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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 )
Major Themes in the Old Testament
This section takes a look at six key issues in the Old Testament.
Watchmaker or Living God?

(The Old Testament view of God)

  • There are many images of God in the Old Testament and God is presented as both immanent ( active in the world) and transcendent (above & beyond it).
  • The God of the Old Testament is called by many names – each suggesting something about how the biblical authors viewed God’s nature. God’s role as the creator of the world is a popular topic in the ‘Science versus Theology’ debates of the twenty-first century.

Find out what the Institute of Biologists say

Find out more about what creationists believe
The Chosen People
(God’s relationship with Israel)

  • The concepts of election and covenant are central to the relationship between God and his people as presented in the Old Testament.
  • It is matter for debate how ancient, and how unique in the Ancient Near East, such ideas really are and modern scholarship suggests that the Old Testament’s picture of the situation may be a rather idealized one.

A basic definition of 'covenant'
“A covenant is a solemn, binding, mutual agreement between two parties and the covenants between God and his people are an important feature of the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for covenant is berith. It is pronounced buh-reeth, with the stress on the second syllable, although Jews in Britain and America nowadays often pronounce the word ‘brit’. “

Who am I?

(The Old Testament view of the human condition)

  • On the upside, according to the Old Testament, being human means being made in the image of God and involves a high level of dignity and responsibility as God’s representative on earth.
  • On the downside, according to the Old Testament, being human involves frailty, toil, a good deal of inequality between the sexes, and no hope of life after death or immortality.
How should we live?

(Types of Literature in the Old Testament)

  • The ethical material in the Old Testament, which has some similarities with that of its Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, is in the form of laws, wisdom and prophetic exhortation to live righteous lives in the eyes of God.
  • The ethical material in the Old Testament cannot easily be classified as fitting one brand of ethical theory, but many believe it has something valuable to offer modern day reflection on ethical issues.
Why Me?

(The Old Testament view of human suffering)

  • The search for an explanation for the sufferings of human beings, both as individuals and as a nation, is a major theme in the Old Testament.
  • The idea that suffering is God’s punishment for sin is the basis of the response of the biblical authors. However, this is not a satisfactory response for them all and the issues of why some wicked people prosper, whether suffering might be good for you and whether God is, in fact, just are also explored.
Can We Know God?

(Religious Experience in the Old Testament)

  • A variety of individual religious experiences is mentioned in the Old Testament, including divine appearances dreams, visions, and the inspiration of the word of God.
  • According to the Old Testament, people were also able to encounter God through personal prayer and to discover his will through the use of mechanical techniques such as casting lots

Did You Know?
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James (1842-1910) noted four basic features of mystical religious experiences. He said that they were ineffable (they defy adequate description), noetic (they are believed to reveal special knowledge), transient (they may have lasting effects but the actual experience is not sustained for long) and passive (the person senses they are controlled by God). Such features can be identified in some of the religious experiences of the prophets of the Old Testament and the ecstatic nature of some of the experiences is similar to more modern religious phenomena such as the Toronto Blessing where worshipping Christians feel ‘seized’ by the spirit of God and experience a variety of uncontrollable emotional states. However, religious experiences – whether modern or recorded in ancient scriptures - are almost impossible to verify because a believer will rarely be swayed by explanations which deny God’s involvement and sceptics will argue that a believer is an unreliable witness! Indeed, sceptics try to explain so-called ‘religious experiences’ in a variety of other ways. Some, following the ideas of people like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961), offer psychological explanations based on the view that religion is an invention of the human mind. Others, like Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Hjalmar Sunden (1908-1998), say that such experiences are the result of sociological and cultural conditioning. Moreover, as our understanding grows of how the human brain functions, it can be argued that such experiences are scientifically explicable in terms of unusual, temporary electrical activity in certain areas of the brain, similar to those which cause epilepsy or which can be induced by a person taking mood-altering or hallucinatory types of drugs.

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