The authors of the Old Testament weren’t concerned with getting it right. They were only concerned about articulating their own understanding of God. It’s important to talk about the ambiguity. We all have opinions because we all learned to talk about things from a certain way. If we put aside the “right or wrong” and discuss the in-between, the Bible doesn’t all make sense or jive.
Historicity – “Did that really happen?” Most of what we have is a “Remembering”. Putting pieces back together. Reading the Bible in Hebrew is simply a remembering of events but we don’t have any original material. What was written about Jesus was after the resurrection. The authors were attempting to remember what Jesus said but at the time of the events, the topics weren’t necessarily of interest. Let’s explore a few key elements in the Old Testament in order to gain a deeper overview.
Exodus Narrative Chapters 1-15 vs. 21
This is a self-identifying self-defining memory of faith. Israel is beloved and chosen by Yahweh and Israel is the subject of Yahweh’s intervention of public events. Israel remembers it’s story and affirms these things. The point of the story is that it glorifies God. It’s about God and who is in charge in the story. Exodus is the vital and important elements of Israel’s identity. The remembering of this helps to reinforce this identity. The episode of Exodus ends with Liturgy. The point of the story is to glorify God. If we get bogged down in the story, we never get to the conclusion and purpose of the story.
In further trying to understand the stories of the Old Testament, we must look a bit deeper into the relationship of Israel and God from the Israelite perspective. If you recall, the Old Testament is a story about Israel during Exile. In Exile, the Israelites were consider to be in the desert or wilderness. The wilderness in this case is representative of “disorientation”. Their orientation would have been when they were in a place they were familiar with. The Old Testament is about the transactions between Israel and God and how they are cause and action events. Here is a brief summary of how the Old Testament typically evolves in a big circle.
A rebellious Israel -> God as the sustainer -> God is angered at rebellious Israel and responds -> Israel repents and God reaffirms the promise through the covenant.
Wilderness is the context of God’s and Israel’s contact. Wilderness represents chaos made contemporary (in their time and place) in Exile.
Covenant (in Hebrew is Berit)
Provides framework for making sense of God’s promises. It gives the Pentateuch its character as Teaching or Torah, not a character of history. It is a standard for judging Israel’s national successes or failures. Is a measuring stick for Kings. Background for prophetic utterances of promise and judgement. Shapes the thought of the entire book of Deuteronomy and captures Israel’s religious belief bound to an unbreakable love to God, given commandments to guild daily life, Israel thus owes Yahweh worship and Israel is marked by the sign of the covenant. The covenant is the submission to divine will, not based on blood and confession that God alone is God. God pledges in return to protect Israel and help Israel against its enemy, disease, chaos… but sometimes God doesn’t. There are some utterances where God makes a promise that has no conditions (example Abraham). Others where the covenant is bi-lateral (cause and effect) (Sinai tradition – “thou shall not…”). Both types of covenant were placed in profound jeopardy by exile. Israel spoke of the everlasting covenant that could not be broken or violated by disobedience. Genesis 19:16. Israel although confident of Yahweh is taking seriously the loss and absence of God. Isiah 54 Chapter 7 & 8 God admits “that for a brief moment I abandoned you.” For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. Chapter 8, In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, sayeth the Lord thy Redeemer. Israel can and does imagine the covenant broken by Israel beyond repair but God is able to do something new.
Exodus 19 vs. 1, Numbers Chapter 10:10 are all about Sanai. This extends through Leviticus, is complex and is a tradition of commands over time. Commands are uttered in a time and place of jeopardy. God give the Israelites Torah, to help ensure their survival. What is Torah and what does it mean? Simply, if you keep the law you will live (it isn’t about salvation). Torah is a guide. Examples are:
- Humanitarian concern that emphasizes a workable community.
- Neighborly economics.
- Absolute law formulations
Exodus provides the defining categories for Israel’s faith:
In the Joshua story, the Israelites remember the movement from wilderness to “the land”. When they arrive to the promise land, they get into conflict. Wilderness was a place where Israel could only rely on God’s gracious sustenance. In the land, Israel must secure its life by agriculture in the midst of the indigenousness population that is not their own.
- We must be aware that there are roughly 6 or 7 theories of the Israelite Exile such as:
- Theory of the Sweeping Conquest
- Theory of the Internal Struggle (JJ Collins, author who discusses this, suggests that there wasn’t an enslavement by Egypt and Israel immerged from within the peoples of Canaan).
The problem as seen in these text is as funding a powerful history of violence in the name of God.
Sacrifices – Leviticus
Minhah – Hebrew for Sacrifice – a gift to God by an offering community.
- To appease the divine
- To thank the divine
- Feeding God ( less evident in Israelite systems but there is some of this (God finding satisfaction of the odor of the sacrifice) )
- To become closer to the divine
- When – during harvest periods, daily in the temple (this was everyone, not just Israel)
- Grains and Crops stored as sacrifice for Yahweh but were stored to distribute to poor people.
- 10% Tithe or temple tax – for maintaining of the priest hood and redistribution to the poor.
- Types of Sacrifices – burnt offering (animal was burned and blood poured around the alter)
- Sacrifice of well-being (meat was shared between the priest and sacrificer)
- Sin or guilt offering (fat burned, blood poured, rest of caucus discarded and burned outside of the temple because it was a sin offering)
- For breaking for known or unknown breaking of Torah that resulted in impurity.
Purity and Impurity is a key element in the Old Testament but the concept of purity varies based on the time frame within the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. Jesus, in the New Testament, redefines purity. It’s important to remember that Jesus was a Jew and practiced Judaism. He also broke with tradition and essentially nullified many of the purity practices of the Israelites through his teachings. How should Purity be defined in Old Testament terms? Purity – things that are “out of place” (not dirty or sinful). Purity was based on the order of creation. If an animal eats vegetables, it is clean. If it eats another animal, it is dirty. Impurity is not sin; does not correspond with social class and is gender blind. Most people were impure all the time just through common activities. Purity has primarily to do with the proximity to the Holy.
Judaism and the Gentiles, Terence Donaldson published 2007 (Amazon link)
Judaism practice and belief, EP Sanders, updated 2016 (Unshells the Christian misunderstanding of Judaism) (Amazon link)