Before I run my next post on Pete Enns’s book, How the Bible Actually Works, I thought I would give some personal perspectives with regard to the questions:
- What is the Bible?
- What is the Bible for?
Our last post raised a number of questions in the comments that lead me to do this. In this piece, I will focus on what we usually call the Old Testament. I prefer to use the terms “First Testament,” “Hebrew Bible,” or “Tanakh” (what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible — meaning Torah/Prophets/Writings).
So, what is the Hebrew Bible? And what is it for? 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”?
The Jews who found themselves outside the Promised Land and without a kingdom any longer 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. In its present form, the Tanakh was edited and put together for one primary purpose: to help the Jewish people learn to live in a post-kingdom world.
In order to help them do that, the Hebrew Bible was given:
1. So that the Jewish people might learn wisdom for faithful living after the kingdom.
2. So that the Jewish people might have hope that God would intervene and restore his rule in the world.
What we have in the Hebrew Bible is a sapiential book and an eschatological book.
Who wrote the Hebrew Bible?
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 learned and passed on were passed on orally or in liturgical settings.
- Second, most of the biblical books do not tell us who their authors were. There are texts in the Pentateuch, for example, that say Moses wrote some things 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!
- As another example, the Pentateuch 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 Old Testament we read today was simply not in existence through most of Israel’s history. It was developed as the Hebrew people 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.
Why did the exilic/post-exilic community put this book together?
As stated above, the book they gave the post-exilic community was designed to give them wisdom and hope. We see this dual emphasis throughout its pages.
For example, in the final chapters of the book of Genesis, it is Joseph who saves his family by the wisdom he shows after having been sold into slavery in Egypt. The Joseph narratives are clearly stories of wisdom, filled with wisdom terms and motifs, designed to show how God spoke to him, helped him, and used him to preserve Jacob’s family through his providential guidance and provision. Joseph, for his part, becomes a model of faithful living in a foreign land, bringing life and sustenance to his world. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20). What better story could there be for those who had themselves suffered exiles and whose prospects involved living under the thumb of foreign powers?
But the Joseph story has something else. Genesis 49 contains the prophetic words of his father Jacob, who says to his family, “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come.” The patriarch then, in a poetic speech, puts his finger on Judah as the one through whom the ultimate hope of Israel (and the world) will come:
Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.
Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He couches, he lies down as a lion,
And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes,
And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
This prophecy would have been a significant word of hope for the Babylonian exiles, who were, after all, the people of the nation of Judah. As this piece by Pete Enns that we once ran shows, the whole book of Genesis points toward the later prominence and royal role of Judah. But this passage in Genesis 49 seems to go even further. Jacob is speaking to his sons about what will happen in “the end of days,” leading to the “obedience of the peoples.”
Genesis 49:8ff has long been seen as a messianic text, referring to the establishment of God’s kingdom through a coming king from the line of Judah known as “Shiloh” (the one to whom it belongs). In the midst of the wisdom stories of Joseph, then, we have a word that looks beyond the present struggle, beyond the days when God’s people live under the rule of the nations. We have a word of hope about the kingdom of God and its King.
These are the two primary emphases of the Hebrew Bible. By them, those who put the Hebrew Bible together hoped to preserve a faithful people who would one day welcome the coming of God’s rule over all the earth.
So, what does this mean for us today?
If this is what the Hebrew Bible is and what it was originally composed to do, then how do we approach it today?
When I read the Hebrew Bible, I do it with these two themes of wisdom and hope foremost in mind. And I keep them in front of me by remembering how the book was put together and why.
I used to think that the main question when reading it was, “What did the author intend?” But I don’t think that anymore. I don’t know who the authors were, the original settings for these texts, or where they originated. But I do know that this book was put together from the stories and texts of Israel’s experience with God for a purpose that would be meaningful to those who lived after the Babylonian Exile.
So what I ask now is, “What would this text have meant to that community of people in post-exilic times? What would those who chose this text, edited it, and included it in its context have wanted those people to learn from it?” And specifically: “What wisdom can I learn from this text?” and “How does this point me to the coming of the kingdom of God? (And, as a Christian, as we’ll see in our next post, that means I ask “How does this lead to Jesus?”)
And then I can move from there to asking questions about how it applies to my own life and faith community today.