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Basics of Old Testament Study
Major Themes - Old Testament
History and the Old Testament
Institutions of the Old Testament
Interpreting the Old Testament
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“The most profound use that can be made of the Bible is not to treat it as a law book, but to seek to hear and act in accordance with its prophetic voice, a prophetic voice that is disturbing and unconventional, and which can never be content with the world as it is.” (John W. Rogerson in An Introduction to the Bible, Penguin, 1999 )
The Institutions of the Old Testament
This section takes a look at some of the major institutions of the Old Testament such as law, prophecy, worship, wisdom, history & apocalyptic writing.
The Social Scene

(The social life of ancient Israel)

  • Although information about the social life of Ancient Israel comes mostly from the Old Testament, and is very sketchy in places, there is information to be gleaned about the structure of Israelite society.
  • The role of kings, civil servants, wise men, priests, prophets and the status of women and children can also be inferred from various Old Testament texts.
Thus Says The Lord!

(Prophecy in ancient Israel)

  • The prophets of the Old Testament are characters who had direct experience of God and conveyed messages of God’s will to his people.
  • Prophecy in the Old Testament ranges from bands of people relaying divine messages born out of prophetic frenzy in pre-exilic times, to individual characters of post-exilic times who, by use of words and symbolic actions, had a major role in shaping Israel’s understanding of God and the people’s relationship with God.

(Worship in ancient Israel?)

  • In common with most religions, religion in the Old Testament involved sacred words and actions at specific sacred times and in specific sacred places.
  • It is not always clear how ancient or distinctive particular elements of Old Testament religion are, but it seems likely that it became more complex and regulated as it developed and incorporated important changes as a result of key moments in national history, such as the exile.

More information about Solomon's Temple

More information about the Second Temple

The Plot Thickens

(Israel’s historians & story-tellers)

  • Almost half of the Old Testament is narrative and is most likely based on ancient oral traditions which in their present form reflect an extensive process of editing and reshaping.
  • The narrative sections of the Old Testament contain a variety of types of literature but also share certain features that enable us to speak of an Old Testament narrative style.
Can We Cope?

(Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament)

  • Although later biblical wisdom writers questioned the validity of such a straightforward approach, living one’s life in accordance with the insight the wisdom literature in the Old Testament provided was believed to make a person ‘wise’ about the way the world worked and to enable them to live a well ordered and successful life.
  • The wisdom tradition in Israel owed much to other wisdom traditions in the Ancient Near East but it gradually became more integrated with the national religious traditions and was personified and linked specifically with the history of Israel and the Torah.
The Number of the Beast

(Apocalyptic Literature in the Old Testament)

  • Apocalyptic literature is literature that the author believes contains secret revelations about impending events – often the end of an era – to provide comfort and encouragement to people oppressed by their current situation.
  • Apocalyptic literature in the bible is generally post-exilic and is often presented as the writings of an important figure from the past – angels, visions and symbolic interpretations are commonplace in the writings and add to the sense of mystery.

Did You Know?

The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover or reveal and biblical literature termed apocalyptic is literature designed to reveal secret knowledge. Since much of this secret knowledge had to do with future disasters the term apocalypse is now widely used in connection with disaster scenarios concerning the end of the world. It is important not to confuse the words apocalyptic and apocryphal. The term ‘apocrypha’ is applied to the collection of books that are included in the Greek version of the Old Testament but not in the Hebrew Scriptures, but nowadays it can also be applied to any book or story which appears to be of dubious authenticity.

Taking Orders

(Law & Instruction in the Old Testament)

  • ‘Law’ in the Old Testament refers to a complex body of texts that has much in common with law codes of the Ancient Near East. However, it also displays evidence of its own unique forms, content and authorization.
  • The law in the Old Testament is not really a coherent law code as we might understand it today but rather a sort of commentary on how God wishes to help his people live according to his will.

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the most famous ancient law codes. It comprises 282 laws engraved in cuneiform script on a black stone stele (pillar) 2.25 metres high. It is now on display in the Louvre museum in Paris and was discovered in 1901 by a French archaeologist in the city of Susa, on the borders of present day Iran and Iraq.  Hammurabi was king of Babylon (1792-1750 BCE) and his memorial stele had probably been taken as a trophy of war to Susa from Babylon at some point.  The Code of Hammurabi is interesting to biblical scholars because it contains many striking similarities to some of the laws of the Old Testament.

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