Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide


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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Themes



The Hebrew Bible emphasizes a series of covenant (Hebrew: berit) agreements between Yahweh and the people of Israel. These covenants are formal statements of mutual commitment based primarily on the language and conventions of ancient political treaties and loyalty agreements. Much of the story of Israel told in the Hebrew Bible depends on this foundational idea. Israel is singled out as a people to be uniquely bound to Yahweh in a covenant. In return they are required to adhere to the stipulations of this agreement, the laws and instructions of the Torah.

The central covenant of the Hebrew Bible is formed between Yahweh and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, as first described in Exodus. There, Yahweh declares, "If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples" (Exodus 19:5). Deuteronomy elaborates on the covenantal nature of this event and even imitates many distinctive features of ancient treaty texts. This central covenant is renewed at key junctures in Israel's history. Joshua leads the people in a covenant renewal ceremony at the conclusion of the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 24). It is renewed again when King Josiah of Judah reads the rediscovered "book of the covenant," which may refer to the book of Deuteronomy in some form. Ezra leads the people to renew the covenant again after returning from exile in Babylon (Ezra 10).

The central biblical covenant between Yahweh and Israel is anticipated already in Genesis. Yahweh first makes a covenant with Noah, his family, and all the animals that survive the flood, promising never to destroy the earth in such a flood again (Genesis 9). Next, Yahweh makes a covenant with Abraham to make his descendants a great nation in the land of Canaan (Genesis 15) and reaffirms this promise to Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Yahweh's promise to David to maintain his dynastic line in perpetuity is also presented as a covenant (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89).

Homeland and Exile

The main characters of the Hebrew Bible move geographically between the celebrated homeland of Israel (ancient Canaan) and various foreign locales, especially Egypt to the southwest and Mesopotamia to the east. These movements are consequential. The early portion of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis–Joshua) builds up to the establishment of Israel in this promised land. After centuries of autonomy in this land, the kingdom of Judah falls (after Israel has already fallen in the north). Loss of autonomy in the land is the central catastrophe of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings). Later portions of the Hebrew Bible (Ezra, Nehemiah, 1–2 Chronicles) concern the effort to return from exile in Babylon and restore a kingdom in Judah, and this theme also appears in several of the prophetic books.

The Israelites are first connected to the land of Canaan when Yahweh calls Abraham to relocate there from Mesopotamia in Genesis. Canaan becomes the home territory of Abraham and his descendants (who live a seminomadic lifestyle). Famine prompts Abraham's grandson Jacob and his entire family to leave this land for Egypt, the first major exile event. Centuries later, the descendants of Jacob are led out of slavery in Egypt and begin their journey back to Canaan under the leadership of Moses (Exodus–Deuteronomy). Joshua leads the people in conquering the land and allotting it to the 12 tribes (Joshua).

When the Northern Kingdom of Israel is conquered by Assyria, its citizens are scattered in exile across the Assyrian empire and disappear from the story (2 Kings). Less than a century and a half later, Judah is conquered by Babylon, and its people, too, go in to exile. However, a remnant is held together, and after the Persian King Cyrus conquers Babylon, many return to Judah and begin to rebuild.

The authors of the texts of the Hebrew Bible interpret these movements theologically. The establishment of the people in Canaan, the promised land, is an act of divine providence and blessing. The downfall and exile of Israel in the north, followed by Judah in the south, are acts of divine judgment for the failures of these nations to be faithful to Yahweh. The return from exile in Babylon demonstrates Yahweh's mercy and continued commitment to the people of Israel.

Divine Justice and Mercy

The Hebrew Bible presents a stark view of humanity's propensity for failure and wickedness at both the corporate and individual level. Humanity's sinfulness is contrasted with the holiness and righteousness of Yahweh. This situation prompts a central issue in the Hebrew Bible: How does this holy God respond to sinful humanity?

Two answers to this problem are held in tension throughout the Hebrew Bible: God punishes iniquity justly, and God shows mercy and compassion. A pivotal passage affirming the identity and character of God at the beginning of the Decalogue/Ten Commandments affirms that Yahweh is "a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation" (Exodus 20:5). Narratives throughout the Hebrew Bible depict Yahweh as not only punishing sinful actions but even fuming with anger at Israel's betrayals, and sometimes responding in a terrifying and deadly wrath. Yet Exodus also affirms that Yahweh is "a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6).

Numerous biblical narratives depict Yahweh weighing these alternatives, sometimes carrying out threatened judgment, sometimes being moved to compassion and relenting from threatened wrath and judgment. In the book of Jonah, when the despised Ninevites repent and prompt Yahweh to relent from destroying their city, Jonah references this dynamic in language evoking Exodus 34: "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing," the prophet declares in righteous indignation. Popular misconceptions of the Hebrew Bible sometimes assert that it portrays only a God of judgment and wrath, lacking in mercy. In reality, the divine tendencies toward judgment and mercy are held in complex tension throughout the Hebrew Bible. In some cases, such as that of Jonah and the Ninevites, Yahweh appears dramatically and even frustratingly merciful.

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