Biblical Israel - The Old Testament
Updated: Mar 9
It should first be stressed that the distinction between scriptures of the Old Testament and the New Testament is a Christian one, though based on a passage from the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-33). For the Jews, there is only one Testament, called the Covenant. Today, the Jewish people refer to their scriptures as Tanak – a word made up of the initial consonants of the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Law (Torah), Prophets (Nebi'im), and Writings (Ketuvim): TaNaK.
This simple division of Law, Prophets, and Writings can be confusing, however, since the Jewish canon groups the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings with the 'Prophets', even though they recount the historical deeds of the conquest of Palestine and the reign of Israel's kings.
The Old Testament is either 39 books (in Protestant and Jewish editions) or 46 (in Catholic editions). The Christians divide the Old Testament into 4 divisions, by adding a category for the Historical Books separate from the Prophets. Its four divisions are 1) the Pentateuch (Greek for 'five books') 2) the Historical Books 3) the Wisdom Writings and 4) the Prophets.
The Pentateuch and the Jewish Torah both signify the same group – the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books were traditionally given by Moses himself and, from the Jewish understanding, form the most sacred center of scripture, with the prophets and writings only offering further commentary and reflection upon it.
We will explore each book in detail throughout this series, but let's first look at a brief survey of the total picture of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament fittingly begins with the five books of the Pentateuch. Genesis describes a Pre-History of God's call and preparation of a people from creation to the times of the Patriarchs. Exodus portrays the mighty deeds of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the covenant. Leviticus describes obligations of that covenant, while Numbers adds more laws, and continues the story of Israel's time in the desert. Deuteronomy, written as a speech of Moses, serves to deepen and sum up the meaning of the covenant for Israel later in its history.
The Historical Books explore the Israelites living out the covenant in the Promised Land of Palestine. Joshua describes its conquest, Judges the settlement and struggle for survival, 1 and 2 Samuel the growing need for, and coming of, its first kings in Saul and David. 1 and 2 Kings traces the history of religious fidelity in the kings that followed David down to the end of the monarchy in about 586 B.C. Since all six of these books have a style and message similar to 'Deuteronomic History', they teach one consistent message that points out Israel's infidelity to the covenant and warns of coming destruction. In Jewish tradition, these same six books are called 'the Former Prophets', because they have a strong prophetic tone of moral judgment. Many of the lessons are put into the mouths of various prophets.
After the destruction and exile of 586 B.C., 1 and 2 Chronicles again looked at Israel's history from the perspective of a priestly writer, and its account is carried forward to the end of the fifth century B.C. in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. This later period after the exile also observes many smaller works. Ruth tells the story of a faithful Israelite woman from the time of the Judges. Esther tells of a faithful Jewish Queen in the Persian court of the fifth century B.C.. Judith relates how a heroine at the time of the exile saved her people. Tobit describes a faithful Israelite from among the people exiled in 722 B.C. to Assyria. All of these are moralistic tales emphasizing the best qualities of Jewish piety, and are entertaining. They help to communicate a sense of Jewish pride after the exilic period. The original incidents may have been based on historical persons or deeds, but these were long forgotten and/or are past our ability to recover them. Thus, they are called 'edifying tales'. Finally, the post-exilic period is brought to a close by the two Books of Maccabees which tell the story of the Jewish revolt for independence against the Greek government of Syria in 168 to 164 B.C.
The next section, the Writings, contains many profound and beautiful examples of Israelite reflections on faith. The Books of Psalms gives us prayers and hymns. Proverbs, Qoheleth, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon offer the statements and insights of the wise men. The Song of Songs is a series of love poems treasured as an analogy of God's love for his bride Israel.