We have resolved to look at the Bible, starting with the Old Testament, to see whether it provides evidence that the creator of our ordered and moral universe has communicated with human beings. Some may be skeptical that writers of well over two thousand years ago, lacking modern science and technology, could provide any useful information about the nature of the universe and its creator. Such people are asked to preserve an open mind.
A brief scan of the Old Testament books reveals that, in general, they follow a chronological arrangement. The first book (Genesis) describes the creation of the universe. The second records the escape of the Hebrew people from Egypt, led by Moses. Later books trace the establishment of a monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon, and the eventual destruction of an independent Jewish state by a Babylonian army.
Side note: the people in question had a variety of names at different times and in different contexts. They called themselves the “children of Israel,” using the name of a legendary patriarch. They were also called Hebrews and their language continues to bear that name. After Solomon’s time, the kingdom was divided into a northern part, called Israel, and a southern part called Judah. In New Testament times, the Romans called the area Judea and the people Judeans. This has influenced the modern term “Jews.” In this series, the terms “Hebrews,” “children of Israel,” and “Jews” will be used interchangeably unless the context makes it important to distinguish them.
The Old Testament contains various other materials, including the tales of Job and Jonah, poems (psalms and the Song of Solomon) proverbs, and several books bearing the names of Hebrew prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah). The variety of books makes it difficult to find a starting place for discussion. Analysis is complicated by the fact that scholars disagree about when and for what purposes the books were written.
The approach taken in this series will be to begin with some dates we can verify from other records. The Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem in 597 B.C. As a security measure, many of the Jewish inhabitants were deported to other parts of the Babylonian empire. The Babylonian dynasty was itself conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C. The Persian king, Cyrus, permitted many of the captive peoples to return to their homelands, and the Jews were included in this decree. Many scholars believe that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity set in motion a process by which the sacred books were collected and edited, resulting in most of the Old Testament as we have it today. So let us take a time machine back to the 500’s B.C. and find an educated Jew to be our guide. We want to find out, from someone who knows, what the Old Testament says about the history of God’s communications with human beings. Where should we begin? Our guide might well answer: “Let me tell you about Abraham.”
Abraham Entertains Three Strangers.
(The Dore Gallery of Bible Illustrations – Gustave Dore)