the Bible has modified greatly our understanding of the early history of Israel. Just to give two examples: the story of Abraham mentions that he had camels (Genesis 24:10), yet many archaeologists are of the opinion that camels were not domesticated in this region until about 900 BCE, that is, 1000 years after Abraham supposedly lived. It's as if I wrote a story about George Washington in which he drove a Cadillac. The part about the Cadillac would be called an "anachronism," and could not be historically accurate. Thus, it is clear that the stories about Abraham, as we have them, were written long after Abraham lived, though they may have had an oral history before they were written down. Another problem is that there is no Egyptian account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and we have lots of Egyptian texts from this time period. This seems odd, especially if it was such a massive event as described in the Bible. It is also clear that the biblical stories have been molded and shaped by the mythical ideas current in Ancient Near Eastern culture. For example, in the 1930's archaeologists discovered some clay tablets at Ugarit, Syria, with stories about the god Ba'al and how Ba'al had to battle mythical sea monsters. Some psalms in the bible (Psalms 74 and 89) show Yahweh battling similar sea monsters. What is most interesting is that in the Book of Exodus, when Yahweh stirs up the sea to destroy the Egyptians, some of the same vocabulary is used as in the sea-monster myths. Thus, even if there was some kind of historical Exodus from Egypt, the story has clearly been embellished with legendary and mythical elements.

Given these realities, scholars have attempted to piece together a picture of the early history of the people Israel, critically analyzing what the Bible says and comparing it with archaeological data. I will now sketch for you one scholarly reconstruction; remember, it is just hypothetical. Much of what we "know" about this period in Israel is highly speculative, and is subject to change with new archaeological discoveries. There are some clay tablets recently discovered in Egypt, dating from around 1400 BCE, that mention a troublesome band of nomads in Palestine called the 'Apiru. These 'Apiru seem to be raiding Canaanite cities, after which they head back into the hills. Some scholars think 'Apiru is related to the word 'ibri in the Bible, which translates into English as "Hebrew." If this is correct, then some of the Hebrew tribes were originally bands of semi-nomads who raided Canaanite cities. It should be said, however, that many scholars think the two terms are totally unrelated.

Another key development took place around 1200 BCE, when the coast of Palestine was invaded by "people from the Sea;" they probably came from the coasts of Asia Minor. They were called "Philistines," and the territory takes its name from them: Palestine. (These are not the direct ancestors of today's Palestinians, who largely descend from Arabs who conquered the Holy Land 2000 years later, in the 8th century CE, after the rise of Islam). The arrival of the Philistines in 1200 BCE meant the collapse of some Canaanite cities near the coast, and increasing numbers of refugees fled up into the hill country of Palestine. The Sea Peoples invaded Egypt as well, so no doubt there were refugees fleeing from Egypt, too, perhaps even a group under the leadership of someone named Moses, bringing with them stories of a miraculous escape from slavery. Who knows?! In this bubbling mix, a number of tribal groups in the hill country of Palestine banded together to fight against the Philistines, perhaps joining up with some of those older 'Apiru groups. With this development, we can begin to speak about a new ethnic group in the hill country around 1200 BCE, now known by two names: the Hebrews or the Israelites. No doubt some warfare against Canaanite cities took place, forming the basis for the stories found in the book of Joshua. Tradition says there were 12 Israelite tribes. One of the largest tribes, in the south, was named Judah; "Jews" is a name for the people of Judah.

The name Israel comes from the name of a god, El. "Israel" means "El fights" in Hebrew. The people at Ugarit, Syria, also worshipped El along with his wife, the goddess Asherah, and a younger god Ba'al. Their very name indicates that the early Israelites worshipped El. Some of the tribes who became Israelites, however, appear to have had a different tradition. They worshipped Yahweh, and there is some evidence (Judges 5:4-5; 1 Kings 19) that Yahweh's original home was an unspecified mountain to the south of Judah, bordering on the Sinai peninsula. Whenever you see the words "the LORD" in all caps in the Hebrew Bible, they are translating the word Yahweh. Whenever you see "God," they are translating the word El or the more generic plural form Elohim. In the course of time, Yahweh and El came to be identified with each other, so that the Israelite people perceived them to be the same god. That's why we read in the Bible so often "the LORD God;" i.e., "Yahweh Elohim." By about the year 1000 BCE, it is clear that Yahweh was seen to be the chief god of the Israelites, and we know from archaeological evidence that some Israelites assumed Yahweh had a goddess-wife, Asherah. We can guess that Ba'al was also worshipped in Israel, because many of the people mentioned in the Bible from this time have names honoring him and other gods and goddesses. Thus, the majority of people in early Israel were probably polytheists, meaning they worshipped more than one god, even if they acknowledged that Yahweh was the chief god, the most powerful.  The belief in monotheism, namely that Yahweh is the only God there is, is a belief that developed and took hold only gradually in Israel. We will trace that development in the lecture.

Life changed dramatically for the people of Israel and Judah around 1020 BCE with the rise of the institution of kingship. One man succeeded in unifying the Israelite tribes enough to have himself proclaimed king; the first king's name was Saul, chosen because he was so successful in battle against the Philistines and other enemies. One of Saul's young lieutenants was a man from Judah named David, and through a number of shrewd moves, David took the kingship away from Saul's family after Saul's death. David created the first and only Israelite empire around the year 1000 BCE, and he was able to do this largely because Egypt and Mesopotamia were both very weak militarily at the time. David conquered the Philistines and confined them to the coasts. He conquered Jerusalem from some remaining Canaanites and made it his capital. He extended his rule into many neighboring non-Israelite territories. David is mentioned in one, and possibly two ancient inscriptions from outside the Bible, so when we get to him we can be pretty certain we are dealing with a true historical figure of great importance. David's chief god was Yahweh, and naturally, David considered himself blessed by Yahweh. In 2 Samuel 7-8 you will read about David's rise to power and about his court prophet named Nathan. You will also read about a later Jewish prophet named Jeremiah, who lived around 600 BCE. The lecture will treat these and many other exciting topics, so you don't want to miss it!