Why did the Jews compile sacred books together and form a canon of Scripture known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh?
For what purpose did they put together what Christians have traditionally called the “Old Testament”?
I believe they brought the canon of the Hebrew Bible to completion, at the end of a long process, because of the theological crises raised by the Babylonian Exile.
The Purpose of the First Testament
The Hebrew Bible in its present form was edited and put together to help the exiled people of Israel remember how God called them to be his people and faithfully cared for them in the past, to explain how that relationship went bad, and to encourage the people that there was still hope for the future.
After 35 years in pastoral ministry and Biblical study, I’m convinced that many if not most Christians have a simplistic view of “The Bible” and how it came to us (if they even think about that question at all).
When we pastors and teachers talk to them about “The Law of Moses,” for example, most people imagine that the Pentateuch we have today — Genesis-Deuteronomy — was simply produced by Moses. He sat down and wrote some books, people read them, the priests taught them, and everybody knew “The Torah” in the same way that we know “The Bible” today. If Barnes & Noble had been around then, you could have walked into the store and picked up a copy of one of Moses’ books.
Of course, this is a child’s Sunday School view of Scripture. Even a passing knowledge of history and a cursory acquaintance with the Bible itself reveals that we are dealing with something much more complex and nuanced.
- First of all, the people in the days of Israel did not have a “Bible.” The stories that they had were passed on orally or in liturgical settings.
- Second, biblical books like the Pentateuch do not tell us who the author was. There are texts in the Pentateuch that say Moses received communication from God and others that note he recorded laws and covenantal agreements and deposited them with the priests to be kept in the Tabernacle (e.g. Exodus 17:14, 24:7; Deuteronomy 31:24-26). Occasionally, those documents were brought out and read to the people (the vast majority of whom did not read or have books of any kind). But nowhere is Moses indicated as the one who put the book together in its final form. In fact there are many factors that make that impossible, including the fact that the book contains the account of Moses’ death!
- The Pentateuch also records the existence of other books (e.g. Genesis 5:1, Numbers 21:14) that Moses (or other authors or editors) used as sources.
- In addition, the sections in the Pentateuch which contain laws for the community consist, by and large, of case laws: laws based on rulings by judicial authorities that were given to answer certain situations that arose. Therefore, they are not original to “the Law,” but reflect the ongoing development of Israel’s community life before they were recorded together as a group in a “book.”
- Furthermore, it is likely that many stories and episodes had a long history of oral transmission and liturgical and pedagogical use before they were woven together in the form we have today in our Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann calls this the process of “traditioning” through “imaginative remembering.” As he describes it: “The remembering part is done in the intergenerational community, as parents tell and retell to children and grandchildren what is most prized in community lore” (Intro. to OT).
- Finally, it is clear that the entire Old Testament, as well as particular sections such as the Torah, has been edited and shaped into a final form, the form we have today. This is the end result of the long “traditioning” process referred to above, and it culminated in the days of the Exile and afterward. The “Old Testament” in the form we have it is a product of the Babylonian Exile. The “Pentateuch” we read today is not the “Pentateuch” to which the people in Moses’ day had access. It was developed as the Israelites and their teachers remembered these stories and laws generation after generation, and then were moved by the crisis of the Exile to further compose, edit and shape the text into its final form. Those who did this are mostly unknown to us, but they left us with a priceless treasure.
First, there was a long process of traditioning prior to the fixing of the canon as text in normative form. Much of that process is hidden from us and beyond recovery. But we can see that in the precanonical traditioning process there was already a determined theological intentionality at work. Second, the actual formation of the canon is a point in the traditioning process that gives us “Scripture” for synagogue and for church. We do not know much about the canonizing process, except to notice that long use, including dispute over the literature, arrived at a moment of recognition: Jewish, and subsequently Christian, communities knew which books were “in” and which were not.
Here is one simple example of the process and how it would have spoken to the Jewish people in exile, as noted by Brueggemann:
In Exodus 12-13, there is a pause in the narrative in order to provide detailed guidance for the celebration of the Passover that will remember the exodus as here narrated. It is curious that in the very telling of this defining wonder of deliverance, the tradition pauses in telling to provide for subsequent celebrations. It is, moreover, noteworthy that while Christians tend to glide over these two chapters of instruction easily and quickly, Jewish readers give primary attention to this material of instruction, for it is the repeated celebration of the memory of the exodus that sustains Jewish identity when it is under threat from dominant culture. I suspect that the tradition pauses so long and goes into such detail about celebration because the inculcation of the young was urgent and could not wait, not even until the end of the narrative of deliverance. The instruction, in its final form, aims at the young in exile who may be ready to turn away from the community into dominant culture. (IOT)
There are many more such examples, such as how the “creation” stories in Genesis 1-3 have been shaped to instruct and give hope to the exilic and post-exilic communities. Indeed, the entire introductory section of the First Testament — Genesis 1-11 — has a distinct “Babylonian” flavor to it. In the past generation, it has become clear that The Book of Psalms has been edited and shaped to answer questions raised by the Exile. Comparing books which deal with the same historical time periods, such as Kings and Chronicles, can also be most enlightening in this regard.
And we must not forget the big picture. Here is how I would put it in my own words:
When you step back and look at the final canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (especially in the way the Jewish people organized it as “Tanakh”), it becomes clear that a book which many have understood as law has actually been transformed into a book of eschatology, designed to encourage the faith of a displaced and downtrodden community of exiles, calling them to embrace the hope that God will yet fulfill his promises to them.