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My Review of the Old Testament (really)

by Tom Johnson on Jan 5, 2011
categories: book-reviews family

My Review of the Old TestamentThe Old Testament is not something one typically reviews in a blog post, but I've been reading it for the past year, and I want to write down some of my thoughts about the text. This is, after all, a blog about writing.

Where does one even begin? Let's start with purposes, in other words, why I was even reading the Old Testament. In our house we have regular family scripture study and chose to focus on the Old Testament this year. But just try reading aloud King James verses to a 4, 6, and 9 year old -- you'll quickly find they're occupied in other matters. So I tried leveraging the most powerful attention technique I know: story. I would read a bit in the Old Testament until I came across an interesting story. Then I would tell the story in my own words while my children sometimes listened.

Many times this worked; other times it failed. One fortunate result was that I flew through the book of Leviticus, which is where I always seemed to get bogged down previously.

While this method does work for children, it had an interesting effect on me too. As I tried to get the details straight in my head, I ended up understanding and reflecting on these Old Testament stories much more myself.

The first five books of the Old Testament through Chronicles are quite interesting and full of story. After that, when you get into what are referred to as the Prophets, the stories thin out. You get a lot of prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem, the scattering of Israel, constant comparisons of idolatry to adultery, prophecies about a future renewal and gathering, hints of a coming Messiah, and ultimate destruction and judgment in the last days.

Although the prophets are at times interesting, by and large these sections lack story, and we ended up covering a lot more territory in less time. After all, how many ways can you relate how Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, or explain why it was destroyed, to children? Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel discuss this topic at length in ancient poetic forms, with heightening parallelisms.

I think many people will criticize my focus on story. This is fine -- I admit my bias here. During these sections, we held less scripture study, and I felt less like I understood the text. I did listen to quite a few podcasts from the Covenant Theological Seminary's Worldwide Classroom on the Old Testament, which were insightful. Wikipedia entries on each of the books of the Bible are also packed full of information. Still, the prophets make so many cultural and location-based references, coupled with prophetic idioms, it's hard to always understand what they're saying. Usually they're just repeating the same idea from different angles and metaphors. (That's what I mean by heightening parallelisms.)

I have a few random thoughts that don't necessarily cohere intelligently here. But let's start with a basic summary.


Israel typically refers to the Hebrews, and in the Old Testament, all of the Israelites are sometimes referred to as if just one single person. The story of Israel is as follows: Yahweh (or YHWH, or Jehovah, or God) makes a covenant to Abraham that if he will worship him, and turn away from other gods, he will bless him with innumerable posterity and lead him to the promised land. Abraham's acceptance of Yahweh as the only God initiates monotheism, which is completely new to the world at the time. (Worship of multiple gods is pretty much the norm everywhere.)

Abraham fathers Isaac, Isaac fathers Jacob (renamed Israel), and Jacob fathers Joseph along with 11 other sons, who become the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph is sold by his brothers into Egypt, where he becomes one of the region's leaders. Famine ravishes the land, and soon Israel and his family come to Egypt for food, where they remain, provisioned in a place by Joseph. However, after time the Israelites become enslaved to the Egyptians.

Yahweh raises up Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. After their escape, they travel across the Red Sea and through the wilderness for 40 years. The next leader, Joshua, takes them into the promised land (Canaan) where he begins a dreadful slaughter of Canaanite cities, including the famous attack on Jericho that involved merely circling the city and shouting to bring down the walls.

After a system of judges, Israel desires a king, so they choose Saul. Saul leads the people, but becomes mad in obsession for praise in competition with David. David succeeds Saul and becomes the most well-known and beloved king in Israel's history. Despite a stumble with an adulterous relationship, he maintains a united Israel, has success in battle, writes a ton of psalms, and seems to enjoy music and dance (something I think Puritans later downplay). His son Solomon succeeds David, has 1,000 wives/concubines, and becomes so wise that he writes 1,000 proverbs. People all over, even the Queen of Sheba, come to see his wealth and glory.

After Solomon, it's pretty much all downhill for the Israelites. With Solomon's successor, the kingdom gets divided into north and south areas. Ten tribes form the northern kingdom, referred to (confusingly) as Israel, sometimes as Ephraim; later their capital becomes Samaria. The southern kingdom is referred to as Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. Most of the history in Chronicles and Kings involves Judah, not Israel.

After Solomon, we read about a succession of king after king after king. Some are righteous; most aren't. They frequently turn back to idolatry. Prophets warn them about upcoming destruction and captivity if they don't change their ways.

Around 722 BCE, the Assyrians carry away most of the northern kingdom. In fact, in the Assyrian conquest, the Israelites aren't merely enslaved or driven out but are rather assimilated into Assyrian culture. Not too many years later, Judah is first besieged and later decimated by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The last king, Zedekiah, is brought to Babylon along with his sons. There the Babylonian king (Nebuchadnezzar) blinds Zedekiah and kills his sons (except for Mulek, whom Mormons believe escapes and eventually travels to America).

After burning the city, destroying the temple, and crumbling the city walls, Nebuchadnezzar carries away all the elite from Jerusalem (about 20,000 people) back to Babylon and leaves only farmers and peasants in the land. After the Jews spend some 70 years in captivity, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon. The Persians have a different philosophy, allowing conquered people to remain somewhat independent under the umbrella of Persian rule.

Around 521 BCE, Cyrus allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem. Some years after the return, Zerubbabel rebuilds the temple and Nehemiah rebuilds city walls. The second temple, as it's called, is completed around 516 BC and stands for more than 400 years (until Herod, the same one who slaughters all the babies at the beginning of the New Testament, renovates and expands the temple in 19 BCE).

Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, dates to around 450 BCE. There's nothing that spans these 450 years to the time of Christ, so there's a bit of a gap and mystery left for the reader to put together. During this time, the Greeks rule, and then split into a couple of different empires (Ptolemy and Seleucid); then the Maccabees revolt and gain Jewish autonomy for a season until the Romans take over.

That's the basic story. Now for a few observations:

Exodus and Archeology

There's a scholarly trend to dismiss the Exodus and instead assert that the Israelites were actually a lower class of Canaanites who revolted, and then wrote the story of Exodus to leverage a history that would unite their people. Israel Finkelstein is one of the proponents behind this idea (see The Bible Unearthed), and much of it stems from a lack of archeological evidence of an exodus out of Egypt.

Although it seems like an interesting alternative, given the complete saturation of the exodus story throughout the entirety of the Old Testament -- it's told and retold dozens of times by various prophets and scribes across hundreds of years -- I don't think one can dismiss the exodus story without dismissing the rest of the books as well. The idea that the Israelites concocted the out-of-Egypt story to unify and rally their people doesn't make sense given the rigidly ethical nature of their beliefs.

Idolatry and Adultery

One of the constant parallels in the Old Testament is that of idolatry and adultery. One prophet, Hosea, is even commanded to marry a prostitute to represent Israel's infidelity in worshiping idols (it's compared to a married woman having other lovers). In fact, not only is this a constant comparison, but Yahweh is anything but a cool-headed, low-maintenance type of god. He's sometimes as jealous and upset as a cuckold husband. Idol worship seems to be the activity that makes him irate.

But while his anger flares up, and prophets threaten with destruction, you also see the opposite: a constantly forgiving god, one who intimately cares and desires to build a relationship with his people, one who continues in a long-suffering way to work with a stubborn people. At one point, in Micah, he says "O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants;"  (Micah 6:3-4). You can hear the pleading. This sense of deep feeling for the people contrasts and balances out some of the anger and destruction.

Scattering and Gathering

Another constant theme is the scattering and gathering of Israel. With empires like the Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans, who conquered so much of the region, it's no surprise that scattering would be inevitable. The gathering, however, could be a bit clearer. At times the gathering seems to refer to an immediate time after captivity in Babylon. But this rebuilding of the temple and return to Jerusalem is only briefly touched upon, and doesn't fit the heralded and much anticipated day of rejoicing when people scattered among all nations will return back to their land. In fact, after Israel's captivity in Babylon, many of the Jews didn't want to return to Jerusalem, which was burned and destroyed. Many made their way elsewhere, such as Egypt, or Elephantine Island.

I suppose that this gathering and renewal will take place far in the future. But given the flipping back and forth and ambiguous timeline, it's no wonder there was so much confusion when Christ arrives on the scene and doesn't usher in the judgment and reckoning and rule that so many prophets foretell.

Isaiah's Depth

Isaiah is one of the few books that, despite its cryptic prose, dives deep into major themes, from the coming messiah to the millennium, the scattering and return -- he's interesting. He's worth returning to, particularly because he's one of the few prophets that includes unmistakable predictions about a future messiah. Many other books include types and shadows, but their references seem to require interpretation.

Missing Discussions?

The world of the Old Testament seems to lack discussion about so many concepts I wanted to see. There's no mention of proselytism (why?), the concept of being chosen remains unquestioned despite its eyebrow raising preferentialism, the ordinances of animal sacrifice seem barbaric, there's little theological elaboration (even with Job as he wrestles with the question of evil), and almost nothing on the resurrection.

So much effort focuses on the condemnation of idolatry. The main thrust of the Old Testament seems to build trust and faith, to cast aside other gods, to put aside alliances with other nations, to honor the sabbath, to help the poor and needy, to perform sacrifices and honor feasts, to maintain fidelity, to heed prophetic warning, and so on.

In a family of mostly women (I have four daughters and no sons), every time a female figure played prominently in a story, the kids would perk up and listen attentively. It's unfortunate that beyond a few notable women (Eve, Leah, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, etc), there aren't many stories of women in the Old Testament. I wish there were a few stories of mothers, or at least something with a strong female protagonist. (Interestingly, despite the absence of female protagonists in the Bible, sociological studies of religion (see American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us) find that women are more religious than men.

Foundational Work

Despite the unfamiliar language and the sometimes uncomfortable stories (such as giving your virgin daughters to an angry mob rather than a visitor in your house), the Old Testament is a foundational work that makes many other things understandable. I can't say I've always enjoyed reading the Old Testament, especially when the prophets keep circling back to destruction and captivity, but there is a sense of ancient importance to the writings. I know the books aren't something one reads in a few months of study -- they rather require a "lifetime of study," as Dr. Gregory Perry says in one of his lectures. But reading the Old Testament is rewarding and at times enlightening. Studying it, even cursorily, I feel that it has been a huge foundation stone in my education.


One challenge I struggled with was chronology. When I finished 2 Kings and realized that Chronicles was Kings all over again but a bit different, emphasizing different details and perspectives, I grew quite frustrated. But really chronology only gets more non-linear as the book progresses. We have this idea at page 1184 will be the end, page 700 will be somewhere near the middle, and 400 near the beginning. But it doesn't really work that way. The books are grouped into the law, the writings, and the prophets. Although David is the author of many psalms, and Solomon of proverbs, and Isaiah is a prophet during Hezekiah's time, none of these books appears together nor is integrated into a linear timeline. Esther relates a story of captivity that doesn't take place for quite a while; Job and Jonah don't seem to have any specific date at all.

Anciently, before the invention of book, we know the scribes kept scrolls. At some point, according to Dale Martin of Yale (see his lectures on iTunes University), scribes tired of unraveling scrolls every time they wanted to compare books and verses with each other. One scribe got the bright idea of chopping up the scrolls into pages and binding them together into a "codex," or book. As a result, rather than a basket of scrolls, you suddenly have a format that imposes a sequential ordering of selected books. Martin asserts that the codex initiated the idea of a canon. But I think the codex also imposes a sense of chronology to the books. This same assumption wouldn't be so prevalent with a basket of scrolls, which would be in no particular order.

What Comes Next?

The book ends abruptly, leaving about a 500 year gap between the Old and New Testament. About this time, my wife and kids were really into the Maccabeats' song "Candelight," so I did some reading about the Maccabees and Greeks, which take place in this 500 year span, to better understand the history of what happens during this time.

In a nutshell, the Greeks take over around mid-fourth century BCE through Alexander the Great and other military victories over the Persians. After Alexander the Great dies, some of his conquered lands fall into the hands of his officers. From here the empire splits into the Ptolemy and Seleucid kingdoms. After a handful of leaders in the Seleucid empire, a nasty king named Antiochas Epiphanes comes to power and, after a scuffle with appointed leaders and assassinations and priestly bribes, Antiochas outlaws Judaism, making it illegal to read the Torah or practice circumcision. He slaughters pigs on the temple's altar and and includes Zeus as a god in the temple.

Antiochas' rule is too much to bear. At about 165 BCE, the Maccabee family begins a revolt in guerrilla warfare style that leads to the reestablishment of autonomy for Judah. The Maccabees, a family with five sons who act as military leaders, basically lead a conquest in retaking conquered cities (reading Maccabees reminds me of Joshua's march against Canaan).

The Allure of the Greeks

The text I used to fill in this gap, The Lost 500 Years, notes that at the time of the Maccabean revolt, many Jews felt divided. Some felt that violent resistance wasn't the answer; others refused to fight on the sabbath; others found the Greek culture and way of life alluring.

This last point hooked me. The Greeks are basically the foundation of western culture. Not only did the Greeks give us the Olympic Games, but also theater (which led to cinema and TV); they implemented the first democracy (the parliament is modeled after this, to some extent). They gave birth to an intellectual culture in philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) and science (Archimedes, Parminedes) and mathematics (Pythagorus) and history (Herodotus) and literature (Euripedes; and much earlier, Homer) and military strategy (Alexander the Great) -- these would have a lasting impact on culture and civilization for millenia to come. In fact, in Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (on Netflix) the filmmaker asserts that even at the end of Greek's physical empire, Socrates started a new empire: the empire of the mind.

Comparing this intellectual and cultural flourish to the writings of the Old Testament, it's easy to see how alluring the Greeks were. Never mind their worship of Athena and other gods, their innovative and free thinking endeavors are fascinating. After hundreds of years of admonitions about idolatry and monotheism, sabbaths and sacrifice, it's refreshing to step into Greek culture, where intellectual inquiry, theater and art, philosophy and science, democracy and rhetoric, are encouraged and developed. By comparison, the last thousand years of Israelite history seems to cycle between righteous kings who purify the temple and break the idols, and bad kings who worship idols and lead the people astray.

One would perhaps hope that such cultures might be reversed -- that the flourishing, intellectual culture that expands in so many areas of human interest and achievement would be the Israelites, rather than the Greeks. Why is one culture so plain while another ignites with human innovation? In short, I can see why many Jews exposed to Greek culture and ideas might be mixed about joining the Maccabees in their revolt.

This may seem like an insignificant objection, but it has stuck in my mind for the past few days. Yesterday in a meeting at work, someone pulled up a wiki page with the following quote:

Every discovery in science and art, that is really true and useful to mankind, has been given by direct revelation from God. … We should take advantage of all these great discoveries … and give to our children the benefit of every branch of useful knowledge, to prepare them to step forward and efficiently do their part in the great work” — Brigham Young

In other words, Mormons see the Greeks advancement in art and science, the Renaissance, as well as all the technological advancements of today, as revelation. This is an interesting idea, which almost seems to be an example of an underlying Greek idea that fuses with biblical tradition. Or maybe the Greeks were recipients of what Israel could have experienced had they stayed the course -- who knows.

Now that the year is over, I won't be reading the Old Testament much. I plan to return to my topic of findability and explore that with more depth. At times, however, I can't help but be pulled in by history.


photo from Wikipedia

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

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