Chapter 3: How the Old Testament Was Written
As one reads a book in its finished form, he is apt to assume that the author just began at the beginning and wrote it straight through. Occasionally an author does this. But more often, as he revises the manuscript he is apt to put in some things, pull out others, and change the order. It need not surprise us, therefore, to find that what stands first in the Bible was by no means written first.
This process of moving the parts about is even more likely to take place if what is being produced is not the product of one pen but is a symposium, the work of a number of persons. The editor not only has the job of selecting the persons who write, but also of arranging the sequence of their productions and, if necessary, of rejecting some contributions and substituting others. He has to see that in its finished form the book reads as smoothly and connectedly as possible, although symposiums seldom do succeed in having the unity of a book written by one person.
What we have in the Bible is a symposium -- and a very extensive one, though without the conscious human planning one might infer from the term. It contains sixty-six books written over many hundreds of years by a great number of writers, the names of whom we know in only a relatively small number of cases. There was no single editor, although there were editors whom we call redactors who from time to time took the existing material and worked it over to form a connected story. Some of this material was in written fragments, but much of it had been preserved by telling and retelling in the oral tradition. There was relatively little writing in those days, not because the people did not know how to write, for a good many of them did, using the old Semitic alphabet script in Old Testament times and Greek in the New. But there was no printing press and no paper as we know it, and the parchment rolls on which the writing was done was a scarce commodity. Although these animal skins were more durable than most of our paper, they were perishable, for there were then no safety vaults or glass-covered museum cabinets in which to preserve them. The marvel of it is, not that there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the Bible as we have it, but that we have the Bible at all.
For about a hundred years Old and New Testament scholars have been working on problems of date, authorship, and sequence of the various books and parts of books. There is a large measure of agreement, which we shall draw on in this brief summary. There is not full agreement, and unless new evidence comes to light, such as the important Dead Sea Scrolls, containing among other things the text of the Book of Isaiah, which were discovered in 1947, differences of opinion are likely to continue. Scholars do not agree, for instance, as to whether the Book of Ephesians was written by Paul as traditionally supposed or by some other hand. Most New Testament students think that the Fourth Gospel, showing as it does clear traces of Greek influence, could not have been written by John the beloved disciple, but what John did write it -- if, indeed, his name was John at all -- is less certain. We shall not dwell much in this chapter on these doubts and uncertainties, though where necessary we shall recognize them, but will try to present what in general is a common consensus among those who have devoted their lives to the study of the Bible’s structure.
History Then and Now
Both in getting at the probable sequence of the writing of history in the Bible and in passing judgment on its accuracy, some fundamental differences between the point of view of the biblical writers and of those who write history today must be kept in mind. To be a good historian according to our present standards, one must have the capacity to see the interplay of human and physical factors that caused important events to take place, and if the history is to be widely read the historian must have a clear and vivid literary style. He must be an interpreter as well as a chronicler, for lists of events with their dates are only the bare bones of history. But above all else, good historical writing must be credible; that is, it must have objective, factual accuracy as well as the historian’s interpretation. The moment he begins to stretch the facts to prove a point or to tell a good story from his imagination, at that moment he becomes a propagandist or perhaps a historical novelist, but he ceases to be a true historian.
A closely related characteristic of history writing today, which comes out of our general scientific climate, is to be very wary of miracle stories. Marvelous things indeed one may relate, and must relate if there is sufficient evidence that the things to be recorded really happened. For example, the history of technological progress in the past hundred years is full of amazing things that would have seemed miraculous, if not incredible, in an earlier day. But the scientific historian tends to look for natural explanations of such events. In tracing the relations of psychological and physical factors he may have to admit that something happens which has no precedent and for which there is no ready-made explanation. Nevertheless, he still believes that it falls within an orderly system of cause and effect, and even a devoutly Christian historian is not apt to trace an event solely to a supernatural or miraculous act of God.
In both these respects much of the history writing in the Bible is radically different from today’s. The dominant motif that characterizes all of it, as it does the whole Bible, is God’s encounter with men. The biblical writers were untroubled by many of the questions we raise; they were simply narrating what they believed to be true about God’s continuous activity in history. And since they lived in a prescientific age, when anything -- naturally caused or otherwise -- could happen, they did not hesitate to relate events as having supernatural causes.
Noting this fact, one may be tempted to throw out the history in the Bible and dismiss it as simply "unhistorical material" or "legendary tales." But to do this would be as serious an error as to take all of it as literally accurate fact. There is truth of great vitality and power in many passages of which the strictly historical accuracy may be questioned. It is our job, therefore, to find the truth that may be buried under some layers of legend.
Old Testament History
The Earliest Historical Records
The earliest history in the Bible recorded by a contemporary is that which tells the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David, who lived about l000 B.C. King David had both a secretary and a recorder, (II Sam. 8:16, 17) and it is probable that court annals were kept which enabled somebody, either in David’s lifetime or almost immediately afterward, to tell in remarkably vivid and vital form the story of the powerful but frustrated and jealous Saul, his winsome and gallant son Jonathan, and the great King David. The story is told with swift, incomparably deft strokes which indicate not only what happened but why things happened as they did. Contrast, for example, the pictures of David’s rise to favor with Saul and his decline:
And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, Let David, I pray thee, stand before me, for he hath found favor in my sight. And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (I Sam. 16:22,23)
But this favor was not destined to continue. After Saul had set David over his men of war, and "it was good in the sight of all the people, and also in the sight of Saul’s servants," this happened:
And it came to pass as they came, when David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with timbrels, with joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang one to another as they played, and said,
Saul hath slain his thousands
And David his ten thousands.
And Saul was very wroth, and this saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom ? And Saul eyed David from that day and forward. (I Sam. 18:6-9 A.S.V.)
This series of stories, which begins with the eighth chapter of I Samuel and runs through II Samuel into I Kings, is not only vividly written, but it also conforms in large measure to the canons of good history today. It is straightforward, unbiased narrative very largely free from miraculous explanations of events. Its best portions are the account of David’s reign, extending from II Samuel 9 through I Kings 2, in which the great king’s weaknesses as well as points of strength become clearly evident. This writing is the more remarkable from the fact that its unknown author was blazing a new trail, for it is excellent prose from both a historical and a literary standpoint, with no predecessor in the literature of any nation up to that time to serve as a pattern.
The story continues in I and II Kings with accounts of the reign of Solomon and his successors as the kingdom split apart under his unwise son Rehoboam, who when asked to lighten the people’s load insolently replied, "My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.(I Kings 12:11, R.S.V.) What follows is valuable history but is apparently from other hands than those of the Saul and David stories. The style is less picturesque, and the narrative follows a more formal plan: naming a king, giving a brief account of what he did, and closing with censure or praise. Since it systematically censures the northern kings and praises those of the south, it was apparently written or compiled by someone partial to the Southern Kingdom, and since this process continues over a four-hundred-year period ending with the Exile, the chances are that somebody near that time worked over the court records and put his own interpretation on them. Numerous references are made to lost books, which would be invaluable prizes if they could be recovered now, though it is unlikely that they ever will be, "The Book of the Acts of Solomon," "The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah," and "The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel."
These references are not to the books of I and II Chronicles as we have them in the Bible. Our two books of Chronicles were written much later, after the return from exile, and retell many of the events recorded in the books of Samuel and Kings, from a priestly slant, with long lists of genealogy and much moralizing. They are less authentic history. The author dwells at length on the blessings that come to those who keep the law of Yahweh and the punishments that befall transgressors, and apparently does not hesitate to exaggerate these blessings and calamities to prove his point. It is a principle of historical interpretation which we find repeatedly illustrated, that the more nearly contemporary a piece of writing, the more direct, natural, and authentic the account.
Storytellers and Editors
But we are getting ahead of the story. We must go back now to the ninth century, approximately to 850 B.C., in the period of the divided kingdom. At this time some extremely important writing took place without which we should be missing a great deal in the Old Testament.
About 850 B.C. some writer in the Southern Kingdom with a marvelous storytelling gift either wrote out for the first time, or compiled with such changes as his own personality prompted, a series of stories relating the early history of his people. These tales had been preserved by the women as they gathered with their water bottles at the wells, by the men as they chatted around the campfires and as they told the stories of the great past to their young sons. A great deal of the early Old Testament had long been in the making before any of it got written down. Just how much of it was passed along solely by word of mouth, and how much had been written down in fragments before any of it was put together consecutively, we have no sure way of knowing.
Beginning with the second chapter of Genesis, these stories appear along with other material throughout the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, and into the books of Samuel. They are vivid, dramatic, and full of conversation and human interest. Here we find not only our earliest creation story (that of the first chapter of Genesis, as we shall note presently, came much later) and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden for their disobedience, but also the doings of the patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph in Egypt, Moses leading his people through the desert, Joshua leading them in their rugged attempts to gain a foothold in Canaan. To get a sampling of these tales, one would do well to read the stories of Adam and Eve and their sons Cain and Abel in Genesis 2:4 -- 4:15, or the doom of Sodom in Genesis 18, or the betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24, or the decline and fall of Samson in Judges 16, or the story of David and Goliath in I Samuel 17.
The stories from the hand of this great ninth century writer are rapidly-moving narrative, but they are more. They are a testimony to God’s leading and care and his demand for righteousness, and to Israel’s sense of being a divinely chosen people with a great destiny if they would be faithful. Seldom if ever has narrative been used as skillfully to teach a religious lesson.
Who was this nameless storyteller ? Bible scholars have given him a name, and we call him "J." There is a double reason for this. The predominant setting of the stories in the south, together with linguistic peculiarities which only a Hebrew scholar would detect, indicates that the writing was done by somebody in the kingdom of Judah. Furthermore, the writer’s name for God is YHWH, translated "Jehovah" in the American Standard Version, although Yahweh is nearer the original. In the Moffatt translation, the "J" passages are printed in italics through Genesis and Exodus, and it is interesting to read these passages, skipping the rest, and note their characteristics.
But what comes between these "J" stories ? "J" was not the only great storyteller of the Hebrews, for somewhat later, probably about 750 B.C., another skilled narrator appeared who was partial to the northern heroes. Because he wrote from the standpoint of the tribe of Ephraim and used the generic term El or Elohim for God, we call him "E." The ethical sense of the "E" writer, or writers, seems more developed; the conception of God is more spiritual and less anthropomorphic. The "E" stories are not usually so forceful as the "J," but they have a smoother literary style. To sample them, read the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-14, Jacob’s flight from r in Genesis 31, the finding of the baby Moses in Exodus 1:15- - 2:10, Aaron and the golden calf in Exodus 32:1-6, 15-24, Joshua’s farewell address in Joshua 24:14-25, Jotham’s fable in Judges 9:6-21, or the boy Samuel in I Samuel 1 and 3. One may detect them in the Moffatt translation by the fact that they are enclosed in square brackets.
How did the "J" and "E" manuscripts become merged? After the Northern Kingdom fell with the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., the literary treasures of the north passed into southern hands. Sometime between that date and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., some editor or editors wove "J" and "E" together to form a consecutive narrative. A reading in the Moffatt translation of the Joseph cycle, found in Genesis 37 through 48, will give a clear idea of how these two strands are interwoven. We do not know who did it or why, but since the prophets were suppressed under King Manasseh, it may be that somebody who could not speak openly wanted to remind the people of their great obligations and high destiny by a composite version of God’s dealings with their fathers.
But the interweaving is not ended yet. Both "J" and "E" were storytellers, interested aplenty in morals as they understood them, but not mainly in the legal aspects of morality. In the year 621 B.C., King Josiah ordered that the Temple in Jerusalem be repaired, and in the process a certain "book of the law" was found. This important document became the basis of a great reform in which the heathen shrines were cast down and the king and the people together took a solemn vow to live by its provisions, many of which were in keeping with the ethical teachings of the prophets. How did it get there? It may have been written as early as 650 B.C. and accidentally discovered; quite likely it was "planted" there to be discovered. In any case this code, which we call "D," became the main structure of our Book of Deuteronomy. Then later, during the Babylonian captivity, some devout Jew or Jews amalgamated "D" with the already existing "JE."
This "D" code is the first example of canonized Scripture, for when it was found in the Temple it made such an impression on the king that he sent to "inquire of Yahweh" about it by way of the prophetess Huldah, who endorsed it as being truly the word of the Lord. However, it is not the first law code, for there is an earlier one in Exodus 20:22--23:33. Deuteronomy gets its name from the assumption that as "the second law," it recapitulates all that had preceded it.
Up to this point we have "JED." But the story of the making of the early Old Testament has still another chapter. After the return from exile, the priests who were then directing Israel’s religious affairs took their turn at writing history. What they were most concerned to do was to show how the sacred ritualistic observances had come into being, and hence their divine authority. So they divided history into epochs: from the creation to the flood, with the sabbath as the climax of creation; (Gen. 2:2-4) from the flood to the time of Abram, with the prohibition against eating blood introduced after the flood; (Gen. 9:4) from Abram to Moses, with circumcision beginning in the time of Abram; (Gen. 17:9-27) and from Moses onward, in whose time the Passover was introduced. (Exod. 12:1-14) A third law code was incorporated, the Holiness Code, (Lev. 17-26) which is so called because it mainly stresses ritualistic and ceremonial purity though it does contain the great commandment, "Love thy neighbor as thyself.(Lev. 19:18) Much of the "P" document, as this work of the priestly writers is called, is from our standpoint quite uninspiring, with long genealogies as well as outmoded laws, but we must ever be grateful for its great hymn of creation with which the Bible opens. (Gen 1:1-2:4)
Although "P" originated about 500 B.C., the composing and editing of it went on for a century. During this time it was amalgamated with the already existing "JED" to form "JEDP." So, by approximately the beginning of the fourth century B.C., the first five books of the Bible, which the Jews call the Torah, were substantially as they stand today.
It is apparent even from this brief summary that the old idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (including even the account of his own death!) has to be abandoned. The original formulation of the Ten Commandments under God’s leading may indeed have come from his hand. But the greater part of the Pentateuch in its elements, and all of it in its present form, is later. In view of how it grew by stages, it is not surprising that it contains fascinating folklore and a primitive, though dramatic and spiritually meaningful, explanation of the creation, the coming of sin into the world, and the emergence of toil and pain and strife. Furthermore, in history that in its outlines is authentic though not in every detail, it gives the record of how God mercifully led his chosen but erring people in the way of righteousness.
We have now traced the emergence of the most important historical writings of the Old Testament, but we have not quite finished. Reference has been made to the postexilic writing of pre-exilic history as found in I and II Chronicles. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably written by the author of Chronicles, often referred to for lack of a more definite name as "the Chronicler." He doubtless had access to the memoirs of Nehemiah, (See Neh. 2:9-16; also chapters 4 and 6. The story of Nehemiah’s secret survey of the city by night and its hazardous rebuilding are especially vivid passages.) an exceedingly able and vigorous young governor who took charge of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after it had lain in ruins a century and half, and he may also have had those of Ezra the priest and scribe. While these books are not as great history or literature as the David stories or the writings of "J" and "E," they are our chief source of information as to what happened between the return from exile in 538 B.C. and the rise of the Maccabees in 168 B.C. In general these books reflect the legalistic and ritualistic emphases current in that day.
If one wishes to read in more detail the interweaving of these various strands to form the historical books of the Old Testament, it is to be found in many books of which Professor Julius Bewer’s An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament and Elmer W. K. Mould’s Essentials of Bible History are among the best. But even this short survey must have made clear some points. First, that the Bible was not written in the order in which we have it arranged. Second, that much human frailty as well as human genius went into its making, with some of the most skilled writers of all time, yet men like ourselves, among its creators. Third, that God was moving in these writers and in the experience of the people in a marvelous way. The fact that the Old Testament has a composite authorship, with legend mixed in with fact and much of the history written from a religious bias, ought not to overshadow the greater fact that through it God speaks. Were it not in a true sense inspired, it would not through the ages have been inspiring many millions to better living and to a higher discernment of the Eternal.
We must now look at another large segment of the Old Testament, the writings of the prophets. A prophet is not primarily a foreteller of events, though the Hebrew prophets often had keen discernment as to the signs of the times; rather, he is a forthteller, a spokesman for the Lord. The Old Testament prophets had a message and produced a literature which for religious passion and ethical discernment has not been equaled anywhere outside the words of Jesus.
Not all the prophets wrote. Moses and Samuel were prophets as well as statesmen. Nathan in the Parable of the One Ewe Lamb adroitly charged the great King David with sin, (II Sam. 12:1-15) and later, the prophet Elijah boldly confronted King Ahab and charged him with murder in the affair of Naboth’s vineyard (I Kings 21) Elijah and, still more his successor, Elisha, were involved in the revolution that led to the fall of the house of Omri to which Ahab belonged. But none of these, though they are vividly written about, wrote their own messages. They are therefore sometimes called the preliterary prophets.
Seven Great Prophets
Amos. -- The prophet who gave us the earliest complete book in the Bible is Amos. He lived about 750 B.C., approximately a century later than Elijah and Elisha. A humble herdsman of Tekoa, he appeared one day at the royal shrine of Bethel and, with a religious earnestness that moves us even yet as we read it, began to denounce the spiritual shallowness, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the bribery, sexual indulgence, and general moral laxity which he saw all about him. With consummate skill Amos won his audience by denouncing the sins of Israel’s neighbors and then struck home to their own transgressions in the eyes of God.
Thus saith the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, . . . You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. (Amos 2:6;3:2)
But the message is not all invective, for we find him also saying,
Seek Jehovah, and ye shall live; . . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:6, 24, A.S.V.)
Hosea.-- Soon after, perhaps a decade later, came Hosea, a sensitive, tender soul who stressed the forgiving mercy of God, as Amos had the divine justice. Out of personal suffering he had come to know God’s love, for his own wife had drifted into infidelity and when he was tempted to let her go his love led him to forgive her and bring her back to his home. How much more must God love his sinful people! One of the most beautiful passages in the Bible is that in which Hosea has God say,
When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. . . . I taught Ephraim to walk; I took them on my arms; but they knew not that I healed them. (Hos. 11:1, 3, 4, A.S.V.)
Isaiah.-- About the time Hosea was prophesying in the north, a young man appeared in the south who was destined to be a very great prophet and statesman. The work of Isaiah spans the forty-year period from about 740 B.C. through 701, when Jerusalem was besieged by King Sennacherib of Assyria and narrowly escaped destruction. Not all of the book which bears his name was written by him, but most of the first thirty-nine chapters were. In his matchless sixth chapter Isaiah tells us that "in the year that king Uzziah died" he had a vision as he was praying in the temple which led him to feel God was calling him to preach to his sinful, dull-spirited countrymen, and he responded, "Here am I; send me." The rest of his life was spent in speaking for God with courage and clear discernment.
One finds in Isaiah’s messages a union of those of Amos and Hosea, for he stressed both the justice and the mercy of God. He has a particularly vivid invective against the idle, luxury-loving women of the time. (Isa. 3:16-4:1) There is great moral vigor in his words:
Wash you, make you clean, . . . cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow, (Isa. 1:16, 17, A.S.V.)
and there is equally great promise in
Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. . . . (Isa. 1:18)
Isaiah was a highly original prophet. Politically, he steadily though not always successfully advised the kings to trust in God and avoid entangling alliances. One of his greatest admonitions,
In returning and rest shall ye be saved, in quietness
and in confidence shall be your strength, (Isa. 30:15)
probably had originally a national significance which we would do well to recapture. Religiously, he had an enlarged conception of God, seeing Assyria as well as Israel under Yahweh’s control and the nation’s enemies as the rod of God’s anger upon his sinful people. But we find also in Isaiah’s writings the beginnings of the messianic hope that "a remnant shall return(Isa. 10:21) and a deliverer be raised up by God to establish the ideal kingdom of the future. One aspect of this messianic hope was the prophecy of a warless world when men should "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks"; (Isa. 2:4) another the coming of a child whose "name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace,(Isa. 9:6,7) to rule upon the throne of David with justice and righteousness forever.
Micah.-- Contemporary with the latter part of Isaiah’s ministry was the work of Micah, who was greatly troubled at the way the poor people in the country had to suffer from the attacks the nation’s leaders had stupidly precipitated, while the rich could live in relative safety behind the walls of Jerusalem. Micah in a single immortal sentence summed up the meaning of religion:
He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Mic. 6:8)
Jeremiah. -- Jeremiah is one of the greatest figures of all time. We know more about him than we do about most of the prophets, for he had a secretary, Baruch, who preserved not only his thoughts but also many incidents from his life. We know that he felt he was called of God from before his birth and that he had "a burning fire shut up in [his] bones(Jer. 20:9) that would not let him rest until he spoke the truth as he saw it. Because his message was unpopular, he was put in the stocks, thrown into a miry cistern, imprisoned, had his writings burned, and in general was persecuted by the king, the people, and the false prophets who said what the rulers wanted to hear. What got Jeremiah into such disfavor was not only his invectives against the prevalent sin and profligacy, but also his repeated warnings that it was folly to resist the conquerors from the east since Jerusalem was bound to fall. Fall it did, after much destruction which could have been avoided had his advice been heeded. When the leaders were carried away to Babylon in 597 B.C. and again in 586 B C., Jeremiah was left behind, but he was later dragged along to Egypt by the survivors who fled in that direction, and there he probably died a martyr.
Jeremiah lives in history while those who called him a traitor have long since been forgotten. But it is not simply as a courageous figure daring to speak his mind that he holds so high a place. He had a deep, strong faith in God. Realistic as he was about Jerusalem’s immediate fate, he nevertheless foresaw a glorious day when God would make a new covenant which would be written in men’s hearts. There is little if anything else in the Old Testament which comes so close to the spirit of the New as these words he represents Yahweh as speaking:
Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. . . .
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jer. 31:3, 33, 34, A.S.V.)
Ezekiel.--Toward the end of Jeremiah’s ministry in Jerusalem another prophet arose in Babylon -- of lesser stature but still a man of great spiritual insight. He was among those deported in the exile. We shall linger with Ezekiel only long enough to point out that among the cryptic visions with which his book abounds there is a steady emphasis on the majesty, the holiness, and the omnipresence of God. His allegory of the eagles and the vine in the seventeenth chapter not only introduces a new literary type but also implies Isaiah’s doctrine of the remnant. Chapter eighteen is a fine essay on individual, as contrasted with inherited, responsibility, and the thirty-fourth chapter is a beautiful portrait of God as the shepherd of his people.
Second Isaiah. -- One more great prophet we must speak of, perhaps the greatest of them all. We do not even know his name, but we call him the Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah because his message is found in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah, beginning at chapter forty. These chapters reveal a background so very different from the first part of the book that they could not have been written by the eighth century Isaiah. The Exile had already taken place, but whether the second Isaiah wrote around 540 B.C., as some scholars think from references to the Persian king Cyrus, or a century later, is not certain.
The second Isaiah was a poet of a high order, and some of the most moving lyrics of the Bible are from his pen. It is not by accident that much of the text of Handel’s Messiah is taken from his words. And he could not have been so great a poet had he not had a great deal to say.
Foremost among his ideas is a clear-cut monotheism. Early Hebrew thought, you will recall, was not monotheistic but henotheistic, the belief in the existence of many gods but the supremacy of one. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," reflects this framework. Israel’s religious leaders had been moving towards monotheism, and the prophetic idea that Yahweh was using Israel’s enemies as his agents in bringing judgment on his sinful people was a long step towards recognition of his universal sway. Yet it remained for the second Isaiah to represent Yahweh as saying unequivocally,
I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. . . . I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things. (Isa. 44:6; 45:7)
But Yahweh’s universal control is not in power only, but in redeeming love also. His purpose includes the salvation of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and he is as near to those in exile as to those in Jerusalem. Furthermore, their exile and sufferings have come not solely as punishment for sin, though they are that; they have befallen the Jews to purify them to act as God’s servants in carrying the message of redemption to all the world. To be God’s chosen people means not that they are chosen for favors, but for service! This twofold idea of vicarious and redemptive suffering and of God’s universal love for all men comes to its highest expression in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. This "suffering servant" chapter was probably written to set forth God’s mission for Israel, but because it describes so exactly the perfect Suffering Servant, it was long thought to be a direct prevision of Christ.
Like the first Isaiah and Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah foresaw the coming of a messiah who should redeem Israel and usher in a new age. Among his most vivid pictures are those of a highway through the desert, a way of righteousness leading from sin and affliction to a new heaven and a new earth where the glory of the Lord would be revealed and men would live in peace and happiness. The only way to catch the full majesty of such passages is to read some of them; as, for example, chapters 40, 42:1-9, 51, 55, 60, 61, 65:17-25.
We must not stop longer with the other prophets, though others there were. Neither their dates nor sequence is certain, but it is probable that Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk, as well as Jeremiah, lived in the seventh century and that the writings of Haggai, Zechariah, Obadiah, and Malachi are to be located in the sixth and fifth centuries. Joel, written around 400 B.C., is the last of the prophetic books. By this time the light of prophecy was spent. None of these prophets was as original or as great in religious insights as the seven we have examined, and some of them, notably Nahum, fiercely pronounce judgment on Israel’s foes in a way far removed from the tender love of God as we find it in Hosea and the Second Isaiah. This is another reminder that we cannot possibly read the Bible and get its message straight if we assume that it is all on one level of inspiration.
We have had occasion to refer to the poetry of the Old Testament, for it appears mixed in with the history, and many of the most vivid prophetic utterances are poems. We must now look at it a little more closely.
The distinguishing mark of Hebrew poetry is not rhyme or meter, though it has a kind of rhythm. Rather, it is parallelism, a symmetrical arrangement of ideas. There is synonymous parallelism, in which the second line repeats the first in slightly different form.
The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul:
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. (Ps. 19:7, A.S.V.)
There is synthetic parallelism, where the second line builds up from the first.
I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously;
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. (Exod. 15:1)
There is antithetic parallelism, where the second line gives a contrast to the first.
A soft answer turneth away wrath;
But a grievous word stirreth up anger. (Prov. 15:1, A.S.V.)
There is also the more complex stairlike parallelism in which each line in a series amplifies the preceding.
For, lo, the winter is past;
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land (Song of Sol. 2:11, 12, A.S.V.)
The foregoing examples illustrate also the principal types of biblical poetry from the standpoint of theme and subject matter. The greater part of it is religious in nature, as we have it in the devotional poetry of the Psalms and the impassioned words of the prophets. The Psalms were not all written by David, as formerly supposed, though he may have written some of them. The Book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the second Temple, erected after the return from exile, and in it we have a compilation of great hymns through which the people voiced their aspirations, their thanksgivings, their plaints, their trust in Yahweh in the midst of both joy and adversity.
There is also much national and patriotic poetry in the Old Testament, most of it early folksongs that got woven into the "JEDP" story. Among these are the "Song of Miriam" in Exodus 15, the "Song of Deborah" in Judges 5, the "Blessing of Isaac" in Genesis 27:27-29, the "Blessing of Jacob" in Genesis 49, and the "Blessing of Moses" in Deuteronomy 33. This does not mean that all these persons were poets. No one knows who composed these songs, but the people sang them with patriotic fervor in much the same mood that now prompts Americans to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
A third type of poetry is didactic and philosophical. The Book of Proverbs, abounding in antithetical parallelism, is just what the name suggests -- a collection of pungent adages. A greater piece of wisdom poetry is the philosophic drama of Job, of which we must say another word presently.
A fourth type is the lyrics of romantic love. This is what we have, bordering on the erotic, in the Song of Solomon. When it was formerly thought that this in some way foreshadowed the marriage of Christ and his Church, its meaning was completely obscured. It is not great poetry or great religion, but it shows us that the Hebrews were many-sided in their interests! Some of the mystics, particularly Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross, have based much of their spiritual writing on it.
A fifth kind of poetry is the dirge. This appears with great poignancy in the Book of Lamentations. This is also a form of national poetry, for its theme is the sufferings of those who were left in Jerusalem after its fall.
We referred a moment ago to the wisdom literature. This includes the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, all of which were probably put together in the fourth and third centuries B.C. Some of the Psalms are also of this nature.
The Book of Proverbs is an assemblage of collections of adages, probably at least five of them of varying dates. It abounds in "quotable quotes," with many a sly dig at such human frailties as laziness, gossip and argumentativeness, and not a little humor. Among its most beautiful passages are those in praise of wisdom in chapters 3, 4, and 8, and its graphic picture of a model wife in 31:1-31.
The Book of Job is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. It deals with the perennial problem of human suffering --not the suffering for sin which the prophets had many times talked of, but the suffering of the righteous. It was ordinarily believed by the Hebrews not only that righteousness brought reward and sin brought suffering, but also that all suffering was somehow traceable to sin. The unknown author of this book had the temerity to challenge this assumption in a drama in which God agreed to let Satan test the loyalty of Job, a righteous man, by stripping him of his possessions, his children, and his health. It consists mainly of cycles of dialogue between Job and his conventionally-minded friends, but comes to a grand climax when God speaks to him out of the whirlwind. What the Voice says gives no solution, but something better -- a sense of mastery through the power of the Eternal. Some later hand missed the whole point of the book and added an epilogue in which Job got back everything he had lost, but the curtain really falls at the point where he is able to say to Yahweh:
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear;
But now mine eye seeth thee. (Job 42:5, A.S.V.)
The Book of Ecclesiastes is in a very different vein. Its unknown author, who calls himself Koheleth (a "gatherer of an assembly," though most versions translate it "preacher"), had apparently come in touch with Greek Epicurean philosophy, and what he has given us is a blend of Hebrew and Greek worldly wisdom. Its main theme is the emptiness and futility of existence, but it contains nevertheless some fine passages. Among these are his affirmation, in the third chapter, of a God-given time for everything, and his exquisitely beautiful description of old age in the last chapter.
Have we finished? No, not quite. To one accustomed to thinking of the Bible as historical throughout, it may be a surprise to discover that it contains also short stories -- some of the finest fiction ever written. (Fiction, we must remember, is not the same as falsehood; at its best it consists of imaginative stories through which truth is imparted, as Jesus used parables in the New Testament.) A story does not have to be literal historical fact to contain a great and permanent meaning.
The loveliest of all these stories is the Book of Ruth. Though placed in our Bible between Judges and I Kings because its historical setting is in the period of the "judges," it was probably written in the third century B.C. as an answer to the racial exclusiveness that had become acutely prevalent. Nehemiah had forbidden the intermarriage of Jews with persons of any other race. But here was a reminder that David, their greatest king, had a beautiful-spirited Moabitess for his great-grandmother!
The Book of Jonah is another little book with a great message --the missionary message of the love of God for the people of Nineveh as well as for those of Jerusalem. In story form, the contrast between the churlishness of the self-righteous Jonah and the universal love of God, which the second Isaiah had taught, becomes strikingly clear. Its theme is aptly expressed in our hymn,
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea. (By Frederick Faber)
One of the worst mistakes ever made about the Bible was the missing of this great message in futile argument over the dimensions of the whale’s gullet.
A graphic story with a less beautiful theme is the Book of Esther. Its overtones are those of Jewish pride and a spirit of revenge resulting from the persecutions the Jews had had to undergo. It is apparently designed to give historical justification for the observance of the feast of Purim, which the Jews may have taken over from the Persians during their captivity. Despite the fact that it does not have a very great theme, Mordecai’s challenge to Queen Esther, "And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?(Esther 4:14, R.S.V.) is still a challenge to us today.
We have now said something about the origins of every book in the Old Testament except Daniel. This was the last to be written, and we can date it with more accuracy than most because it was almost certainly written between 168 and 165 B.C. During this period the Jews revolted against their despotic Syrian overlord Antiochus Epiphanes, and someone who was unable to speak openly, but who wanted to rally the Jews to trust God in remembrance of their past and to predict the doom of their conquerors, wrote this book. It is a combination of historical story, with the scene laid in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar, and a new type of writing, the apocalyptic literature. This latter type, expressing ideas through cryptic symbolism cast in the form of visions, was common in the period between the Testaments and we shall meet it again in the Book of Revelation. The story part of Daniel in the first six chapters is a vivid call to go through the fiery furnace or the lions’ den of persecution, sustained by the sure presence of God.
This survey has given a few signposts along the way to an understanding of a marvelous collection of great books. But signposts, without a personal journey, will not carry one to a destination. If one wants to see for himself how truly great the Old Testament is, he should read in their context at least the passages to which references have been made. And when this has been done, one will want to read more.