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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Summary

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Summary

Torah

The books of the Torah are the following:

The word torah is Hebrew for "instruction." Although conventionally translated as "law," the Torah includes a mixture of narratives and legal material. Because it is made up of five books, it is also referred to as the Pentateuch (penta = five; teuch = books). The Torah is the heart of the Bible for Judaism. It begins in Genesis with stories about global, primeval events: the creation of the world, the first humans (Adam and Eve) and how they became separated from their god, Yahweh, and the centuries-long lives of early humans. When the world becomes corrupt and full of violence, Yahweh brings about a catastrophic flood, and Noah's family and the animals are saved aboard an ark. After the flood, humanity is scattered into many nations that speak different languages.

The story then focuses on the lives of the earliest ancestors of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their families. The stories about Abraham focus on his faith in Yahweh and Yahweh's promise to make his descendants into a great nation. The promise begins to be fulfilled two generations later, when Abraham's grandson Jacob has 12 sons, all of whom have many children of their own, which become the "12 tribes of Israel." Genesis ends as Jacob's family migrates to the land of Egypt, and his favored son, Joseph, rises to a powerful position in the Egyptian court.

In Exodus the narrative resumes with the descendants of Israel (called Hebrews or Israelites) living in slavery in Egypt. Yahweh chooses an Israelite named Moses to confront the Egyptian ruler (or pharaoh), to bring 10 plagues against Egypt as demonstrations of Yahweh's power, to part the waters of the Red Sea, and to lead the fleeing Israelites into the wilderness. The Israelites then come to Mount Sinai, where Moses receives the laws of the Torah directly from Yahweh.

The people remain at Mount Sinai through the rest of Exodus and all of Leviticus. In this portion of the Torah, narrative episodes appear along with lengthy sections of law on all sorts of subjects, including:

  • moral principles
  • crimes and punishments
  • civic institutions
  • taboos on food and behavior
  • holy days
  • instructions for worship of Yahweh at the portable tent shrine, or tabernacle, at the center of the Israelite camp

The Israelites leave Mount Sinai near the beginning of Numbers and wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Finally passing through the region of Moab, they arrive at the edge of Canaan, the land Yahweh has promised to them. The Torah concludes in Deuteronomy with more laws, framed by a farewell address by Moses—who hands over leadership of the people to his appointed successor, Joshua, before he dies.

Prophets

The books of the Prophets are the following:

Jewish tradition divides the Prophets into the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets include Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings. Christian tradition often labels this group the "historical books" because they tell the history of the Israelite people.

Joshua describes the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites and the division of the conquered land among the 12 tribes of Israel. Judges portrays life in Israel after Joshua's death and before Israel gets a king. This time of escalating chaos is interrupted by periods of leadership by figures called "judges."

The books of 1–2 Samuel and 1 Kings explain how Israel got a monarchy and detail the reigns of its first three kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. After David establishes Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, Solomon constructs the temple of Yahweh there.

After Solomon's death, the kingdom divides into two separate nations: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The rest of 1 and 2 Kings tells the history of these two kingdoms and their rulers until Israel falls to Assyria in 722 BCE and Judah falls to Babylon in 587 BCE. The text focuses on how faithful the rulers of Israel and Judah are to a particular view of how Yahweh should be worshipped.

The Latter Prophets consists of books named after prophetic figures to whom their contents are attributed. The three longest of these—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—are sometimes called the "Major Prophets," while the 12 shorter books are sometimes called the "Minor Prophets" or the "Book of the Twelve" because Jewish tradition counts them as one book. These books offer messages from Yahweh in response to political and social crises, some of which are narrated in the Former Prophets. With occasional prose interludes, most are written as poetry. They often critique the actions of the people of Israel and Judah and their rulers, denounce political alliances, and call for greater adherence to laws of Yahweh.

Writings

The books of the Writings are the folllowing:

The Writings is the most diverse section of the Hebrew Bible because it contains books of several genres. Psalms is a collection of songs (or poems) of different types that functioned in the religious life of ancient Israel. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are all categorized as wisdom literature, with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes both traditionally attributed to King Solomon. These books focus on universal moral and theological issues, although each has a distinctive style and theological perspective.

Job tells the story of a wealthy righteous man afflicted with all sorts of troubles: the loss of his wealth and his children, and his own painful health problems. Job addresses the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people and encourages faithfulness through difficult times. Song of Songs (often called Song of Solomon) is a love poem, and is traditionally attributed to Solomon.

Ruth and Esther are short stories focused on the actions of a central heroine after whom the book is named. While Ruth is set in the time of Judges, Esther is set in the Persian court after the Babylonian exile. Because of their historical settings Christian tradition places them in the historical books rather than the Writings.

Lamentations and Daniel are placed with the Writings in Jewish tradition but are included among the prophetic books in Christian tradition. Consisting of poetic laments over the fall of Jerusalem, Lamentations is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Daniel communicates the visions of its namesake prophet, much like earlier prophetic books. It is not included in the Prophets, perhaps because it was written so late. While its story is set in the Babylonian exile, it was not completed until the 2nd century BCE.

Ezra-Nehemiah and 1–2 Chronicles narrate historical events and are grouped with the Former Prophets as historical books in Christian tradition, as are Ruth and Esther. Ezra-Nehemiah describes efforts to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its temple when the Israelites return to the land after the end of the Babylonian exile. The books of Chronicles retell much of the history covered in the books of Samuel and Kings from a much later perspective, after the temple was rebuilt and Israelite society reestablished in the land.

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