Four Main Parts
The Superstructure of the Old TestamentHello! And welcome to Literature and History, Episode 16, “Four Main Parts.” This is the second of ten shows that we’ll do on the Old Testament. I want you to picture in your mind two points. Point A, and Point B. And Point A, there are people who have never even heard of the Old Testament, and don’t know anything about it at all. And at Point B, there are really, really educated people – religious, secular, whatever – but at Point B there are really learned people who have a robust familiarity with the entire 2,000 pages of the Old Testament, together with related history, and Talmudic commentaries, and Midrashim, and later Christian interpretations, and that kind of thing. And in between Point A and Point B, are – uh – the rest of us. We know a bit about the Old Testament. Maybe we’ve read some of it. But we’re smart enough to know how little we know.
Those of us hanging out between points A and B have something in common. We’d like, whatever our reasons are, to inch a bit closer to Point B – to having a respectable command of the Hebrew Scriptures. Hell, we’d like to know more about everything. That’s why we’re here in the world of educational podcasting. But within that continuum between Point A – knowing nothing about the Old Testament, and Point B, knowing everything about the Old Testament, there are some particularly effective ways to move from Point A to Point B. Now, some people would tell you you need to open your heart and mind to the spiritual messages contained within these scriptures – that that’s the first step. For many of us, that’s the case, and it’s great. Other people would tell you to open the book up to Chapter 1, Verse 1 of Genesis, and just start reading. Now, that’s not a bad approach. It worked for me, ultimately, with some challenge. But think about this. If you want to understand the geography of, say, Sweden, you don’t just start in the extreme northwest of the country and start working your way down the E10 and E45, memorizing waterways and hamlets and mountains and flatlands along the way. You look at the whole country at once, so that you can see where its population aggregations are, where its borders are, and its waterways, and ports, and points of contact with other cultural and linguistic groups. That’s how you begin to understand it. So as we move a bit closer to Point B – to understanding what the Old Testament is, and how it works, I’m going to tell you to do one single, simple thing. Imagine getting out a marker, and a plain sheet of paper. And on this paper, imagine drawing four black squares. We’re going to fill in those four black squares today in this episode, which is again called “Four Main Parts.” And by the time we’re done, you’re going to have a good, solid, satellite level view of the Old Testament, its geography, and its contents. [music]
We’ll talk about those parts in just a minute. In the previous show, we learned all about Canaan, a small strip of land between Egypt and Mesopotamia. We learned about two kingdoms there, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, both of which were associated with an indigenous highland dwelling people called the Israelites. And we learned that in both north and south, these Israelites faced wave upon wave of invasions by foreigners – Egyptians, then Aramaic Syrians, then generations of Assyrians, then Egyptians again, and finally, Babylonians. We voyaged through the history of Canaan up until the 580s, when, after years of being pummeled by foreign conquests, the nobles and priests of the southern kingdom of Judah were relocated to modern day Iraq. And, most importantly, we paid very close attention to those crucial years between 630 and 580, when a generation existed in the court of a king called Josiah who almost certainly wrote much of the Old Testament.
Now, after that enormous windup, it’s time to open up the Old Testament, or Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, all of which mean nearly the same thing. As challenging as it is to talk about the Bible while offending as few people as possible, I’ve still been looking forward to this part of the podcast. I want to talk very briefly about my approach to the Bible. [music]
This Show's Approach to the BibleThis podcast is called Literature and History. And my primary interest in the Old Testament is to understand it in the context of the literary traditions, and historical events that took place between 900 and 100 BCE. In doing so, I don’t want to devitalize it of the spiritual power it has for millions of people. And I certainly don’t want to imply that it’s just another piece of literature, like Moby-Dick or the Decameron. People don’t have holidays around works of literature, or recite works of literature at annual rituals. People don’t go to war over works of literature, or build cathedrals or mosques due to literature. People don’t recite prayers to Herman Melville, or Boccaccio. We say our prayers to gods, and goddesses, and we learn of these beings in a small, special set of texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, the Buddhist scriptures, the Avesta. This is all very obvious, of course. But while I understand the Old Testament’s unique staying power, I think that one of the ways – one of the many ways – that we can appreciate it, and understand it, is to do so within the historical framework of the early Iron Age, and the literary traditions of the Ancient Mediterranean. So that’s going to be my personal, subjective approach. You’ve heard enough of this show so far to know that I use a good, old fashioned historicist methodology to understanding literature, and that I enjoy discovering literary connections between supposedly far flung cultures and time periods. The same is going to be true with the Bible.
As I record this, I already have all ten of my episodes on the Old Testament written and completed. They come to about a hundred thousand words, and the music and recordings will create a connected narrative of around fifteen hours. Researching and writing them has been incredibly rewarding. It wasn’t my first go through the Hebrew Bible. But the extent to which I took my time, and immersed myself in history and intertextual traditions of the Ancient Near East made the Old Testament blossom, and sparkle, and glow. So many books now have deep associations for me with events that produced them – Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, for instance, and the forced stay in Mesopotamia from 586-539, the comparative tranquility of the Persian period, the intellectual flowering of the Hellensitic Period. The story of the people who wrote the Old Testament is as great as any story that’s in the Old Testament. And in the episodes to come, I’m going weave them together, and share them with you.
Of the many risks I take when talking about the Old Testament, not the least of which is simply being boring or rehearsing things you already know, what I fear the most is glossing over, or misrepresenting something that really matters to you, and thus appearing to disrespect or dismiss your interests and beliefs, whether they’re religious or secular. I can only repeat what I said earlier. My personal approach to this book is going to be historicist, and intertextual. It will be as subjective an approach as anyone’s, but it will be grounded in academic scholarship, and of course, painstaking attention to the Bible itself. Nothing I say will convert anyone, or unconvert anyone. And if I still do something wrong, or heavy handed, let me just say that what I do here is always done with enthusiasm, reverence, love for books, and hope for mutual understanding, and, as much as is possible for me, not the advancement of some blinkered personal ideology. While I hope my approach will be uncontroversial and academic, I’m certain that the material itself – the Old Testament– will be mind-bendingly awesome enough to keep you interested the whole way through. [music]
Old Testament, New Testament, ApocryphaSo, on with the show. It’s time to delve into the overall structure of the Old Testament, or Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible – again, same thing, and move along that continuum from Point A to Point B. I am going to start with the laughably obvious, and we’ll go from there. You’re cool to begin with laughably obvious, right? Here goes. The whole Bible – not the Old Testament, but the entire Bible – is divided up into three mega-sections. The first is the Old Testament, written and compiled between about 750-50 BCE in Ancient Israel, Mesopotamia, and Egypt mostly in a language we call Biblical Hebrew, with a very small portion written in Biblical Aramaic. The second is the New Testament, written from 60-150 CE in the Eastern Mediterranean, composed in a language called Koine Greek, or common Greek. The third is the Apocrypha, which is a Greek word for “obscured” or “hidden away.” The Apocrypha are the additional books, written mostly in Greek during various periods of ancient history, that are only included in certain Bibles. I think the Apocrypha are super cool. Who wouldn’t read holy books that are forbidden by certain churches? Before heavy metal, there were the Apocrypha!
So, continuing the laughably obvious part. Those three mega-sections are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Apocrypha. The major branches of Judeo-Christianity – say, Judaism, Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and the Slavonic church – all have different configurations of these three parts that they consider acceptable. But, let’s bracket all that for now. Again, this is the easy, laughably obvious part, so we’ll continue to keep it simple. Let’s talk about length. The Old Testament, New Testament, and all the Apocrypha together weigh in at about 915,000 words, depending on the translation. To picture how long this is, the modern print novel has between 300 and 400 words on each page. This means that if the entire Bible were printed not in the double column, tiny font manner that it usually is, but like a modern book, it would be somewhere between 3,050 and 3,660 pages long. Having read the thing in its entirety more than once – an edition that’s swollen even more by footnotes and essays, I can tell you that it is immense. Comparatively, the Qur’an is a slim 144,000 words, or 480-570 pages if printed in a modern format – just 16% of the length of Christianity’s truly massive holy book. Uh – needless to say, I don’t think these sizes reflect on overall the quality of the two books – there’s plenty to be said for compression, and Islam has done quite well with its main text. Anyway, back to the Bible.
In summary, there are three mega sections, those sections are gigantic, and the Old Testament is jaw droppingly huge. Objectively speaking, there just aren’t very many books that approach this length. Here, I’m going to drop The Great Gatsby on my desk. Now, Hamlet. Now, Moby-Dick. Now, Anna Karenina. Now, wait for it. . .the Oxford Annotated Bible. That is one whopping beefcake of a book. If you’ve ever chastised yourself for not having read the entire Bible, please permit yourself a bit of forgiveness. It takes months, enormous sections are unremittingly difficult, and in my opinion it’s flat out impossible without the help of secondary scholarship or assistance from a rabbi or priest or pastor – you know, whatever works for you. This isn’t to say that it’s all toil and trouble – some portions of it read rather easily, much of the writing is magnificent, and besides, at the end of the whole thing, whatever your background, you get to show up and say, “Sup. Yeah, the Bible? I’ve read it, actually. Yeah, bask in my aura.” But whether we’ve been around Bibles all our lives or only seen them once or twice, it’s good to be on the same page about something upfront. We’re venturing into a titanic book, and almost nothing about it is easy or straightforward. Whatever the conclusions we draw after reading it, as we pick it up, heft it for the first time, and flip through its dense pages, our reactions to encountering the book for the first time are probably, across the board, pretty similar. Holding the thing in your hands, you think, “Holy smokes, this thing is a whopper.” [music]
Well, anyway, let’s move a little beyond the laughably obvious, and into the just obvious. So far, the main point I’ve covered is that the Bible is over 3,000 pages long, and that it includes the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha. I realize that you probably know this already. Let’s talk about the length of each of those parts. Of those 3,000 pages, the vast majority are the Old Testament. With some 2,000 pages, the Old Testament dwarfs the rest of the Bible in size and density. Because it was produced over such a wide period by so many different sources, the Old Testament is more heterogeneous in language and contents than the other portions of the Bible. Though its opening books are a thousand years younger than Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis of Babylon, the Old Testament is nonetheless difficult from the beginning, and its rapid fire alternations between storytelling and imperative instructions for self conduct have challenged new readers for thousands of years. The New Testament, by comparison, is far shorter. There are only nine books of any significant length. Because the book was produced in just a century and a half, as opposed to the many centuries it took to form the Old Testament, the 600 pages of the New Testament are generally more tightly organized and narratively cohesive. Generally.
For the present, we’re going to just stick with the Old Testament. Later, once we’ve covered some Greek and Roman literature, Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism, and the other leading religions of the Ancient Near East, we’ll be ready for the New Testament and the world that produced it. [music]
The Tanakh, Catholic, and Protestant BiblesNow, let’s move into the land of slightly less obvious. I’ve introduced the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha, and their relative lengths. These three mega-sections are intelligible to the entire Judeo-Christian world. But after that, things get quite complicated, quite quickly. In a word, there is no such thing as “the” Bible. There are many Bibles. Their contents vary, and their internal organization varies. Lakes of ink have been spilled over which one is correct. Although the topic of which books are included in which Bibles sounds a bit dry to the newcomer, think of it this way. We’re talking about the most circulated book in human history. Billions of them are sitting on shelves and church pews today. It’s worth taking a minute here and, at a high level, going over what’s in each of the major Bibles.
We’ll start at the beginning, with Judaism. Judaism doesn’t use the New Testament. Judaism only uses the Old Testament, which it calls the Tanakh. The Tanakh is divided into three main sections – the Torah, or Law, the Nevi’im, or Prophets, and the Ketuvim, or Writings. If you’ve been raised Catholic or Protestant, and look at the table of contents of a Tanakh in a synagogue, it looks like someone took the table of contents of your familiar Old Testament, moved everything around a bit, changed some titles, and removed an odd book or two. The shortest Bible by far, the Tanakh of Judaism is the oldest anthology of scriptures in the Judeo-Christian world.
While Judaism had a well codified canon by the first millennium CE, the Christian Bible’s formation took longer. To keep things manageable, in this podcast I’ll be talking about five bibles. The Tanakh – again, the Hebrew bible, is the first. It has 24 books. The other four major bibles all include the New Testament. The second bible is the Greek Orthodox Bible. It has 83 books. The third bible is the Slavonic Bible, which also has 83 books. The fourth is the Catholic Bible, with 77 books. And the fifth is the Protestant bible, which has 66 books. While Judaism, of course, has no cause to include the New Testament, the other bibles vary based on what they consider to be apocryphal. So Judahism has the smallest set of scriptures, and then Protestantism, then Catholicism, and then the Greek Orthodox and Slavonic churches, in order from smallest to largest.
The variety of these Bibles presents me with a bit of a pickle. Should I stick with the podcast’s pattern so far, and go strictly with the Tanakh, since the Hebrew Bible was the one actually produced in the time period with which we’re concerned? Should I go with the Greek and Slavonic Bibles, since they include the fullest range of Biblical texts? Or should I go with a Catholic or Protestant Bible, since this podcast is ultimately going to be about Anglophone literature, and these were the Bibles used most commonly in the English speaking world? I scratched my head about this for a while, and made some decisions. What is most important, I decided, is that you understand the general story and theology that exists in all versions of the Old Testament. While all five of the Bibles I mentioned – and there are dozens more – while all five of these major Bibles have significant differences, what’s more important for our purposes are their similarities. They have a huge core of books in common, and these will be the ones we’ll survey. Occasionally an Apocryphal book will be relevant, and eventually I plan to do some bonus episodes on them. But for our purposes, I think a straightforward, strategically organized journey through the nucleus of the Old Testament will be most useful. [music]
It’s time for the main idea of this episode, which is in its title – Episode 16, Four Main Parts. Whenever you need to begin to move from Point A to Point B, and approach something that’s large and complicated, it’s good to go in with a plan. Our plan with the Old Testament will be to understand it as divisible into four main parts. The 51 total books included variously in the different versions of the Old Testament are ordered in all sorts of ways, depending on whose Bible you’re holding. But mainline Biblical scholarship commonly divides any given Old Testament into four main parts – great big groupings of books all sharing a kernel of common characteristics. Now, let’s take a minute and go through those four main parts. I will do at least an episode on each of them – sometimes more, so this will be a good time to be introduced to them. [music]
The PentateuchThe first main part of the Old Testament is called the Pentateuch – Biblical Hebrew for “five scrolls.” Penta means five, Pentateuch five scrolls. By chapter count, the Pentateuch makes up about 20% of the Old Testament. The first “five scrolls” are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the first five books of the Bible. Another name for these five books is the Torat Mosche, Biblical Hebrew for “Law of Moses,” and in English sometimes just “the Torah.” So again, the name of the first main part of the Bible is the Pentateuch, or Torah. The first five books of the Old Testament are included, with little variation, in all major Bibles. Because they start the whole thing off, and they are in all major bibles, the books of the Pentateuch are probably the most heavily read and studied texts in human history. So, what’s in the Pentateuch?
The story in the Pentateuch is, ultimately, about a family – a singular family, chosen by God to be the progenitors of an entire nation. It is about the generations that lead up to Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites, and the generations that follow him. It tells of the earliest Israelites’ trials and tribulations, in the days when the world was still new, and ends just as they stand on the shores of their promised land of Canaan. It’s the origin story of an entire people, a people whom it presupposes are at the center of all history.
The Pentateuch contains many of the most famous stories in the Bible. The first five books of the Bible introduce us to Yahweh Elohim, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Lot and his wife, Noah and the flood, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron, the Egyptian Captivity, plagues of locusts, the chase across the parted waters of the Red Sea, the wandering in the wilderness, the Arc of the Covenant, the Golden Calf, the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments, twice! The narrative portion of the Pentateuch is powerful, spellbinding tale, filled with strange lands and journeys, sacred pacts and terrible betrayals, humiliation and triumph, and all sorts of darkness – murder, incest, rape, infanticide, disease, and condemnation. Pound for pound, the Pentateuch, or Five Scrolls, or Torah, probably contains as many household names as the rest of the Old Testament combined. In the next episode, Episode 17, which is called “The Roots of the Pentateuch,” we’ll explore the narrative, or story portion of the Pentateuch, and some of the Ancient Near Eastern myths which influenced portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers.
But the narrative portion, or the story of the first five books of the Bible, is only half of the Pentateuch. In addition to the great family saga of the earliest Israelites, the Pentateuch also contains a huge amount of instructional material, written by an unspecified narrator, telling the reader what to do, and how to do it, in order to stay in the good graces of Yahweh and his priests. The instructional portion of the Pentateuch, commonly called the “priestly” portion, tells you how to design the holy tabernacle, or sacred tent of the Israelites. It goes into exhaustive detail about animal sacrifice, cleanliness, and civic conduct. Verse after verse after verse specifies how a bull must be clean before it is sacrificed, a turtledove’s blood must be splashed on the altar in just this fashion, that this tapestry must be this many cubits long in the tabernacle, that we must not marry our siblings, and so on. The priestly section of the Pentateuch is the early brick wall that stops many of us from getting through the Bible. We can see a certain gloomy parable in the flood story of Noah. We can sense the wonder and adventure of the journeys of Abraham, and the drama of Moses interceding on behalf of the people of Israel in the desert of Sinai. But when the priestly section of the Pentateuch starts telling you that you need to take a good, long look the testicles of a bull you bring to the temple to be sacrificed, and that those testicles need to be nice and unblemished, you become conscious of a wide historical and situational difference between your timeframe and the Pentateuch’s. Piety, for the modern Jew or Christian, does not mean leaning down and inspecting the scrotum of a hoofed mammal. Put simply, and I hope, fairly neutrally, to the modern reader some sections of the Pentateuch are far more inspiring, entertaining, and relatable than others. In Episode 18, titled “The 613 Commandments,” we’ll explore the expansive instructional materials in the Pentateuch, and similar material that survives from ancient Assyria and Babylon.
So, the Pentateuch is the first of the four main parts of the Old Testament. It tells the epic family story of Abraham and his descendants, and offers some very specific instructions for sacrifice, cleanliness, and holiness in the Iron Age coastal strip called Canaan, some of which are stirring and ethically coherent, and others which are. . .uh. . .weird. [moo!] So, the narrative portion, and the instructional portion – those are the two portions of the Pentateuch, the first of our four main parts. Let’s go on to the next one. [music]
The Historical BooksThe second main part of the Old Testament is what we call the “Historical Books.” By chapter count, the Historical Books comprise about 27% of the Old Testament. If the Pentateuch tells the story of the earliest patriarchs of Israel, the Historical Books chronicle the formation and early generations of the kingdom of Israel. In the Pentateuch, Israel is at most a large band of bedraggled wanderers, heading toward Canaan with a promise of divine favor. The Historical Books tell the next part of the story. In the Historical Books, we learn about how Israel grew from a collective of slaves and castaways to a powerful kingdom centered in Canaan. The story of how this happened is moving, chronologically organized, and, from time to time, also supported by archaeological finds. In the Historical Books, we meet Sampson, Saul, David, Solomon, and dozens of other kings, and learn of the split of the Hebrews into two separate kingdoms, the traumatizing conquests by the Assyrians in the 720s, and Babylonians in the 580s, and the return to Israel after the Persian conquest. In the previous episode, I told you about archaeology’s record of Canaan’s Late Bronze Age and Iron Age history. The Historical Books of the Bible cover roughly this same period, although their emphasis is always on Israel and its central place in the cosmos.
Although this is a very basic fact about the Old Testament, and it’s probably clear by now, I’ll pause for a minute, and say it anyway. Much of the Old Testament is simply national history. If you open, say, the book of Second Kings expecting to hear praises and hymns to God, sometimes you’ll read for a long time before you find anything theological. I’d advise you, early on, to think of the Historical Books as a national diary just as much as a religious text, the diary of a small civilization that persisted against many odds in a violent, chaotic period of Ancient Near Eastern history. What is surprising to many readers of the Old Testament is that it is not, like the New Testament or Qur’an, a book that offers joy and salvation to anyone who is devout. The vast bulk of the Old Testament does not proselytize or promise, but instead tells the conflicted story of the history of a single ethnic group. Accepting some psalms and an odd group of verses here and there, it’s not engineered to compel you to accept Yahweh into your heart – it’s engineered to tell the story of the early Israelites, rationalize what’s happened, and reconcile them to their sufferings and sacrifices.
Although the history in the Old Testament is understandably biased, sometimes contradicted by archaeological discoveries, and sometimes full of revealing anachronisms, it’s important to remember that the Historical Books were perhaps the first concerted effort of a people to draft a comprehensive national narrative. That, in itself, would make the Historical Books a world famous text, even if they weren’t affixed to the other sections of the Old Testament.
Being composed during and after the reign of King Josiah, the Historical Books are over a hundred years older than Herodotus’ Histories. Three episodes from now, in Episode 19, there will be a show called “The One Who Struggles with God.” In that upcoming show, I will cover the Historical Books and related work in Biblical archaeology in what I anticipate will be the longest episode of this whole podcast – two hours or more. It’s amazing stuff to learn about. So, that’s a quick introduction to the Historical Books. [music]
The Poetic and Wisdom BooksSo the Pentateuch is the first big section of the Old Testament, and then the Historical Books. Let’s go on to the next one. Section 3 of 4 is what we call the “Poetic and Wisdom Books.” These books, by chapter count, make up about a tiny little 10% of the Old Testament, though if you include the 150 Psalms as chapters, that number jumps way up to 25%. Earlier in this podcast, I introduced the wisdom literature of Ancient Egypt, and the wisdom literature of the first millennium BCE more generally. The Poetic and Wisdom Books of the Bible are Ancient Israel’s main contribution to the genre. The Poetic and Wisdom Books, which include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, are of special interest to literary scholars. They’re often gorgeously written, with dense figurative language and intellectual energy. With powerful literary craftsmanship, and a philosophical restlessness that in places seems to scratch at the bounds of monotheism, the Poetic and Wisdom books are one of the more accessible parts of the Old Testament, and we’re going to spend a disproportionate amount of time with them.
One of the really magical things about the poetic and wisdom books is that you can read them in isolation from the rest of the Old Testament and still understand and enjoy them. You don’t, for instance, need to know the whole grand history of the Israelites in order to understand that many of the Psalms are wonderful poems. They’re filled with compressed bursts of meaning. Often an impassioned first person speaker pleads for help, or expresses awe at the vastness of God and the universe, or hopes for retribution for wrongs done to him. The Psalms are, for the intimacy of their speakers, and intensity of their messages, surprisingly like the confessional poetry of the twentieth century. In this podcast, the poetry that we’ve heard so far is very different from the Psalms. Understanding Homer or Hesiod or ancient Babylonian religious texts requires familiarity with a small panorama of human and mythological figures, referenced variously throughout their pages. The Psalms, however, are usually simpler. There is a speaker, and an addressee – most often God, and a series of parallel lines that develop an idea or image. And that’s it. Whether or not you share their specific strain of monotheism, the Psalms communicate an essentially human core of emotional experiences – hope, anguish, reverence, and fury – that are the same today as they were in the Iron Age. So the 150, or 151 by some counts Psalms have always been one of the more broadly accessible parts of the Old Testament. We’ll cover the Psalms – the most heavily read poems on earth – in Episode 21, in a show called “The Bible’s Magic Trick.”
Now, while Psalms come first in the Ketuvim of the Hebrew Tanakh, the first poetic and wisdom book in the Catholic and Christian canons is Job. And Job is one of the more famous books of the Old Testament. Job is the story of a good man who suffers terribly, seemingly for no other reason than that God gets into a sort of horse race betting situation with another semidivine being – a being called “the adversary” to Jews, and Satan to Christians. Whatever the reason, Job loses everything and gets deathly ill, and his book unfolds mostly as a long, heated philosophical discussion on why good and innocent people suffer. This question – called “the problem of evil,” or “theodicy,” is one of the traditional inquiries people pose when they doubt the beneficent motives of a god or gods, and it’s pretty cool that the Old Testament itself doesn’t shy away from this tough question. In Episode 20, titled “Theodicy,” we’re going to spend a long time with the Book of Job, and explore the way that its 42 chapters have been read and interpreted over the past two and a half thousand years.1
While I won’t spend much time with Proverbs, which we already more or less covered with the Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature of the Instructions of Amenemope and ‘Onchsheshonqy, the next part of the poetic and wisdom books is the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is very short – just twelve chapters, but it’s another one of the Old Testament’s more philosophically robust contributions to world history. Ecclesiastes, a long speech delivered by a mysterious figure called “the gatherer,” or “the teacher,” or “the preacher,” questions the point of existence. Everything, Ecclesiastes tells us, is as meaningless and ephemeral as a single breath. Everything that we do, and try to do, that we fear and hope for – all meaningless. Just as the Book of Job is surprisingly modern in its engagement with the “problem of evil,” Ecclesiastes, with its callous indifference to earthly life, often seems like a piece philosophy from a far later era. In Episode 22, entitled “Fatalism,” we’re going to learn about the remarkable confluence of Iron Age philosophical traditions that come together in Ecclesiastes, and, before the Book of Revelation and Catholicism came along and carefully codified heaven and hell, what the Hebrew Bible has to say about the meaning of life on earth.
The final poetic and wisdom book is the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs. At just eight chapters, it’s a tiny little book. But the Song of Songs has engendered centuries and centuries of controversy. Because the Song of Songs doesn’t – on the surface at least – seem to be a religious text at all. There’s no mention of Yahweh, of sacrifice, or fidelity to Iron Age Judah, or any of those core strains that propel the rest of the Old Testament along. The Song of Songs is a love poem that runs as a dialogue between a male and female speaker. Judaism and Christianity have come up with interpretations of the Song of Songs that work to explain what it’s doing in the Old Testament, and their interpretations are every bit as interesting as the book itself. In Episode 23, “Love, Desire, Exegesis,” well learn all about this book of the Old Testament, and the ways it’s been interpreted.
So that’s the poetic and wisdom books – Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Because they’ve been so influential to world literature, and because they’re more thematically diverse than many other sections of the Old Testament, we’re, again, going to spend a disproportionate amount of time with them. With three out of four of our main parts done, let’s go on to the last one. [music]
The Prophetic BooksAlright, let’s quickly talk about the Prophetic Books. By chapter count, they make up about 27% of the Old Testament. There are seventeen Prophetic Books, but by far the most important are just three – those thought to have been composed by the eighth-century prophet Isaiah, his sixth-century successor Jeremiah, and a man roughly the contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel. If the Historical Books chronicle the kings and major events in Ancient Israel’s history, the Prophetic Books record the psychological ramifications of these events. In a word, as generations of Ancient Israelites found themselves cornered, conquered, and humiliated, their prophets attempted to cope with geopolitical setbacks in their religious writings. The Prophetic Books are thus frequently angry, blaming the people of Ancient Israel for their own sufferings, furiously condemning Israel’s enemies for impiety, and predicting a coming period of vengeance and righteousness. Written in first person singular, and often alternating rapidly between vigorous anger and vibrant visions of the future, the Prophetic Books are one of the darker and more thematically repetitious portions of Judaism’s writings.
They’re also enormous. The Prophetic Books alone are about the size of the entire New Testament. And to Christians, the Prophetic Books have a special significance. As I said before, the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is organized radically differently than Catholic and Christian Bibles. One of the biggest differences is the way the versions end. The Tanakh ends with the books of Chronicles, which recapitulate earlier Biblical history and see the exiled Judahites home, back to the city of Jerusalem, to rebuild their temple and way of life under the auspices of the tolerant Persian Empire. But Christian Bibles put Chronicles right in the middle of the History books, and leave the Prophetic Books until the end. Why do they do this? Why rearrange the traditional order of the Tanakh?
One of the main reasons has to do with what the Prophetic Books prophesize. In the midst of the cornucopia of violent punishments envisioned for both Israelites and their opponents, the Prophetic Books, somewhat less often, envision a better future for Israel. In four or five points in the first Prophetic Book, the Book of Isaiah, particularly Chapters 52 and 53, there are references to a mysterious redeemer figure who will some day come and lead the Judahites into an era of much greater prosperity. And a reference to a “messenger of the covenant” in the final Prophetic Book – the Book of Malachi, also seems to indicate the impending arrival of a savior figure. The Jewish Talmud and midrashim have their own explanations for these passages in the Prophetic Books. But to Christians, the descriptions of this savior figure are believed to be about a certain Aramaic speaking citizen of Capernaum and Nazareth named Jesus Christ. So, put plainly, Christian Bibles place those Prophetic Books last because that way, they form a logical segue to the stories of Jesus in the Gospels of the New Testament.
I’m going to cover all the Prophetic Books in a single episode – Episode 24, “God May Relent.” There are individual prophetic books that stand out from the crowd. Daniel and Jonah, for instance, are formally distinguished by the fact that they’re written in third person omniscient and tell splendid little short stories with memorable plots. Portions of Ezekiel are famous their visionary and almost hallucinatory imagery. Amos is notoriously miscellaneous – a sort of hodgepodge of instruction. However, when you remove these, the Prophetic Books start to become indistinguishable from one another, unless you’re a scholar of Ancient Hebrew grammar or proper expert on the subject. As I said, stretching across hundreds of pages are denunciations of foreign peoples, castigations of the Israelites themselves, and less often, hopeful statements about the future. Because of the repetitious nature of these books, I feel like we can cover them in a single episode.
So that’s it – the four main parts – the Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic and Wisdom Books, and the Prophetic Books. To close out today’s show, I want to talk a little bit about some of the resources I’m going to be using, in addition to the Old Testament, to help give context to it. And to help me do this, do me a favor. Picture a nicely dressed woman sitting in a church in 1905 – on a worn wooden pew, looking around for a minute, and then lifting a bible from the seatback in front of her. [music]
New Resources for Understanding the Old TestamentSometimes, in my mind, I try to picture someone of my great grandma’s generation – someone born a decade or two before the turn of the twentieth century. I picture this woman, as I said, sitting at a church pew, and picking up one of those black jacketed, gilded-letters on the spine, double columned bibles, and cracking it open. There she is, wearing a conservative floral printed dress, and some sensible dark colored shoes. She’s nudging spectacles up onto the bridge of her nose, flipping a ways through – there, she’s in Psalms – no, she doesn’t want to read Psalms. Book of Acts? No, not Acts. Ruth! Good choi – oh, no, not Ruth. She opens to Hosea. Hmm. Hosea.
I try and imagine what reading it would have been like to be this woman. Or man – I mean, it doesn’t matter, obviously – but the example has been a woman so far, so anyway, I imagine just how tough it would be to understand the sentiments of say, a prophet, like Hosea, without the deep historical context available to today’s readers. Granted, a few generations ago, if you did go to church, you had a whole social apparatus to use to learn about the Bible – priests and pastors and devout adults – not to say that this doesn’t still exist in many communities. And granted, a few generations ago, reading had a larger market share on human entertainment than it does today. The average literate person had fewer possible distractions from the printed word, and a higher likelihood of making her way through a challenging text.
Still, I put myself in the shoes of this woman at church a few generations ago, and I think that understanding what’s going on in the Old Testament seems like it would have been really challenging, and in many cases impossible. There are 1,399 chapters in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha. These chapters contain, by one count, over 2,600 proper nouns. There aren’t ten commandments in the Pentateuch. There are 613.
There are seventeen prophets, scattered across the history of ancient Israel and Judah, each with his own book. I imagine this woman of my great grandma’s generation opening up something like the Book of Hosea in one of those old minimalist black bibles. How was she supposed to know who Hosea was? In 1905, what did we know about the city of Samaria, where he lived? We hadn’t excavated there, or found the famous ivory plaques, or catalogued the finery of the court of Jeroboam II under the king’s economic ventures with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. So what did people think when they say “Hosea?” How did they start reading this prophetic book? A single sentence or two in a precursory head note would often suffice. If they just said at the beginning of the Book of Hosea, “Hey, man. This Hosea guy lived during the 700s, in the lavish court of a king called Jeroboam II. Hosea is angry at the decadence of the northern kingdom of Israel and wants people to turn to a simple, pious life. Kay? 700s, angry minimalist guy in an opulent court. Right on. See you later.” You and I can find this information in five seconds. But someone of my great grandma’s generation wouldn’t have found it – certainly not in her Spartan black bible. For generations, even once we got our heads on straight during the early Renaissance and started translating the Bible and reading it in the vernacular, we just saw the big black word “Hosea,” the names of a bunch of kings and then, “When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, ‘Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the LORD’” (HOS 1:2). Wait, what? Slow down. Who’s Hosea? Why did God tell him to marry a stumpet? What kind of advice is that? What did a person of my great grandmother’s generation, unless she had a properly learned person around, take from reading Hosea in 1905, straight with no chaser?
I never read a Bible like that. Mine was always the heavily footnoted, scholarly edition that told you who Hosea was, what was going on in his book – and even gave you notes on alternate translations, traditional interpretations, points of scholarly discrepancy, historical backgrounds – all that good stuff that helps you understand the text that’s sitting in front of you.
I don’t mean to imply that none of this stuff existed in 1905. Biblical scholarship is as old as the Bible. It’s nothing newfangled. It was practiced by the earliest rabbis and fathers of the Catholic Church, by grand dukes like Augustine and Aquinas and ibn Yashush, by later figures like Spinoza and Richard Simon and Johann Semler. All of us who have read the Bible carefully have wanted to know more about it, whatever our reasons – the world that it came from, and, when possible, the individuals who wrote it. The body of scholarship, as we’ll definitely see in the upcoming eight shows, has been growing by leaps and bounds.
But aside from close textual scholarship and inherited traditions (such as the idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch – never stated in the Old Testament but widely believed by many today) – aside from these fields of study, which are concerned with what the ink printed on the page says, there is a whole new world of knowledge available to today’s Bible reader. This is the world of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern archaeology.
To my great grandma’s generation, the Old Testament was the largest, most colorful, reliable source of information about the ancient world we had. If it said that King Solomon had 700 wives and undertook larger than life building projects, then there was little reason to suppose otherwise. If it said that Joshua’s armies marched around Jericho tooting trumpets and Jericho’s walls collapsed, then the trumpets sounded, and the walls fell. Only, over the course of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century, and particularly over the past thirty years, something new has been happening. People have been out there, exploring. In Canaan. In Mesopotamia. Or, to use modern terms, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Gaza, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
A number of the episodes of this podcast have been about what they found – the Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh, all of which have links to early chapters in the Book of Genesis, and also Job and some of the Psalms. The Instructions of Amenemope, which has close ties to the Book of Proverbs. Hesiod’s Works and Days, which tells a story about the ages of man identical to the one in the Book of Daniel. As we’ll see in the next episode, the texts of a city called Ugarit, in northern Canaan, tell of a bull god, El, from which Israel gets its name. These texts were not widely known, printed, and circulated a hundred years ago. They are now. [music]
Since the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and deciphered by Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young in the 1820s, we’ve begun to have a much clearer understanding of the dynasties of Ancient Egypt – their religion and culture, their economics and international relations. Soon after, Henry Rawlinson began transcribing the famous Behistun Inscription in the Zagros Mountains of modern day Iran in the 1830s, and Austen Henry Layard found the library of Ashurbanipal in 1851. It contained 20,000 clay tablets – a snapshot of all of the Mesopotamian literature of the Iron Age. Six years later, in 1857, four translators working on behalf of the Royal Asiatic Society created similar translations of an Akkadian cuneiform tablet from around 1,100 BCE. The decipherment of ancient languages from Iraq and Iran meant that the texts of ancient Mesopotamia could be read and understood. Then, in 1906, the discovery of 10,000 more tablets in Hattusa, the land of the Hittites in modern day Turkey, added hugely to our knowledge of the ancient world. And also at the turn of the century, the discovery and compilation of the Amarna letters, clay tablet correspondence between Egypt’s kings and the regional powers of Mesopotamia, Turkey, and the Levant, began to give us a view of a Late Bronze Age world that was highly specialized, economically stratified, and commercially interlinked, from Sicily to the eastern regions of Iran, up to the mountains of the Balkan peninsula, and as far south as Yemen and the Sudan. The world that existed before Ancient Greece and Rome, once buried beneath sands and lost in dark caches under crumbled cities, started being recovered in the nineteenth century.
For our friend from earlier, that woman in 1905, all of this new information would have been absolutely spellbinding. I think she would realize that she had not just one – often very puzzling – source of information about the ancient world, but instead many, many sources – cuneiform tablets, wooden coffin inscriptions, papyrus fragments, ostraca and stele with writing on them, architectural remnants, pottery and jewelry, bones and mummified remains, burn layers, soil samples, shipwrecks, figurines, plinths and totems, armor and weaponry, chariots, bits, sculptures, etchings, and seals. Our churchgoing acquaintance of 1905 had a big black book, but we have that same big black book buttressed by all this other fantastic stuff. This is a superb time to read the Old Testament. For Judeo-Christians, the Old Testament still contains those old ironclad messages that it carried two thousand years ago. But for everybody out there, all of the archaeological work and textual scholarship – all the hard work and dedication of tens of thousands of people, have taught us something that I will sum up very simply.
From archaeology and scholarship, we have learned that the Old Testament isn’t really that old. We’ve learned that half of recorded history had elapsed before ancient Canaanite scribes began writing it all down in their fancy newfangled phonetic alphabet. While for some 2,500 years we have been reading the Old Testament, it’s only been over the last 200 of those that we’ve begun having substantive archaeological information about the ancient world. And of those 200 years, only for a scant half century have professionally trained linguists and anthropologists, together with the techniques of modern archaeology, been put to work in understanding the world of the ancient Israelites. Our great grandparents’ generation didn’t have all this. But we do. The excitement that I feel about that has driven me through the 915,000 words of the Bible multiple times, along with associated history, archaeology, and scholarship. I already can’t wait for the next trip. [music]
In the next episode, we’re finally going to get into it – the first of those four main parts we talked about today, the Pentateuch. What were those four main parts again? [pause] Okay, I have no idea what you said, so just in case you didn’t know, they were the Pentateuch, or first five books, then the Historical Books, then the Poetical and Wisdom Books, and then the Prophetic Books. In the next episode, we’re going to meet the most famous family in history – specifically, the family of Abraham, and explore the world of the Biblical patriarchs.
As I’ve been requesting lately, if you’re enjoying this program, please do me a favor and write a review of it on iTunes or whichever platform you’re using to listen or subscribe. Reviews help free educational podcasts get noticed, and honestly, help keep us podcasters happy and healthy. We do read them, and deeply appreciate your feedback. So thanks for listening to Literature and History, and hey – let’s close with a song. Skip it, if you’d like. I got to thinking about how long the Bible is – I mean, those 915,000 words of the Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha. How many novels, plays, and poems could you squeeze into that length, and which ones? Just how long is 915,000 words? I got to thinking about that, and I wrote the following tune. Hope you like it, and see you next time!
|Paid||Hardcopy/Kindle||The New Oxford Annotated Bible||Ed. Michael D. Coogan, et. al.||This is the Bible that I've used throughout my career and this podcast. It's annotations, accompanying essays, and notes on translation are terrific.|
|Free||Podcast||The History in the Bible Podcast||Garry Stevens||This is a sprawling, wonderful podcast entirely dedicated to historical analysis of the Bible. If you liked this episode, subscribe to Dr. Garry's podcast. Read my full review here.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Bible Unearthed||Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman||This modern classic is perhaps the most famous work on the doings and findings of survey archaeologists in Israel, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and so on. It's grippingly narrated and informed by a huge amount of scholarship.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Old Testament Parallels||Victor Harold Matthews||This is an anthology with extensive notes. It includes transcriptions of papyri and stele that have direct linguistic and thematic parallels to the Old Testament - materials from places like Egypt, Assyria, Ugarit, Babylon, and so forth. It also includes useful short essays introducing the materials.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt||Toby Wilkinson||I recommended this amazing one volume history of Ancient Egypt throughout Episodes 4-6. Wilkinson's summary of the Hyksos and the Canaanite presence in the Nile Delta throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages is excellent.|
|Paid||Kindle/Hardcopy||Who Wrote the Bible?||Richard Elliott Friedman||This book was first published in 1987, and then reissued in 1997. It's a deep analysis of the Documentary Hypothesis, and basically a detective story in which Friedman tries to identify the Deuteronomist. If you've read the Old Testament, you will find this book as fascinating as the other hundreds of thousands of people who have read it have.|
1.^ After releasing this episode I decided to change the title of Episode 20 to "Episode 20: The Problem of Evil." It's not that Leibniz's term isn't nifty, it's just that it's sufficiently esoteric that I don't think most people would see the word "Theodicy" and then think "Oh, man - just what I wanted - a podcast episode on theodicy!"