The Bible Today by C. H. Dodd
C.H. Dodd is recognized as one of the great New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. Dr. Dodd was for many years Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University. Published by the Syndics of the University Press, Cambridge, 1956. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 3: The Old Testament
It will be useful to start with a rough outline of the chronology of the writings of the Old Testament, based upon generally accepted conclusions of biblical criticism.
XIII (or earlier?) Exodus from Egypt
XII (?) Settlement in Palestine
XI Wars with Canaanites, etc., Foundation of Monarchy, (David, 1000 BC) .
(XIII, XII, & XI [above]: Oral traditions [laws, legends, poems] preserved in later writings.)
X Court chronicles begin (incorporated in later books) .
IX Early laws and traditions written down: Judaean collection (‘J’) and Ephraimite collection (‘E’) , later incorporated in Genesis-to- Joshua.
VII Josiah’s Reformation, 621. Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum.
VI Habakkuk, Judges, Samuel, Kings. (Fall of Jerusalem, 586.) Ezekiel, ‘II Isaiah’, Haggai, Zechariah.
V ‘Priestly’ laws and narratives of Genesis-to-Joshua (‘P’) written on basis of earlier traditions. Malachi, Job.
IV Compilation of Genesis-to-Joshua (out of ‘J’, ‘E’, ‘P’ and Deuteronomy.)
III Chronicles, Ecclesiastes.
II Book of Psalms completed (largely out of much earlier poems) . Ecclesiasticus, Daniel, etc.
I Book of Wisdom, etc.
You will observe that not one of the books of the Old Testament (in its finished form) is of earlier date than the eighth century BC Before that time there existed traditions handed down by word of mouth, and various documentary records and compositions, which were used by later writers. But the books of the Old Testament, as we know them, were composed in the period starting with the great prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah. And it was the work of these prophets which directly or indirectly determined the character of the Canon of Scripture. Their stamp is in one way or another upon it all.
Much of the pre-prophetic material comes down from very early ages indeed. Its value lies largely in enabling us to see how the whole history of revelation with which the Bible is concerned is rooted in the good red earth of our common humanity; in primitive, elemental human affections and passions, the groundwork still of all our life, however sophisticated and civilized we have become. That is why the old ‘Bible stories’ which have been told to children for so many centuries keep their appeal. But the books in which they have come down to us are deeply marked with the influence of the prophets. It is through the key provided by prophetic teaching that they yield their meaning for religion.
We shall start therefore with the great prophets who wrote during the two centuries from 750 to 550 BC (roughly) .
First, let us review the course of events in these two centuries.
The curtain rises upon two small kingdoms of kindred blood and speech, occupying the territory now known as Palestine: the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with its capital at Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Israel (or of Ephraim) in the north, with its capital at Samaria. We might think of Holland and Belgium, or, more appropriately, of Latvia and Esthonia, because the two little Palestinian kingdoms, like those ill-fated republics, were ‘buffer-states’ between two great powers, Egypt and Assyria. The rivalry of these two powers provides the background for the whole drama of the history of the Israelite kingdoms.
In the middle of the eighth century BC. there was a period of comparative peace; and the northern kingdom, under its king, Jeroboam II, was enjoying the unwonted luxuries of military superiority over its immediate neighbours and of commercial prosperity. The country was becoming relatively wealthy and civilized. But the growth of wealth and refinement had the kind of effect it often has. It was already leading to divisions within the nation, which ultimately proved fatal to it. Meanwhile the storm-clouds of Assyrian aggression were gathering on the horizon. Before long they broke. When the government awoke to the situation, there were the usual efforts at ‘appeasement’, hasty feeling about for possible alliances, and then a belated and desperate resistance, which was finally broken. The country was overrun by the enemy, its capital city destroyed, a large part of its population deported, and the vacant territory appropriated by foreign settlers. That was the end of the Kingdom of Israel.
The tide of invasion swept southwards to the Kingdom of Judah. Under the conquering king Sennacherib it looked as if history would repeat itself, and Jerusalem and Judah would go the way of the northern kingdom. Sennacherib has left his own account of the campaign. ‘Hezekiah the Jew,’ he writes, ‘I shut up like a bird in a cage.’ From within the beleaguered city we have Isaiah’s war-commentary. (I Isaiah i. 7-9.)
Your country is desolate;
The city was summoned to surrender. King Hezekiah refused. There is a vivid description of the negotiations in the Second Book of Kings, and in the Book of Isaiah. (II Kings xviii. 13-37; Isaiah xxxvi. [It provides an early example of what we should call ‘psychological warfare’!]) Nothing, it seemed, could save the doomed city. Then the unexpected happened. The Assyrian commander withdrew his forces and retired. It is one of the unexplained decisive happenings in the history of warfare, like Von Kluck’s blunder at the Maine in 1914, and perhaps Hitler’s failure to invade Britain in 1940. Why the Assyrians retired, we cannot say. The Greek historian Herodotus was told that the Assyrian archers had their bowstrings gnawed by mice. The Book of Kings uses language which might suggest an epidemic. (II Kings xix. 35-36) (Were Herodotus’s ‘mice’ really rats carrying bubonic plague?) Since Sennacherib’s position was shortly afterwards shaken both by foreign attack and by internal revolt, in which he ultimately perished, it is possible that news of disturbances at home recalled him. (Cf. II Kings xix. 7, 37.) We do not know. At any rate Judah obtained a respite.
After a troubled interval the intelligent and forceful king Josiah succeeded in establishing his authority, and even extended it over part of the lost territories in the north. Adopting a policy of centralization, he carried through an ambitious programme of civil and religious reforms. But there was no possibility of real independence for the small nations, as Palestine became once more the cockpit of rival empires, and Josiah died leaving his kingdom a dependency of the Egyptian Crown.
The power of Assyria collapsed; but the collapse meant little more than a change of dynasty, for Babylon seized the sceptre, and under its king Nebuchadnezzar quickly restored the situation. Nebuchadnezzar may be said to have had a ‘bad press’ in the Old Testament, but he was an able and enlightened monarch -- statesman, soldier and builder. He set about recovering the territories Assyria had lost. Sooner or later Judah would lie in his path. The sons and grandsons of Josiah were a pitiable lot. They swithered between Egypt and Babylon, playing each side false in turn. Mis-governed and divided by faction, the kingdom was a ready prey to the Babylonian conqueror. The end came when the wretched king Zedekiah abandoned his beleaguered and famine-stricken capital, and fled with his army by night, only to be captured by the enemy. Jerusalem was sacked, its temple demolished, its fortifications dismantled, and a large part of the population deported, including the nobility and gentry and the skilled craftsmen. All that remained was an ignorant and impoverished peasantry, trying to bring back a ‘scorched’ earth into cultivation. That was the end of the Kingdom of Judah. (The miserable story is told briefly in II Kings xxiii. 31-- xxv. 22, but the internal situation is most vividly portrayed in the rich collection of contemporary poems, orations, and biographical anecdotes which we have in the Book of Jeremiah.)
The exiles in Babylon were not ill-treated. The Babylonians were a highly civilized mercantile people. Clever and industrious settlers like the Jews easily made a place for themselves in the life of their adopted country. There seemed no reason why they should not be comfortably assimilated into the general body of the Babylonian Empire, like many conquered peoples before them. But almost from the moment of the collapse a group of patriotic and far-sighted men began to work on plans for the reconstruction of the Jewish state. They had no obvious grounds for thinking that their plans would come to anything, but they believed they would, and persevered.
Half a century later Babylon fell, and Cyrus the Persian took over the reins of empire. He gave permission for Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem, if they wished to do so. A small handful did return, followed later by others. They re-founded the Jewish community among the ruins of Jerusalem, and by slow and painful degrees built up a civil and ecclesiastical polity through which the Jewish people maintained and developed its national traditions under the tolerant rule of the Persian Empire.
Such, in broad outlines, was the course of events during these fateful two centuries. It is well established by ample documentary evidence, from Hebrew and from foreign sources. Perhaps it does not appear very remarkable. Other small nations have declined and fallen, and have risen again. Why should we attach to this piece of history an uncommon importance? To answer that question we must go through the period again, looking at events from the inside, with the help of the contemporary writings of the prophets, which form a kind of continuous commentary upon history. The events in themselves are just things that happened, plain matter of fact, like the events announced in the B.B.C. news this morning. But the prophets represent history as something more than a mere succession of events; as something that has meaning; and that meaning is of the highest importance.
First, then, Amos, a sheep-farmer from the comparatively poor and backward south, came into the northern kingdom at the height of its short period of hectic prosperity in the reign of Jeroboam II. He observed the effects of growing wealth and luxury, and recognized behind the façade of economic prosperity the symptoms of social decline. Society was rotten with sensuality, injustice and the oppression of the poor, and this was, in his eyes, an affront to God. The national religion, it is true, enjoyed a richly endowed establishment under royal patronage. Its ceremonial had never been so elaborate or its services better attended. The ordinary Israelite, we may be sure, felt that he had the privilege of belonging to an uncommonly religious nation, which was properly rewarded for its piety by this unwonted prosperity. Amos had other standards of judgment, and the clarity and firmness with which he set the existing situation into the context of a loftier conception of religion gives him an outstanding place in the history of revelation.
To begin with, Amos held certain underlying convictions, or postulates, inherited from the past, and shared by most of his countrymen. He believed that between God and Israel there existed a specially close relation: they were His people, He their God. He also believed that the God of Israel was a ‘living God’, who acted powerfully in history; and he assumed that sooner or later the power and majesty of God would be finally revealed in a catastrophic historical event. On the ‘Day of the Lord’ the God of Israel would assert His authority over all nations.
So far, Amos kept step with the general beliefs of his time. Beyond that, he differed from them. God cared for Israel; true, but He cared more for righteousness. He was less concerned for the rights of His people than for the everlasting Right. If Israel defied the Right, God’s judgment would fall upon Israel.
In his opening oration (I Amos I. 3-ii, 16.) he made a ‘black list’ of various neighbouring peoples, and pilloried their crimes. The Syrians would be punished for a ruthless massacre; the Philistines for playing jackal to Edom; the Phœnicians for a breach of treaty; the Edomites for attacking a kindred and friendly people; the Ammonites for slaughtering women and children in a wanton war of aggression; the Moabites for a brutal outrage upon the corpse of the conquered King of Edom. Here we can almost hear the general applause (‘War-criminals, all of them; they deserve what is coming to them!’) . But then the speech takes an unexpected turn.
For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four,
In short, to be God’s people means bearing a special responsibility, rather than enjoying special privileges.
You only have I known of all the families of the earth;
No amount of ‘religious observance’ would make the slightest difference to the truth that in a world governed by a righteous, living God, national sin brings national disaster. Those who held it as an article of faith that on the ‘Day of the Lord’ Israel, being God’s people, would triumph over all their enemies, were living in a fool’s paradise. The goal of the divine purpose was not the victory of Israel, but the victory of Right.
Woe unto you that desire the Day of the Lord!
For the moment, all seemed well, but the prophet was sensitively aware of the threatening international situation. The storm-clouds of Assyrian aggression were still distant, but in due time they would break, and bring God’s judgement upon His rebellious people. There was only one thing that might even now avert the calamity:
Hate the evil and love the good, and establish judgement in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph. (Amos v. 15.)
Such was the burden of the prophecies of Amos in the middle of the eighth century BC History takes place within a moral order. In its process, rapid or slow, the connection between crime and calamity is not accidental. It is the judgement of the righteous and living God who is the Lord of history. In the light of subsequent developments we may conclude that Amos over-simplified the matter in some respects. But his declaration that history is a moral order under the rule of God is fundamental, and provided the starting-point for the whole prophetic movement -- and indeed for any understanding of history and experience which does not reduce them to illusion.
We now pass to the second of the great prophets, Hosea, whom we may date some twenty or thirty years after Amos. Unlike him, he was a native of the more civilized northern kingdom, in which they both worked. We should judge him to have been a townsman, and less completely out of sympathy with the civilization of his time and country than the sheep-farmer of the Judaean wilderness. But he was as unsparing in his exposure of the corruptions of contemporary society, and he corroborated all that his predecessor had said about the inevitable judgement of God upon a rebellious people. He could not, however, stop there. He had a profound conviction that there was something in the relation between God and Israel that could not be finally destroyed by any faithlessness on their part, or by any fate that might befall them, however tragic.
When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
God cannot let His people go. A community that has once stood in a vital relationship with God can never fall outside His care. Their sin will have its consequences. They lie under God’s judgement and may be banished from His presence. But the relationship still holds. Hence Hosea saw, beyond the approaching disaster, the hope of reconciliation with God and new life for Israel.
He has thus enriched the conception of God’s action in history as it was set forth by Amos. God is a God of mercy as well as of judgement. It cannot be said that Hosea entirely harmonized the two principles. But from now on the whole thought of the Old Testament moves between these two poles -- the living God active in judgement, the same God active in mercy.
Before Hosea’s work was ended, a still greater prophet came forward, this time in the southern kingdom. Isaiah of Jerusalem was a man of aristocratic birth and connections, the friend of kings. During most of his long life he stood near to political circles in the capital, and he was acutely aware of the public problems, social and international, in which his country was involved. It was with direct reference to these problems that his religious teaching was developed.
Isaiah took over from his predecessors the fundamental conception of the righteous and living God, sovereign over history, active both in judgement and in mercy. Early in his career he witnessed the fulfilment of their forebodings of judgement in the downfall of the northern kingdom, and before long he had to face the probability of a similar fate for his own country. In the course of divine justice Judah had deserved no better than Israel. Isaiah’s denunciations are as severe as those of Amos. But his conviction of the divine mercy is as sure as Hosea’s.
He worked out the apparently contrary principles of the divine action into a kind of rudimentary philosophy of history. The nation as a body, he holds, lies under God’s judgement, and must certainly perish, in default of some radical change. Yet God cannot abandon His people. However bad things may be, God will see to it that there are some, however few, among an apostate nation, who turn to Him with repentance and obedience, and out of them He will fashion His people anew. ‘A remnant will turn’: (Isaiah x. 16-23.) this was the watchword in which Isaiah embodied his confidence in the future of the people of God.
When the Assyrian invasion seemed about to overwhelm the whole kingdom, Isaiah steadied king and people with the assurance that it was God’s will to give them a respite during which they might turn to Him, and that for this purpose He would protect Jerusalem from imminent destruction. As we have seen, the Assyrian army suddenly, and inexplicably, evacuated its positions, and Jerusalem was saved. A generation which has spoken of the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ need not cavil at those who saw in the strange deliverance of Jerusalem a signal act of God’s mercy to His people. At any rate the event did have, in history, precisely the meaning that the prophet attributed to it. It provided a respite, a space for repentance, before the final stroke fell; and so far as we can see, it was because of that respite that the Jewish people, unlike their kinsfolk of the north, survived the utter destruction of their state, and lived to hand on a great religious inheritance to the wider world.
Not that the escape from peril brought about any immediate or general reformation. Isaiah hardly expected it. But he was able to gather a small group of disciples, to whom he committed his teaching, (Isaiah viii. 16-17) and in whom he saw the faithful ‘remnant’ of Israel -- the ‘seed’, as he put it, of a holy people to come. (Isaiah vi. 13.)
Their loyalty was soon tested, for with political reaction under King Manasseh came religious reaction, and the prophetic party went underground. It emerged under Josiah, and inspired the reformation which he promoted. This was a brave attempt to put into effect by legislation the moral and religious principles which had been taught by Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets of the previous century. The legislation is pretty well represented by the Book of Deuteronomy, or by the central portion of that book, which we may fairly describe as a prophetic revision of the ancient laws of Israel. It deserves careful study as an example of the application of religious principles to practical social needs, moulding a comparatively primitive order of society to the shape of justice and humanity.
Josiah’s reformation however was almost stillborn. He became involved in the conflicts which ensued upon the fall of the Assyrian empire, and perished before he reached the age of forty, leaving no worthy successor. In the dark days which followed, while the new Babylonian empire threatened the little nations ever more nearly, another of the great prophets came upon the scene. Jeremiah was the son of a country priest at a Judaean village. He is better known to us as an individual than any of his predecessors -- possibly better than any other character in the Old Testament; for his book contains many chapters of personal confessions and autobiography. They show him as a lonely, tragic figure in a doomed society. (See especially Jeremiah xv. 10-11, 15-21, xx. 7-18.)
He took up the prophetic tradition, and reaffirmed its central teachings in a situation which gave them urgent significance. For, estimating with clear insight the position of his country, he concluded that the final judgement which all the prophets had foreseen was now not only inevitable, but actually imminent. As time after time the Babylonian armies overran the country, as group after group of his countrymen disappeared into captivity, as the nation disintegrated into factions, and morale collapsed, he saw before his eyes the awful judgements of the living God.
When however his worst forebodings had come true, and his country lay in ruins, he had something further to say. God had acted in judgement; it remained for Him to act in mercy; for the people whom God had once loved He could not cease to love. They had violated all the terms upon which they had been recognized as His people; they had broken His ‘covenant’. They had no longer any standing before Him, as of right. What then?
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband to them, saith the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord:
I will put my law in their inward parts,
That is one of the epoch-making utterances in the history of religion. Jeremiah, we may recall, had in his youth been a witness of the reformation under Josiah, and had no doubt shared the enthusiasm with which it had been greeted by idealists of the time. It seemed that at last the aim for which good men had striven for a century and a half had been attained. The nation had returned to the Lord their God and sealed their repentance by the solemn acceptance of a high code of social morals such as the prophets had taught. But in the period of disillusion that followed he came to the conclusion (trite enough by now) that ‘you cannot make people good by Act of Parliament’. It was not enough to write good laws into the statute-book. They must be written on the hearts’ of men. In other words, the only adequate basis for right relations of men with God is an inward and personal understanding of His demands, an inward and personal response to them. It would not be true to say that Jeremiah first discovered the rôle of the individual in religion; for it is implicit in all prophetic teaching. But his clear emphasis upon it at the moment when the whole apparatus of public, ‘institutional’ religion had been swept away, was of the first importance for all subsequent development.
The scene now shifts from Judaea to Babylonia, where the deported Jews were living in exile. Among them was the prophet Ezekiel. Like Jeremiah, he was an hereditary priest, but from a milieu very different from the ‘country parsonage’ in which Jeremiah had grown up. He belonged (if one may continue with an inexact modern parallel) to the ‘cathedral clergy’ of the capital, and had the outlook and interests of a high ecclesiastic. He has been called, not inaptly, the ‘prophet of reconstruction’. Much of his book is taken up with detailed schemes for the reorganization of the community, including plans for the rebuilding of the Temple, complete with measurements and specifications. But behind these somewhat tedious ‘blue-prints’ we discern a profound conviction that Israel had a future in spite of everything. There was nothing in the situation to support such a belief. We might have dismissed Ezekiel’s projects of reconstruction as no better than ‘wishful thinking’ if the reconstruction had not in course of time actually come about (though not precisely as he had imagined it) . His grounds for believing in it were not derived from a calculation of the probabilities of the situation, but from the prophetic faith in God’s indestructible loyalty to His people, in face of their disloyalty to Him. In spite of appearances, God would certainly have mercy upon Israel, and it was for them to be ready for Him.
Ezekiel had taken to heart Jeremiah’s teaching about the essential rôle of the individual in the ‘new covenant’. Indeed, in his anxiety to press home to each man’s conscience his individual responsibility before God, he sometimes overstates his case, without sufficiently allowing for the undoubted influence of heredity and environment upon individual character and destiny. (Exekiel xviii.) But if we take Ezekiel’s teaching as a whole we shall not suspect him of the kind of pure individualism in religion which has become familiar in the modern world. We may put it that he conceives social renewal in terms of individual conversion. The real cause of such renewal lies in the mercy of God, which calls for man’s individual response.
In a famous chapter (Ezekiel xxxvii, 1-14.) he has given us an imaginative picture of the resurrection of a nation. He imagines himself standing on an old battlefield, littered with the whitening bones of the slain. At the word of God the scattered bones come together and clothe themselves with flesh and skin, and at the blast of a great wind (which is the breath, or spirit, of God) the dead bodies come alive, ‘an exceeding great army’. ‘These bones’, he adds in explanation, ‘are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost". . . . Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O my people. . . and I will put my spirit in you, and ye shall live.’
The restoration of Israel, in fact, will have the character of a resurrection from the dead. The implication is that no human situation is too desperate to be retrieved by the grace of God, who works in history in His own incalculable ways and at His own time. In that faith the Jewish exiles faced the dark future.
Nearly half a century passed by after the destruction of Jerusalem. A new generation arose. Then the liberal policy of Cyrus, King of Persia, opened the way for a return to Palestine. Many of the exiles had settled down very comfortably and had no appetite for the difficulties of life in a ruined city and an impoverished and unfamiliar countryside. A comparatively small group saw in the king’s edict the sign for which they had waited. It was the Lord’s doing: the time had come for the restoration of Israel. They were encouraged and inspired by one of the greatest of all the prophets, whose name, however, we do not know. His writings have come down to us bound together with the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem, two centuries earlier, and some other material, under the general title, ‘The Book of Isaiah’. Chapters xl-lv of that book contain the prophecies of the great Anonymous of the Exile, which are often referred to, conveniently though inaccurately, as those of the ‘Second Isaiah’.
The writer who goes under this name has left us some of the most magnificent poetry in the Bible -- poetry which is largely free from the archaic obscurity of some of the earlier prophets, and can be enjoyed for the power and range of its imagery and its richly embroidered language, as well as for the sublimity of its thought, which touches, probably, the highest level reached anywhere in the Old Testament. His themes are the ultimate themes of all religious thought -- the kingdom and the power and the glory of God, the wonder and mystery of His ways with men. In the name of this God he proclaims the restoration of Israel, and summons the exiles to return and enter upon their inheritance, with all its benefits and responsibilities.
How beautiful upon the mountains are
Break forth into joy,
Such was the mood in which the repatriated exiles faced the problems of reconstruction. The community which they organized was on a very small scale. It was politically insignificant; its territory was no larger than an English county; it had no military power at all, and only the scantiest economic resources. But it became the centre of a widely-dispersed religious commonwealth which was, as we have seen, a unique form of social structure, and has had an incalculable influence in history. It is not too much to say that if this handful of devoted and practical men had not faced and carried through their almost hopeless task the world would never have seen three of the most potent factors in all subsequent history (potent whether for good or ill) : international Judaism, the Christian Church, and Islam. In the Jews’ Return from Exile, then, we have an event which, though its scale was so minute as to be almost invisible on a chart of world-history, was, on any showing, a decisive turning-point, of which the historian must take serious account.
There is a problem here. Why did the Jewish nation survive at all, when so many of the smaller nations of antiquity sooner or later lost their identity in the melting-pot of the great empires of the Middle East? Few nations were to all appearance more effectively put down: exhausted by successive defeats in war, reduced to a mere remnant, deported to distant countries, subjected to the long-continued domination of alien and highly civilized Great Powers. And yet they survived, reconstructed their community, and handed down a continuous and developing tradition which exerted a creative influence upon the whole of subsequent history. Why was it? The only answer that explains the facts is that the prophets of the two great centuries worked out a particular interpretation of the course of history, and induced their people to accept it, at least in sufficient numbers to give a new direction to their history for the future.
That is, however, not how the prophets themselves would have put it. They were not philosophers, constructing a speculative theory from their observation of events. What they said was ‘Thus saith the Lord’. They firmly believed that God spoke to them (spoke to the inward ear, the spiritual sense) . He spoke to them out of the events which they experienced. The interpretation of history which they offered was not invented by process of thought; it was the meaning which they experienced in the events, when their minds were opened to God as well as open to the impact of outward facts. Thus the prophetic interpretation of history, and the impetus and direction which that interpretation gave to subsequent history, were alike the Word of God to men.
Nowhere are the springs of prophecy more clearly and impressively disclosed than in the account which Isaiah gives of the experience which made him a prophet, in the sixth chapter of his book. It takes the form of a ‘vision’. The oriental imagery in which it is clothed is no doubt strange to a modern western mind. It must be read with the imagination awake (as the Bible, and all great religious literature, always should be read) . Imagine, then, the young courtier, deeply concerned with the social and political problems of his country, which is faced by a ‘demise of the crown’ at a time of crisis in international affairs; concerned with these problems, but at a level deeper than that of ordinary political discussion. He has been attending at worship in the Temple, and remains there in meditation, his eyes upon the still smoking altar, and the bizarre carved figures of supernatural beings which we know to have adorned the building. And now listen to him: (Isaiah vi. 1-8.)
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the Temple. About him stood the seraphim. . . and one cried to another and said,
Surely that authenticates itself as a basic personal experience. And observe that there is in it already everything which is essential to the prophetic interpretation of history. There is the sense of the majesty and holiness of the eternal God, as the fundamental fact of all. There is man in the presence of God, both judged and pardoned. There is the call of God, and man’s response. Isaiah and his compeers all said, ‘That is the meaning of history: it is God confronting man in judgement and mercy, and challenging him with a call, to which he must respond’. It was because they saw the meaning of history in that sense, and induced a sufficient number of people to accept it, that history took the shape it did. As we have seen, there is a continuous chain of events, and of the understanding of events, from the emergence of Isaiah as a prophet to the reconstitution of the Jewish community in the sixth century, which had such momentous results for the history of succeeding centuries.
I have dealt with the prophetic period in some detail, because it supplies the clue to the understanding of the Old Testament as a whole. As we have seen, the books of the Old Testament, in their complete form, were composed in the prophetic period or later, and bear the stamp of the prophets upon them. The historical books, for example (Judges, Samuel and Kings, which the Jews call, not inaptly, ‘the former prophets’) , were ‘written up’, from earlier records, by followers of the prophets; and their influence was felt in the compilation of the books from Genesis to Joshua. They undertook the writing of the history of Israel in order to show the meaning that was in it, according to the teaching of the prophets. We shall now consider more briefly some of the earlier parts of the history, using the clue provided by the prophetic literature.
To begin with, the prophets always show themselves aware that what they are saying is not altogether new. There have been revelations of God in history before their time. In particular, they frequently call to mind how God ‘brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt’. The Exodus from Egypt is for them a decisive act of the living God in past history, and makes a kind of fixed point of reference for all discussions of His ways with His people.
Of the events of the Exodus we have no written account which is anything like contemporary. The story has come down to us richly overlaid with legend. Legend, however, properly treated, is one of the most important sources of historical knowledge. The poems of Homer, containing the immortal legends of the Trojan War, were in my schooldays put down as pure fiction. Nowadays, though no one doubts that the dramatic detail of the Flight of Helen, the Wrath of Achilles, and the rest, is imaginary, the poems are treated as valuable sources of evidence for the history of Greece and neighbouring lands shortly before 1000 BC Even our own Arthurian legends, I observe, are now treated seriously by quite serious historians, when they are seeking for light upon the dark age of Britain.
The fact is that legend is the form which the memory of events assumes in what are called ‘heroic ages’. These are formative periods when some new civilization or social order is shaping itself, usually out of the confused turmoil brought about by great folk-migrations. In such periods history is highly dynamic. There is neither stability nor ordered progress: all is fluid. The exigencies of the time throw up outstanding leaders, whose exploits loom larger than human in the imagination of their followers and successors. The settled conditions necessary for the writing of sober history are altogether absent; yet the facts imprint themselves deeply upon folk-memory, and are handed down in the characteristic form of heroic legends. The period from the Exodus to the Judges has much of the character of an heroic age of Israel; and Moses is its supreme hero.
The principal external facts can be told shortly. Apparently certain Hebrew-speaking clans, inhabiting the borderlands of Egypt as serfs of the Egyptian crown, were driven by increasing oppression to throw off their servile bonds and take to a nomadic life. They found courage for this decisive step through the inspiration of a great leader, who led them into the wilderness. There he induced them to accept the rudiments of a legal code and a religious system, through which they were disciplined and brought into conscious political unity, with the potentiality of developing in course of time into a nation. Invigorated by these experiences, they broke into Palestine and carved out territories for themselves at the expense of the settled and civilized population.
The story has its centre in the heroic leader Moses. With the later prophets in our minds, we can recognize in him a man of prophetic mould, though of a more primitive type. Like Isaiah and the others, he was called by God. While keeping sheep, we are told, he heard a voice addressing him out of the heart of a flame: ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ ‘And Moses’ (the story continues) ‘hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.’ The voice proceeds: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows. . . . Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayst bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’ (Exodus iii. 1-10) After some resistance, Moses accepts the commission; and the whole plot is set in motion. Read the story in all its detail in the third chapter of Exodus.
We can recognize, under the legendary form, the same kind of personal experience as that described in the classical passage in Isaiah. There is the overpowering sense of the mystery and majesty of God, the human shrinking from the encounter, and the final yielding to the divine imperative which sets the task. As with the prophets, the call is an intensely personal experience, but has an immediate reference to the needs and the destiny of a people. It is by the Word of God, thus delivered intimately to His servant, that the people are nerved for their great adventure. It is by His providence that they cross the Red Sea in safety and escape from the Egyptian host (as it was by His providence that Jerusalem was later to be saved from the Assyrians) . The laws which Moses induces them to accept are the terms of His covenant, by which they become the people of their God. The entire story is told as a story of God’s action in history. It was because these events were so understood, that the little kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which grew out of the invasion of Palestine, made a fertile ground for the later prophetic teaching about God’s revelation in history.
The stories of the Exodus and the conquest of Palestine presuppose a remoter background of events. ‘The Lord which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt’ is also ‘the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.’ (Exodus iii. 15.) Most nations possess legends of their remote ancestors. The ancestry to which the Israelites of the prophetic period laid claim was not distinguished, and therefore the more credible. ‘A wandering Syrian was my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number.’ (Deuteronomy xxvi. 5.) So runs the liturgy for Harvest Festival in Deuteronomy. In other words, the founders of the Hebrew race to which Israel belonged were nomads of Syrian extraction, who migrated southward to Egypt. The names given to these primeval wanderers are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their traditional stories, handed down from mouth to mouth through many generations, are in the Book of Genesis. They have much of the universal quality of folk-tales. Often, in reading them, we seem to be moving in a timeless world outside history, the world of ‘once upon a time’.
Yet there is history behind them. Their picture of nomadic existence in the debatable lands between the great civilizations of the Nile and the Euphrates is life-like and convincing. These ‘wandering Syrians’ were not primitive nomads. They had, it appears, broken away at an early date from the settled civilization of Mesopotamia. The sophisticated brilliance of that ancient civilization astonished those who a few years ago visited the London exhibition of works of art discovered by excavation at Ur of the Chaldees, Abraham’s own city. The moment when the founders of the Hebrew race separated themselves from it, and began their migrations was, in view of all that followed from it, a turning-point in history, though at the time there was nothing in it to attract attention.
We should like to know what combination of circumstances -- political, economic, or military -- led them to the decision; but there is no record. The biblical story confines itself to the simple statement that Abraham heard the call of God. ‘The Lord said unto Abraham, "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee"’; (Genesis xii. I. The clan is already away from Ur, but still in the Euphrates basin, when the call comes.) upon which a writer of the New Testament fitly comments, ‘By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed, . . . and he went out, not knowing whither he went’. (Hebrews xi. 8.) The response to a compelling inward call shows itself characteristically in this spirit of detachment, this readiness to cut loose and venture upon the unknown. We have learned from the prophets how the Word of God makes history when it comes to a man as the meaning of the facts of his experience, and through his response gives a new direction to events. Here at the beginning of the Bible story we recognize the prophetic pattern at its simplest.
I have selected these three episodes from the story of the Old Testament -- the call of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the long-drawn struggle which ended in the Babylonian captivity and the restoration --because they mark critical points in the movement of history in which we are invited to recognize the revelation of God in action, and they indicate the pattern to which the history as a whole conforms.
This brings us down to the end of the sixth century B.C. The five centuries which followed were a period of great literary activity, during which the bulk of the books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha took shape (though often on the basis of earlier materials) . Of the events of the period the literature has little to say, in comparison with the copious records of the preceding five centuries.
This is at first sight surprising. Events of great consequence for the world took place in these centuries: the fall of the Persian empire; the conquests of Alexander the Great and their dissolution after his death; the long struggles between the Greek dynasties of Syria and of Egypt; and the advance of Rome as residuary legatee of them all. The tiny dependent state of Judaea was inevitably drawn into these events, but their impact upon the Jewish mind was not such as to raise great spiritual issues, or to provoke new understanding of the ways of God with men.
There is one notable exception which, as they say, ‘proves the rule’. In the second century BC the Greek monarch of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, set out to bring his miscellaneous empire into a greater measure of cultural uniformity (the now familiar policy of Gleichschaltung) ; and in furtherance of this policy he attempted to enforce upon his Jewish subjects conformity with the religious observances of the state. The Jews, who had shown no great reluctance to speak Greek or to follow many of the manners and customs of their fellow-subjects, drew the line when loyalty to their religion was involved. Persecution followed, and this provoked a rebellion, which was partly religious and partly nationalist, under the leadership of a family of whom the heroic Judas Maccabaeus was the chief. Under him and his successors the Jews gained political independence for a time. This episode is recorded in full in the apocryphal books of Maccabees, and it has left deep traces upon other literature of the period, some of which we shall notice presently.’ At this one point history was felt to disclose once again something of the compelling spiritual significance which it had possessed for the prophets, though at a lower level of intensity.
The significance of the post-exilic period, however, resides less in external events than in the process by which the life of the Jewish community was built up internally. It was the period when the teachings of the prophets, accepted in their time by a mere handful, seeped into the blood and bones of the people. A real and sustained effort was made to reconstruct the whole social order upon the basis of the Law of God, not only by giving it statutory force, but by ‘writing it on the heart’, so far as this could be done by positive instruction and through the ordinances of public worship.
The ancient laws of Israel, some of them going back to very remote antiquity indeed, were collected, codified and annotated. We have the results in the so-called Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy) , which received their present shape about the fourth century B.C. Similarly, the works of the prophets were collected, arranged, and edited for the use of later generations. The historical records of earlier times received a good deal of reshaping, again with a view to enforcing the teaching of the prophets rather than for purely historical purposes. (Aristotle would have approved: he held that history is ‘the teaching of philosophy by examples’.) At the same time they worked out a most elaborate liturgy for the Temple -- a liturgy designed to preserve the immemorial traditions of Israelite worship, while eliminating those pagan elements which had clung to it down to the Exile, and adapting it to the expression of the loftiest ideas of the prophetic religion. The Book of Psalms seems to have been the hymn-book of the Temple liturgy -- a book, quite literally, of ‘hymns ancient and modern’, since it contains poems of the period of the monarchy (possibly, as some believe, as old as David) , and others composed as late as the third century or even (as some suppose) the second century B.C.
Within the framework of law and liturgy there went on a process of what we should call ‘religious education’. It is principally represented in the literature of the period by the so-called ‘Wisdom’ books. Among these are the Book of Proverbs and the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus, full of wise saws and simple pieties. These are addressed to a more or less ‘popular’ audience. On a far higher level, intellectually and spiritually, is that very noble philosophical poem called the Wisdom of Solomon, and that still nobler monument of ancient Hebrew thought, the Book of Job, a dramatic dialogue in splendid and sonorous verse upon the theme of suffering and its place in a providential order.
While however the life of the community was thus being reconstructed under the inspiration of the prophetic faith, we trace a growing sense of something incomplete or inconclusive about the interpretation of history upon which it all rested. The prophets had declared that history takes place within a moral order determined by the will of God. Corporate sin and corporate calamity are organically connected, and faith fulness to the law of God will in the long run bring a blessing.
No biblical writer seriously intends to deny that fundamental position. But to verify it in detail through the facts of actual experience was not too easy. When the attempt was made to apply it to individual destiny (which was scarcely in the minds of the earlier prophets) , in the sense that the wicked are punished by misfortune and the good rewarded by prosperity, it appeared palpably untrue, not only to the sceptical author of Ecclesiastes, but also to the far profounder poet of the Book of Job. But even in the corporate application which was originally intended, the principle became increasingly difficult to maintain, as century after century passed, and the Jewish people found themselves in a worsening situation of poverty and oppression, in spite of their endeavours to keep the law of God.
Jewish thought gradually moved to a position in which the prophetic doctrine was reaffirmed, upon a clearly expressed condition. History is indeed a moral order, in which judgements of the living God take effect; but this view cannot be fully verified upon the plane of history as we know it, since there is an irreducible element of tragedy in human affairs. It can be maintained upon the assumption that the pattern of history, always incomplete within our present experience, will finally be completed. Somehow, somewhere, at some time, history will reach a climax, in which the purpose of God in all history will be conclusively exhibited, and His last word spoken. This doctrine (which is often referred to as ‘eschatology’, meaning a doctrine about the End) is principally embodied in a new type of literature which was developed in our period, commonly called the ‘apocalypse’ (or ‘revelation’) .
The most typical example of apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament is to be found in the Book of Daniel. It seems clear that this work was produced during the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes, to which I have already referred. The acute sufferings of that time brought to a head the misgivings about God’s providence in history which had been aroused by long-continued misfortunes and disappointments; for these sufferings not only fell upon a people which had made sincere and persistent efforts to observe the law of God in its corporate life, but they fell most heavily upon the best members of the community. How could it be said that history was the instrument of God’s judgement?
In answer to this difficulty the author of the Book of Daniel puts forward a philosophy of history which may be shortly stated thus. In this present age (history as we know it) God has, for reasons best known to Himself allowed relative freedom of action to the powers of this world, which often act in opposition to His will, and cause suffering to those who keep His law. But even so, ‘the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men’; (Daniel iv. 17, 25) the sufferings of the righteous serve not only to test the loyalty of His servants and to call out their courage, but in some inscrutable way as preparation for the final dénouement of history. When the time is ripe, God will act with absolute power, and set up a kingdom of righteousness which will endure for ever.
After the manner usual in apocalypses, this doctrine is presented in the form of symbolic pictures, or ‘visions’. In particular, there are two visions which run parallel and are complementary to one another. In the first, (Daniel ii. 31-45) there is a monstrous idol, which stands for all the evil empires of heathendom. It is made out of varied materials, for the tyrannies that oppress the human spirit differ among themselves, but all make up one power of evil. (We could add a few to the list of those known in the second century B.C.) Thereupon a stone ‘Cut out of the mountain without hands’ strikes the image, and it falls apart:
Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver and the gold, broken in pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing-floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them; and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.
No human hands (he means) prepare the weapon by which the power of evil in the world will ultimately be overthrown: it is the act of God alone, whose kingdom will then be effective over all creation.
In the second vision, (Daniel vii.) there is a procession of weird beasts -- a winged lion, a bear, a winged leopard, and a ghastly thing of indescribable shape and appalling ferocity. These beasts stand, once again, for the evil world-powers, embodied in history as successive empires. The monsters rage and ramp; but over against them sits enthroned the ‘Ancient of Days’ (the eternal God) ; and ‘the judgement was set and the books were opened’. The beasts receive their doom, and pass from the scene: the powers of evil are overthrown, not by any human virtue or strength, but by the presence and power of the living God.
But now a new character appears on the scene:
Behold there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man [i.e. a manlike figure, in contrast to the beasts]; and he came even to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before Him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
The ‘son of man’, it is explained, stands for ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’. That is to say, God’s final sovereignty is to be realized in and through a community wholly conformed to His will, the true people of God at last.
The book ends with the haunting words: ‘Blessed is he that waiteth.... But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and shalt stand in thy lot at the end of the days.’ (Daniel xii. 12-13) Upon this note the Old Testament may be said to end; the confused pattern of world-history will be completed by the Word of God; wait upon Him and be prepared.
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