Overview of the Hebrew Bible
And The Five Themes of Torah
©2003, Marlena Tanya Muchnick
First, a disclaimer. I am not a scholar nor an authority on Judaism. My information has been compiled from many sources, some traditional and some arcane. I have tried to structure it so that you will hopefully glean some important insights through a quick overview of the Old Testament in the short time we have here. My Guide to Understanding Your Jewish Brethren and other books are available to you, also. They will give you much important information about modern Judaism and its ancient roots.
I declare to you that though I am a Jew from the tribe of Judah, my heart and soul are one with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and his restored Church. Though I may say "we" when expressing the Jewish ways, I no longer follow those ways. Inwardly my heritage has served as a prelude to accepting the full doctrine of Christ, much of which was preached to my ancestors so long ago and which most have until this day rejected. Tonight I would like to talk with you about my favorite part of Old Testament study, the history behind the history, and then to familiarize you with the major themes of the central lifeline of Jewish life, the Torah.
Overview of the Hebrew Bible
The five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, give us an enduring but partial understanding of the activities of the Israelites and Hebrews 2500 years ago. We learn of Abraham, who I will refer to as Avraham, which is the proper Hebrew pronunciation. We are told of Moses, called Moshe, the Lawgiver and the scribe of Mosaic Law in all its sternness and stark purity. We experience many characters, their lives and accomplishments, meanwhile learning of Israelite culture, philosophy, challenges and triumphs. Moreover these records of the people who became a Jewish nation describe a fabric, a household, Bet Yisroel, the House of Israel. I am referring to a specific atmosphere, a set of traditions and experiences that have molded the Jewish people and have bound them into a family. What we read as the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, discloses central themes which can teach us if we ponder them about the essential themes in life, service, sin, repentance, faith, longsuffering, love and hate, and so on. This testament is a fascinating cornucopia of human experience and an infallible record of how the Lord works in the affairs of men.
These central themes do more than define the Hebrew/Jewish people than all other writings about them. Why is that? Because those who wrote the stories and who faithfully tried to tell of the workings of God and His Chosen people, really were the shapers of Judaism itself. These authors, scribes, prophets and priests of hymns, prophecies and laws put down their words in the period between 800-400 BC and they became the essential compilation of Torah in the larger sense. Latter day revelation ascribes authorship of the Pentateuch essentially to Moses and to Joshua who wrote of the patriarch's birth and death, but in the Hebrew Bible, which includes the prophets, the Talmud and other writings, many other voices are heard.
Since you're studying the history of the formation of a people, let's see where it began. From the research I have done I've learned there is no written history about the lives of the Hebrews in their homeland or about the Dispersion from Babylon after about 430 BC but there are narrative histories from the period 170 BC to AD 70. These come from the works of Josephus (37 BC- AD 100) who was a priest in the rebuilt Second Temple, Herod's temple. He was a Pharisee and politically astute. He was of course not immune to bias or self interest or even selective ignorance, but his works are better than none at all.
So Jewish history really began with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the period between 722 BC and 586 BC. Through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah we read the warnings that were given the Israelites about their enemies, the Assyrians.
It was at that time the name "Jew" really became their identity. Before that they were pre-exilic, pre-Babylonian Exile, not to be confused with the Exodus from Egypt back in 1250-1200 BC, also known as the beginnings of the Iron Age. They were called Hebrews at that time.
Some historians believe they fled before the advance of the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who conquered Egypt in about 1650 BC.
Some of them were Semitic, descendents of Shem, one of Noah's sons. They were wandering tribespeople from northern Arabia, around the area of the Tigris and Euphrates River valley. They were called the Habiru, Hapiru, or Apiru. Josephus tells us many of these people made an exodus from Egypt in about 1550 BC. Some of the Habiru groups became the ancestors of the Arab people. The later chapters of Genesis appear to chronicle these times. The Hebrews coalesced as a social order during this period, though there is no real history of them until the 13th century BC. It is also possible the name came from the word "eber", which means "to cross". This denoted those people who had crossed over from beyond the Euphrates. Our Bible Dictionary does not apply dates to a sequence of events until after the death of Joshua and the period of the reign of Judges in Israel. It lists the start of Saul's reign as 1095 BC. We read of his reign in 1 Samuel.
The fog really lifts by the eleventh century BC with the rise in the north of the kingdom of Israel and in the south, the kingdom of Judah, lasting until the eighth century BC. King David wrote many of the Psalms during his and Solomon's reign from 1000-925 BC. The Hebrews at that time worshipped a primary god called Yahweh, which comes from the Hebrew letters YHVH, called the Tetragrammaton, a four lettered symbol which stood for the actual name of God, according to the priests of the time. In the Jerusalem Bible, Yahweh is always written in place of the word "God". They also paid homage to other gods who were public deities of the general Canaanite population.
That period was a time of radical change in the eastern Mediterranean area. Empires were broken down into city-states; ideographic writing gave way to syllabic script. The Greek and Hebrew alphabets were coming into everyday usage.
Babylon gave way to Persian rule in 500 BC. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews religious freedom and encouraged the rebuilding of their temple. He introduced the Aramaic language, which was to become to the Jews a language second to Hebrew. Persia eventually fell to Alexander the Great who introduced Hellenism the Jews to in 330 BC, and that is where the apostles of Christ found them on their journeys around the Mediterranean in the first century AD.
But the discourses of the prophets Amos and Hosea did a lot to change that. Yahweh dwelt on Mount Zion. They taught that Yahweh was no tribal god; he controlled the fate of humanity and ruled with justice, not mere whim. These Yahwist prophets, as they were called, came largely from the Judahite upper classes. They had Semitic names, meaningful names, like Yehoyishma (Yahweh will hear).
These prophets encouraged the Israelites to accept a declining interest in the worship of multiple gods. But during the reign of King Josiah in 609 BC the king of Babylon overthrew his Assyrian emperor and destroyed his city of Ninevah. We find our information on this war in the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied until after the downfall of Jerusalem under King Zedekiah.
In 586 BC the capture of Jerusalem occurred. The kingdom of Judah survived only two more decades. The Jews were deported to Babylon, but by then the religious life of the Judahites had become somewhat established as a monotheistic life. They gradually, in two major waves, returned to their homeland during the 5th and 6th centuries BC. It is from this period that the transformation of Israelite religion to Judaism is thought to have its most formative roots.
Review of Most Important Events of O.T. Hebrew history
Blessings from these seminal events resulted in numerous achievements in Jewish history:
The Exodus from Egypt in 1250 BC.
- Moses transformed the liberation of slaves into the birth of a nation.
- Formation of delegation of rule: Procedural law became model for English common law and US and French common law.
- The monarch of King David, King Solomon, the erecting of temples.
- Production of histories, psalms, messianic hope attached to Davidic line.
The destruction of Israel in 722 BC led to the wandering and preservation of the ten tribes of Israel.
The destruction of Judah and exile to Babylon resulted in the formation of much of the Hebrew Bible.
The conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 led to the foundation of classical, rabbinic Judaism under the leadership of great rabbis. It also created a crisis of faith and the Sabbath became Israel's sanctuary.
The Moslem conquest of the Middle East in AD 640 led to philosophical and mystical inquiry that has become part of the Jewish religion and culture.
Beginnings of Hebrew Bible
How did the Hebrew bible and commentaries come into being? Our Old Testament fails to make explicit when Jewish history began. Since the time of Avraham the lore and legends of the Israelites have been recorded. They were legends told and retold by many oral historians and other peoples over previous thousands of years. Histories, poems, psalms and messianic myths were created and told in households throughout the area of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Levant, as it is called, includes all countries bordering the sea between Greece and Egypt.
There have been hundreds of biblical writers and contributors to what is now called the Old Testament. They laid down information about their views of religion, their beliefs and practices, their attitudes toward Israelites and non-Israelites, and so on. But it took the Exodus from Egypt and the monarchy of King David to profoundly shape the Israelite imagination. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the foundation of classical rabbinic Judaism as the Jews were exiled to Babylon resulted in the formation of much of the Hebrew bible or Torah, which was fixed by the Palestinian Jews at the start of the Common Era. This Hebrew bible contains only the 24 Hebrew books and the Song of Songs but excludes all books written in Greek and the Greek supplements of Esther and Daniel.
So these fourteen or so centuries were a time when religious experiences and beliefs of various kinds contributed to the Hebrew scriptures. These were written down by scribes from oral histories. They were addressed to and absorbed by ancient Israel.
There are two Hebrew Torahs, the Palestinian and the Babylonian. They are both compendiums of ancient Judaic law, lore and theology, produced mainly by rabbis who studied in the ancient tradition and who took the place of priests as teachers of the people. These bibles contain creation myths, text discussing the mysteries of life and death and messianic theories.
The Hebrew Torah was translated first into Greek by Alexandrian Jews after the exile from Babylon. It is called the Septuagint because it supposedly contains the work of 70 scholars who completed it in 70 days.
Oral Torah writings were finally edited and codified in the fifth and sixth centuries after the death of the Christ, essentially by the Pharisees, who are the Orthodox rabbinic Jews of today. Because they were in a highly political atmosphere, living as it were in diaspora in Rome, they edited out and rewrote many laws for the Jews of their times and it is reasonable to assume they further altered those scriptures throughout. Ancient translations of those Hebrew scriptures were done in Aramaic. Many of them paraphrase and supplement with literary allusion, in addition to the transcribed texts. The Aramaic version of the Hebrew bible is called the TARGUM and has great value for modern scholars.
Old Testament versus Judaic Understanding
You are studying the Old Testament, but much of Judaism is not therein. The inward religion which is the soul of Judaic understanding, of the Hebrews before them and of the Israelites before them, is in the dual Torah, the written and oral records, that is of Sinai. It is codified in the Hebrew Torah, but much pseudopigrapha remains extant.
For example, turn to Gen 1:1-4. Now I will relate to you the picture of creation from a document I came across that originated in oral history, from writers of varying world views and from a fragment of a manuscript many centuries old. Here is an example where we can compare creation-narratives with the KJV of Genesis.
In the beginning, two thousand years before the heaven and the earth, seven things were created: the Torah, written with black fire on white fire and lying in the lap of God, the Divine throne, erected in the Heavens…; Paradise on the right side of God; Hell on the left side, the Celestial sanctuary directly in front of God, having a jewel on its altar graven with the name of the Messiah, and a Voice that cried aloud "Return, oh you children of men."
Now as you compare the Christianized Old Testament with this, you can hear the differences in content and the intense imaginative pictures that it provokes. The highly emotional and imaginative world we find here is quite different from popular understanding. Judaism as it is today is a development out of ancient Hebrew scriptures and practices that hearken back centuries and contain much legend, myth, fantasy and magical stories.
Five Themes of Torah
I would like to tell you about the Old Testament in terms of Jewish Torah, which in its largest sense includes all the religious books of the Jews. Torah is the body of doctrine come down to us from past ages. It is the cement that binds Jewry together. Torah scrolls are to rabbinic Jews the fabric of Heaven because through it God created earth and gave us the instructions to live here as one would in Heaven. Torah is a necessary connection between heaven and earth. Devotion to study of the whole of Jewish scripture is a faithful Jew's chief glory. It gives he or she the benefit of both oral and written wisdom and instruction, encompassing centuries of scholarly thought and ancient history. The Jewish people regard Torah as the instrument and living record of their covenant with God, Elohim. In Deuteronomy 33:4 Moses charged us with it, telling us it is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob, the compendium of instruction and the guide for life.
As you have read in the Old Covenant, surely some themes have come to stand out in your minds. I would like to quickly recap the five major themes of this work as Jewish scholars identify them. These are: Torah, God, Land, and Covenant (including Mitzvot), and Temple.
Torah Speaks of God
In Genesis 2:15 we are told that our creator placed the world in our hands. He spake and the world came into being. Humanity, placed above nature, is ultimately subject to the Master of mankind, and of history. We are his children and his servants. Torah teaches that God can be discovered through several directions. One of them is the process of reasoning from an effect back to a First Cause, from the clouds in the sky to the breath in our bodies, concluding that there must be an ultimate Creator. Another way of knowing God, which was given to Avraham and few others, is to simply be given the knowledge of God by God to a human mind and heart.
Not only is God the creator of all things, but the cosmic order is dependent upon his will. Creation is not an act in the past but is ever renewing, an unceasing function. During a part of each day Jewish scripture tells us, God works and sustains the whole world from the mightiest to the most insignificant of beings. The glory of God, it says in Psalms 24, is over earth and heaven. A reason why such emphasis was laid upon the idea of divine omnipresence was to impress us that we are always under the supervision of our Creator. This should be a powerful deterrent against sinning.
Ultimately, a Jew believes, God remains hidden from the human mind which cannot encompass Him. Yet he becomes manifest in nature and in the events of life. In Exodus 33:20 God tells Moses "you cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live." Then the Father of us all recites his divine attributes to Moses: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, but clearing the guilty he will not do. This is from Ex 34:6-7. In my reading I learned that later rabbis took off the last few words, which leaves the impression that even the guilty will be cleared.
What is being said here? That the Father is, we can know. He is found in his creations, but he himself, cannot be found. We see his presence in his back, his shadow, his influence upon and within all living things. But what he truly is, a glorified, immortal man, a Jew is taught he cannot know. They know he is eternal, dynamic. They reason incorrectly that to have any form is to be temporal and that divine unity is composed of many parts. In mystical Judaism the world is a manifestation of a larger and ultimate reality known as Ein Sof, the Infinite. This larger reality is called God. To know him as he is and as he has made us is seen by the mind of a Jew as unfathomable. The image of the Divine is within us, and we are part of the whole Divine light, which we cannot know or see. The mystical work of Kabbalah asserts that God is included in every part of creation. A piece of rock contains a part of Him. It is as though the world is a holographic image of the Divine. Each part reflects the whole. We are each a part of that Whole which is God, the Ein Sof.
The Jewish conception of God operates on a monotheistic plane. There is only one God, in their view. This was originally a defense against the prevalent current of thought at the time which was that of multiple idols, which the rabbis associated with immoral living. Embracing the unity or oneness of God was in essence a proclamation that he who rejected idolatry automatically embraced all of Torah.
Our Heavenly Father has a Begotten Son who is our Lord and who is and was the Lord of Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was with the Jews in their Exodus. He led their prophet, Moses in the establishment of a nation and a people. He protected them and went before them by day and night, even as they complained and doubted, he gave them ordinances and instructed them in his ways. He promised them their own land and unknown to them, he was their Mashiach.
Torah speaks of Land
The land of Israel is the laboratory of the Covenant. From the very beginning, Jewish destiny has been linked to Israel. From Avraham's migration there to the current day, the Land of Israel has always remained the Promised Land where Torah could be openly followed and become part of the life of an independent nation. These concepts are inseparable. The gifts of Avraham and Israel to the Jewish people are leasehold, not freehold. The land is for the Jews, through grace and favor, but revocable. Avraham is told he is a sojourner. See Lev 25:23. This expresses a fragility because of an uncertainty in ownership. In Genesis 15:1-6 Avraham is told the land is transferable to all of his descendents. What does that mean? The election of Israel will never be revoked but can be suspended by human disobedience. Because it took until 1948 for the state of Israel to be made, we can see how this prophecy and warning were made true.
When the land was taken away it forced the people to find new justification for their continued existence. They determined to deepen their dependence upon God's will so they could return and the echoes of this spirit can be felt in every Passover service and every Rosh Hashonah service or major holiday observance that is practiced in Judaism.
Through the hope of reclaiming their land after being conquered and ruled by 20 different nations and kingdoms, unity of the community of the House of Israel has been forged. In May 1948, Israel was declared an independent nation, and prophecy was realized.
Torah speaks of Covenant
If the Pentateuch is the book of Promises it is also the book of Covenants, covenants with Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses and with the whole nation. God defines the terms of this bond. These are the golden threads, the warp and woof of the O.T. The major forces of Torah, God and Land interact, each evolving from and leading to the other. This contract of obedience defines the Jewish people's relationship with God. Avraham inaugurated this special Hebrew relationship with a God who is sole and omnipotent. In Exodus 19 we learn this Sinaitic Covenant.
Avraham was the founder of the Hebrew religious culture as well as the patriarch of the Hebrew people. The Jewish scholar Martin Buber has said that God was and is to be Israel's only king, that he planted his Chosen in Israel so they would establish an ideal society through their observance of their covenant with him. They derived strength and unity from it.
But as we read the Old Testament records we see that the Covenant failed. Prophets arose and rebuked the kings, the people rebuked their prophets. Kingdoms fought and nations died. The fulfillment of the Covenant was projected into the future, to the end of days when the Mashiach shall come and deliver and establish his kingdom and renew his Covenant with his chosen faithful, this time and for all time. Devout Jewish people await this time with hope and faith.
In reading Genesis it seems that Avraham's grasp and acceptance of the implications of his bargain was gradual. But in Genesis 22, when he is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, the message is brought home to him. See Genesis 22:17-18. Avraham and Isaac learned eternally that obedience was the linchpin to exaltation and to the eternal blessings of the Covenant he had made in behalf of his people. The covenant with God was of such transcendent enormity that it required sacrifice of the best-loved. Isaac was a gift of God, born under that covenant, and we know him as a type and shadow of the Savior of mankind, even Jesus the Christ, whose death in our behalf allowed us to live because of his sacrifice, and whose resurrection gave us the fruit of the secret of eternal life. And so what goes around comes around again in marvelous ways when we obey our God and do His will above our own.
Torah speaks of Mitzvah
Mitzvah is response to God under the covenant. It is an action response. The people promised in Ex 24:7 All that the Lord has spoken we will do and hear it. The word hear is shema in Hebrew and it means also to obey, which implies understanding. There are two kinds of Mitzvots (plural).
- Religious observance, between humanity and God, and
- Unselfish service between person and person.
The basic creedal prayer of the Jewish nation is in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." The recitation of this passage by rabbis is called the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. There is a second paragraph of the Shema in Deuteronomy 11:13-21. It speaks of the rewards given to those who keep God's commandments and the punishment exacted for those who do not.
NOTE: See also Mark 12:10.
Moving to Leviticus we learn that God enters into all human relationships (Lev 19:18). This is the basic mitzvah and is the cornerstone of Judaism. This is what you will come into contact with as you study Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Social justice dignifies or denigrates the doers and recipients as children of God. Through our deeds we attain self-identification. This is why we study Torah.
Study is Mitzvah
Of the 613 Mitzvot (singular, meaning commandments) handed down to Jews, 365 are prohibitions and 248 are calls to action. Because there are essentially 365 days in a year, every day's activities must be limited and confined within God's domain. The number of positive Mitzvot correspond to part of the body and every one must be ready to use them to promote the kingdom of God.
Many mitzvots are devoted to land use and maintenance, to sanctify it and the people who dwell on it. There is a code of Jewish law, from the 16th century. It is called the Shulhan Aruch, an authoritative work that for a long time kept Jewry together in Diaspora. The author of this work, Joseph Karo, believed he received heavenly visitations from holy beings. Many of the greatest lawyers and Talmudic scholars were also mystics. There is a work of the 13th century called the Book of the Pious. It's all about loving one's neighbor, supporting the poor, realizing that we have these duties to our neighbors.
Torah Speaks of the Ancient Tabernacle and Temples
What is a temple but a palace? It is a palace where God walks, and where the Messiah visits the earth. It is a holy place. The book of Exodus invites us to the tabernacle. There are interesting facts associated with these holy places. The ancient tabernacle erected in the desert was a house where, as it says in D&C 109:15, every needful thing could be found. Moses received the instructions to build it when he spoke with our Lord on Mt. Sinai. There were deep meanings associated with the physical dimensions and plans for the tabernacle, they were meant to reflect spiritual patterns that are also reflected in the temples of today.
The Ark of the Covenant, the repository of the commandments that were given to Moses, was in Solomon's temple but had disappeared by the time Herod's temple was built. Because the small ark was portable and carried from place to place, and because the tabernacle was also mobile, the Hebrew people imagined that their Deity lived in the Ark and in the incense the priests waved around and therefore added to their belief that God is not containable in a body.
Holy of Holies
Now you probably have learned already that only the chosen high priest could enter the Holy of Holies room, equivalent to the celestial room in modern temples. Typically, he had a rope tied to an ankle, so that if he died while in that room with his Maker, he could be pulled out, for no one else was permitted to enter and retrieve him.
People have always needed temples. In the ancient world of the Jews Josephus tells us the first temple was built on Mt. Gerizim, with Manasseh as its first high priest. The 13th chapter of Neh probably refers to this event. Our Bible Dictionary tells us that it became the refuge of all Jews who had violated the precepts of the Mosaic Law. That temple was destroyed in 109 BC.
Solomon's temple was next, as we are told in 1Kings and 2 Chronicles. It was consecrated in the 10th century during a Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication lasted 14 days. We read in 2 Kings 25 that it was burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar. It had stood 410 years. The holy Ark of the Covenant was probably stolen from it, and no one knows today where it is.
Temple of Zerubbabel
The temple of Zerubbabel was erected to be essentially a reproduction of Solomon's, dedicated in 516 BC, and recorded in Ezra 6. It, too, was desolated and burned, only to have Herod rebuild it, but that beautiful structure also knew destruction when in AD 70 Jerusalem was burned. It had stood 420 years. In architectural splendor, this edifice outshined Solomon's temple but the real elements of temple glory had disappeared.
The Holy of Holies was empty, the ark with the tables of the law, the book of the covenant, Aaron's rod that budded and the pot of manna were no longer in the sanctuary. The fire that had descended from heaven was now extinct. And the visible presence of God in the Sheckinah was wanting. The will of God could not be discerned from the Urim and Thummim, nor could the high priest be anointed with holy oil, because no one could be sure it was pure. And then there were the Pharisees, who specialized in aborting and reworking the pure Mosaic Law given to their prophet, Moses, by the finger of the Almighty. <
Since That Time Long Ago
Since that time long ago in history, the Jewish people have been disunited and is there any wonder why? The prophets of old told them to hearken and to obey their Law, they did not. They were told to come unto Christ in the days of the Savior but they would not. They were told that Jesus was the mark they sought, but they stumbled because they sought beyond the mark. And prophecy has come true. In the stead of desecrated temples, Jews worship in small meeting houses - synagogues. They look forward dimly to a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem on the site of the Arab-claimed Dome of The Rock where animal sacrifices will resume. They have no priesthood, for the most part they don't know what families they have descended from, they have no ordinances that will save them from this world and they are unaware any are needed. Their heritage is in ruins, their hope is built upon Israel which on every side is besieged, their knowledge of Heavenly Father's Plan for them is nil. They are persecuted on every front. The Holocaust of the 30's and 40's did much to weaken the faith of many, not to mention their number. Throughout history millions more have died for their beliefs and their worship.
Their cohesiveness as a people dwindles. I have an article here which states that intermarriage is destroying the fabric of Jewish life, that Hitler himself could not have hoped for more success with the destruction of the Jewish people than this: they do not know what to believe. They have no central unifier, no temple in which to speak to their God, but they will not recognize their savior and they have grown tired of waiting for his arrival.
What does a temple have to do with all of this? It is salvation, it is literally life giving, life binding. It is where the unutterable name of God can be uttered. It is where sin is delivered up and atoned for, the final arbiter of a moral life, where Jews were cleansed of violation and found hope to go on. The Jews fitted their temple into their faith for they knew that the presence of the name of God alone in the Holy of Holies generated a powerful divine radiation called the Shekinah, which was so powerful it would destroy any unauthorized person who approached that room.
The Lord Jesus Christ has always been in touch with his people, the Jews. He will bring them back again to their own lands in glory and in fullness. Do not fear his hand in all things but acknowledge and study it instead. The scriptures are for your edification but they are only a part and parcel of the whole truth which is more than any of us can comprehend at this time. You have my love and understanding as you undertake this most tedious study but also it is the most valuable because it represents your own progress through the tents of your own lives here in the wilderness until you come into the fullness of the light of Christ
©2003, Marlena Tanya Muchnick