RCIA Presentations

5. The Older Testament

(for a fuller treatment see my website: mbfallon.com

Go to Link ‘Introduction to the Older Testament (8 lectures)

From the beginning of the human race, God has been drawing everyone into divine communion. Those who chose to respond have found salvation.

 

The following is an aerial view of ancient Babylon. People there, and, indeed, everywhere in the world, were loved by God 'who wills everyone to be saved'(1Timothy 2:4).

The people of Israel in the northern kingdom, and the Jews in the south ex[perienced what was for them a special covenant relationship with God. In the first of the following images we see a Samaritan priest with the scroll. The second is an illustration of the temple in Jerusalem, and in the third we see a Jewish Rabbi kissing the scroll.

 

 

The following is a scene from the market in Nazareth. These people, too, longed for love and strove to know. In so far as they were responding to grace, they were welcoming God's offer of communion.

The Bible is a record of limited human insights inspired by God that real people have expressed to other real people in limited human words and in specific cultural and historical circumstances. There is beauty and truth in the Bible texts. To find them (as distinct from imposing on the text our own preconceived notions) we will need to explore the historically conditioned and necessarily limited human experiences that gave rise to their inspired insights.

The Older Testament is the fruit of centuries of reflection by people who were convinced that their God, YHWH, the lord of creation and the lord of history, had chosen them in love and had a special mission for them in the world. They believed that there was a special providence guiding their history. They kept reflecting on it to remember God’s love and covenant with them, and to discern God’s will, as well as to learn from their mistakes, and so become more sensitive, attentive and faithful. They cherished their traditions, including the reflections of those who went before them, but they knew that no words, however sacred, can comprehend the mystery that is God, and so they kept questioning, refining and adapting earlier insights in the light of newer revelation.

Reflecting on their history, the authors liked quoting Jeremiah who said: ‘Is not my word like fire, says YHWH, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?’(23:29). They liked to break open the word to see the sparks of light which issued from it, revealing the divine enlightenment hidden within. The more meanings they were able to discover, the better. They delighted in playing with the text as one might play with a prism, enjoying the hundred and one reflections and flashes of colour that delight the eye and enlighten the heart. The texts expressed inspired insights into the presence and action of a living God in their history. No text could hold it all, and so the history of the development of the Older Testament is a history of prayerful debate, discussion and refinement, always in the light of historical experience.

This continued into the Newer Testament. Jesus’ disciples reflected on the sacred texts in the light of the new revelation that they experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. They came to what they believed was a deeper understand of God’s intention in inspiring the scriptures – an understanding that was hidden prior to God’s revelation in Jesus.

‘If there is anyone who tries to turn to the Lord’, he ought to pray that ‘the veil might be removed’ from his heart  – ‘for the Lord is the Spirit’ . He ought to pray that the Lord might remove the veil of the letter and uncover the light of the Spirit, that we might be able to say that ‘beholding the glory of the Lord with open face we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord’(Origen c.240).

Inspiration

Inspiration does not mean that God dictated the words that the inspired authors wrote. We cannot bypass the task of finding out what it was that the inspired authors were actually saying, or how they were understood by their contemporaries, or why their words were treasured, copied and handed on. The inspired texts guided people to live their lives in their real world. They did not remove them from it.

Of course factual information is important in our attempt to discover truth. However, too much emphasis on ‘facts’ can lead to a distortion, and a failure to acknowledge the more subtle access to truth that is offered, for example, in the arts, which appeal not so much to the logic of discursive reasoning as to the imagination, thus opening the way to insight.

For the most part the Older Testament offers us truth as truth is expressed in story. Only rarely do we find in it what we would regard as history. The authors are interested in history, in the sense that they are interested in real people and their lives, but they are interested in connecting their contemporaries with the precious religious insights that have come down to them from their ancestors, and they have no trouble in using folklore and legend if they help to achieve this aim. Like all the writings of the ancient Near Eastern world, they draw on oral tradition, in which on-going interest wields more power than concern for historical accuracy. They write to engage the imagination, and so they rely heavily on story to communicate insight into the truth.

Robert Alter in his The Art of Biblical Narrative (Allen & Unwin, 1981, page 189) writes:

The Hebrew writers manifestly took delight in the artful limning [depicting] of these lifelike characters and actions, and so they created an unexhausted source of delight for a hundred generation of readers.  But that pleasure of imaginative play is deeply interfused with a sense of great spiritual urgency. The biblical writers fashion their personages with a complicated, sometimes alluring, often fiercely insistent individuality, because it is in the stubbornness of human individuality that each man and woman encounters God or ignores Him, responds to, or resists, Him. Subsequent religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than to enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.

The faith of Israel is a historical faith, essentially related to ways in which God has been experienced in their history, but truth does not have to be expressed by accurate statements of historical fact. The authors were real human beings whose aim was to alert their contemporaries to the meaning of their history for their current circumstances, not to establish an accurate historical record. Their explicit focus was not on accurate historical detail but on the way they understood God to have acted in the past and to be acting in their present. The biblical writers are not seeking to give their readers historically accurate information about their past; they are interested in forming the consciousness of the nation by keeping before them the stories that remind them of who they are and what they are called to be. The aim of the authors is to fix attention on God and on God’s continuing relationship with Israel. They look to the past through the stories handed down over many generations, stories based on real experiences the exact details of which have long been lost.

The question to be asked as we read these stories is not: ‘Can we be confident that we are reading historically accurate accounts of past events? It is rather: ‘Is God really the way he is presented here? And are we to respond to God in the way this account states?’ In light of the fact that so many good people are responsible for the writing, and that the stories have been reflected on, treasured, preserved and handed on by faithful people for centuries, and allowing for the necessary imperfections of people and language, we should surely trust that the inspired insights will guide us well. As disciples of Jesus we have the wonderful advantage of being able to check these stories against the full revelation that we see in him, so that we can discern the imperfections and benefit from the truths these stories contain.

As the Second Vatican Council states, we can be confident that these texts express ‘without error that truth which God willed to be put down in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation’(Dei Verbum, 11). Before all else the Bible is a truthful statement of God’s faithful love, expressed of course in the limited, imperfect, and historically conditioned way in which human authors necessarily speak and write of such matters. The community considers these texts foundational, and continues to experience God’s inspiration through them. If we are to be open to the movements of God’s Spirit as we read these texts, if we are to read these texts in the spirit in which they were written and preserved, and be guided in our response to God’s will in the changing circumstances of our lives, we must do all we can to understand what the texts aimed to say and why they were preserved and handed down to us.

Bible texts

• The earliest texts were probably composed in Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom (Israel) in the 8th century BC. These consisted of fragments of legal and cultic material, and individual stories and small narrative cycles about Jacob and Joseph. The earliest of the writing prophets, Amos (762-750BC) and Hosea (750-724BC) were active in Israel.

• This material was brought south to Jerusalem by refugees fleeing from the Assyrian invaders after the destruction of Samaria in 721BC. The prophets Isaiah (740-700BC) and Micah (740-725BC) were active in Jerusalem in the second half of the 8th century.

Judah 721

• During the 7th century a school of scribes worked on the spiritual and legal material that would eventually be incorporated in the Book of Deuteronomy. In the latter part of the century they found a king (Josiah) who was open to the reforms they sought. This was also the period of the prophets Nahum (620-612BC), Habakkuk (605-590BC) and Jeremiah (608-586BC).

• Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonian army in 597 and destroyed in 586. The king and leading citizens were taken into exile in Babylon. The available evidence favours the conclusion that at the beginning of the exile there did not yet exist a continuous organize account of the primeval history (Genesis 1-11), or the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 12-50), or the Exodus epic and the desert wanderings (Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers), or the conquest of Canaan (Joshua & Judges). Work on these began during the exile and was completed in the years after the return to Judah. This leads to a most significant conclusion. The Torah as we have it was composed against the background of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the end of the monarchy and the exile. We should expect these calamitous events to cast a huge shadow over the text, as well as situate the key questions that the authors were desperate to answer as they pieced the story together.

• Babylonian Exile (597-538). The exiles who were reflecting on God’s action in their history had lost land, temple and king. They were living in what was in many ways a superior culture. They had to learn a new humility, and a new faith in God not based on prosperity and success. It was in exile that we get the first glimmers of monotheism. The exiles saw themselves as a worshipping community, with God dwelling among them. The synagogue replaced the temple. They struggled to discover where they had gone wrong. They assumed that God was behind the destruction of the temple and city and they wondered what they should do to bring about the purification without which they could not earn God’s favour. In the early years of th exile we have the writings of the prophet Ezekiel (593-571BC). A number of ‘Schools’ debated these issues, including the ‘Deuteronomic School’ who were largely responsible for the Book of Deuteronomy and the ‘history’ from Joshua through to their own time; the ‘Priestly School’ who worked on Exodus and Leviticus (and later Numbers); the ‘Isaiah School’ who worked on the prophecies of Isaiah and added the material now found in the Isaiah Scroll chapters 40-55 (545-538BC).

We are left to imagine the dialogue, debate and discussion that went on among these various groups. They all assumed that it was God who brought about the catastrophe to punish them and to bring them to change their ways.

• Judah (Yehud) as a province in the western area of the Persian Empire (538-450). A number of prophets belong to this period: Haggai (520BC), Zechariah (520-518BC), the Isaiah School (516-458BC), and, in the 5th century: Joel, Obadiah and Malachi. As their work developed, the various ‘Schools’ that were responsible for the compiling of the Pentateuch had not only the experience of the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile to ponder over, they also experienced the ‘miracle’ of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia, and his edict allowing the exiles to return home to the Promised Land. In his Introduction toReading the Pentateuch (Eisenbrauns 2006) page 94 Jean Louis Ska SJ writes: ‘The legislative texts and the narratives have been re-read, corrected, reinterpreted andupdated several times in accordance with new situations and the need to answer new questions.’ He goes on to say (page 141): ‘The reconstruction of the temple and the restoration of a faith-community within the Persian Empire created a new situation that undoubtedly called for the revision and reinterpretation of the “data” presented by the sources and the most ancient traditions.’  Ska speaks of ‘the Priestly Writer’ and says: ‘He knows the ancient sources and presupposes that the reader knows them. He dialogues with these traditions, corrects and reinterprets them, and proposes a new vision of Israel’s history. Throughout all of this he develops his own theology, which is both independent of and related to the ancient tradition’(page 147).

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, the post-exilic authors wanted to form again the people of Israel, worshipping God faithfully in the restored temple and faithful to the covenant made with them long ago by God. If we place ourselves among these returned exiles we are giving ourselves the best opportunity to read the Torah as it was composed to be read.

Those who produced the Torah in the period after the exile saw their experience as in many ways a reliving of the experience of Moses and their ancestors, who, like them, had lived in exile and had been led across the desert to the Promised Land. They wanted to tell again the story of Moses, to recall the wonders of God’s power, mercy and faithfulness. They wanted to tell the story again in a way that their contemporaries could identify their experiences as like those of their ancestors, and so learn from the past what it means to live as God’s chosen people.  They faithfully included the material that had come down to them from Israel and Judah – how much, we do not know. They did not want to experience again the terrible years of abandonment and exile, so they wanted to warn their contemporaries not to repeat the sins of their forebears, but to live pure lives in accordance with God’s will as that will had come down to them from their ancestors.

The post-exilic authors saw their experience also as a re-living of the experience of the patriarchs, for like the patriarchs, they had come from outside and were living in a land, promised to them, but not possessed by them. They gathered the stories available to them – how much, we do not know –  and put them together in such a way as to reflect on the faithfulness of God to his promises, thus encouraging the returned exiles and the people who had stayed behind to continue to believe in the promise and the mission given them by God.

While in Babylon the exiles had come into contact with myths about the beginnings of the world and of the human race – myths like that of Atrahasis, composed in the ancient  Akkadian language of the 17th century BC, and the Enuma Elish of the 12th century BC. The post-exilic authors placed the stories of the patriarchs and Moses within the larger perspective of YHWH, the lord of creation as well as of history. They wanted to show that they traced themselves as a people right back to the beginnings. More than that, it was they, the people of Israel, through whom God had chosen to reveal his true Self to the world. They wanted to be faithful to this mission.

Writings (Kethuvim) in the Hebrew Bible

So far we have been concentrating on the Torah and the Prophets. The third group of writings in the Hebrew Bible are the Writings. Most of these come from the period after the return to Judah afteer the exile.

1. The Psalms. The Book of Psalms has been called the song-book of the second (post-exilic) temple. Some of them are more ancient, but, as one would expect for music in the liturgy, they were preserved, but also adapted. (se my commentary, Chevalier Press 2005)

2. The Lamentations. Composed for the most part in the sixth century, and expressing the grief of those left behind in Judah after the destruction of the city in 587 (see my commentary in 'Israel's Festival Scrolls', Chevalier Press 2011)

3. Proverbs. Some are quite ancient, and express traditional wisdom in pithy aphorisms (see my commentary in 'Proverbs and Job' Chevalier Press 2011).

4. Job - questioning traditional wisdom (see my commentary in 'Proverbs and Job' Chevalier Press, 2011).

5. Ecclesiastes (Qohelet). Like Job the author questions traditional wisdom (see my commentary in 'Israel's Festival Scrolls', Chevalier Press 2011).

6. The Song of Songs. A celebration of sexual love (see my commentary in 'Israel's Festival Scrolls', Chevalier Press, 2011)

7. Ruth. A charming short story (see my commentary in 'Israel's Festival Scrolls', Chevalier Press, 2011).

8. The Book of Esther. A court tale (see my commentary in 'Israel's Festival Scrolls', Chevalier Press, 2011).

9. Daniel. Drawing on ancient court tales, the author is encouraging those being persecuted (167-164) under Antiochus to persevere in their faith (see my commentary included as an appendix to 'Israel's Fifth Century Prophets', Chevalier Press, 2011)

10. Ezra & Nehemiah. The story of Judah after the return from exile.

11. 1 & 2 Chronicles. A re-look at the story of the kings of Judah, with special focus on the temple and the temple cult.

Writings in the Jewish and Christian Greek Version of the Old Testament

1. The Book of Tobit. A short story

2. The Book of Judith. A short story

3. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) a Wisdom Book from the second century BC

4. The Book of Wisdom. A Wisdom Book from the first century BC

5. Baruch. The story of Jeremiah's secretary

6. Additions to the Books of Esther and Daniel

7. 1&2 Maccabees. The story of the Jewish war of independence in the second century BC.

8. There are also 3&4 Maccabees and various documents named after the fifth century BC priest Ezra.