October 4, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
BIBLE 101: OLD TESTAMENT
The fourth in a series of six.
Last week I said the best translation of the Bible is the one you will read. A Bible does nobody any good gathering dust.
So, what translation did Jesus read? Hint: It was not the King James Version. I haven’t actually heard anybody say it, but I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve heard somebody say it: “If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”
There was no King James Bible when Jesus walked the earth. In fact, there was no New Testament when Jesus walked the earth. The Bible Jesus knew was the part of the Bible we call the Old Testament. That’s the part of the Bible we’re going to be looking at today.
I hesitate to call it the Old Testament. The reason is that our Jewish friends don’t consider it part of the Bible. For them, it is the Bible. So out of respect and sensitivity, I often will call it the Hebrew Bible. But today, to avoid confusion, I will use the term most of you are familiar with. Old Testament.
So, did Jesus have a copy of it that he carried around with him in the pocket of his robe wherever he went? Uh, no. The Bible Jesus knew was written on 24 separate large scrolls. Not very portable. But he knew what was written on those scrolls. And since he didn’t have a book he could go to for quick reference, he likely had it memorized. Keep that in mind when you think memorizing the books of the Bible is asking a lot.
Testament is another word for covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. The Old Testament is a sacred agreement between God and the nation Israel.
The terms of that agreement are spelled out by Moses:
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you . . . But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you will perish . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).
Do what is right and you will be blessed. Do what is wrong and you will be cursed. Real simple. Real stark. It’s in the book of Deuteronomy, so often this is called the Deuteronomic Principle. I apologize. That’s the biggest word I am going to use all day. This is Bible 101 after all. The Deuteronomic Principle. It’s simpler than it sounds. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. We’re going to find that illustrated all through the Old Testament. And – spoiler alert – we are also going to find that the Deuteronomic Principle isn’t necessarily always so.
What I am going to do this morning is take you through the entire Old Testament, Genesis to Malachi. Our pace will be quick because there is a lot there. But as you will see, the big picture of this part of the Bible really isn’t as complicated or as confusing as some of you might think it is.
We start with the five books of Moses. The traditional view is that Moses wrote these books. This is unlikely, for many reasons. My favorite is Numbers 12:3, where it says, “Now the man Moses was very humble, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” If Moses is the one who wrote this, he is not the most humble man on the face of the earth. There are also more serious reasons that Moses didn’t write these books. It’s almost certain that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were written a long time ago by several people whose names we will never know.
The first eleven chapters of the Bible are a special case. The Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel all happened before recorded history. We can argue about whether or not they really happened, but we can agree that the real purpose of Genesis 1-11 is not science or history. These ancient stories are filled with truth about us. They help us understand human nature, which really hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve.
Starting with Genesis 12, there is an important shift in the storyline. Now we have entered recorded history. Now begins the long story of the special relationship between God and the nation of Israel. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah.
As I mentioned last week, Genesis is good reading. All the names can be confusing, but if you can visualize a family tree, it really isn’t that hard. It goes Abraham → Isaac → Jacob (Israel) → Joseph. I’ve left out a lot of detail and a lot of names. Over a fourth of the book of Genesis is about this Joseph. Not the “Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus” Joseph. But Joseph who is the great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah.
Joseph had brothers. They weren’t very nice to him. They sold him to some slave traders on their way to Egypt. Joseph had eleven brothers. So Joseph makes twelve. You may have heard of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is where they come from.
I love the story of Joseph. It’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. But I will resist the urge to take you through it. All we need to know is that Joseph the slave in Egypt, becomes Joseph the second most powerful man in Egypt, and Joseph saves his brothers from starvation. But in order to do so, they all must move down to Egypt, where they are treated well for about four hundred years. They were fruitful and they multiplied. Life in Egypt was good. Then “there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Thus begins the book of Exodus and the story of Moses.
The word “exodus” means “departure.” The Israelites living in Egypt are now treated cruelly as slaves, so under the leadership of Moses there is a great “departure” out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land, also known as the land of Israel. It takes them forty years to get there. On the way God gives them the Ten Commandments. The reading gets tedious through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses, another reason that Moses didn’t write this. Think about it. Moses dies with his people on the banks of the Jordan River. They have not yet entered the Promised Land.
The next book is Joshua, the first of the twelve books of history. Joshua is the one who leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. This is actually one of the uglier parts of the Bible. They take the land away from the people already living there, killing many in the process.
Judges is the next book. The name of the book comes from the judges who rule Israel during this time. Joshua is the first of twelve judges. These are not judges as we think of judges, wearing black robes and issuing rulings from a bench, but these are military rulers.
Then begins the monarchy. The big three kings are Saul, David, and Solomon. These are the glory days for Israel. Each of these kings had their problems, especially Saul. But David is considered the greatest of the kings. Solomon is the one who spared no expense in building the glorious Temple. Things were good for Israel.
Then shortly after the death of Solomon, things were not so good. There was a crisis regarding succession. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, thought he should be king. Many agreed. But there was also a popular folk hero named Jeroboam who many others thought should be king. The result was a divided kingdom, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
There were good kings and there were not so good kings both in the north and in the south, but generally speaking things were “going south” for God’s people both in Israel and in Judah. Things were getting worse. Remember the Deuteronomic Principle? God was being forgotten and the consequences were not good.
About 200 years after the death of Solomon, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians. The year was 721 BC. If you are into remembering dates, this is an important one. 721 BC is the year ten of the twelve tribes of Israel ceased to exist. They became the lost tribes of Israel. The Latter-day Saints church teaches that they got in boats and came to America. The other view is that they simply stopped practicing their faith, married non-Jews, and were assimilated into the Assyrian culture.
So at this point all that is left is the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Since Israel is gone, the names Judah and Israel are now used interchangeably, which I know is confusing. Ten tribes are gone. The only two left are Judah and Benjamin. There are good kings and not so good kings for the next 130 years, but the trend is not good. Again, the Deuteronomic Principle. Finally, in 587 BC – another date to remember – Judah falls to the Babylonians and the Temple is destroyed. But this time Judah does not cease to exist. They preserve their national identity during a long and difficult time called the Babylonian captivity or the Babylonian exile.
The Persians defeat the Babylonians and the Persian King Cyrus lets the Jews return to Jerusalem and re-build their Temple. We read about this in Ezra and Nehemiah. Esther is the last of the 12 books of history. It is set in Persia and has to do with the Jews who were still living there, including Queen Esther. It is quite a story.
We are now half way through the Old Testament. In fact, you can take your Bible, put a finger at the point where the Old Testament ends and the New Testament begins, and go half way back toward the beginning of the book, you will be very close to the end of Esther.
After Esther comes the section called “the writings.” Also called “poetry.” Also called “wisdom literature.” There are five books here. The first is Job.
Job is an interesting book. This book takes issue with the Deuteronomic Principle. Remember? Obey God and you will be blessed. Disobey God and you will be cursed. We see this played out all through the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve, right up through the Assyrian conquest and the Babylonian exile. We’ve seen it played out in our own lives. Bad things happen to you when you are bad. Good things happen to you when you are good.
Then comes Job, a very good and godly man. And horrible things, one after another, happen to him. It’s called “wisdom literature” for a reason. The Deuteronomic Principle does apply more often than not. It’s a good idea to obey God and do the right thing. Usually things turn out for the best for those who do. Usually, but not always. Wisdom is accepting that sometimes bad things happen for no good reason at all. That’s when we trust God and carry on the best we can with God’s help.
After Job comes Psalms, the longest book in the Old Testament. These are poems, originally written as songs to be sung. We might also say they are prayers. They are filled with praise. As our prayers should be. And they are also brutally honest. As our prayers should be.
Proverbs is one of my favorite books. One thing I love about it is that there are 31 Proverbs so it’s fun every day to just read the Proverb for that day. Today, for example Proverbs 4. This book is filled with short, pithy, wise sayings. Practical wisdom.
Ecclesiastes is one man’s struggle with deep questions about life’s meaning.
Then there is Song of Solomon. I can’t read it to you because YouTube might censor me. It’s quite a book. What’s funny to me is the straight-laced preachers who will do their best to convince you that this book is really an allegory of God’s love for the church. I am not convinced. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry. The Bible is not as prudish as some people might think.
All we have left now are the prophets. There are 17 of them. Maybe you’ve seen them divided into major prophets and minor prophets. The words “major” and “minor” have to do with how long they are, not how important they are. The longest is Isaiah with 66 chapters and 1,279 verses. The shortest is Obadiah with a single chapter and 21 verses.
The prophets are not kings. In fact, they locked horns with kings with great regularity. You’ve heard the phrase “speaking truth to power.” That’s what the prophets did. It didn’t make them very popular. It made them very unpopular. They bought into the Deuteronomic Principle. God blesses those who honor God and God curses those who dishonor God. And since their nation was seldom honoring God and mainly dishonoring God, no wonder they were conquered by their enemies. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians. They had it coming.
God had made a covenant with them. A sacred agreement. God had chosen them, God loved them, God would always love them . . . as long as they loved God back. The whole Old Testament can be explained this way. Because the Old Testament God is a God of judgment unlike the New Testament God who is a God of love.
But no. Strike that last sentence. We believe in one God, not two. The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. The God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. Not two Gods, but one God who hates sin and who also forgives sin. The one true God, revealed in the Bible, revealed in Jesus, is a God of love.
We find these words not once, not twice, but in several places all through the Old Testament:
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:31, Psalm 86:15, 103:5, 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2).
And so what about the Deuteronomic Principle? The Babylonian Exile should be the end of the story, but it’s not. The Jews come back to Jerusalem. They rebuild their Temple. God takes them back. They had rejected God, but God had kept right on loving them.
They came back to God. And they came back to the Bible. The Hebrew Bible. And as they read the inspired words of their great prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, Zechariah, Malachi – they kept reading about something new. Something God was about to do. Something big. Something to prove how much God loved them. And not only them.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
But that’s in the New Testament. So that’s for next week.
God, you have set before us life and death, blessing and curse. And God, so often in our foolishness we have chosen death. We have chosen the curse. We have not chosen life. We have not chosen the blessing. Forgive us. And God, thank you that you are not only a God of judgment. You are also a God of love. You are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Thank you God for the Hebrew Bible. Its story is our story. It’s a sad story; it’s a hopeful story. And thank you that there is more to the story. Thank you for Jesus. In his name we pray, Amen.