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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Conclusion

It is now time to review the point which has been reached in comparison with the opening pages. There, it was pointed out that the Old Testament's view of how Israel's faith originated is that it was revealed by God supremely to Moses, but also to other people such as Abraham and the prophets. Authors drawn from this privileged group were then responsible for writing the Old Testament. The outline given above has indicated something much more complicated—a series of interactions between official, popular, and prophetic Yahwism in the context of the historical ups and downs of a small people surrounded by, and often victim to, the ambitions of powerful empires. Also, brief consideration of the Apocrypha has indicated that the processes of formation and development of Israel's faith and the production of its scriptures was something ongoing. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, has shown how, in the first century BCE, there were diverse and competing strands within the broad stream of the Judaism of the time. In a way, the Qumran group might be compared with the prophetic religion of earlier times, seeing that it lived on the margins of society and was fiercely critical of the official Judaism of the time.

Israel Museum, Jerusalem, photo David Harris.

The Qumran group is also instructive with regard to attitudes to scripture. On the assumption that the Temple Scroll and the biblical commentaries were the work of the same group, the Qumran sectarians regarded certain works as sacred and therefore susceptible of interpretation. This is seen in the commentaries on books such as Habakkuk and Nahum, the prophecies of which are interpreted in terms of the group's history and leaders. On the other hand, the Temple Scroll is an attempt to fill a gap in the Bible. There is no record in the Old Testament of explicit instructions from God about the form and dimensions of the Jerusalem temple. Exodus 35–40 contains an account of the construction of the portable tabernacle according to God's instructions which served the Israelites in the wilderness; 1 Kings 6–7 describes how Hiram built the Jerusalem temple for Solomon. No doubt the description of the tabernacle in Exodus is dependent upon the later Second Temple. The point is that the Old Testament contains no specific instructions from God about the construction of the Jerusalem temple; and it is this lack which the Temple Scroll remedies, in the form of a direct address of God to Moses about the building of a temple. Thus, as late as the first century BCE, there was a group within Judaism that claimed and attributed revelations of God to Moses regarding vital matters of religion.

If modern scholarship proposes a gradual development of the faith of Israel as opposed to an initial revelation to a founder such as Moses, this does not mean that we are left with vagaries. However the faith of Israel may have developed (and subsequent research and discoveries may modify or alter the sketch proposed in this chapter) the end result was that the texts that were produced and the faith that they implied had what has been called a family likeness. The main features of this ‘family likeness’ were:

  • • belief in Yahweh as the God of Israel and as the only God, the creator of the universe;

  • • belief in Israel as the people chosen and called by Yahweh to service and obedience, that would lead to Yahweh being acknowledged by the other nations;

  • • belief in Jerusalem as the place chosen by Yahweh for a temple to honour his name, and belief in Yahweh's choice of the house of David to rule over Israel;

  • • belief in Yahweh's laws as revealed to Moses;

  • • belief in a re-creation of the heavens and the earth when Yahweh would establish a peace and justice longed for by the nations.

Leipzig University Library.

Not all of these features are to be found in every book of the Old Testament, but they are implied. Ecclesiastes, for example, always uses the general Hebrew word for God rather than the name Yahweh, and makes no mention of Israel or of its being specially chosen and commissioned by Yahweh. But its view, that humans live in a world created by God, who is also the creator of individual humans and to whom their spirits return at death, would be impossible without the general background of belief outlined above. Indeed, the scepticism in Ecclesiastes and Job comes precisely from problems arising from the need to relate Israelite monotheism to the sufferings of innocent people and the many injustices that go unpunished, when Israelite monotheism had not yet developed a belief in the afterlife. Again, a book such as Esther which, in its Hebrew version, notoriously fails to mention God none the less depicts the Jews as a distinct entity singled out for hatred and destruction by Haman, and thus implying a unique Jewish national self-consciousness and praxis which could arouse hostile feelings against the Jewish people.

Readers of the list of features making up the ‘family likeness’ may be surprised by the omission of belief in the coming of the Messiah. Of course, by the beginning of the Common Era various types of ‘Messianic’ belief had developed, including the coming of a ‘prophet like unto Moses’ (Deut. 18: 15 ), a return of Elijah (Mal. 4: 5 ), and a royal (Davidic) or priestly anointed one (which is what ‘Messiah’ means). However, in the Old Testament only the elements of these later expectations are present, and are subordinate to the view that God himself will redeem his people and renew the created order.

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