O is for Old Testament

A few posts ago the term Hebrew Bible was explored with a view to appreciating why the label is more than just an alternative to the Christian term of ‘Old Testament’. In this post the idea that the existence of the Old Testament can be understood as a re-reading of the Hebrew Bible is considered. In order to appreciate this idea two other points need to be introduced:

  1. The relationship between a community and its authoritative texts will be outlined.
  2. The idea of re-reading will be considered and shown to have been part of the Hebrew Bible before there ever was an Old Testament.

The Hebrew Bible was not handed down from heaven although the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, were written by God, according to Deuteronomy 5:22.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible is the result of selecting texts and by corollary not choosing others.

In recent times, scholars have given a lot of attention to how a religious community arrives at an authoritative set of texts that they know as Scripture. With the Hebrew Bible there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the texts of the Hebrew Bible grew gradually over time. This is not just about adding books one-by-one, but even some of the books went through a process of addition and editing. Critical scholarship has attempted to discern the earlier literary units of biblical texts (source criticism) and the work of those who combined sources and edited them (redaction criticism). Much of these efforts are today viewed with some scepticism. This is not to suggest that such things did not happen, but rather the hope of unpicking such a complex literary history with any certainty is unrealistic. Even if earlier texts could be recovered and later additions identified, it is far from clear what a Jewish or Christian believer would do with such information. Whilst, such scholarship is of interest for historical, religious and cultural reasons, those who believe these texts have abiding religious significance look to the texts in their final form. In the last two decades, scholarship has also tended to focus on the received text too.

Despite this focus on the final form of such texts, it is still necessary to see how the text could have been read differently over time. This change in understanding and significance of a text can be termed re-reading. Psalm 2 provides an interesting example. It can be quite instructive to imagine an enthronement ceremony in which the various sections of this psalm were read by different people as part of a ritual act. That such a use was the origin of this psalm is especially clear in sentences like these:

“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”  
(verse 6)

And

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
(verse 7)

When we consider that this psalm was collected and preserved as part of a collection of praises, i.e. songs used in wider contexts of worship, it can be appreciated that its original reading cannot have been fossilised. A sobering way to reflect on this is to imagine what singing this as a song would have meant in a time after the Fall of Jerusalem when there was no king at all, let alone one with the full power and majesty of God behind him. In this way the collection and later use of Psalms, and other texts too, means that they are read in a new context. It can be argued that it is likely that texts that can be re-read are more likely to be preserved as their current value is more evident.

This idea means that the jump from Hebrew Bible to Old Testament is nothing like the giant leap that might otherwise be imagined. Psalm 2 is again a case in point as four stages in re-reading can be discerned, from the perspective of Christian faith:

  • Living liturgy for the coronation of a new king.
  • Historical liturgy remembering God’s promises of old.
  • Prophetic word regarding a messiah (anointed one) who will come from the line of David to restore the nation.
  • Christological statement fulfilled in part by Christ’s incarnation and to be completed at his second coming.

In this way a Christian reading of Psalm 2 is a continuation of a trajectory begun during its selection, editing and inclusion in the Psalter. This can be a useful perspective in understanding the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.

N is for Novellas

The term novella is clearly a modern genre of literature, and yet this term is used by some scholars to refer to the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther. The Joseph narrative (Genesis 37‒50), the narrative elements of the Book of Job (Job 1‒2 and 42:7‒17) and Daniel 1‒6 are also seen as being part of the same genre. Other writings which belong to the Apocrypha, such as Judith, Tobit and Susanna are also similar, see [1]. Lawrence Mills [1] helpfully points out that these stories are united to some extent by ‘the theme of innocents abroad’. In this sense whether the term novella is appropriate or not, there is evidence in terms of content to suggest that they belong to the same category.

There is, however, more that unites these stories than just the lone ‘Jewish’ protagonist facing the problem of how to cope with diverse challenges posed by Gentiles. There is often a sense of parody to these stories. This is sometimes seen in the use of these stories, for example, the book of Esther is used during the Jewish feast of Purim in a manner that is closer to a pantomime performance than a period drama. More often than not, religious readings of these books tend to suppress what is very likely deliberate humour and exaggeration. In this post we don’t have time to explore this fully. Instead we will briefly consider the book of Jonah as an example. Various oddities in the story will be highlighted and in conclusion the significance of these strange narrative elements will be outlined.

If possible pause here and read the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah and jot down all the things that stand out as odd.

Here is a list of some of the strange things mentioned in Jonah:

  • Jonah’s response at the start of the story seems nothing less than theatrical (Jonah 1:3).
  • All the Gentiles seem very godly compared to Jonah. This includes the god-fearing sailors (Jonah 1:14) and the entire 120,000 population of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
  • There is no getting away from the fact that someone being swallowed by a fish and surviving for three days and three nights is highly implausible (Jonah 1:17).
  • The story indirectly implies that the fish coughs Jonah up near Nineveh, but this city is several hundred miles from the sea (Jonah 2:10‒3:2).
  • Nineveh is said to be so large that it takes three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3).
  • Even the livestock wear sackcloth in the story (Jonah 3:5).
  • The plant that shades Jonah grows with fairy-tale speed (Jonah 4:6) only to be matched by its rapid demise because of a very hungry caterpillar (Jonah 4:7).

There is every reason to think that this story is a literary fiction, based on these exaggerations and oddities. Rather than its fictional nature being a problem there is a clear intent at instruction and a challenge for self-reflection. For example, there seems to be a deliberate contrast between God-fearing Gentiles and a prophet who knows his Scriptures—Jonah’s prayer is a complex restatement of many verses from The Psalms—but he has no care for the Gentiles. There is also a theological tension between the mercy dealt out by God and the punishment desired by the Prophet. A final puzzle is that the audience of the book of Jonah would have known that Nineveh was destroyed utterly by the Babylonians centuries earlier.

The fact that this book might be a fiction or a satire of a real prophet (see 2 Kings 14:25) does not prevent it having religious value. On the contrary, it means that it functions much like a parable. The reader is challenged to think about the character of God and about their own character. Interestingly the broad teaching of the book of Jonah is broadly the same whether we see at a parable or as a serious historical account.

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314-330, in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7

 

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

I is for Israel

Introducing Israel

The use of the word Israel is complicated in the Hebrew Bible because its meaning varies throughout the unfolding story that this collection of texts narrates. This post will briefly consider four key meanings of the term Israel. The next post returns to some specific issues mentioned in this post in a little more detail.

Jacob become Israel

The word Israel is first encountered in the biblical narrative when Jacob is renamed Israel in Genesis 32:28. In this story it is Yahweh, in the form of a sparring partner who does the renaming—the name Israel is thought to mean ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob is the father of many sons, who the book of Genesis explains are the founders of the tribes of Israel. We meet Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the next post. For now we note that it seems apposite that Jacob as Israel is the father of the tribes of the people of Israel.

The Tribes of Israel

During the first three of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges and Samuel) the tribes of Israel emerge from a forty-year wandering in the desert to conqueror the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua heads up this conquest—an event which raises difficult questions because of the genocidal activities described. The book of Judges deals with ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ of the events which surround the tribes of Israel. In this context, Israel refers to the collection of tribes. It means something closer to a people than a geographical nation. These people are also fragmented. This is clear in the stories which unfold in the book of Judges: the various episodes tend to be local, concerning a single tribe and are not in chronological. Some editorial is at work, as an effort has been made to be selective, so as to ensure that each tribe gets a mention. The events of the Book of Samuel move the story into a new phase as the people press God to have a king like the other nations (see I Samuel 8:5). It is here we see the move from Israel meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a nation’. This meaning takes a new turn further on in the story after God permits them to have a king.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel

Under the kingship of Saul, David and Solomon we see a period known as the united monarchy. This state of affairs was unfortunately short lived, lasting only 75 years. The death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) provided enough of a power vacuum for the relatively newly formed nation of Israel to become two nations. This is where matters become confusing in that the Northern Kingdom becomes known as Israel whilst the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah. It is in this time that the term Israel took on the very specific meaning of a nation, but no longer the nation of all of God’s people.

The people of Israel

This new state of affairs was also only temporary although it lasted rather longer than 75 years. Both of the new nations were to suffer military defeat and exile as we saw some posts ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel came to an end in 722 BCE when Samaria, its capital city, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, suffered a similar fate in 586 BCE. After the restoration of the nation (as people returned from exile), the Hebrew Bible uses the term Israel in a new way. The words Israel and Judah are now both used. The word Israel tends to refer to the people of Judah and the word Judah refers to what is a province within wider empires.

H is for Hebrew Bible

The term Hebrew Bible denotes a collection of texts. These are the same texts that comprise the Old Testament recognised by Protestants as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible is however meaningfully distinct from the Old Testament in two ways. Firstly, the title Hebrew Bible is necessary because the designation Old Testament is unhelpfully loaded for Jews. How can a Jew be expected to use the term Old Testament which necessarily implies that there is more scripture and, even more problematically, intimates that the ‘Old’ has been superseded in some sense. The delineation of Hebrew Bible from Old Testament is however important for a second reason—an comparison will reveal the same texts but arranged in a different order. I hope to have time in a later post to explore how the ordering of such texts makes a real difference. In this post there is only space to explore the structure of the Hebrew Bible.

The differences between The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are summarised in the Table below. The Hebrew Bible organises the various books into three categories. The first is torah, sometimes termed the books of Moses or Pentateuch (the five). These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number and Deuteronomy. In the Old Testament these five are also found at the outset grouped and categorised in the same order fashion and are often termed the Law. A later post will explore that equating the Hebrew word torah with law is unhelpful at a number of levels.

HB table

After the torah comes the second division known as the nevi’im or prophets. These prophets are further subdivided into Former and Latter prophets. The first four of these become the first six of the Christian historical books—both Samuel and Kings being split in half so as to create 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings. The Latter Prophets are what Christians designate the prophetic books, although in the Old Testament Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve are joined by some other books which the Hebrew Bible categorise as Writings or khetuvim. This third division can seem rather hotchpotch to those used to the fourfold Protestant classification. It is however helpful to see these books in a different light to the other two divisions. The torah and nevi’im tell a continuous narrative, whereas the khetuvim are analogous to the commentaries and extras on a DVD. This has important consequences for interpretation. It leads to genres such as Rewritten History (e.g. Chronicles) [1] and Novellas (e.g. Jonah) [2]. Two later posts will explore how recognition of such genres can have important implications for interpreting and understanding these books.

In the Christian Bible the Writings are placed in very different places. Some of them join the historical books, and five become a new group sometimes termed the Wisdom books or literature. The remaining two, Lamentations and Daniel, join the prophetic books.

Whilst the above is a concise but complete account of the differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Protestant Old Testament, there are further complications when a comparison is made with the Orthodox and Catholic Bibles. Both have additional books as well as a small number of additions to the books mentioned above. In short these additions originate with Greek texts that the Jews of the Diaspora added to their religious corpus. These additions were important to the first Greek Speaking Christians as they used a collection of texts known as the Septuagint (sometimes designated LXX for seventy). The Orthodox and Catholic churches do not entirely agree on either the scope or the nature of these additions. All I am doing here is flagging up this complexity; there is insufficient space to unpack it further, the interested reader will have to look elsewhere [3].

 

References

  1. See, for example, Ehud Ben Zvi, ‘Late historical books and rewritten history’, pp.292–313 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  2. See, for example, Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314–330 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  3. See, for example, John Barton, ‘The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament’, pp.2‒23 in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (ed: John Barton), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016 and Stephen B. Chapman, ‘Collections, canons, and communities’, pp.28‒54 in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

G is for Genesis 12–50

We have already met the opening three chapters of the book of Genesis in the earlier posts on Creation and Fall. The book of Genesis falls into two unequal halves. Chapter 12 initiates a new turn of events in the book as it follows on from the flood narrative. Up to this point Genesis reads very much like a prehistory which accounts for the way things are in the world. In chapter 12 the concern with origins continues but at a much more specific level—it is with Abram that the story of the nation of Israel starts. In this chapter the founding father of the nation of Israel is introduced. Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, hears the voice of God and embarks obediently on a journey from his home of Ur of the Chaldees to what will become Israel. This is the start of God’s dealings with Abram which indicates that he is chosen by God to be the first of the Patriarchs. His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, later renamed Israel, are the foundation of a people who will become the nation of Israel.

A large part of the story of Abram is the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant takes place in two stages. The first stage in chapter 15 takes place whilst Abram is facing the challenge of being childless. This is ironic in that a key part of the covenant promise that God describes is that that Abram’s descendant will inherit what is often termed the promised land—God says ‘on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’ (Genesis 15:18). In the second stage, Abraham has a son but one born not to his wife Sarah but to Hagar, an Egyptian slave. As part of this more detailed unfolding of the covenant promises, God promises that Abraham will have a son by Sarah, and that it is this son from who his numerous descendants will come.

The stories involving Abram are just as foundational to the biblical story as the earlier chapters of Genesis but now we see that God is unfolding a complex plan. The promises of Land, along with descendants beyond counting, and the ultimate blessing of the nations are clearly long-term in nature. In many ways this covenant is a prelude to the covenant with Moses mentioned above in the post on the Deuteronomic History. Genesis a key religious marker, male circumcision, is introduced. The act of cutting foreskin is a literal echo of the cutting of a covenant in Genesis chapter 17.

The stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob contain similar elements to those of Abraham himself. Like most biblical narratives they are open to interpretation. The Hebrew Bible presents the story but often leaves readers unclear as to what to do with the story.

F is for Fall

Right on the heels of the two creation accounts in Genesis 1–2 there follows the story of what is often termed ‘The Fall’. This familiar story of the Garden of Eden, Adam, Eve and the serpent poses an interpretive challenge. Just as with the Creation accounts, translating Genesis 3 into straightforward propositional truth tends to pit science against the Bible. We should also note that seeing this story as in some sense symbolic or mythical poses different challenges. It is however this latter approach that I find sensible.

There are a number of reasons why this approach seems necessary to me. One example will serve for this post. What are we to make of the cursing of the serpent by God? What else is going on in this account about why snakes have no legs, and crawl on their bellies? Surely this has to be mythopoetic language and if so, the whole story must function in the same way. The challenge of seeing the narrative as imagery does however beg the question ‘How do we equate the symbolic language with the theological concept of the fallen nature of humanity?’ Throughout much of Church History theologians have taken Genesis 3 at face value and have built ontological arguments on it—the most famous of these being Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.

In contrast a more mythical interpretive paradigm does not provide a cause-and-effect account of how it is that human beings have collectively chosen their own path and have a broken relationship with God. For some this lack of mechanism is unnerving as it leaves unanswered questions. And yet more positively the very lack of a mechanical account resonates with the wonderful mystery, that though science can explain much about biology, including genetic evolution, it cannot provide a metaphysical account of ‘the world’ except for the singular possibility that there is no purpose to ‘creation’. Is ‘The Fall’ an account of the first two people making a bad choice that echoes through eternity—accounting for the broken relationship between man-and-man, man-and-woman, humanity-and-creation, humanity-and-God? Or is it a mythic statement of the way things are, a state of affairs which it is difficult to refute?

One way of looking at Genesis 3 is to note that it sounds like something of a prequel to Exile. The account of Genesis 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being exiled from Eden. When viewed in this way the history of exile, the mythopoetic imagery of Fall are mutually enriching and the common experience of human beings cohere into a theology of being strangers in a strange land. We are all lovers of those who share our humanity and yet we are unable to live this out with consistency; simultaneously in awe of the world around us and yet sowing the seeds of its destruction; day-by-day seeking self-fulfilment but discerning that something is absent.

Opening ourselves to a rich nuanced interpretation of The Fall (and Creation) is the start of a journey to a new worldview and this possibility turns into a exilic pilgrimage to the Promised Land, the heavenly Eden. It does this in a way that asks as many questions as it provides answers.

E is for Exile

The exile is a key event in the biblical account of the history of God’s people. It is the conclusion of the story recounted by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as well as the ‘climax’ of the parallel account in the Book of Chronicles. It is so important to the overall story of the Hebrew Bible that the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets) are often categorised in the threefold grouping of (i) pre-exilic, (ii) exilic and (iii) post-exilic. The pre-exilic prophets warn of the possibility of exile as punishment for the nation and the post-exilic prophets the consequences of exile.

Our concern in this post is the 6th Century BCE when the Babylonian armies captured the land of Judah and sacked the city of Jerusalem. This was not a singular event and the military violence culminated in several deportations. At a literal level the term exile refers to these deportations but in reality the exile was bigger than this. It embodies much more than the experience of those who were deported to a foreign land, like those by the rivers of Babylon in Psalm 137. The bigger picture includes those left behind and the impact of events seen as God’s judgement by the returning Judahites. Exile is a complex nexus of history and theology, like so much else we find the in the Hebrew Bible.

The Latter Prophet Jeremiah speaks of two deportations and other sources indicate there were three; in 597 BCE (Jeremiah 39:1), 586 BCE (Jeremiah 52:29) and 582/581 BCE (mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities X. ix. 7). There is no reason to doubt the broad historicity of these events—as well as the wider narrative in Kings. Many of the features of the biblical record cohere well with Josephus and also Babylonian accounts. The latter include both narrative texts and the details found on monuments and artefacts.

The theological implication of God’s people suffering defeat, humiliation, violence and deportation is crystallised in all of its unpleasant rawness in the book of Lamentations. We will return to this short book of laments in a later post. For now we note that the exile raised the same type of questions that the more recent events of the Holocaust raise. The ‘exile experience’ is not something confined to past history as an event; it pre-empts later experiences of God’s people and the experience of individuals too. This is one of the reasons why laments are a key feature of the Hebrew Bible and why their use should not be confined to the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Of course the story did not end with exile—although for those in its midst it would have felt like it had. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a single book in the Hebrew Bible, give accounts of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The return from exile was not a straightforward return to the way things had been. The return was followed by centuries of turmoil as the Jewish nation took on a new shape without a proper monarch. During this reshaping there was ongoing oppression by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It was during this time that much of the Hebrew Bible was written and other parts edited.

D is for Deuteronomistic History

Perhaps the choice of topic for the letter ‘D’ is a surprise. Many readers may not have heard of this theory. This idea seeks to explain the observation that the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings tell a coherent story. The coherency of the story is explained in a variety of ways all of which centre on the strong literary relationship of the book of Deuteronomy and what in the Hebrew Bible are termed the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). The earliest explanations of this literary relationship which were made well over one hundred years ago proposed that the Former Prophets were edited by someone who was committed to the theological outlook of the book of Deuteronomy. Later the German scholar Martin Noth (1902–1968) suggested that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets had such strong similarities in terms of themes and literary style that they were at some level a single literary work. This work was dated to the exilic period (the exile will be our next topic). Like all intriguing theories it has been revised and refuted by other scholars.

It is likely that no overall theory will ever be recognised as the consensus but what is clear is the base data—anyone reading from Deuteronomy through the books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings and II Kings (the Hebrew Bible’s books of Samuel and Kings were each split in two for the Christian canon) will find they are carried forward in a compelling account spanning the Israelites poised to conquer the promised land to their exile from the land. The story is a complex ‘Game of Thrones’ history with strong theological claims and themes throughout. In the English-speaking world Joshua to Kings are seen as historical books whilst in Hebrew their theological freight is to the fore in their designation as Former Prophets. We would do well to note that history meets theology here in a complex and rich tapestry, for as we shall see the Hebrew Bible resists our modern categories that would separate the marriage of history and theology asunder.

By way of conclusion it is worth noting a central aspect of the book of Deuteronomy. The book displays many of the characteristics of an ancient near-eastern legal document. Read in this light it represents a legal covenant between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the nation of Israel. In keeping with such treaties it uses the language of blessings and curse. The former the result of keeping the agreement and the latter the consequences of breaking the terms of covenant. In short if Israel serves Yahweh faithfully then they will know the blessings of peace and prosperity in the Land that they have been given by God. If, on the other hand, they follow the other deities of the ancient near-east or are led astray by idols they will lose the land and the peace and prosperity granted by Yahweh. The Former Prophets unfold the story of the gaining of the Land and the complex journey which leads to its loss in the midst of war, calamity and exile.