May 22, 2018

Another Look: The Purpose of the First Testament

Solitude. Chagall

Why did the Jews compile sacred books together and form a canon of Scripture known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh?

For what purpose did they put together what Christians have traditionally called the “Old Testament”?

I believe they brought the canon of the Hebrew Bible to completion, at the end of a long process, because of the theological crises raised by the Babylonian Exile.

The Purpose of the First Testament
The Hebrew Bible in its present form was edited and put together to help the exiled people of Israel remember how God called them to be his people and faithfully cared for them in the past, to explain how that relationship went bad, and to encourage the people that there was still hope for the future.

After 35 years in pastoral ministry and Biblical study, I’m convinced that many if not most Christians have a simplistic view of “The Bible” and how it came to us (if they even think about that question at all).

When we pastors and teachers talk to them about “The Law of Moses,” for example, most people imagine that the Pentateuch we have today — Genesis-Deuteronomy — was simply produced by Moses. He sat down and wrote some books, people read them, the priests taught them, and everybody knew “The Torah” in the same way that we know “The Bible” today. If Barnes & Noble had been around then, you could have walked into the store and picked up a copy of one of Moses’ books.

Of course, this is a child’s Sunday School view of Scripture. Even a passing knowledge of history and a cursory acquaintance with the Bible itself reveals that we are dealing with something much more complex and nuanced.

  • First of all, the people in the days of Israel did not have a “Bible.” The stories that they had were passed on orally or in liturgical settings.
  • Second, biblical books like the Pentateuch do not tell us who the author was. There are texts in the Pentateuch that say Moses received communication from God and others that note he recorded laws and covenantal agreements and deposited them with the priests to be kept in the Tabernacle (e.g. Exodus 17:14, 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Occasionally, those documents were brought out and read to the people (the vast majority of whom did not read or have books of any kind). But nowhere is Moses indicated as the one who put the book together in its final form. In fact there are many factors that make that impossible, including the fact that the book contains the account of Moses’ death!
  • The Pentateuch also records the existence of other books (e.g. Genesis 5:1, Numbers 21:14) that Moses (or other authors or editors) used as sources.
  • In addition, the sections in the Pentateuch which contain laws for the community consist, by and large, of case laws: laws based on rulings by judicial authorities that were given to answer certain situations that arose. Therefore, they are not original to “the Law,” but reflect the ongoing development of Israel’s community life before they were recorded together as a group in a “book.”
  • Furthermore, it is likely that many stories and episodes had a long history of oral transmission and liturgical and pedagogical use before they were woven together in the form we have today in our Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann calls this the process of “traditioning” through “imaginative remembering.” As he describes it: “The remembering part is done in the intergenerational community, as parents tell and retell to children and grandchildren what is most prized in community lore” (Intro. to OT).
  • Finally, it is clear that the entire Old Testament, as well as particular sections such as the Torah, has been edited and shaped into a final form, the form we have today. This is the end result of the long “traditioning” process referred to above, and it culminated in the days of the Exile and afterward. The “Old Testament” in the form we have it is a product of the Babylonian Exile. The “Pentateuch” we read today is not the “Pentateuch” to which the people in Moses’ day had access. It was developed as the Israelites and their teachers remembered these stories and laws generation after generation, and then were moved by the crisis of the Exile to further compose, edit and shape the text into its final form. Those who did this are mostly unknown to us, but they left us with a priceless treasure.

Brueggemann summarizes:

First, there was a long process of traditioning prior to the fixing of the canon as text in normative form. Much of that process is hidden from us and beyond recovery. But we can see that in the precanonical traditioning process there was already a determined theological intentionality at work. Second, the actual formation of the canon is a point in the traditioning process that gives us “Scripture” for synagogue and for church. We do not know much about the canonizing process, except to notice that long use, including dispute over the literature, arrived at a moment of recognition: Jewish, and subsequently Christian, communities knew which books were “in” and which were not.

An Introduction to the Old Testament

Here is one simple example of the process and how it would have spoken to the Jewish people in exile, as noted by Brueggemann:

In Exodus 12-13, there is a pause in the narrative in order to provide detailed guidance for the celebration of the Passover that will remember the exodus as here narrated. It is curious that in the very telling of this defining wonder of deliverance, the tradition pauses in telling to provide for subsequent celebrations. It is, moreover, noteworthy that while Christians tend to glide over these two chapters of instruction easily and quickly, Jewish readers give primary attention to this material of instruction, for it is the repeated celebration of the memory of the exodus that sustains Jewish identity when it is under threat from dominant culture. I suspect that the tradition pauses so long and goes into such detail about celebration because the inculcation of the young was urgent and could not wait, not even until the end of the narrative of deliverance. The instruction, in its final form, aims at the young in exile who may be ready to turn away from the community into dominant culture. (IOT)

There are many more such examples, such as how the “creation” stories in Genesis 1-3 have been shaped to instruct and give hope to the exilic and post-exilic communities. Indeed, the entire introductory section of the First Testament — Genesis 1-11 — has a distinct “Babylonian” flavor to it. In the past generation, it has become clear that The Book of Psalms has been edited and shaped to answer questions raised by the Exile. Comparing books which deal with the same historical time periods, such as Kings and Chronicles, can also be most enlightening in this regard.

And we must not forget the big picture. Here is how I would put it in my own words:

When you step back and look at the final canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (especially in the way the Jewish people organized it as “Tanakh”), it becomes clear that a book which many have understood as law has actually been transformed into a book of eschatology, designed to encourage the faith of a displaced and downtrodden community of exiles, calling them to embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises to them.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    I’ve always loved that sweet Chagall painting. 🙂

  2. Susan Dumbrell says:

    http://www.artnews.com/2018/05/14/modigliani-nude-sells-157-2-m-sothebys-new-york-falling-short-estimate/

    Another beauty, she expresses so much of untold love and repressed connection.

    majesty hidden,
    fleeting joys, abject sorrows
    pain always just there

  3. Radagast says:

    At the time of the great split of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, older oral tradition was shaped to focus on what was important to each kingdom. At some point these traditions were combined but not wholly reconciled with each other as seen in the written tradition with the creation story in Genesis, the naming of places or landmarks etc. It seems once things were written down though, they were copied meticulously with each iteration.

  4. Daniel Jepsen says:

    I love your last paragraph.

    When I was at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem I was able to see KH1 and KH2, two tiny silver scroll fragments that contain the oldest biblical reference that has been found so far. The reference is to Numbers 6 (the priestly blessing) and the dating is from the 7th century BC (or possibly early 6th century BC).

    Which fits in with your post just fine, but would trouble those who view the Torah as made up, whole cloth, in the post-exilic period.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > made up, whole cloth, in the

      It seems that anyone who asserts anything was made “whole cloth” at any point is almost certainly wrong.

      🙂

    • When I first heard of the silver scroll discovery it brought tears to my eyes as I read it. It is because it relates to my favorite religious hymn, something of special, existential meaning. “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” is often sung in the churches I’ve attended. When the Harding University chorus came through town a decade ago, they asked alumni to come to the front to sing along and close out that evening’s concert. Isn’t it fitting that the oldest identifiable fragment of scripture should be this blessing. I think it is the most underrated piece of choral music there is.

      Here is a nice rendition by a group called Octarium:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB2FVlaPM-o

      • Christiane says:

        stunning choral a capella . . . . . The Aaronic Blessing . . . . what lovely blending in the ‘Amen’

        thank you for sharing this STEVE A

  5. Ronald Avra says:

    2 Corinthians 1:9 New International Version (NIV)

    9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
    “When you step back and look at the final canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (especially in the way the Jewish people organized it as “Tanakh”), it becomes clear that a book which many have understood as law has actually been transformed into a book of eschatology, designed to encourage the faith of a displaced and downtrodden community of exiles, calling them to embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises to them.”

    Faith is encouraged in a variety of circumstances in both testaments.

  6. Stephen says:

    Not to go on and on about it but I have to say I feel sadness for anyone who would want to unhitch themselves from all this. Good and bad. Dark and light. They’ll find when they do that all the power of the NT will have leaked right away.

  7. senecagriggs says:

    The church fathers, for millenia, have believed Moses was the author – though probably Joshua wrote of his passing.

    I vote with the church fathers. After all, he was educated in the Palace.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Written Word-for-Word by Moses in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe?

    • And the Church Fathers didn’t have the capacity to examine the literary and archaeological evidence in the same manner that we can.

      It might also be of interest to you that many Jewish scholars – who have a greater stake in the OT than we do – also think Mosaic authorship is problematic.

    • There is a huge pile of evidence in the Pentateuch itself that shows later authors involved in writing the book. We won’t go into that now. Safe to say, however, Seneca, that full Mosaic authorship is really no longer a legitimate option for anyone who examines the evidence. And the fact that anyone, even Jesus’ himself, referred to the books using Moses’s name is not evidence that Moses actually wrote it all. These are the books that are associated with Moses and the story of Moses. That’s all.

  8. Robert F says:

    When you step back and look at the final canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (especially in the way the Jewish people organized it as “Tanakh”), it becomes clear that a book which many have understood as law has actually been transformed into a book of eschatology, designed to encourage the faith of a displaced and downtrodden community of exiles, calling them to embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises to them.

    Given the gradual and in many places uncharted, unknown and out of sight development of the oral tradition and the Scriptures, where exactly do we find God’s promises to Israel, and what are they?

    • Christiane says:

      Hello Robert F,

      God’s promises to Israel?

      I always liked the ‘song’ of Zechariah who spoke when his son John the Baptist was born. It bridges the two testaments, in a manner of speaking. 🙂 It is found in the first chapter of the Holy Gospel of St. John:

      “68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      for He has visited and redeemed His people
      69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
      in the house of His servant David,
      70as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,
      71that we should be saved from our enemies
      and from the hand of all who hate us;
      72to show the mercy promised to our fathers
      and to remember His holy covenant,
      73the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
      74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
      might serve Him without fear,
      75in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
      76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
      for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,
      77to give knowledge of salvation to His people
      in the forgiveness of their sins,
      78because of the tender mercy of our God,
      whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
      79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

      • Christiane says:

        and the song of Simeon the Righteous:

        “29“Sovereign Lord, as You have promised,
        You now dismiss Your servant in peace.

        30For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
        31which You have prepared in the sight of all people,

        32a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
        and for glory to Your people Israel.”

        (from the Holy Gospel of St. Luke, ch. 2)

        • Christiane says:

          but my favorite of all, based on the Magnificat of Mary:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk0c4_Q4CTE

          • Robert F says:

            I was thinking of the promises of God to Israel before the Incarnation, Christiane, ones that the Jewish people would’ve been aware of from their tradition in the time before Christ, since that is what the post is dealing with. I was wondering where in the OT or oral tradition those could be found. I was also wondering if, due to the complexity of the formation of both oral tradition and Scripture, any promises received through them can rightly be received with simple trust, or if they first must pass through critical evaluation, interpretation and relativization, just as the tradition in toto must. If the latter is the case, then it weakens to a significant degree the sense in which ancient Israel could “embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises”; if the former, I would like to know how this is possible, given our understanding of the complexity of the tradition’s formation.

  9. Christiane says:

    “calling them to embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises to them”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=trhxP6VAOuc

    Mary’s Magnificat: a song based on her song . . . ‘the Canticle of the Turning’

    “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the
    God of my heart is great, And my spirit sings of the
    wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You
    fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my
    weakness you did not spurn, So from east to west shall my
    name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
    dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

    Though I am small, my God, my all, you
    work great things in me, And your mercy will last from the
    depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your
    very name puts the proud to shame, and to
    those who would for you yearn, You will show your might, put the
    strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
    dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

    From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
    stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
    justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
    hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
    food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
    mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
    dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

    Though the nations rage from age to age, we remeber
    who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver
    us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This
    saving word that out forebears heard is the
    promise which holds us bound, ‘Til the spear and rod can be
    crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
    dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
    and the world is about to turn!