The Old Testament in 39 minutes………
Why 39 minutes? By the end I’ll have revealed the answer. The first 5 books are the books of the Law Sometimes called the Torah, or the Pentateuch – for Jews it is the basis of their faith. For Orthodox Jews the laws are binding. Way back before the time of Jesus the Priests and Scribes etc would have committed all the Torah to heart - 199 pages in the Revised Standard Version. This story starts: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. The first book is Genesis
The World. 6 days of creation, then a day of rest.
Nations of the World/ different languages (Tower of Babel)
We see God’s disappointment when the Jews fall away from his requirements and we see an example of the punishment that he can bring - with a flood (Noah). The bulk of the book is a story about a family – Abraham, his wife Sarah, his son Isaac, Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau and Jacob’s sons (Joseph and his 11 brothers) More than anything else, though, it tells us of the beginning of the covenant relationship which God had with his chosen people. This first appears in Ch 17 of Genesis where God promises Abraham that he will be their God from then and for all generations to come and that he will give them the land of Canaan to be an everlasting possession. And so the Jewish race is born, and the idea of Canaan (what we now know as Israel) as the Promised Land. This covenant is repeated to the other Patriarchs – Noah, Isaac and to Jacob. Jacob is the one who had the 12 sons, if you remember, and the 11 brothers were all jealous of Joseph. I’m sure you are familiar with the story of how all the family finished up in Egypt. The end of Genesis tells
of Joseph on his death bed reminding his brothers of God’s covenant promise. Exodus Joseph was the link man. The story of a family now becomes the story of a nation as the 12 tribes of Israel are named after the 12 brothers. 350 years on from Genesis, Exodus is the story of Moses Exodus meaning literally “Way out” Life in Egypt has turned sour for the Jews. The Pharaoh is scared of their growing numbers and influence and so forces them into slavery. Moses has his vision of God at the burning bush which results in him leading the Jews out of Egypt, following the 10 plagues. They cross the Red Sea, they wander in the wilderness, they receive the 10 commandments, they build their holy Tabernacle (a sort of portable temple). D.L. Moody said this of Moses: Moses spent 40 years thinking he was somebody, 40 years learning he was nobody 40 years discovering what God can do with a nobody! Leviticus The book of laws. The author makes clear that these laws came from God. This is the handbook for the Jews – a book of religious training, of all the ways to carry out worship. It deals with offerings and festivals and Sabbath rules and regulations e.g Jews are not allowed to walk further than 2000 cubits on the Sabbath day (this may explain why Jews try to live within very close proximity to the synagogue). And it is about keeping the body holy as well as the soul. This is all about man worshipping and a summary of the theme is found in Lev 16: God says – Be holy as I am holy Numbers This describes the wilderness wandering from Mount Sinai to Canaan The people in this book are the 2nd generation Jews after the exodus from Egypt. It tells how they struggled to uphold God’s laws, failed at times and then found favour again with God. Numbers Ch33 tells us this is the book of the March and the Roll Call. We learn more of Moses and his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam.
But the really surprising thing we learn when we read it carefully is that the 40 years of wandering need never have been. They actually reached the borders of Canaan a couple of weeks after leaving Egypt. They sent spies into the land to see what it was like and they came back reporting of high walled cities and giant people. Most of the Jews were afraid and said “let’s go back to Egypt”. So they spent the next 40 years wandering the wilderness between the 2 countries. If only they had had the courage of their convictions! The real irony is that Moses could have led them into the Promised Land instead of dying on the mountain top overlooking it, 40 years later. Deuteronomy The second law A book of the collections of farewell speeches by Moses to the children of Israel There is much repetition of the law, - a lot of “thou shalt and thou shalt not”. He constantly reminds them what God has done for them and will do in the future. In time it covers only about 2 months and is the preparation for them entering Canaan. It marks the culmination of the Covenant promise to Abraham made centuries before. “I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey”. It records Moses’ death, which for biblical scholars is helpful as tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah, but obviously he didn’t write all of it! The books of History. Throughout the OT we have memorable people who stand at the crossroads of history. We have heard about Abraham and Moses already – who would be the memorable people from our own era, I wonder? (Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa??) Look out for others as we continue through these books of history. Moses is dead, Joshua is now leading the people as they enter the Promised Land. Joshua is another of our key people. He was the link between past and future. He had been in slavery in Egypt, wandered the wilderness and learnt the lessons of law and worship and now he arrives in the holy land. The 12 tribes of Israel, named for the 12 sons of Jacob, took over various areas of the country. The book of Judges covers the following 350 years or so – from the death of Joshua to the 1st King, - Saul.
The Judges ruled the people as leaders and we hear all about the struggles and battles with foreign groups and the difficulties that the Jews had in adjusting to their new settled life. There is a lot of repetition – the people disobey God, turn from him and get involved in all sorts of sinful behaviour. God then finds new methods of deliverance to bring them back to him through the work of the Judges. There were 14 in all: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson, Eli, Samuel. Between them they were Warriors, Priests and Prophets. Ruth This is a delightful story which gives a picture of domestic life during the early period of the Judges (which is probably why it is placed here in the O.T.) The book of Ruth is like an episode of “Lark rise to Candleford” in between Panorama and Newsnight. Another reason for its importance is that it gives us the ancestry of King David – Ruth was his great grandmother. Samuel is another great OT character who stands at a crossroads of Jewish history. He was the last of the Judges. And he was the Kingmaker for the future. It was the people who demanded a King, so that they could be like the other nations round them. Samuel was not happy. God was the only King that Israel should have. But God granted their request and Saul was chosen. It started well. He was tall, handsome, and very successful in battle against the enemies of Israel, including the Philistines. But he became too big for his boots, too worried about his own success. He lost sight of leading his people according to the will of God. He also became very jealous of the young shepherd boy, David, who had killed the giant Philistine Goliath. Samuel constantly mourned for Saul’s failings and tried to bring him back to the right way. Eventually Saul was killed in battle and God told Samuel to anoint a new King. After much searching, guided by God, David was chosen. The book of 2 Samuel describes his enthronement as King and the establishment of the house of David. During his reign the boundaries of the kingdom reached their furthest extent, Jerusalem became the
capital city and it was a time of success both politically and religiously. So much so, that for ever after the people longed for a King of the line of David. Next we move on to the books of Kings and Chronicles which cover a period of about 400 years. David was succeeded by his son, Solomon, who completed the building of the Temple in Jerusalem – a magnificent structure which was the centre of religious life for the whole country. We learned in Leviticus how the people were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the great festivals, e.g. Passover and Jews to this day still try to do that at least once in their lives. Solomon also oversaw the vast building programme of all his palaces. How many palaces does one King need you ask yourselves. Lots! He had 300 wives and 700 concubines (mistresses). The result of this was peace throughout his reign because as he had married every available foreign princess from neighbouring countries, no one wanted to invade Israel as their daughters were living there. Early in his reign God appeared to him and told him he could have whatever he wished (he certainly didn’t need any more wives!) Solomon asked to be given wisdom. Even now we talk about the wisdom of Solomon However all good things come to an end and by the end of his reign the people were upset by the high taxes they had to pay to fund his building programme. More importantly, there was religious decline. After his death the glorious Kingdom broke into 2 – the N Kingdom which was then called Israel, and the S Kingdom of Judah. Try to keep this in mind from now on as it forms the background for all the remaining books of the OT The N Kingdom was ruled by a succession of Kings who led the people further and further away from God and true worship, despite the best efforts of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Eventually what the prophets foretold came true and the N Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC For more than a century the S Kingdom went on, ruled by different Kings, with much the same problems as the North, until in 587 BC the Babylonians invaded the country, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens captive back to Babylon. 1 & 2 Chronicles need to be seen alongside the 2 following books of Ezra and Nehemiah. By now the Jews who had been taken away as captives are back in their own land. So these books describe the rebuilding of the nation. This occurred over an extended period. Nehemiah was the Governor and Ezra was a priest. During this time, (5th Century BC), the city walls were replaced and the Temple was rebuilt. This Temple was plain and simple, a stark contrast to the splendour of Solomon’s Temple. Also we see the beginning of Synagogue worship. Because the Jews who had been in Babylon had been without a temple to worship in, they had developed other ways of worshipping and this was extended after their return. Synagogues were local small places of worship and Jewish worship has continued in synagogues to this day. So, this is a period of growth. The people are ready for a new relationship with God. The promise of a redeemer who will come is renewed. Esther The second of the books that are just called writings – the first was Ruth and here we have another charming story featuring a woman. Put here in the OT because it is set in the 5th century BC. It’s a lovely story of the bravery of a Jewish girl, Esther, who managed to save the lives of a Jewish community who had settled as immigrants in Persia, during the reign of King Ahasuerus. The Jewish festival of Purim (March 20th in 2011) celebrates this event. (Interestingly Esther is the only book in the OT where God is never mentioned by name.) These history books have covered a huge period of time from the Exodus through some 900 years!! That takes us to the end of the period covered by the Old Testament. All the remaining books are set during this period of history, so there is some repetition of events but with the emphasis on the individuals that God worked through during this time. The books of Wisdom and Poetry - All these following books deal with experiences of the heart and are written in poetic language. Job Tennyson called this “the greatest poem, whether of ancient or modern literature” This book deals with why people, especially good, innocent people, suffer.
At the beginning we see Job as a faithful follower of God who was blessed with everything. He loses everything and his health suffers (he is afflicted with awful boils over his whole body) and his friends - Job’s comforters - arrive to offer advice. But their advice is the conventional idea of the time that Job must have done something wrong to deserve all this misfortune (very comforting!). Despite the common saying about the patience of Job, through most of the long poetic sections he is anything but patient. He rails against God and demands to meet with him face to face to get an explanation from him as to why he is suffering like this. But in a strange way he also retains his belief in God. “I know that my redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25) Finally God speaks to Job, who forgets all that he was going to say (we know those moments don’t we? – a passionate speech practised in the middle of the night, goes clean out of the window when we are faced with the real person in the light of day!). All Job can do is fall down in worship and renew his commitment to God. “I know that you can do all things – he says – I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” He is reassured that God does care for him, even in the midst of pain. The story ends with Job blessed with double what he had before. Psalms 150 of them They are called the psalms of David. He was known as a musician and it seems certain that some were written by him. They are songs of praise. For the Jewish people they were like Hymns Ancient and Modern are for us. We see the life of the believer in good times and bad, in joy and sorrow, in victory and failure, all written in beautiful poetic form. Think of “the Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want.” Proverbs This is the practical handbook of how to live your life. It is called the proverbs of Solomon – because of his reputation for wisdom. This is where to look if you want advice on any aspect of life – good manners, relationships between parents and children, work situations, All set within the religious context of the covenant relationship between the Jews and God. A good summing up of the advice might be: “Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers all wrongs” Ecclesiastes The name means preacher The message is: why does life often seem meaningless? A casual glance might make you think this book is a bit depressing – the headings for the first few chapters include: Everything is meaningless Pleasures are meaningless Wisdom and folly are meaningless Toil is meaningless Advancement is meaningless Riches are meaningless But the author looks at everything that might give pleasure – including gardening, cattle breeding and art collecting and concludes that nothing does - only to love God and keep his commandments. In this pessimistic and gloomy book there is one outstanding passage of poetry. Ch 3 “There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under Heaven…….”. The Song of Songs Otherwise known as the Song of Solomon This is a poetic love song (and if anyone should know about how to write a love poem it’s Solomon!) Its theme is how the love of a husband for his wife mirrors the love that God has for his people. The Prophets These cover the period of history already dealt with in the history books, We’ve already seen what a turbulent time the Jews lived through from the setting up of the united kingdom under Saul to the return after the captivity in Babylon. So it is not surprising that there were many prophets because these were men called by God at times in Israel’s history when the voice of God needed to be heard. They were deeply aware of the political situation but they saw it always in the context of God’s relationship with Israel. They have a deep sense of God’s love and many of them look forward to a time of the New
Covenant, which ultimately we as Christians believe was fulfilled by Jesus. In the canon of the OT these books are not arranged in chronological order but rather according to their importance which is judged most often on the length of the book. Thus we find Isaiah as the first of the books of the prophets because it has 66 chapters. To help make the story easier I’m going to organise them chronologically. Prophets before the Exile to Babylon These were the people who spoke to Israel and Judah about the punishment that was coming their way. Because they turned from God, they would suffer at the hands of foreign invaders. But, before we get on to the main group of prophets, let’s look at Jonah because this is a one off book. This is another self - contained story, much like Ruth and Esther, and you will all have heard about Jonah and the whale. It is interesting because Jonah was called to be a prophet , not to the Jews but to the people of Nineveh. This was the capital city of Assyria and it was at the time when they were very powerful and about to attack Israel (the N Kingdom). Jonah was unwilling to do this (hence ending up in the whale – read Jonah if you don’t know the details) but eventually he did. The theme is to show that God cares for all people not just the Jews. This is much more NT in theme, rather than OT. Now to the prophets who spoke to the Jews:- Amos – a shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees. He spoke to the people of Israel, the N Kingdom, (remember our divided Kingdoms after the death of Solomon). His book is full of fiery language. He condemns almost every aspect of the life of the people in the N Kingdom of Israel. They lie, cheat, oppress the poor, accept bribes, worship foreign idols, live lazy lives (Amos 6 “You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions”…….!) But he holds out some hope in the very last chapter. Having warned that they will be cut down by the Assyrians, he finishes by saying “I will plant Israel again in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them” (Amos 9:15)
Hosea Almost contemporary with Amos – he also condemns Israel just as roundly but in a framework of forgiveness. Hosea himself forgave his adulterous wife and took her back, and so he sees God as taking back Israel. He also uses the analogy of a father’s love for his son. The idea of the need for punishment, but the caring that lies behind it is familiar throughout all the prophets. You could sum it up as “Tough Love” Isaiah This book in total covers some 250 years and is the product of at least 3 different authors or schools of authors. The later 2 sections were almost certainly written by disciples of the original prophet Isaiah. So we have Isaiah, and 2nd Isaiah and 3rd Isaiah. Isaiah himself lived in Jerusalem and he warned the King of Judah, the S Kingdom, against making any alliances with surrounding nations to try to save him from invasion by the Assyrians, who were in the process of invading the N Kingdom. His line is “trust in God” He, like Micah, speaks of a time when eventually a Messiah will come . We know Micah best for his prophecy that a new ruler will come from Bethlehem – a king like David. We hear this part of his message every Christmas as it is quoted in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah”….(Matthew 2:6) The next lot of prophets were preaching to Judah after the Assyrian conquest of Israel. They are Zephaniah, Habbakuk and Nahum Their message is familiar – the people are going astray and will be punished. However, they must remember that even when things look pretty grim for them, God is in control and he can be trusted to do what is right for them. (Nahum is interesting because this short book is full of glee about the fact that the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, has now been destroyed by the Babylonians. So those who hurt Israel will suffer! Such unadulterated pleasure at this might seem a bit offensive to us.) There is an immense amount of repetition in the books of prophets so it’s good that we don’t have time to explore in detail each one!
But Jeremiah is one that we do need to look at. We know more about Jeremiah as a person than anyone else. He was unwilling, even though God called him to be a prophet and yet in the end he has left us with some of the most inspiring words of the whole O.T He saw the evils of the people and how they had broken away from God. As a result he says that Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed by the Babylonians His advice to the King of Judah was to surrender to the Babylonians He was therefore regarded as a traitor and imprisoned. Eventually what he had prophesied came true and he was taken, along with many other leading Jews, into captivity in Babylon. But his enduring message to his people then was that God would bring them back and that he would establish a new covenant with them and that covenant would be written on their hearts. Lamentations This is poetry attributed to Jeremiah and therefore put immediately after him in the OT Prophets during the exile in Babylon This is during the time, about 70 years, when the captive Jews were in Babylon. The Jews taken to Babylon as captives were in shock and despair. But the prophets of this period are notable for their sense of hope about the future. They believe that God will deliver them from exile and they will return to the promised land, the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezekiel His work is full of strange visions (e.g.the valley of dry bones) He thinks the punishment of the people was warranted, but he also speaks of a Good Shepherd who will come to lead the people, how the N and S Kingdoms will be re-united, the Temple will be rebuilt, and worship of God will recommence. Second Isaiah was also written at this time, as was the book of Daniel.
This is another book full of visions and symbolic language. During their time in Babylon Daniel and his friends persisted in their own faith in opposition to the Babylonian rulers and as a result were protected by God. Its purpose was to inspire and encourage people in times of persecution Prophets after the exile We’ve now moved on in time almost to the end of the time covered by the OT. The Jewish slaves from Babylon have now returned and the next group of prophets are the ones who tried to set them off on the right path again. Obadiah, Joel, Haggai and Zechariah We have an interesting picture from these books about the difficulties faced by those who returned. We know from the history in Ezra and Nehemiah that eventually the temple was rebuilt, but it is significant that those who had remained in Judah and had not been taken captive to Babylon, wanted no part of it. They had built a small temple of their own near Jerusalem in the area of Samaria and they regarded themselves as the true Jews. However, those returning regarded themselves as the true Jews who had remained faithful throughout their time in Babylon. So, we have 2 sets of Jews and 2 temples and lots of antagonism. The Samaria group came to be called Samaritans and we know from Jesus’ time how the enmity between the 2 had not healed with time. (Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan). So it was the task of these prophets, along with 3rd Isaiah and Malachi to motivate the people and encourage them to look forward. They see in some future time a Day of Judgement (or Day of the Lord) – a day when all the faithful will be blessed and those who have turned from God will be punished (this is still the OT remember!) This near the end we see how easy it would have been to have sung our way through the OT! Noah and his rainbow song Jacob and sons Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat The Lord bless you and keep you (from Numbers) Joshua fit the battle of Jericho Samson - clip, clip, clip went the clippers, Delilah (especially for the Stoke city supporters)
Zadok the Priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King The arrival of the Queen of Sheba The Lord is my Shepherd from the Psalms I know that my redeemer liveth from Job Dem bones, dem bones…. Ezekiel Boney M and “By the waters of Babylon” (Psalms) The O T finishes with a really interesting promise – that the Day of the Lord will be heralded in by the return of the prophet Elijah, who will precede the Messiah. How significant then that the New Testament ministry of Jesus starts with John the Baptist (who many thought was Elijah returned), heralding the arrival of the Lamb of God. So we finish with the thoughts of Malachi, the 39th book of the OT
(Notes We must remember that the Jews would never refer to this as the OT! The OT is the prequel to the NT for Christians. The canon of the OT was finally set by a council of Jews in AD 90 at a place called Jamnia Earliest use of the description “Old Testament” comes from the Bishop of Sardis in180 AD The New Testament canon did not become set until the Christian council of Carthage in 397 AD)
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