Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide


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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Key Figure Analysis



The God of ancient Israel is identified by multiple terms, including "God," "Lord," and "El Shaddai" (traditionally translated "God Almighty"). However, the primary name of Israel's deity, formally revealed to Moses in Exodus, is Yahweh. In subsequent Jewish tradition Yahweh's name was no longer pronounced, so most English Bible translations replace the name itself with "the LORD" or some other substitute title. Genesis attributes the creation of the world and all life to Yahweh, states that Yahweh brought about the great primeval flood as punishment for human wickedness, and describes the beginning of his relationship with the ancestors of Israel. Yahweh's special relationship with Israel begins with the establishment of a covenant with Abraham, and then the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt becomes the character-defining event for Yahweh. Yahweh reveals the laws of the Torah to Israel, leads them to successful conquest of the land of Canaan, and anoints chosen rulers over the people. All of Israel's subsequent history during the monarchic period is evaluated in the biblical texts based on the people's fidelity and obedience, or lack thereof, to their God Yahweh.


The story of Israel begins with Abraham. Yahweh promises to make his descendants into a great nation, and Abraham migrates to the land of Canaan. He accumulates much wealth there but remains childless for many years. Eventually, he fathers a son with a maidservant because his wife Sarah seems unable to conceive. But Yahweh's promise and Abraham's faith are reaffirmed, and Abraham and Sarah finally have a son, Isaac. As a final test of Abraham's trust, Yahweh instructs him to offer this much-awaited son as a human sacrifice. Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, the sacrifice is stopped and Isaac spared.


Jacob is the younger of Isaac's twin sons, but he usurps his brother Esau's birthright and becomes Isaac's primary heir. He marries sisters, Rachel and Leah, and accumulates significant wealth from his father-in-law. He is given the name Israel ("he wrestled God") after an encounter with a divine figure on his way back to the land of Canaan. His favored son, Joseph, long thought dead, rises to power in Egypt, after which Jacob and all his family migrate there in a time of famine. His descendants become numerous there, and eventually become the nation of Israel, which is divided into tribes named after Jacob's sons and grandsons.


Moses is the central human character of the Torah. He is saved from death as a child and commissioned by Yahweh later in life to confront the Egyptian pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt. After the plagues ravaging Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, he leads the people to Mount Sinai. There he mediates an agreement between Yahweh and the people of Israel and receives the law from Yahweh on the mountain. Moses's task of leading the Israelites after they leave Sinai becomes increasingly difficult. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, he does not enter the land of Canaan himself. Just outside its border he delivers a farewell address, exhorting the people to remain faithful to Yahweh and obedient to the law. Then he dies. He is lauded at the end of the Torah as the greatest prophet in all of Israel's history.


Joshua enters the story in Exodus as a military lead under Moses. He commands the Israelites in battle against the Amalekites, and later leads the spies sent by Moses into Canaan. Moses, before his death at the end of Deuteronomy, declares Joshua as his successor to lead the tribes of Israel in the conquest of Canaan. In the book of Joshua, Joshua takes over leadership of Israel and wins a series of miraculous battles guided by Yahweh. Upon the completion of the conquest, Joshua supervises the allocation of the conquered land among the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of his career he leads the tribes of Israel in a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem and records the words of their declaration on a scroll.


While Saul rules as the first king of Israel, David is only the youngest son of a man named Jesse from the tribe of Judah. After Saul angers Yahweh, the prophet Samuel anoints David to become the new king. Initially, David serves as a musician and soldier under Saul. Through military successes, David gains power and popularity. Soon Saul feels threatened by David and turns against him. David becomes an exile until Saul dies in battle. After Israel proclaims David king at Hebron, he conquers the city of Jerusalem and makes it his capital city. He consolidates power throughout the region and reigns for 40 years. During his life, Yahweh promises through the prophet Nathan that David's descendants would rule on the throne in Jerusalem in perpetuity.


Solomon is the son of King David and Bathsheba. His succession of David is not uncontested. His half-brother and Absalom had already died in pursuit of the throne, and as David nears death, both Solomon and another half-brother Adonijah vie for the throne. With his mother's help, Solomon secures the blessing of David and other leaders in Jerusalem. As king, Solomon enriches and builds up the kingdom of Israel. He gains international renown for great wisdom, and marries many foreign women to solidify alliances. Most significantly for the biblical story, Solomon oversees the construction of the first temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. The biblical texts praise him in all respects except one—because of his wives, he allowed the incursion of the worship of foreign gods into Israel. After Solomon's death, his son Rehoboam loses 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel from his kingdom.

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