J. Blake Couey
The book of Isaiah is a compilation of prophetic poetry and narratives, named for an 8th-century
Isaiah is a sophisticated work of biblical Hebrew poetry, characterized by intricate combinations of imagery and wordplay. It features a high view of divine sovereignty, emphasizing Yhwh’s control over world nations and superiority over all human and divine powers; these ideas contributed to the emergence of monotheism in ancient Judah. The book also articulates diverse responses to imperial domination, even as it chronicles the ebb and flow of Judah’s own imperial aspirations. Striking portrayals of women and gender appear throughout Isaiah, including the extensive personification of Jerusalem as a woman and the comparison of Yhwh to a mother. Isaiah is also notable for its discourse about disability, which serves a variety of rhetorical functions in the book.
The impact of Isaiah was felt immediately, as evidenced by the number of copies of the book among the Dead Sea scrolls and citations of it in the New Testament. It greatly impacted the development of important religious ideas, including apocalypticism and belief in resurrection. In Christianity, Isaiah played an important role in reflection upon the nature of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentiles, even as it informed Christian anti-Judaism. The book has had a more complicated reception in Judaism, where it significantly influenced the growth of Zionism. Scholarly study of Isaiah continues to clarify the shape of its final form and history of composition. Current research on the book is increasingly interdisciplinary, engaging metaphor theory, disability studies, and postcolonial thought. The history of the book’s interpretation and reception is another area of growing interest.
J. Cheryl Exum
In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.
Brent A. Strawn
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.
H. G. M. Williamson
The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208
How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.
Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.
Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.
Thomas B. Dozeman
The Pentateuch (“five books”) is the title for the first five books of the Bible in the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint (LXX). The more original title is the Hebrew, Torah, meaning “law.” The revelation and composition of the Torah is attributed to Moses, which is reflected in the additional designation of the books as the “Torah of Moses.” The authorship of the Pentateuch is central to its interpretation in Jewish and Christian tradition. The Mosaic authorship characterized the interpretation of the Pentateuch in the precritical period of research. The study of the Pentateuch in the modern era has been dominated by the quest to identify its anonymous authors and the changing social contexts in which the literature was written.
Jack R. Lundbom
“Prophets” in the ancient world were individuals said to possess an intimate association with God or the gods, and conducted the business of transmitting messages between the divine and earthly realms. They spoke on behalf of God or the gods, and on occasion solicited requests from the deity or brought to the deity requests of others.
The discovery of texts from the ancient Near East in the 19th and early 20th centuries has given us a fuller picture of prophets and prophetic activity in the ancient world, adding considerably to reports of prophets serving other gods in the Bible and corroborating details about prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two collections are important: (1) letters from the 18th-century Mari written during the reigns of Yasmaḫ-Addu (c. 1792–1775) and Zimri-Lim (c. 1774–1760); and (2) the 7th-century annals of Assyrian kings Esarhaddon (680–669) and Assurbanipal (668–627).
Prophecies at Mari are favorable for the most part, and censures of the king, when they occur, are not harsh. Many simply remind the king of some neglect or give him some warning. One tells the king to practice righteousness and justice for anyone who has been wronged. None censures the people of Mari as biblical prophecies do the people of Israel. Assyrian oracles are largely oracles of peace and wellbeing, typically giving assurance to the king about matters of succession and success in defeating enemies. If prophets admonish the king, it is a mild rebuke about the king ignoring a prior oracle or not having provided food at the temple.
According to the Bible, Israel’s prophetic movement began with Samuel, and it arose at the time when people asked for a king. Prophets appear all throughout the monarchy and into the postexilic period, when Jewish tradition believed prophecy had ceased. Yet, prophets reappear in the New Testament and early church: Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others. Paul allows prophets to speak in the churches, ranking them second only to apostles.
Hebrew prophets give messages much like those of other ancient Near Eastern prophets, but what makes them different is that they announce considerably more judgment—sometimes very harsh judgment—on Israel’s monarchs, leading citizens, and the nation itself. Israel’s religion had its distinctives. Yahweh was bound to the nation by a covenant containing law that had to be obeyed. Prophets in Israel were therefore much preoccupied with indicting and judging kings, priests, other prophets, and an entire people for covenant disobedience. Also, in Israel the lawgiver was Yahweh, not the king. In Mari, as elsewhere in the ancient Near East, the king was lawgiver. Deuteronomy contains tests for true and false prophets, to which prophets themselves add other disingenuine marks regarding their contemporaneous prophetic colleagues.
Hebrew prophets from the time of Amos onward speak in poetry and are skilled in rhetoric, using an array of tropes and knowing how to argue. Their discourse also contains an abundance of humor and drama. Speaking is supplemented with symbolic action, and in some cases the prophets themselves became the symbol.
Mark S. Smith
The Ugaritic texts provide a rich resource for understanding the Late Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit, located on the coast of Syria. The site has yielded about two thousand tablets in Ugaritic, the West Semitic language of this city-state, and about twenty-five hundred tablets in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the period, as well as many texts written in seven other languages. These reveal a cosmopolitan, commercial center operating in the shadow of two great powers of the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Egyptians and the Hittites.
The Ugaritic texts offer innumerable literary and religious parallels to biblical literature. The parallels are so rich and in some cases so specific that it is evident that the Ugaritic texts do not merely provide parallels, but belong to a shared or overlapping cultural matrix with the Hebrew Bible. Ugaritic literature may not predate the earliest biblical sources by much more than a few decades, but the bulk of biblical literature dates to centuries later. Moreover, unlike the coastal, cosmopolitan center of Ugarit, ancient Israel’s heartland lay in the rural inland hill-country considerably to the south in what is today Israel and occupied Palestinian territory. Despite these important differences, Ugaritic and biblical literature are not to be understood as representing entirely different cultures, but overlapping ones.
Jerome F. D. Creach
“Violence in the Old Testament” may refer generally to the Old Testament’s descriptions of God or human beings killing, destroying, and doing physical harm. As part of the activity of God, violence may include the results of divine judgment, such as God’s destruction of “all flesh” in the flood story (Gen. 6:13) or God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–25). The expression may also include God’s prescription for and approval of wars such as the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 1–12). Some passages seem to suggest that God is harsh and vindictive and especially belligerent toward non-Israelites (see Exod. 12:29–32; Nahum and Obadiah), though the Old Testament also reports God lashing out against rebellious Israelites as well (Exod. 32:25–29, 35; Josh. 7).
Christians have wrestled with divine violence in the Old Testament at least since the 2nd century
Assessment of the significance of records of or calls for violent acts in the Old Testament are difficult, however, because of the complex literary and canonical context in which such passages appear and because of the incongruity between ancient Israelite culture and the culture(s) of readers today. Studies that compare the Old Testament presentation of violence with that of contemporary ancient Near Eastern nations offer potentially more controlled results. Comparative studies alone, however, cannot account for the multiple layers of tradition that often make up Old Testament references to violence. That is, while Assyrian and Babylonian records of warfare presumably describe what Mesopotamian kings actually did in battle, the Old Testament often reports wars and military conflicts, and the aspirations of the leaders of Judah, from the perspective of a defeated people. Thus, even Judah’s desire to defend itself militarily morphed into an expression of hope in God.
Given the complexity of the development of the Old Testament canon, a fruitful and ultimately more accurate way of treating the subject is to determine how ancient Israelites thought about violence and how the subject then affected the overall shape of the Old Testament. A logical starting point in this endeavor is the Hebrew word ḥāmas. This term connotes rebellion against God that results in bloodshed and disorder and a general undoing of God’s intentions for creation. Thus, violence appears to intrude on God’s world, and God acts destructively only to counteract human violence. For example, in Gen. 6:11–13 human violence ruined the earth and thus prompted God to bring the flood as a corrective measure. This way of understanding violence in the Old Testament seems to identify the Old Testament’s own concern of violence and presses a distinction between divine destruction and judgment and human violence.
Despite this potentially helpful approach to violence in the Old Testament, many problems persist. One problem is the violent acts that religious zeal prompts. Old Testament characters like Phinehas (Num. 25), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18:39–40; 2 Kgs. 1), and Elisha (2 Kgs. 2:23–25; 9) killed, ordered killing, or participated in killing in order to purify the religious faith and practices of the Israelites. Nevertheless, most texts that contain problems like this also contain complementary or self-corrective passages that give another perspective. The complexity of the material with regard to violence makes it possible to argue that the Old Testament opposes violence and that the ultimate goal, and divine intention, is peace.
The Hebrew Bible is a book that was primarily written by men, for men, and about men, and thus the biblical text is not particularly forthcoming when it comes to the lives and experiences of women. Other evidence from ancient Israel—the society in which the Hebrew Bible was generated—is also often of little use. Nevertheless, scholars have been able to combine a careful reading of the biblical text with anthropological and archaeological data, and with comparative evidence from the larger biblical world, to reconstruct certain features of ancient Israelite women’s culture. These features include fairly comprehensive pictures of women’s lives as wives and childbearers within Israel’s patrilineal and patrilocal kinship system and of women’s work within the economy of a typical Israelite household. Because the Bible is deeply concerned with religious matters, many aspects of women’s religious culture can also be delineated, even though the Bible’s overwhelmingly male focus means that specific details concerning women’s religious practice must be painstakingly teased out of the biblical text. The Bible’s tendency to focus on the elite classes of ancient Israelite society likewise means that it is possible to sketch a reasonable portrait of the experiences of elite women, especially the women of the royal court, although, again, this information must often be teased out of accounts whose primary interest is elite men.