Fr. Simon’s ‘Road map to the Old Testament.’
A Road Map to the Old Testament – Lent 2020
It is good to start at the beginning. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is still one of the most beautiful, evocative descriptions of what it is to be ‘a living being’. Set aside any thoughts about historicity. Read it as poetry, let the ancient words speak to all of you: mind, imagination, emotions.
Genesis is also the book which describes the Patriarchs – the first tribal leaders of people – we are talking about the Bronze Age here – Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Esau, Jacob and the story of Joseph.
Genesis 7 & 8 – Noah and the Flood.
Genesis 12-17 – Abraham and the first covenant.
Genesis 20, 21 – Abraham, Sarah and the birth of Isaac.
Genesis 27 – Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau.
Genesis 28 – Jacob’s dream of the Ladder.
Genesis 33 – Jacob and Esau reconciled.
Genesis 37-45 – The story of Joseph – a kind of little novel within the broader story. The reason why the Jews found themselves living in Egypt.
This deals mainly with Moses and his leading of the people out of captivity amongst the Egyptians.
Exodus 1-3 – the birth, childhood and calling of Moses (the burning bush).
Exodus 4-15 – Trouble with Pharaoh, the people leave Egypt, culminates in Moses’ Song and the Song of Miriam.
Exodus 16 – Quail and manna from heaven.
Exodus 20 – The Ten Commandments – just read this chapter, don’t be too concerned with what follows since these are probably later laws provided by the scribes.
Exodus 33,34 – God renews the covenant with Moses after the regrettable golden calf episode. This, with Abraham’s, is the second main covenant made between God and human beings in the Old Testament.
While Leviticus and Numbers are, for the student of theology, a mine of interesting things, they might be a little wearisome for you at the moment! Go straight on to Deuteronomy, do not pass go, do not collect £200.
Deuteronomy deals mainly with what happened when the journeying people of Israel turned up in the promised land and discovered that there were lots of other people already there.
Deuteronomy 1-3 – First contact and the crossing of the Jordan.
The rest of Deuteronomy is very much worth reading but deals with the death of Moses, who, before he dies, has a great deal to say on many matters. This is an early example of the literary convention we could call ‘Farewell Discourses’. Socrates, according to Plato, on his deathbed has a lot to say and of course St John has Jesus teaching the disciples a great deal before the day of his arrest. Moses finishes with his Song in Deuteronomy 33.
Joshua and Judges are about the extended period of warfare as the Israelites occupy more and more of the land they believed God had promised them. For ‘judges’ imagine not someone in a wig but a tribal leader rather like a Sheik in the Middle East who, apart from being their leader, is the one to whom the people bring their grievances for judgment.
After all this bloodshed and sword-waving, its quite refreshing to have the charming story of Ruth. Here, Israel is in control of their kingdom and is at peace. One of the points of the story is to show how God’s covenant extends to people who are, by birth, not Jews. Ruth is a Moabite. Boaz is in the genealogy of Jesus, with good reason, for he displays a Christ-like generosity.
1 Samuel tells the story of King Saul and Samuel the Prophet. Saul is a kind of Macbeth like figure who wants to be king but tragically makes all the wrong choices and ultimately pays for them with his life. In 2 Samuel we encounter the boy David who is anointed king in his stead. Browse around in both books. They are great stories!
Also around this time are some of the minor prophets, Amos and Hosea. The first is famous for his waking visions which God interprets for him. The second is commanded to marry a harlot as a prophetic ‘sign’ of Judah’s unfaithfulness to God.
1 Kings is about King Solomon – again, browse around. It is also the book where we first meet the great prophet Elijah and his ‘runs in’ with the various kings of Israel of his time.
1 Kings 17 – 21 – The exploits of Elijah
2 Kings 1-3 – The death of Elijah, Elisha takes up his mantle.
At the end of 2 Kings (chapter 17) the Jewish people experience their first major defeat at the hands of the Assyrians. This is the first occasion when thousands of them were led into captivity. There’s a gripping account of the siege of Jerusalem with some prophesies against Assyria by a hugely important prophet, Isaiah (2 Kings 19)
For the Christian, Isaiah is perhaps the greatest prophet in terms of his anticipation of the coming of Christ.
Essential Isaiah would be:
Isaiah 1 – 5 Introduction and Song of the Vineyard (a passage of prophecy which Jesus seems to return to frequently in his parables).
Isaiah 6 – the vision in the temple.
Isaiah 11 – the ‘shoot from Jesse’ passage.
The book of Isaiah also has a historical narrative of the invasion of the Assyrians Isaiah 36-39.
Isaiah 40 – 44 These are the ‘Servant Songs’ where the church has looked most for descriptions and foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. You will have heard bits of a lot of these before, but it is good to read them as a piece.
1 & 2 Chronicles in many ways parallel the events of Kings. The ancient practice with Scripture was, when they had two accounts which shared a good deal was to keep both rather than blend them together. The same kind of thing happens with our synoptic gospels, Mt, Mk, Lk. Hence we hear again about the death of Saul and David becoming King. Chronicles are certainly worth browsing through when you have read Kings, so you have a good grasp of the characters and the sequence of events.
Jeremiah (sixth century before Christ)deals with the next major catastrophe in the national life of Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel essentially was destroyed by the Assyrians. It became later the homeland of the Samaritans. Jeremiah lived through the invasion and eventual destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. It is not a happy story. God drives him to continue to prophesy destruction while his enemies won’t listen. He suffers greatly at their hands but everything he says comes to pass. The upper two thirds of Jerusalem were force marched to Babylon where they lived for around ninety years. Those left were simple farmers and the old.
In a sense, this was a kind of forced Exodus which later rabbis saw as a punishment by God on the people mainly for their lack of belief and their flirting with the gods of the nations round about.
The books of the Exile in Babylon are the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.
When the Emperor Cyrus the Great (a Persian who had conquered the Babylonians) finally allowed the Jewish people to return to their land, he also gave them permission to re-build the ruined Temple. The history of those who returned is found in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. The prophets of the time are Haggai, Zechariah and Nahum. Things not to miss in Ezra are:
Ezra 9 – the casting out and exclusion of Jews who had married into local tribes who worshipped different gods. Here we see the beginning of the people Jesus’ society knew as Samaritans.
Ezra 10 – the ‘purified’ people’s recommitment to the covenant standing ‘in heavy rain.’
Following this particular story, from the Patriarchs to the return of the people under Ezra, this completes the tour. Malachi is the last prophet of the Old Testament – prophecy would thereafter be silent for many centuries until the coming of St John the Baptist. The scribes in Jerusalem meanwhile developed a law-based understanding of faith and sacrifice centered on the New Temple. There also arose the ‘purity party’ – more extreme keepers of the law, the Pharisees.
Psalms is a book of songs meant mostly to be sung in the Temple by one or two choirs, usually with musical accompaniment. Many of them could rightly come for the pen of King David but many others were probably written by professional lyricists employed in the Temple.
The main Wisdom books of the Old Testament which, in different ways explore the human condition under God are: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Many Christian churches would also include Ben Sirach in this category, although of a later date that the others.
‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.’ I invite you to be inspired, taught, reproved and trained in righteousness by God’s Holy Word and His Spirit this Lent. Fr. Simon