The Original Story


Ideal for beginning students and readers of all faiths or none, The Original Story is a comprehensive and lively guide to the Hebrew Bible. This richly informative volume provides a complete introduction to Old Testament history, archaeology, geography, and textual interpretation - all at an accessible level. The core of the book explores central biblical themes, including the character of God, the human condition, ethics, human suffering, and God's relationship with the people of Israel. The authors further ...
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Ideal for beginning students and readers of all faiths or none, The Original Story is a comprehensive and lively guide to the Hebrew Bible. This richly informative volume provides a complete introduction to Old Testament history, archaeology, geography, and textual interpretation - all at an accessible level. The core of the book explores central biblical themes, including the character of God, the human condition, ethics, human suffering, and God's relationship with the people of Israel. The authors further consider various topics such as prophecy, law, and worship in the Old Testament.

The very readable text is complemented throughout by sidebars, fact boxes, maps, and illustrations. All features considered, The Original Story is one of the best guidebooks to the Hebrew Bible now available.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802829009
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 8/1/2005
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Original Story

By John Barton Julia Bowden

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 John Barton and Julia Bowden
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2900-7

Chapter One

The Basics - An Introduction to the Old Testament

1.1 Old Testament or Hebrew Bible?



* 'The Old Testament' is not a very exact term - different faith communities have different ideas about which books should be included and in what order they should be arranged.

* The Old Testament is sometimes referred to as 'The Hebrew Bible', 'The Hebrew Scriptures', 'The First Testament' or 'The Tanakh (or Tanak)'.

Many readers of this book will have encountered the Old Testament as the first, and by far the longer, part of a Christian Bible that is organized into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. However, some may have one that also contains a third section called the Apocrypha, and even if you have a two-part Bible, you may find that the Old Testament section contains some books not found in other two-part Bibles. Finally, if you buy a Jewish Bible you will find that it contains only the Old Testament books, but that these are arranged differently from the books in a Christian Bible. Our first task is therefore to try to explain this confusing situation.


Biblical books are said, both in Judaism and in Christianity, to be 'canonical' or part of the canon. Where the New Testament is concerned, all Christian Churches agree on which books are canonical: there are twenty-seven of them, and there has been no serious dispute about this since the fourth century CE at the latest. With the Old Testament, the picture is much more complicated.

Jews and Protestant Christians agree about which books belong in what Christians call the Old Testament, and Jews often call the Hebrew Bible or Hebrew Scriptures. However, Catholics recognize some extra books, which they refer to as deuterocanonical. In practice, the Catholic Old Testament contains these books on equal terms with the others, and they are often used for readings in church. These deuterocanonical books all have a Jewish origin, but from early in the Christian era Jews did not regard them as canonical, though at one time many Jews had had a high regard for them. The early Church used them freely, and it was not until the fourth century CE that any serious doubts were expressed about their status.

In the sixteenth century, at the time of the Reformation, Protestants decided that these books - which Jews by then definitely regarded as uncanonical - ought not to be part of the Old Testament. The Catholic Church, however, strongly affirmed that they should remain in the Bible. At that time, Protestants began to refer to these extra books as apocrypha, a Greek word originally meaning 'hidden books'. This term stuck, and nowadays these books, if they are included at all, are placed in a special section called 'The e Apocrypha' in Protestant Bibles.

Other Christian Churches such as the Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian Churches have Old Testament canons that contain still other books, but these are not likely to be encountered much in the West. Two books found in the Greek Orthodox, but not in the Catholic Bible, did find their way into the Protestant Apocrypha: a book called 1 Esdras, and a short prayer of repentance called the Prayer of Manasseh. Otherwise, the Apocrypha of Protestants contains the same works as the 'deuterocanonical' books of the Catholic Old Testament.

All this is very complicated, and the detailed differences do not matter very much in practice. What does need to be grasped is that 'the Old Testament' is not a very exact term, quite unlike the New Testament whose contents are fixed and agreed on by everyone. The e Old Testament is and always has been fuzzy at the edges. Everyone agrees on its basic core, but then there is an area of uncertainty. This is linked with the way the biblical canon developed.


To make matters more complex still, the different communities - Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant - that use the Old Testament do not agree about how to arrange it. So if you buy a Bible you may be puzzled by the order of the books as well as by the contents! In simple terms, Christian Bibles group books of similar types together in the order History-Teaching-Prophecy. The e Protestant order is the same as the Catholic one, but with the deuterocanonical/ apocryphal books left out completely or printed together in a section between the Old and New Testaments. In Catholic Bibles, the deutero canonical/apocryphal books are included in appropriate places, next to the books from the main list that they are most like. Hence, the 'wisdom' books in Catholic Bibles are arranged: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus/Sirach (the books in italics being the deuterocanonical ones).

Jewish Bibles are arranged in a different way altogether. Within Judaism, instead of the arrangement History-Teaching-Prophecy, the order is Torah-Prophets-Writings. In this instance, 'Torah' means the Pentateuch, so the first five books are identical to the Christian arrangement. However, then come the prophetic books, and these are thought of as including some of the 'histories' (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). After that, there is a miscellaneous section ('Writings') which contains the teaching books, such as Job and Proverbs, and some further 'histories', such as Chronicles and Esther. The historical reasons for these different arrangements are hard to discover, but they do suggest rather different ways of reading the various books.

Christians, whose Old Testament progresses from history, through teaching, and into prophecy seem to see the books as moving from the past, through the present, and into the future. This is quite significant once we remember that the next books in a Christian Bible will be the Gospels. You read the end of the book of Malachi, turn the page, and you are in St Matthew's Gospel, with its stress on how prophecies found their fulfilment in Jesus. Therefore, in a way the Old Testament builds up to a climax at the end, with prophecy as its aim and goal.

For Jews, the Bible works in a quite different way. The most important part is the beginning, the Torah. In these five books God reveals his laws to Israel through Moses. Whereas passages from other biblical books can be read from printed Bibles in the synagogue, for the Torah there are sacred handwritten scrolls, kept in a special chest, called the 'Ark', which has pride of place in the synagogue. These scrolls are handled with the utmost reverence. The rest of the Bible is seen as a sort of commentary on the Torah, whose importance lies in the teaching it gives to help people keep the laws more perfectly. So there is no sense that the Bible builds up to a climax. It is more like a set of concentric circles, with the Torah as the vital central one, and ripples spreading out more faintly as we move into the Prophets and the Writings.


For the earliest Christians, only what we now call the Old Testament was 'Scripture'. The e sayings of Jesus and stories about him in the Gospels, and the letters of teachers such as Paul were highly important, but they were not yet referred to as 'Scripture'. When early Christian writers talk about 'Scripture', they mean the Old Testament. That is clear within the New Testament itself, where we find phrases such as 'Scripture says' or 'it is written' as a way of introducing Old Testament passages.

However, once the books of the New Testament had come to be referred to as 'Scripture' too, then some way had to be found of distinguishing them from the older Jewish Scriptures. Fairly soon Christian writers began to talk about the Scriptures 'of the old covenant', by contrast with those 'of the new covenant'. In this they drew on the language of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (see Hebrews 7:22, 8:13, and especially 9:15), which speaks of a 'new covenant' made in Christ which extended God's original covenant with the Jewish people so as to include non-Jews - by then many Christians were non-Jews. The word 'covenant' in Greek is diatheke (pronounced dee-a-thee-kee), so the old Scriptures came to be called he palaia diatheke, 'the old covenant'. In Latin, 'covenant' is testamentum: hence our term 'Old Testament'. Before long most people no longer picked up the reference to 'covenant' in the word 'Testament', and the majority of Bible-readers today probably are unaware of it: for them 'Testament' means just 'a section of the Bible'.

Nevertheless, in recent times some people, both Jews and Christians, have come to feel that the term 'Old Testament' can sound dismissive - as though 'old covenant' means a covenant which is inferior compared with the new one. Jews themselves have seldom used the term 'Old Testament' anyway, since for them there is no new one with which to contrast it, but the feeling that it can sound offensive leads to the use of alternative English terms. The e commonest is 'Hebrew Bible' or 'Hebrew Scriptures', which does not contain the apparent suggestion of being out of date or inferior. However, it is not a perfect term because parts of the 'Hebrew Bible' are actually not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, a different though related language. Moreover, a version of the Old Testament which contains the deuterocanonical books is not identical to the version accepted by Jews, so it cannot really be referred to as the 'Hebrew Bible'. This term also creates a problem about what to call the 'New Testament' if there is no longer anything called the 'Old Testament'. A different solution used by some writers is to use the terms 'First Testament' and 'Second Testament' for the two sections of the Bible, and some Jews in modern times prefer simply to use the term Tanak or Tanakh for the Hebrew Bible.

In this book we shall use 'Old Testament' and 'Hebrew Bible' fairly interchangeably. Both are in current use, and for many people it does not much matter which is used. When speaking of the place of these books in Christianity, it makes sense to call them 'the Old Testament'; when concentrating on their Jewish context, 'Hebrew Bible' is more appropriate. Whichever we use, we are not trying to express a judgement about their religious status, just to identify the (fuzzy-edged) body of writings that is the subject of this book.

1.2 The Story So Far



* The history of Israel from the Old Testament's point of view begins with the creation of the world and, although Maccabees provides some ideas about the time between the Persian era and the first century BCE, peters out during the fifth or fourth centuries BCE when the Persian Empire was in control of Palestine.

* The history of Israel in the Old Testament is not history in the modern sense of the word, but gives the reader an important opportunity to understand what the biblical authors believed about God, his people, and the world.

In other parts of this book we shall look at the problems in reconstructing the history of ancient Israel on the basis of the texts and archaeological evidence available to us today. However, before we can do that, it is essential to have an idea of the Old Testament's own presentation of the history - the story that ancient Israelites told themselves about their past. In ordinary political terms Israel was a tiny nation constantly ruled and oppressed by larger neighbours, yet the Old Testament tells its story as though Israel was the most important nation on earth. All of human history, according to the Old Testament, found its focus in the story of Israel. In this chapter we shall retell the story from the Old Testament's own point of view. Only in that way can we read the biblical texts with empathy, understanding how things looked to their authors - however far from the historical reality their self-image may actually have been.


If we were writing the history of Britain or America, we should begin with the earliest historical (or prehistoric) evidence available. We should not begin with the creation of the world! But the Old Testament does begin there. It sees the story of Israel as belonging in a cosmic context. The God who is always there behind Israel's history is the God who created not just the nation but the whole universe. So the Bible begins with the creation of the world and the first humans to live on earth (Genesis 1-11), before it narrows down the story to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people ( from Genesis chapter 12).

In his account of the beginnings of the human race the biblical story-teller gives explanations for various features of human life - what are technically called aetiologies. The narrator explains the origins of human sin and violence, and of arts and crafts (Genesis 3 and 4), explains how humankind was nearly annihilated by a great flood (Genesis 6-9), and then goes on to account for the origins of the many human languages (Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel). Only then does he turn his attention to the origins of the Hebrews, who are to be the subject of the rest of the biblical story.


The rest of the book of Genesis tells the story of the 'fathers', as the Bible calls them: the patriarchs as they have come to be known in biblical studies. Their story is summed up in Deuteronomy 26:5:

'A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.'

The 'wandering Aramean' was Abraham's grandson, Jacob. He took his family to Egypt because of a famine in Palestine, where Abraham had previously settled after leaving Mesopotamia, far to the east of the Promised Land. His son Joseph had gone to Egypt before him, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. In Egypt, the descendants of Jacob multiplied until 'a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph' (Exodus 1:8).


'When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The e Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders....' (Deuteronomy 26:6-8)

It was under Moses, according to the book of Exodus, that God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt. Through a series of miracles with which God plagued the Egyptians he gradually wore them down, until in the end he killed all their first-born sons (Exodus 12:29-32). Then Moses led Israel out and brought them safely across the Red Sea, which lies between Egypt and the Promised Land of Israel. Because of the people's sinfulness, they had to wander in the desert for forty years before they were allowed to re-enter the land. During that time, Moses led them to Mount Sinai where they received the Ten Commandments and other laws, and God entered into a covenant with them. He promised to be their God; they in turn promised to be his people and to remain loyal to him. This was a promise that they constantly broke in their later history.


According to the Bible, Moses was not allowed to enter the land God had promised, but this was accomplished under his successor, Joshua. The occupation of the land was achieved partly through violent campaigns of conquest but also partly through gradual infiltration. However, in the end Israel was fully in control of an area reaching from Syria and Lebanon in the north to the borders of Egypt in the south, the whole of Palestine west of the River Jordan, and a good deal of territory to its east. It is a matter of great controversy among Old Testament scholars how close this picture is to being accurate but no one can doubt that that is how the Old Testament itself sees it. By the time of Joshua's death, Israel was, it seems, firmly in possession of all the land God had promised to Abraham when he brought him from Mesopotamia.


Excerpted from The Original Story by John Barton Julia Bowden Copyright © 2004 by John Barton and Julia Bowden.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Old Testament or Hebrew Bible? : the scriptures of Jews and Christians 3
The story so far : Israel tells its story 9
Where and who an earth? : the geography and peoples of the Old Testament world 19
The way they tell it : types of literature in the Old Testament 27
Watchmaker or living God? : the Old Testament view of God 39
The chosen people? : God's relationship with Israel 53
Who am I? : the Old Testament view of the human condition 65
How should we live? : ethics and the Old Testament 77
Why me? : the Old Testament view of human suffering 91
Can we know God? : religious experience in the Old Testament 107
Tall stories? : writing the history of Israel 119
Meet the ancestors : what can we know about the early history of Israel? 125
Give us a king! : what can we know about the monarchy in ancient Israel? 133
Refugee status : what can we know about the exile and return? 143
Loyal subjects? : what can we know about the 'second temple' period? 155
Digging up the Old Testament : the contribution of archaeology to the study of the Old Testament 165
The social scene : the social life of ancient Israel 179
Thus says the lord! : prophecy in ancient Israel 191
Hallelujah! : worship in ancient Israel 205
Can we cope? : wisdom literature in the Old Testament 221
The plot thickens : Israel's historians and story-tellers 235
Taking orders : law and instruction in the Old Testament 245
The number of the beast : apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament 257
Cut and paste : source criticism and the Old Testament 273
Word of month : form criticism and the Old Testament 283
Edit and format : redaction criticism and the Old Testament 293
A good read? : literary criticism and the Old Testament 301
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