Sunday, March 09, 2008

Old Testament survey

I've been teaching a class on the Bible at our church's north campus, and the other week someone asked if there would be a summary of Old Testament books. This past week, I got inspired, and wrote most of the below during my daily train commute. I emailed it to the class, and then thought some of you might enjoy it as well -- for comic relief if nothing else.

I understand some folks might be interested in a survey of the books of the Bible. Of course you can get something scholarly from a book, but here is the way I think of the Old Testament. And by the way, I think I mentioned earlier that parts of Daniel are written in Aramaic. I believe that parts of Nehemiah or maybe Ezra were also.

This is not a scholarly or well-researched paper; it's just what I typed into a laptop as I rode the train this past week; I finished it up Saturday evening.

OK, the Old Testament can be considered as 3 parts: torah, or law; neviim, prophets; ketuvim, writings (you might have heard something that sounds like "tanak", which is made of the 't' from Torah, 'n' from Neviim, 'k' from Ketuvim). But English speakers usually think of the Old Testament as History (Genesis - Esther), Poetry (Job - Song of Solomon), Prophecy (Isaiah - Malachi). That's not quite exact, since the poetry section isn't 100% poetry, but that's the general idea.

History: the greatest time span is covered in Genesis, from creation until the death of Joseph. Most of the Bible stories -- the ones I know anyway -- come from Genesis. There's creation, the fall (first act of disobedience), the expulsion from Paradise, the first murder. Then we have the great flood, starting in chapter 6. After the flood is the first time that humans eat meat (we were vegetarians before that -- see the end of Genesis 1).

Around chapter 12 we meet Abraham, and the rest of the book -- the rest of the Bible in fact -- is focused on him and his descendants. Abraham leaves Ur, which is like New York (a capital of finance, technology, -- of civilization in short) for parts unknown. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. He has a son, Ishmael, by Sarah's maidservant (Hagar, an Egyptian). Then he and Sarah have a son -- Abe's about 100 years old by this time. After some time, God tells Abe to offer Isaac his son as a burnt offering. Abraham starts to carry out these orders, but at the last moment God intervenes. Isaac marries and his wife Rebekah has twin sons: Esau (later called Edom) and Jacob (later named Israel). Jacob grows up and travels back to his mother's relatives' town, and marries two sisters -- Leah and Rachel. They give him their maidservants as concubines, I want to call them Bilhah and Zilpah... yes. These four women birth a total of 12 sons and 1 daughter. The 12 sons become essentially the 12 tribes of Israel.

Joseph, the older of 2 sons borne by Rachel (Jacob's favorite wife), is Jacob's favorite, and the other sons conspire... Joseph is sold to some passing traders, who take him to Egypt and sell him to the captain of the king's guard. Joseph is framed by the captain's lusty wife (for refusing to have sex with her), and is thrown into prison, where he correctly interprets the dreams of two other prisoners. One of those prisoners is released. Two years later, when the king has strange dreams, this ex-prisoner remembers Joseph, who is summoned to hear and interpret them -- the dream of 7 cows. The dreams foretell 7 years of plenty, followed by 7 years of famine. Joseph is put in charge fo the kingdom (essentially he's Prime Minister) and stores up grain for 7 years.

When famine hits, his father, still in in Canaan (modern-day Israel/Palestine), sends some of his remaining sons to Egypt, which is the only source of grain in the region. There is a complex reunion, and the rest of the family immigrates to Egypt, where Jacob (Israel) and Joseph eventually die. Genesis begins with "In the beginning God" and ends with "a tomb in Egypt."

Exodus: About 400 years later, Egypt is prospering again, and the children of Israel within it. But a really dumb king (these guys are typically known as "Pharoah") decides to enslave the Israelites. A boy is born into the tribe of Levi, and he's set in the Nile in a basket, where Pharoah's daughter finds him, and adopts him as her own son. About 40 years later, Moses kills an Egyptian in a fit of rage; he flees into the desert where he meets a daughter of Jethro. He marries her, and another 40 years pass. Then God meets him and orders him back to Egypt to free his people. Pharoah refuses, and there are ten plagues (the Nile turns to blood, frogs appear everywhere, fleas/lice, hail that destroys the grain harvest and kills livestock, etc.). Finally the firstborn of every family are all killed in a single night -- except where the rite of Passover was celebrated.

The Egyptians then send the Israelites out, and they set out on foot -- a million or more of them, guided by a pillar of fire (by night) and a pillar of cloud by day. God clears a dry path for them on the floor of the Red Sea, where Pharoah's army is drowned pursuing them when the waters return. The Israelites celebrate and continue into the desert, where they complain about the lack of food and water. God miraculously provides both. Some time around here Moses climbs Mt. Horeb and receives the Ten Commandments from the Lord, written on stone tablets. But down below, the people make a golden calf to worship, and have an orgy. Moses descends the mountain and throws down the tablets in disgust, breaking them.

Moses receives instructions on how to construct the "Tent of Meeting," or "tabernacle," where God meets the Israelites. It's an enormous construction of poles and cloth, and it travels with them through the desert.

Leviticus contains the "holiness" code: many moral and ceremonial commands are given. The word "forgiven" appears in Leviticus more than in any other book of the Bible. The only verse I can remember from Leviticus is 19:11 -- "Don't steal, or deal falsely, nor lie to one another." This is obviously a moral law, but Leviticus also has a lot of other laws, what I think of as "ceremonial," things like prohibitions against eating bacon and shrimp. Discerning which laws should be respected today (i.e., which ones God cares about) vs. which were uniquely for the Israelites -- this constitutes a nontrivial challenge today.

The book of Numbers (I believe the Jewish name for this is something like, "In the wilderness") has a pile of census figures. This count of faces was taken, if memory serves, at the Kadesh Oasis. The big story from Numbers is that twelve spies (one per tribe) were sent into the territory the Israelites were to enter. Ten of them brought back a bad report: "We'll be killed; those guys are too much for us." Only two, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jepunneh, urged the populace to obey God, who would help them drive out the inhabitants and take the land.
By the way, this whole business of driving out the inhabitants, and mostly killing them, is a big problem for me. The prior inhabitants were bad people who killed their own children in the fire (to worship their gods) and did other icky things, but it seems a bit much to kill them all -- women and children and livestock included. Yes, the Lord created them and he has the right to destroy them -- as he does to you or me -- but, well, I still have a problem with this. Here's how I deal with it.

First, I remember that this is a record of what God said to this particular people in this particular place at this particular point in their history. We really cannot know what it was like.

Second, the Apostle Paul reminds us that there is no partiality with God -- as Peter says, God is no "respecter of persons" -- umm, let me see that in a modern translation... OK, Acts 10:34 "God does not show favoritism" in the NIV. Because these questions that I have really come down to just one: "Is God good?" As we heard last Sunday (02 March 2008), this question is truly relevant today, when over 27 million people live in slavery. How are they supposed to believe God is good?
Back to the Bible now. After the 12 spies return and make their report, the people rise up in despair and protest, and talk of returning to Egypt. God punishes their unbelief by sentencing them to wander 40 years in the desert. When they hear this, some try to short-circuit the process and mount their own invasion, which is quickly crushed by the inhabitants because God was not with the Israelite invading force. So they wander in the desert 40 years, still led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The point is that everyone about 20 and older who rebelled -- all those people would die of old age in the wilderness.

Numbers contains the story of Balaam and his donkey, around chapter 23. I think I only have one verse from Numbers memorized, too: "God is not a man that he should lie, or a son of man that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken and will he not make it good?" That's 23:19, from the New American Standard. The line is spoken by Balaam, who was hired by one of the Israelites' enemies, Balak.

Deuteronomy comes from the Greek for "2nd (giving of the) Law" -- the Ten Commandments are given again in chapter 5 of the book. This whole book, the entire scroll, is essentially a long sermon given by Moses to the people of Israel. It begins with a description of how long it takes to get from point A to point B using "the Mount Seir road" -- but the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert to cover that same distance. At the end, Moses dies within sight of the promised land.

Joshua recounts what happened after Joshua took over as commander-in-chief. It begins with the invasion of the land, and ends with Joshua's sermon, including that famous line, "Choose this day who you will serve... but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

Judges recounts several cycles of disobedience, a cry for deliverance, God's answer in the form of a judge, a period of peace, then the cycle begins again when the people forget God and disobey him. Several times in Judges it says, "In those days Israel had no king; every man did as he saw fit." Samson is described in this book (a study in wasted potential), as is Jephthah, who sacrificed his daughter.

The book of Ruth takes place "in the time of the Judges". Ruth is a young widow from the land of the Moabites; she travels with her mother-in-law Naomi (an Israelite) to the land of Israel, where she meets and marries Boaz -- and one of Boaz's great-grandchildren becomes King David. By the way, Naomi had two sons. One of them married Ruth and the other married Ophrah (not Oprah); Oprah's name is a misspelling of Ophrah.

1 and 2 Samuel take us from the time of Eli and his wicked sons, through the times of Samuel the judge, and Saul and David kings of Israel. The story of David and Goliath is here, as is David's adultery with Bathsheba, the murder of Uriah, and the birth of Solomon.

1 Kings begins with Solomon's rise to power. Unfortunately, Solomon finished poorly. He had some 700 wives and concubines. His son Rehoboam makes a breathtakingly poor management decision, and Jeroboam son of Nebat leads a rebellion. The northern part of the kingdom secedes -- this is roughly ten tribes. Only Judah and Benjamin remain with Rehoboam.

The northern kingdom has a succession of bad kings; ultimately it's conquered by Assyria and scattered. The southern kingdom has good and bad kings, but eventually it too is conquered -- by Babylon. Most of the Israelites are deported to Babylon, and that's where 2 Kings ends.

1 and 2 Chronicles starts with a genealogy (beginning with Adam) and covering some events. The "prayer of Jabez" comes from 1 Chronicles. Some history is covered, focused on the southern kingdom.

Ezra and Nehemiah were roughly contemporaries, who lived during the time of the exile in Babylon. They were among the people who returned to Jerusalem. Ezra was a scribe, who I remember as a guy who studied the word of God to apply it to himself, and then to teach it to others (7:10). Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king, and he returned to supervise the reconstruction of the city wall of Jerusalem.

The book of Esther is named after a Jewish orphan living in ... Susa? Yes. This is a great story -- you really should read it. God's name isn't mentioned, and neither is prayer. But the providential events, the apparent coincidences, clearly show God's hand in human affairs.


Job may be the oldest book in the Bible, but I don't think anybody actually knows. The short version is: Job is basically a good guy, and very rich. Satan says Job only loves God because God's made him rich, and God lets Satan run a test: Job loses his wealth and his children are all killed. God brags about Job again, and Satan changes his tune slightly. So God lets Satan run the test a little longer: Satan visits a wasting disease upon Job, who still does not curse God.

Three friends then come to visit Job: Bildad the Shuhite, Eliphaz the Temanite, Zophar the Naamathite. They see him, then sit in silence for seven days. They start well.

But they spoil it all by starting to yap about how he must have done something bad to deserve his situation, and there are several cycles of dialogue. Job doesn't like what they're saying, and the temperature rises. Then a young man, Elihu, complains that they've got it all wrong; Job is trying to justify himself (rather than God) whereas the three friends think they've got God in a box. Finally God himself appears and challenges Job to explain how creation was performed.

God ultimately doesn't answer Job's complaints (or anyone else's), but blesses Job by restoring his wealth and giving him more children.

Psalms: There are 150 of these. #23 is famous -- "The Lord is my shepherd." #119 is the longest one: 22 stanzas of 8 verses each; it's acrostic (verses 1-8 all begin with the Hebrew letter 'aleph', 9-16 begin with 'beth', etc.). Many of the psalms were written by King David.

Some psalms are full of praise to God; some offer wisdom for how to conduct one's life; others describe true human feelings (imprecatory psalms like #109). Whether these reflect what God wants to do, or they're simply honest admissions of "Lord, this is how I feel!", God is able to handle whatever emotions we may express to him.

Proverbs: As Carol mentioned the other day, proverbs are not mathematical, but they are intended to help us become wise. There is sometimes a sort of dialectic: "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes" is right next to "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself." This isn't exactly a contradiction; rather, it's so we will think about the (dis)advantages of each approach.

Ecclesiastes: The Hebrew name of this book translates roughly as "The Preacher", and the author identifies himself as "the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem." We went to Family Camp at Mt. Hermon a few years back and heard Dr. Rick Watt preach on this book -- the meaninglessness of life in the face of the certainty of death! But the author really has gained wisdom in his rather long life. A lot of what he writes is ironic.

The book is somewhat of a mystery; in English translation, the book sounds like it might have been written by Solomon, but according to Dr. Watt, the Hebrew is from a much later period. The phrase "nothing new under the sun" comes from Ecclesiastes, as does "a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot..."

Song of Solomon (or "Song of Songs" or "Canticles"): More poetry. This book got into a bunch of trouble for the sexual imagery -- some people didn't want it to even be in the Bible! I've heard that the intensity of love expresses, not only the (entirely appropriate) intensity of love in a married couple, but also the intensity of God's love for his people. I didn't say it, I just heard it.

Next comes the Prophecy section. As commonly used, "prophecy" means something like saying what will happen in the future. But more generally, a _prophet_ conveys God's thoughts and feelings to people. (A _priest_ by contrast conveys people's thoughts and feelings to God.) So not only the future, but God's comments about the past and presence as well, are spoken by prophets to people.

Isaiah, Jeremiah (+ Lamentations), Ezekiel, and Daniel are sometimes called the major prophets -- because their books are long.

Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah (also called Amaziah? Azariah?), Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah -- as mentioned in one of the slides for week#2. This was in the period well before Judah's exile in Babylon. Isaiah's book has lots of prophecies about the coming Messiah ("the anointed one" in Hebrew, translated "Christ" in Greek), indeed much of Handel's libretto for "The Messiah" is from Isaiah: chapters 7, 9, 40, etc. Isaiah also has a natural division after chapter 39, with chapters 40-66 (i.e., 27 chapters) forming a sort of "new Isaiah", with a somewhat different focus than chapters 1-39 (the "old Isaiah") -- much as the Bible's Old vs New Testaments (39 and 27) have somewhat different foci. People sometimes think that the book of Isaiah had one or two other authors (they think the original Isaiah only wrote chapters 1-39), largely because Isaiah named "Cyrus" as the king who would allow the Israelites to return to their homeland. That is, they think chapters 40-66 were written after the exile, because they think true predictive prophecy impossible. I reject this argument because, as I understand it, idolatry (of the wood and metal and stone variety) was absent from Israel after the exile -- yet chapter 40 talks about the vanity of making idols. Also, in Matthew 3:3, 4:14, 8:17, Matthew identifies Isaiah chapters 9, 40, 53 as coming from the same author.

Jeremiah prophesied during the days leading up to the exile. We see in this book the tragedy of disobedience. "Tell us what the Lord says, and we will do it," say various people to Jeremiah at various times. He tells them, and they don't believe him but rather do what they want -- and things do not go well for them. He was a reluctant prophet: "I am only a child," he says.

We often quote chapter 29: "I know the plans I have for you..." but we often forget that these words were spoken to people that were about to leave their homes and their country, pretty much for good.

Lamentations is a set of, well, lamentations -- about the conquest and exile of Judah, probably also written by Jeremiah, the so-called "weeping prophet." Chapter 3 has an oft-quoted passage about the Lord's mercies: "they are new every morning."

Ezekiel's book has some astonishing imagery -- psychedelic visions in chapter 1, and an X-rated analogy in chapter 16. A memorable (and G-rated) passage from Ezekiel is the part from chapter 36, where God says he'll replace a heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Ezekiel prophesied to the Jews in exile.

Daniel also prophesied to the exiled Jews, and there are some great stories in his book. Daniel and his three friends were taken, in effect, from a small town in Iowa -- and brought to Silicon Valley, a place of seductive, dazzling technology, astonishing material wealth, cultural sophistication, and spiritual poverty. He and his three friends were given Babylonian clothes, fed a Babylonian diet, taught to speak the Babylonian language, and even given Babylonian names. We remember Daniel's three friends -- usually by their Babylonian names Meshach, Shadrach, Abednego. Somehow, though, we remember Daniel's original (Hebrew) name; most of us don't recall his Babylonian name.
NOTE on the Babylonian diet: I was reminded that Daniel and his friends were able to negotiate a change in their diet from "choice food and wine" to a vegetarian diet.
Daniel, like Joseph, interpreted a king's famous dream -- but in Daniel's case, the king even couldn't remember his dream (that's what I think, anyway) so the job was even harder. Daniel also decoded the writing on a wall on the eve of Babylon's conquest by the Medes and Persians. The stories of the fiery furnace and the lion's den also come from the book of Daniel, but some parts of Daniel are a lot less straightforward. Daniel has visions of the future, which according to some critics show that the book was actually written later. I can understand these critics, since I used to think like them: I thought miracles impossible by definition, hence I also thought an accurate account of future events to be likewise impossible. But there is no sound basis for declaring miracles impossible -- C.S. Lewis deals with this in his book MIRACLES.

Next come twelve books of the so-called "minor" prophets: not unimportant prophets, but prophets who wrote small books. I will make short comments on each.

Hosea had to marry an adulterous woman -- this provided a living picture of God's relationship with "adulterous" (rhymes with "idolatrous") Israel. By the way, Hosea and Amos (note the initials "HA") were sent to the northern kingdom of Israel (the ten tribes that seceded from Jerusalem in the days of Rehoboam son of Solomon). The northern kingdom paid little attention to Hosea and Amos; they just laughed ("HA") at them.

Hosea has an oft-quoted passage about "let us press on to know the Lord", but this isn't an example to follow; the Lord sees this as false piety. This is in chapter 6. Chapter 13 has a description of how God will oppose those who are proud and forget him. Not happy.

Joel: You know, I don't really remember much about what Joel said that's unique. There is good stuff in here -- don't be afraid, God is rich in love -- but it obviously wasn't memorable to me.

Amos: Also sent to the northern kingdom, Amos was a shepherd. Shepherds did not have a very good reputation and come to think of it were typically not well educated. (David wrote the psalms though...) The thing I remember from Amos is God's willingness to send hardship in order to help us remember him -- you can see this in chapter 4.

Obadiah: Sent to the Edomites (descendants of Esau son of Isaac). They were "so bad" that God sent them "O-Bad-iah." A very short book (less than a page.)

Jonah was not swallowed by a whale. The text says it was a fish. Apparently they worshiped a fish-god in Nineveh. You've probably heard the story: God tells Jonah to head east to Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq. Mosul I think). But Jonah hates the Assyrians and heads west instead, on a ship; he doesn't want the Ninevites to get God's message; he'd rather see God destroy them like he did to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). But God caught Jonah, who preached to Nineveh; they repented (for a while anyway), and Jonah complained to God. "I knew it! I KNEW you would have mercy on them!" he complained.

Micah: Sorry, I don't remember much about Micah, except the prophecy in chapter 5 I think -- saying the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (in the territory of Judah). Oh, there was one more thing I remember: a woe on those who plot evil at night, and carry it out the next day, from chapter 2 if memory serves.

Nahum: Written to Nineveh I think, but I don't remember much else about Nahum. I will have a lot of apologizing to do when I see these guys in heaven.

Habakkuk: Not a happy guy, he was very upset by what God was doing to punish Judah, I think. God just said, "It's going to get even worse." One lesson, I suppose, is that God sometimes does things we think terrible, and he doesn't seem to be persuaded when we complain about them. Habakkuk is also the source of the Old Testament quote, "the righteous will live by faith".

If I have this right, the last four prophets in the Old Testament prophesied to the southern kingdom (Judah) after the exile.

Zephaniah: I only remember two things about this book. One is that it's the only book that says God sings. What does he sing about? It says "he sings over you." Can I apply that verse to myself? Let's talk about that.

The other thing from this book, if I have this right, is there's a place where God talks about complacent people who say, "The Lord won't do anything, either good or bad." Now THERE is an error to avoid, and when I start leaning in that direction, that verse reminds me to turn around and head back toward God!

Haggai: Mostly what I remember from Haggai is the futility of trying to live life without thinking about God. "Consider your ways!" he says. What a great phrase! They plant much but harvest little, and then he, the Lord, sends a wind to blow away what is left. Why does he do that? He says it's because they're neglecting him, but what does that mean? That he's like a spoiled kid, always demanding attention?

I don't think so. I think it's because he knows that their self-centered life will ultimately be unfulfilling and self-destructive. Like my life when I'm self-absorbed. We're not aware enough to notice that we're heading the wrong way, so he sends very clear signals -- sometimes painful signals -- to turn us away from the wrong path.

Zechariah: This book has some images that I've never figured out. It also has some prophecies related to the Messiah. I think the 30 pieces of silver (which is what Judas got as a reward for betraying Jesus to the priests) comes from this book. Also what happens when Jesus is arrested and the disciples desert him ("Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered" is from Zechariah).

Malachi: The last verse in the Old Testament in our English Bibles, the last verse of Malachi, talks about sending Elijah to Israel again. The disciples of Jesus ask about this, and he indicates that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of this prophecy. Malachi also has an oft-quoted passage about bringing the entire tithe (i.e., 10%) into the storehouse of the temple. If the Israelites do this, he says, he will open the gates of heaven and rain down blessing upon the nation.

By the way, sometimes a Jewish person will complain that the Christians changed the order of the Old Testament books so that the last verse would make it sound like something was going to happen. But as I mentioned in our first class, the order of books we use today is one which was used for the Septuagint (or "LXX"), around 250 B.C.... OOPS... that's wrong! Should have checked before I told you that in our first class. The LXX does have Chronicles with Kings, but the end looks like it's Daniel rather than the twelve minor prophets.

Well, to me it makes more sense to end with one of the four post-exile prophets than with Daniel (more chronological).

May the Lord bless you as you meditate, memorize, study, read, and hear his word.

No comments: