Befriending the Old Testament: Part 4


Elizabeth Julian RSM.

In part 4, Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm continues her series about the Old Testament.

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm

So far we have considered the Old Testament as the story of God’s love affair with a particular group of people; as a library rather than a book, other names used to describe it, the number of books in it and how that total came about.

This month we look at the storyline: when and where did the events described take place?

In about 1900 BCE, a wandering herdsman named Abraham and his wife Sarah were called by God to leave their homeland in Haran in Mesopotamia for a land of great prosperity. Abraham and Sarah and their descendants were to witness the one true God. Because of famine during the time of their descendant, Joseph (of coloured-coat fame), they ended up in Egypt. The Book of Genesis tells this part of the story. The people were eventually enslaved by the Egyptians. However, in about 1250 BCE, God heard the cries of the Israelites, and asked Moses, who was busy minding his father-in-law’s sheep, to lead the people out of Egypt. So, into the desert they all went where on Mt Sinai God gave them the Ten Commandments. We call the story of the Israelites’ liberation, the Exodus – a story told over and over again. Moses died before reaching the Promised Land and it was Joshua who eventually led the people across the Jordan River. Joshua divided the Promised Land among the various tribes ruled by judges, one of whom was Deborah.

“God heard the cries of the Israelites and asked Moses…to lead the people out of Egypt. So, into the desert they all went where on Mt Sinai God gave them the Ten Commandments.”

After a while the Israelites wanted to be like the Joneses – they wanted to a have king as their neighbours did. So in about 1000 BCE the monarchy was established, lasting for three generations. After the first king, Saul, came David and finally David’s son, Solomon. After Solomon’s death the kingdom split into two – basically because Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, imposed very heavy taxes. The ten northern tribes formed the kingdom of Israel with its capital city Samaria. The southern kingdom was called Judah with its capital city Jerusalem. Throughout the period of the united kingdom and also when the kingdom split into two, several prophets tried to warn the kings against worshipping false gods. They were to obey the covenant instead. Of course, the kings didn’t listen. Foreign powers eventually conquered both kingdoms. Israel fell to the Assyrians in about 722 BCE while Judah lasted until about 587 BCE when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon – modern day Iraq – destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and took the people into captivity.

Image: ‘In the rivers of Babylon’. Painting by Algis Beržiūnas.

This event, the Exile, is told in the second Book of Kings. The song, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ (Psalm 137), tells of the people’s terrible sadness and yearning during their exile. Prophets at this time tried to give the people hope. (The beautiful words of the hymn, ‘Though the Mountains may Fall,’ come from the Prophet Isaiah). As well as the Temple, the Israelites lost their land, their king and probably aspects of their language – everything that gave them meaning.

After about 50 years King Cyrus of Persia, having previously conquered Babylonia, allowed the Israelites to return home to Jerusalem. Those who chose to go began to rebuild the Temple, encouraged by more prophets. Eventually the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East in 333 BCE and tried to impose Greek customs and practices on the Jews. The Temple was desecrated and the Torah outlawed. The Jews successfully rebelled under a family called the Maccabees and remained in control until the Romans conquered Palestine in 63 BCE.

Herod a puppet king of the Romans ruled until he died in about 4 BCE. (Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. The discrepancy in dating Jesus’ birth can be traced back to 525 CE when the pope decided to establish a feast commemorating this event.)

So that’s the biblical story in an extremely tiny nutshell! But how much of it is true? What do we mean by ‘truth’ anyway? What about the creation story? And the flood story? Where do they fit in?

These tricky questions about truth and what we mean when we say the Bible is inspired will be next month’s topic. And as for all the violence – my goodness me! How on earth do we deal with that?

Published in WelCom June 2019

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