The Old Testament
'In the beginning...' - the OT begins with
the very beginning: creation
|Think of a library: books on history, romance, adventure, biography, poetry, and law. Now you have an idea of the Old Testament (OT), a collection of many books making up the Hebrew Scriptures, sacred to Judaism. This is the Bible that Jesus knew.
Nowadays, genealogy and family history are big business, as we explore our roots Alex Haley-style. The Hebrew Bible is like a family library of the Jewish people, plus a prequel (Genesis) which explores the beginnings of the cosmos, humanity, sin and suffering, marriage, languages and nations. Genesis also relates their ancestry through the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nomads in the ancient Near East. This family history was then used by early Christians as the first part of their own Bible (most of the first Christians were Jewish, like Jesus), an introduction to the New Testament (about Jesus and the early Church).
The OT includes well-known stories such as creation, Adam and Eve (and the serpent), Noah’s Ark, and David and Goliath. Less well-known are the philosophical and religious reflections on suffering or the meaning of life (Job, Ecclesiastes); wise sayings about conduct (Proverbs); a steamy love letter (Song of Songs); songs of praise (Psalms) and cries of sorrow (Lamentations), together called the Writings.
Some parts seem strange and outdated to us (Leviticus), while others are extremely contemporary (Ruth). Above all, it is about a people’s experience of God—of liberation and law, failure and forgiveness—and the gradual opening-up of their understanding through the prophets, who spoke God’s word into specific situations throughout history (Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel).
The library is arranged into 3 sections—entered via the Book of the Law (the first 5 books, also called the Pentateuch; the core of Hebrew scripture). Here, God calls and forms his people, gives them laws to live by, (including the 10 Commandments), a place to live in, and a special relationship with him—a covenant.
Wandering into the next section we find the Prophets, a series of writings describing what happened to the relationship between God and the Hebrews. It was rather like Rachel and Ross in the TV show Friends: an emotional see-saw of breakdown and reconciliation, of bad behaviour and forgiveness, of separation and return. A kingdom appears; turns into an empire; rebellion splits it into two; the northern kingdom is conquered and vanishes; the southern kingdom persists until it, too, is conquered and its people carried into exile; some return, but their land remains under foreign rule, and the OT ends with the growing hope of a saviour (messiah) from God who would free his people, and their land, from oppression.
We aren’t yet finished with the library, because scattered throughout the second section are the bits and pieces that make up the Writings (see above).
The OT is one of the world’s great books, a work of literature developed over hundreds of years. It has provided inspiration to the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as being a rich source of poetry, story and wisdom for all peoples. It’s more than worth a look.
Pray: Lord God, the Old Testament seems like a long time ago, involving people very different from me. Yet I’ve heard it said that it can still help us today. Please help me to go exploring, to understand it, and to find you and your Son revealed in it. Amen.
Look up the OT in Wikipedia: Wikipedia and HistoryWorld
See quick-study notes of the OT, book by book
Compare the Old and New Testaments
Read the book A Test of Time: The Bible From Myth to History by David M. Rohl (archaeological proof of Old Testament history)
Read the book The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey
Read accessible summaries of all the OT books in the book Unlocking the Bible Omnibus by David Pawson
Read the book Matthew and Mission: The Gospel Through Jewish Eyes by Martin Goldsmith
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