The Old Testament as History

This will be the first post in what I hope will be a series of posts simply writing up my thoughts and findings as I progress through the ‘Old Testament’ playlist on from Bible Project. I am not a devout believer in any sense, I am simply curious about the texts as just that – texts that draw upon historical influences and in turn have a hugely significant historical impact of its own.

Even if you don’t believe in any of the world’s religions I feel religious texts deserve the same weighting as the Magna Carta or Shakespeare, probably more so, in their impact on human history.

I have had a lifelong fascination with Christianity, with the chief catalyst being a semester long student exchange at the University of Arkansas in 2005. Coming from ‘Red Essex’ (as it was once known) going to ‘Redneck’ territory was certainly something of an eye opener! I left with a quiet admiration for the way their society had been shaped by the faith – but a longing to discover ‘how’ this came into being. Being from the Old World, it took a stay in the New World to make me look again at my own society and culture. This is of course the very purpose of travel!

I hope these notes and findings can be of use to the casual reader but I will admit I am writing and posting them mainly as a mechanism to track my own thoughts. If you have stumbled across these posts and wish to leave any comments or start a conversation on twitter (@pbgrange) then I would love to hear from you.

I am also watching these in conjunction with reading Dairmaid MacCulloch’s epic ‘History of Christianity’ and I am blogging about that separately – the first link in that series being here: https://www.wolseyacademy.com/single-post/2020/04/28/A-History-of-Christianity--Before-Christianity---A-Study-Project

So, without further ado – the first set of notes from the first video!

When I do these notes I will initially try a system of listing points from the videos followed by some of my own ‘takeaways’ at the end in a smaller, second section.

Old Testament: An Overview!

  • These books are split into 4 categories: Pentateuch, History, Poetry & Prophets. This organization is a Christian invention, the Jewish Tanak is organized differently. The Torah is the first section of the Tanak (the sections are Torah, Nevi’im and the Ketuvim).

  • Moses and David were two of the authors and organisers, it took a long time with lots of different authors.

  • Torah:

  • Genesis: Creates the world and creates creatures in his image called ‘Adam’ in Hebrew (Humans, in English). They live in Eden. The snake convinces them to betray God and they are expelled.

  • The Humans thrash around trying to muddle on, forming the city of Babylon where they praise Humans as rulers, not God.

  • God wants to control the earth through humans, BUT, humans have betrayed him, so God’s solution is to make a new sort of human.

  • This new human is traced to Abraham and Sarah, they leave Babylon, head to a new promised land. Abraham’s family has a lot of sons in it and they all get up to lots of trouble. They get exiled in Egypt instead.

  • But God makes them a covenant, and says he will still work this family and deliver to them the promised land.

  • The family are enslaved in Egypt and are rescued by Moses who leads them to Israel.

  • Moses talks to God and brokers the deal.

  • But it goes wrong again, with even Moses betraying God.

  • The book ends with the writers of the next bit looking back at the story and wishing another prophet like Moses would appear.

  • Nevi’im (in two sub sections)

  • First sub section: The story of Israel as told by the new Prophets looking back. Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings 1 & 2. They all give it a go as being a prophet, but again, Israel falls into chaos and a ‘new’ prophet is prediction that will learn from these mistakes.

  • Second sub section: The ‘later prophets’: They all try to warn Israel of the error of its ways and to create a new world, again, with a prediction that a new prophet will come. At times this new prophet is called David (the same David who conquered Jerusalem ??) and at other times he is called Elijah.

  • Ketuvim:

  • Psalms: Mostly about the prophet Joshua & how to pray while we wait for him.

  • The Wisdom Scrolls (The proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job). Reflection on some of the issues in the Torah and Nevi’im – how do we live good godly lives?

  • The Daniel scroll: Looks at Israel’s suffering and sees it as a signal that the prophet is coming, that he will be ‘trampled’ by human evil but then God will rise him up again.

  • Chronicles: An overview of the whole thing with a ‘New Jerusalem’ promised and that man will come back from exile.

Take aways: -

National narratives – especially difficult for people living in such a volatile region

The prophets seem to be, essentially, the leaders of Israel and all these stories are about the people that inhabited these lands and the trials and tribulations they faced – all while trying to justify life in the context of their being one God. In this sense these cultural stories are a little like Viking tales or Ancient Chinese myths, grounded in the history and culture of the time and place they were written. They do appear to be a fascinating read as it is the attempts of people more than two thousand years ago to pull together the narrative threads of their own society and form a coherent story – something which we still try to do now – although we have a lot of more ‘national narratives’ these days in light of the rise of the new nationalism sweeping the world. It is, as ever, about identity. Humans have no idea who they are or what they’re supposed to do.

Perhaps the stories of these people have to focus on this ambitious notion of God, of their shared religion, because everything else seems to change so often – the demographics and politics of the area seem to violently switch so often – so belief in one god – and his eventual return – is a winner.

Appeal to refugees

The fact that that humans were exiled first from Eden – and then God’s followers exiled again to Egypt – suggests this is a religion that would have large appeal to people that end up as refugees because of the geo-political strife of the region. It also lends credence to more modern interpretations of Judaism, that they are a people that suffered the most extreme form of persecution but ultimately deserve the promised land they’ve long suffered for (in modern day Israel?).

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