The Old Testament
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The Old Testament

A Concise Introduction

Brent A. Strawn

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Old Testament

A Concise Introduction

Brent A. Strawn

About This Book

This concise volume introduces readers to the three main sections of the Hebrew Bible ( Tanakh ) and to the biblical books found in each. It is organized around two primary "stories": the story that scholars tell about the Old Testament and the story the literature itself tells. Concluding with a reconsideration of the Old Testament as more like poetry than a story, three main chapters cover:

  • The Pentateuch ( Torah )

  • The Prophets ( Nevi?im )

  • The Writings ( Ketuvim )

With key summaries of what the parts of the Old Testament "are all about, " and including suggestions for further reading, this volume is an ideal introduction for students of and newcomers to the Old Testament.

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At some point in history—when, exactly, we do not know—the Bible as it now is, or something very much like it, came into existence. The reasons why we don’t know exactly when this happened is because the evidence at our disposal is limited and fragmentary. It is also because the Bible is a complex document, or rather set of documents, which means that some parts came to their present form at different times than others.
It seems clear that two developments facilitated the Bible’s coming-to-be as we now have it. The first might be called ideological: various decisions were made by various people to establish a discrete “canon” of Scripture, including the processes by which some books were admitted into that official collection and others were not. That is, in fact, what canon means: a set list of authoritative texts. But here, too, much remains unclear: exactly when these kinds of decisions were finalized, and by whom, is not entirely certain and likely varies from one biblical composition to another. Discussions on some of these matters, and some of these books, went on for a very long time. The final ordering of the biblical books, or even parts within some books, went on even longer—well into the early centuries of the Common Era, and in some cases even later. (A traditional perspective, that the ultimate moment was a Jewish council held in Jamnia ca. 90 ce, is almost certainly erroneous; most scholars place the finished Hebrew Bible later than that, though the first steps were in some ways and at certain points considerably earlier.)
The second development was technological—to be specific, the rise of the codex in the Roman world allowed compositions that had previously existed as separate documents (manuscripts, scrolls, etc.) to be bound together in one collection between two covers. The codex, while not a Christian invention, nevertheless caught on quickly in Christian circles where it was widely used. And, while Jews also adopted the codex form, it did not have quite the same appeal within Judaism, perhaps in part due to Christian fascination with the codex. And so, to this day, what one finds in a synagogue is a Torah scroll not a Torah codex. In fact, it should be noted that the earliest complete codex of the Hebrew Bible in existence (the Leningrad Codex from St. Petersburg) dates only as far back as 1008 or 1009 ce. The earliest codex, that is, dates to roughly 2,000 years after the time of David, 1,800 years after the prophet Isaiah, and 1,500 years after the priest Ezra.
Whatever the fine details of these two developments—some of which are known but many of which remain elusive—they helped the Bible-as-one-collection eventually come into being. When it did, the biblical writings achieved “literary simultaneity”: the Bible could be read together as a unit, synchronically, as if it were one book. In the codex form, of course, it really was one book.
While many people find the ins-and-outs of developments like these fascinating, the fine details are, at least to some degree, unimportant—at least for the purposes of the present book. That is because, despite the many steps that led to the Bible’s current form, it is in this form that we now have it today: it is now a book, bound between two covers—sometimes quite expensive leather covers with gilded pages. The Bible is now a unified collection, even if that unity is historically secondary, the result of a long developmental process, one that is due in part to its book-like form. However it happened, the Bible is now received as a whole despite its many subparts (the various “books of the Bible”), not unlike so many other books (with their various “chapters” or “parts”). If the Bible is ever given as a gift, it is given as a whole; one doesn’t give or receive Isaiah or Exodus or Amos all by themselves.
The Bible-as-one-collection or book solves some problems, like keeping many different compositions together in one place, but it also raises a number of questions. Is the Bible-as-a-book like any other? And what kind of book is the Bible-as-a-book? There are, after all, many different types of literature. Is the Bible’s one book form akin to the novel—whether non-fiction, historical fiction, or fiction—such that it ought to be read accordingly, with the standard elements that are typically present in those kinds of narratives: characters, character development, rising action, climax, denouement, and all the rest? Or is the Bible best related to some other genre, whatever that might be, with a different set of conventions that affect reading and interpretation? One can easily imagine other literary genres to which the Old Testament as a collection might be compared, at least analogously, if only because the Bible itself is comprised of many different genres: different stories, yes, but also different poems and prophecies and wise sayings and so on and so forth. This suggests that literary anthology could be a good candidate for how to understand the Bible. Reading an anthology is quite different from reading a straightforward novel. Narrative, then, is just one possibility—even if an important one—among several possibilities when considering what kind of book the Bible might be.
Whatever the case, it is important to observe that readers often make decisions about what they are reading even before they read it. Those kinds of decisions make a difference as to how people read what they are reading. The very form of what one reads—a book, say, containing 15 prophets (and more), as opposed to a scroll containing only one—will affect how it is read. Readers don’t usually confuse Tweets with the most careful and considered prose, nor advertisements with verified statements of fact.

The Story of the Old Testament

Another curiosity about the Bible-as-a-book is found in the title “the Bible” itself. That title derives from Greek ta biblia, which is grammatically plural: “the books.” In its very name, then, The Bible—“The Books”—actually resists the unified impression that is created by its singular, one-book-like form. So, is the Bible one singular book or many discrete books? The form of the Bible suggests the former, but the content of the Bible, and its name, suggests the latter. At this point, we seem to have returned to where we began: yes, the Bible at some point emerged in its current form as a collection made up of preexisting compositions, and, yes, we have it that way now, but what about before now?
A great deal of modern biblical scholarship, which extends back to at least the eighteenth century with even earlier roots, has been devoted to that very question: “What was the Bible like before the Bible?” For centuries, scholars have pursued what might be called the story of the Bible or, put differently, the history of the Bible. How did it come to be? How did its various parts—not just its books but also its subparts: the parts of the parts of a book—come together in the shapes and forms we now have? This is to ask, for example, not only how the 39 books of the Old Testament came to be and how they came to be joined together with the 27 books of the New Testament to form the 66 books of the Protestant Christian canon of Scripture (cf. Chart 1.1), but also to ask, how did the various psalms come together in what is now the Book of Psalms? Or how did the various sayings attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah, the son of Amoz, come together to form what is now the Book of Isaiah?
The history of biblical interpretation repeatedly shows that scholars have not remained content with the formation of a biblical book as it now stands (or the whole Bible as it now exists) but have been very interested in questions of pre-formation. What lies behind or prior to this particular saying of Isaiah or that specific psalm? When was it said or written? By whom? What real-life situation lies behind it? These are very different questions than asking about how or when a particular saying was joined to other sayings in order to make a larger unit, chapter, or book. Of course, the two types of questions are related, at least at times, as, for example, in terms of chronological development: “part A was first said by so-and-so, in such-and-such a period, for this-or-that reason; subsequently, part A was joined to part B, and parts A+B to C,” and so on and so forth.
The story of the Bible, then, according to modern biblical scholarship, is a very long story. It is a rather drawn out history that begins before the words of the Bible itself, asking after origins, influences, and possible relationships with antecedent material (whether from Israel or from its neighbors throughout the ancient Near East). It then extends all the way through the specific biblical utterances in question, to their subsequent life as they were remembered, passed on, collected, collated, put into writing (if originally oral), and finally gathered up into larger units, traditions, compositions, books, and, ultimately, the canon of Holy Scripture. The present introduction cannot cover this long story of the Old Testament’s development in great detail, though some of that story is recounted in each of the chapters that follow. For present purposes, it is enough to know that the Old Testament itself has a story, which is to say the Bible has an origin, a history, a development, and a reception that continues up to the present day. In truth, each of these items—origin, history, development, and reception—is not singular but a plurality because the Bible is, after all, ta biblia, “The Books.” Each of the Bible’s books, then, along with those book’s constituent subparts, has its own story to tell, resulting in multiple origins, histories, developments, and receptions. So, if the Old Testament can be said to have a story, it is a long and highly complicated one that is made up of countless other stories. That is to be expected, of course, whenever we consider something like the Bible in historical perspective, since it is both ancient and complex.

The Old Testament as Story

But if it can be said that the Old Testament has a story in the sense that it has a history reflecting its growth, development, and the like, it can also be said that the Old Testament contains and conveys a story. Put differently, we can say that the Old Testament tells a story or at least that it is possible to read the Old Testament as if it were a story. (This “as if” is actually quite important.)
The Old Testament, as also the larger Christian Bible of which it is the first major part, is many things to many people, whether religious or not. But whatever one’s personal inclinations may be, the Old Testament is, irrefutably, a piece of literature. Or, better, in light of what was said earlier, the Old Testament is pieces of literature, a collection of literatures: an anthology or library. This point granted, a decent-sized bit of biblical literature is in story form. It is partly the dominance of narrative, on the one hand, and, on the other, our familiarity with that kind of genre—its dominance in contemporary society—that leads many readers to construe the Old Testament or entire Bible as one giant narrative. It is not uncommon to hear of the Bible described as (or even published in some form as) the great “story of God.” Such a construal of the Bible makes a certain degree of sense and is not entirely without merit. For example, biblical scholars sometimes call the Books of Genesis through Kings the Primary History since this extended block of material can be read as telling a single story, with a unified (though long and complex) plot that runs from the creation of the world to the end of the southern kingdom of Judah, when Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians (see further Chapter 3). The order of the Old Testament books found in most English Bibles, which is largely derived from Greek orderings (see Chart 1.1), further reinforces this story-like impression by:
  • placing Ruth immediately after Judges, since it claims to come from “the days when the Judges judged” (Ruth 1:1);
  • putting Chronicles after Samuel-Kings, since it repeats a good bit of that material though it adds some new information as well; and
  • setting Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther after Chronicles, as these books continue the story in, around, and after the Persian rule mentioned at the end of 2 Chronicles 36.
Two problems face this Bible-as-one-big-story understanding, however. The first is that the order of the Hebrew Bible is actually quite different from that found in most English Bibles (see Chart 1.2). That means the straightforward narrative “flow” isn’t quite the same in Hebrew vs. English editions (see Chapters 34). The second, more substantial problem is that, even in the “plot” described above from Genesis through Kings (or Esther), a linear reading eventually breaks down. It turns out that the straightforward narrative isn’t nearly so straightforward, especially outside the Primary History. Where, for example, does the Book of Job fit into this “story”? Many early biblical interpreters wondered the same thing, though they answered the question in different ways. In some circles, Job was identified with the “Jobab” mentioned in Gen 10:29. By means of that identification, Job could be placed in the period of Israel’s ancestors alongside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and the rest. The Peshitta, an ancient translation of the Old Testament into Syriac, goes so far as to situate the Book of Job immediately after the first five...

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Citation styles for The Old TestamentHow to cite The Old Testament for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Strawn, B. (2019). The Old Testament (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Strawn, Brent. (2019) 2019. The Old Testament. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Strawn, B. (2019) The Old Testament. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Strawn, Brent. The Old Testament. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.