The Old Testament – An Overview (part 4)

So far we have discovered the shape of the Old Testament and compared the Jewish and Christian ordering of the books and given the reasons why the same number of books can add up to either to 24 or 39. We have also briefly shown how the Old Testament was formed with the Book of Deuteronomy at its heart.

This week we return to the first five books, the Torah or Pentateuch – the only place of agreement of number and order between Jewish and Christian versions of the Old Testament – to give a sense of what the books contain. Tradition says these books were written by Moses, and are referred to as the Books of Moses. But a study of the text reveals multiple hands were involved in the composition, and as the Book of Deuteronomy also includes a chapter on the death of Moses it would have been hard for him to have written it. BUT they are the books of Moses; in that from Exodus to Deuteronomy he is the main actor.

But we begin with Genesis, a Greek word that means ‘to come into being’. In the Jewish bible the books of the Torah take their name from the first word in the book. So Genesis is known as Bereishit which in Hebrew means ‘in the beginning.’

The book has two parts: chapters 1-11 which act as a prologue and which were composed last. This is followed by chapters 12 to the end which commit to writing the oral traditions of the ancient patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, the bulk of the story moves from Jacob onto his son, Joseph, as the means of explaining how the Hebrew people came to be in Egypt as a slave population.

The prologue contains stories, myths and legends that were picked up by Israel when its people were in Babylon but which have been adapted to affirm their beliefs about their God. So it begins with two versions of the story of creation, a creation that is pronounced good, a creation that is brought into being by the pronouncement of a word. The creation of humanity is the climax of these tales and their introduction immediately leads to God’s good creation suffering from an existential sickness – all manner of evils begin that eventually results in the story of Noah and the flood, a story in which the character of God is again revealed. The final story in the prologue is humanity’s attempt to build a tower and God’s decision to thwart enterprise by creating the nations through the confusion of different languages.

The importance of this prologue is that it sets the story of Israel into a larger, cosmic and universal story. It suggests that Israel was the way God would put right the existential sickness and restore the goodness and fullness of creation – the story of the rest of the Bible!

But Israel was a nation that would grow from the loins of one man (Abraham) and his wife (Sarah). His story begins in Babylon; it is there that God finds and calls him to leave family, religion, nation and culture and set out to a new land to form a new people. The core of his story is found in the word ‘promise’: God promises that Abraham will be the father of a great nation, even though he is old and his wife beyond child bearing age. To be continued…

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