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The Old Testament

The Old Testament is actually shared by Christianity and Judaism. The arrangement of the books in the Christian and Jewish bibles are different but the contents are the same. This is, of course, to be expected for it was the early Christians who adopted the Hebrew scriptures as their own. The Old Testament in the Christian Bible consist of thirty nine books grouped into four separate sections: the five book of Moses or the Pentateuch, the historical books, the books of poetry and ethics and the book of the prophets. The table below gives a listing of these books.

PENTATEUCH (The Five Books of Moses or The Torah)
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
The Books of The Old Testament
The arrangement of the books in the Christian Old Testament was taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.[1] In order to get a rough appreciation of the contents of the whole Bible, we will now take some time to look at the individual books in the Old Testament.

The Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament. The authorship of these books had been traditionally ascribed to Moses, the most important Hebrew prophet. These books are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Genesis contains the mythical account of the world's beginning and the creation of man. According to the myth God created the universe and everything in it in a period of six days. The first human beings created were Adam and Eve. The story of Adam and Eve will be elaborated in some depth here due to its importance in the Christian doctrine of the atonement. Adam and Eve was originally created to live forever in the paradise called the Garden of Eden. They were given only one prohibition: not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the original forbidden fruit. However, tempted by the serpent, Eve partook of the fruit and induced Adam to do likewise. The punishments from God to them for disobeying him were: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the imposition of hard labour on Adam, the pain of childbirth on Eve and the mortality of their lives. Christian theologians call this event The Fall; the loss of man's primal innocence. From thence on every generation would inherit this Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

The next notable event in Genesis is the story of the Flood. Mankind was falling into wickedness and God decided to destroy the whole world with a cataclysmic flood. He called on the one human worth saving, Noah, and commanded him to built an ark. The ark was to be big enough to house Noah's family and specimens of every living kind of animals in the world. When the flood finally came, Noah, his family and the selected animals were preserved by the ark which floated on the waters of the flood. After the flood God made a covenant with Noah, symbolized by a rainbow, promising never again to bring a flood to destroy the world.

A major character, in Christian and Hebrew theology, introduced in Genesis is Abraham. Abraham was to be the father of all the Hebrews. Abraham was born in Ur in Chaldea. (see map below) He travelled many lands, through Haran and Canaan, searching for a land he could call his own. Abraham fathered two sons, Ishmael [a] and Isaac. One day God called on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham, with a heavy heart, took Isaac to the mountain to do as God has commanded him. Seeing the obedience of Abraham, God commanded Abraham to substitute a ram for Isaac, sparing the boy's life.[2] God made a covenant with Abraham, promising him that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars and that they would inherit the land of Canaan. Christian theology considers Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son as a precursor to God's sacrifice of his own Son to save the world.[3]

The Middle East in Old Testament Times

Isaac begat two twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the first born and the "hairer one". This information is important in the most dramatic event in Isaac's life. Just before his death he sent for Esau, as being the first born, would receive his final blessings. Rebekah, the mother of Esau and Jacob, overheard this and loving Jacob more, sent for Jacob. Isaac was nearly blind and to make the trick work, Rebekah had Jacob wear sheep's skin on his hands and neck. When Issac asked "Esau" to come near, the "hairiness" fooled him, so he gave Jacob his final blessing, making him head of the family. Then fearing that Esau would killed Jacob, Rebekah send the latter to Haran.

In Haran, Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban. After working with Laban for twenty years, Jacob left Haran, despite some initial resistance from Laban. In his return to his home country, Jacob stopped at Gilead and there met with a mysterious stranger who wrestled him throughout the night until daybreak. Jacob held on to the person and would not release him until he received his blessing. The stranger agreed and said that from then on he shall be called Isreal which means "he who prevails with God". In other words, Jacob had wrestled with God and won! Jacob's twelve sons eventually had the twelve tribes of Isreal named after them: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph, as the exception, was the ancestor of two tribes, Ephraim and Mennasseh. Note that there are actually thirteen names for the twelve tribes of Israel. However the tribe of Levi never received any parcel of land and were mainly a priestly caste living all over the land.

The narratives now center on Joseph. Joseph was the favourite of Jacob. His jealous brothers tried to do him in but got things botched up such that Joseph was sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites. He was sold as a slave in Egypt and eventually his talent for interpreting dreams became known to the Pharaoh. Joseph's skills helped Egypt through seven years of famine. As the No.2 man (after the Pharaoh) himself, Joseph wielded enormous power. A chance happening during the famine reunited him with some of his brothers. He sent them back for his father and his other brother Benjamin. His whole family eventually moved to Egypt on his invitation. Thus was the story of how the nation of Israel came to settle in Egypt.

The term patriach is normally applied to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons. So when one talks about the patriachal narratives in the Bible one is talking mainly about the stories mentioned above. Until recently, the patriachal narratives had normally been accepted as the first part of the Bible that may be historical.

The second book of the Pentateuch, Exodus, deals with the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The person who led the Israelites out of Egypt is none other than the supposed author of the Pentateuch himself, Moses. Exodus tells of the birth story of Moses which will be given here as a preliminary to our discussion on it in the next chapter. He was hid by his mother for three months from the Pharaoh who instructed all Israelites male babies to be killed. No longer able to hide him after that, his mother made a basket out of bulrushes, placed the baby Moses in it and let it float away on the river. The baby was found and raised by the Pharaoh's daughter. In adulthood Moses was commanded by God to lead his people out from bondage in Egypt to the promised land. It was while leading the Israelites to Canaan that Moses received the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. Moses died before he could enter the land of Canaan but was given a glimpse of it before he died from the top of Mount Nebo.[4] This deliverance is regarded throughout Jewish history as the outstanding instance of God's favour for his chosen people, the Israelites.[5]

The next three books of the Pentateuch can be briefly summarized. Leviticus consist almost wholly of religious legislation. Written in the from of a sermon of Moses, the book contains a variety of laws on such things as the eating of meat, religious duties, marriage, the priesthood, festivals, real estates and slaves.[6] Numbers presents a narration of the experiences of the Israelites under Moses during their exodus from Egypt.[7] The last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy consists of Moses final utterances and an account of his death. The final utterances of Moses lays down Israel's religious and moral laws.[8]

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The Historical Books

Twelve books are grouped under this section. The first book is the book of Joshua. Joshua was Moses' successor after the latter's death. It is to Joshua that tradition ascribed the authorship of this book to. The book tells of the story of the Israelites under Joshua, the crossing of the river Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, the conquest of that land and the final division of the land among the twelve tribes of Israel.[9]

Next is the book of Judges. After the partition of the land the twelve tribes were more or less informally ruled by leaders known as "Judges" without any central administration. This book traces the history of Israel from Joshua's death through the period of the Judges before a monarchy was established over Israel.[10]

The book of Ruth is set in the latter days of Judges and revolves around a Moabite woman of that name who married a Jew. Upon the death of her husband, Ruth was taken under the protection of Boaz, a kinsman of her husband, who eventually married her. Ruth, being a foreigner, was shown as a gentle person and as a ancestor of David. By showing that a foreigner could be the descendent of the greatest king of Israel the book is an early argument for inter-racial tolerance.

The next two books, I & II Samuel were originally a single book that was divided into two by the compilers of the Septuagint. The books relate the story of the first two monarchs of Israel, Saul and David and their relationship with the prophet Samuel. Saul led the Israelites through many victorious wars against foreigners encroaching on their territory. But Saul disobeyed Samuel and the prophet promptly anointed David, then only a child, as the new King of all Israel. David did not immediately ascent the throne but became king only after Saul was killed in a battle with the Philistines. David was then thirty years old. In between the time of his anointment and his actual ascension to the throne, David roamed the countryside with an armed band. It was during this period that David slew the Philistine giant, Goliath with his slingshot. Under the leadership of David Israel grew due to his conquest of neighboring lands and became the dominant power in the middle east. It was David who made Jerusalem the capital of all Israel.[11]

The books of Kings were also originally a single book that was divided into two by the compilers of the Greek Bible. These books cover the history of Israel from the death of David until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. After the death of David, his son Solomon, from an illicit relationship with Bathsheba, became King of Israel. Solomon substantially enriched Israel both culturally and economically by developing profitable trade routes. It was Solomon who, with the help of craftsmen and engineers from Phoenicia, built the Temple of Jerusalem. This temple was to remain the center of Jewish worship until the fall of Jerusalem. After Solomon's death (generally regarded to be around 928 BCE by scholars), Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: Israel in North and Judah in the South. Divided, Israel and Judah lost all the power of Solomon's kingdom. Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, while Judah held on for a little longer. In 586 BCE Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was obliterated and the Temple was destroyed. Like the people of the northern kingdom, the people of Judah were either deported to the land of their conquerors as slaves or fled to the neighboring countries in the mediterranean.(This dispersion of the Jews became known as the dispora[12]

The two books of Chronicles were also originally a single book. A considerable amount of overlap exists between I and II Chronicles and II Samuel and I and II Kings. In fact most scholars are of the opinion that the chronicler used II Samuel and the books of Kings as one of his sources.[13] The books of Chronicles end with the return of the Jews from exile in 536 BCE.[14]

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were evidently compiled by the same compiler of the books of Chronicles. Ezra records the return of the exiles from Babylon and their attempts to rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem. The book also chronicles the mission and work of the Jewish priest and scribe, Ezra. Nehemiah records the plans of the Jewish leader of that name for the restoration of Jerusalem.[15] Nehemiah is probably one of the earliest record of a racist. In his zeal to keep Israel racially pure he excluded from the city people not of Jewish blood and strongly forbade inter-racial marriage.[16] The last book in this section , the book of Esther relates how a Jewish girl of that name became Queen of Persia and risked her life to save her people (the Israelites). Its inclusion into the Old Testament is probably due to the book's introduction of a patriotic holiday, the Feast of Purim.[17]

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The Books of Poetry and Ethics

Five books are included in this section: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon.

The book of Job relates how Job, a wealthy and upright man, had his faith tested by God. In one single day he lost all his wealth. His family was crushed to death when their house collapsed. And Job himself became afflicted with a terrible disease. Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, came to console him. They ask him to seek forgiveness from God for whatever wrong he may have committed that had caused this calamity to befall him. Job protested his innocence and within this lies the message of the whole book: that the innocent sometimes suffer for no apparent reason while the wicked prosper. Job refused to curse God amidst his suffering and reiterated his faith in God by saying, "I know that my redeemer lives". (Job 19:25) Having passed this test, Job's wealth was restored and his suffering ended. The book did not offer any solution to the problem of the suffering of the innocence. All it did was to assert the superior wisdom of God in all things by making the creator ask Job rhetorically: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4).[18]

The book of Psalms is an anthology of Hebrew religious poetry. David was the author assigned to it by tradition. The book consist of a hundred and fifty psalms. These psalms are normally interpreted as covering the whole range of relationship between God and man.[19] Some of the psalms are beautiful, even after translation into English, as is the one below

Psalms 8:3-4
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Yet amidst this seeming beauty there lies a schizophrenic ugliness that is evidenced in the passages below

Psalms 58:6
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth...

Psalms 109:10
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg:
let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

Psalms 137:8-9
O daughter of Babylon,...Happy shall he be,
that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The next book, Proverbs, is a collection of traditional Hebrew wisdom literature. The book is divided into eight clearly defined sections of which three are attributed to Solomon. Unlike the book of Job, the emphasis of the teachings contained here is that virtues such as honesty, chastity and regard for others will be rewarded by God with long life, happiness and prosperity. Tradition ascribed the compiler of these proverbs to Solomon. [20]

The book of Ecclesiastes has a teaching diametrically opposite to Proverbs. [b] Its message is cynical; human life is meaningless and futile.23 The author sees blind chance ruling the world:

Ecclesiastes 9:11
[T]he race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The last book in this section is the Song of Solomon. It is actually a collection of love songs and religion has no place in it. The book is a dialogue between two very human lovers and the theme is overtly sexual, as the passages below will testify:

Song of Solomon 1:2
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth...

Song of Solomon 3:1
By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth...

Song of Solomon 4:5
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins...

Probably the only reason why this book was included in the Old Testament was the traditional ascription of its authorship to Solomon. Both Jewish and Christian theologians, left with little choice, interprets the book allegorically as an oblique reference of God's relationship with his people.[22] It shows that, when push comes to shove, the fundamentalists can allegorize any passage in the Bible as thoroughly as any liberal!

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The Books of the Prophets

The last seventeen books of the Bible are grouped here. Sixteen of the seventeen books are named after the prophets in which the books are traditionally ascribed to. The first four books in this section was ascribed to the "major prophets": Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekial. The book of Daniel follows. The rest of the books are attributed to the twelve "minor prophets": Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

The Book of Isaiah is mainly concerned with the political situation in Judah under the threat from Syria in 740-700 BCE. Isaiah criticized Judah for religious hypocrisy, cruel injustice, pride, greed and idolatry. Some parts of Isaiah are interpreted by Christians to be prophecies regarding Jesus Christ.[23]

Jeremiah spoke out against the moral degradation of the unfaithful and extols God's divine justice who condemns his people as a result. He predicted the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews to Babylon. Jeremiah was writing just before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. It was a time of great social stress. It was therefore natural for the prophet to predict calamities to befall Judah and to attribute this to the wrong doings of the Jewish people which has turned God away from them.[24]

Lamentations is a collection of mournful songs that lament the fall of Jerusalem. Its authorship has been traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah. Christians had reinterpreted the mournful songs as a reference of Christ's passion.[25]

Ezekial was the last of the "major prophets" and the successor of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The book prophecies the destruction of Jerusalem but also the redemption of the Jewish people. Ezekial reported many startling visions, one of which was that of God transporting him to Temple in Jerusalem by grabbing him by the hair.[26]

The first six chapters of Daniel relates the story of a Jewish hero, Daniel, who successfully resisted the older tyranny of Persia, and withstood every test of his faith. The rest of the book consists of a series of visions which reveal the future of the Jewish people.[27]

The last twelve books in the Old Testament are those ascribed to the twelve "minor prophets":

  • Hosea interpreted his experience with his unfaithful wife, Gomer, as a parable of God's relationship with the unfaithful Israel. Just as Hosea was finally reconciled with his wife, God, in his enduring love will be reconciled with Israel.
  • Joel called on the people to repent and make offerings to the Lord after a plague of locusts had befell Israel.
  • Amos denounced the impiety of Judah and Israel, which at a time of prosperity and accumulation of wealth, the poor was oppressed and unjustly treated.
  • Obadiah had a vision in which God denounced the Edomites and gave his reasons for their destruction and for the salvation of the Israelites.
  • Jonah relates how the prophet of that name was swallowed up by "a great fish" and stayed in the belly of the fish for three days as a result of his refusal to prophecy against Nineveh. Jonah was spewed up from the fish and called again to prophecy, which he did. His work was successful as those he prophesied to repented.
  • Micah denounced the greedy, dishonest merchants, hypocrites, the rich and all inhabitants of the cities. He believed these people are all responsible for the oppression of the rural poor.
  • Unlike the other prophets, Nahum, lashed out at a foreign city, Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire and described the battle that would destroy the city.
  • Habakkuk complained of oppression and lawlessness and asked why the righteous suffer more than the wicked.
  • Zephaniah condemned idolatry, astrology, and other cult practices in Jerusalem.
  • Haggai called on the Israelites to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem after their return from the Babylonian exile.
  • Zechariah, too, called for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. Zechariah also prophesied of the future glory of Judah where the Gentiles will be converted.
  • Malachi criticized the priests for their "sub-standard" offerings to God, such as offering crippled animals. He also lashed out at the Jewish people for neglecting to pay for their religious dues, for inter-racial marriage and for doubting the profit in fulfilling the will of God.[28]

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a.According to the Bible, Ishamel was the mythological ancestor of the Arabs. Muslims hold the same belief.
b.Wefind diametrically opposite views on life in the book of Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes. Some examples:

1. On Wisdom and Understanding
In Proverbs we find a general appreciation of knowledge and wisdom. In Ecclesiastes wisdom is disparaged.

Proverbs 10:1 & 17:27
A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son grief to his mother...
A man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.
Ecclesiastes 1:18
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

2. On the Poor and Poverty
In Proverbs one is called the help the poor. In Ecclesiastes one is simply told "not to be amazed" at poverty as it is a natural state of things.

Proverbs 10:1 & 17:27
He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.
Ecclesiastes 5:8
If you see in a province the poor oppressed and justice and right violently taken away, do not be amazed at the matter;.
3. General Outlook
In general, we find a positive outlook in life in Proverb, while in Ecclesiastes one is confronted with the view that life is futile and meaningless with "time and chance happening" to everyone.

Proverbs 3:21-26
My son, keep sound wisdom and discretion; let them not escape from your sight, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely and your foot will not stumble. If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden panic, or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes; for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 & 9:11
Vanity (or futility) of vanities, all is vanity...
[T]he race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all .

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1 Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: p904
2 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p3
3 ibid: p3
4 Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p 71-74;
5 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p186
6 Parmelee, A Guidebook to the Bible: p45-46
7 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p363
8 ibid: p150
9 ibid: p280
10 ibid: p282
11 ibid: p457
12 ibid: p289
13 Riedel et. all, The Book of the Bible: p520
14 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p107
15 ibid: p187
16 Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p57
17 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p178
18 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p274
19 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p421
20 Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p69
21 ibid: p70
22 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p480
23 ibid: p265
24 ibid: p186
25 ibid: p294
26 ibid: p186-187
27 Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p142
28 Riedel, The Book of the Bible: p489-490

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