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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Contents of the Old Testament.


The OT contains a huge variety of material, much wider than the contents of the NT, embracing every aspect of the social and political life of ancient Israel and post-exilic Judaism. The variety can be suggested by looking briefly at some of the genres of literature to be found there.

2. Narrative.

More than half the OT consists of narrative, that is, the consecutive description of events set in the past. It is hard to distinguish between what we might call history, legend, saga, myth, folktale, or fiction. There are passages in the books of Kings which seem to be excerpts from official documents and thus approach close to something we might recognize as history. At the other end of the spectrum there are at least three stories—Jonah, Ruth, and Esther—which from our perspective are probably fiction, since they rest on no historically true data at all. Then there are a lot of stories that seem to lie between these two extremes: the stories about the creation, the first human beings, and the ancestors of the Israelites in Genesis, the early history of Israel from Exodus through into the books of Samuel, tales about early prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, an account of the court of David which is almost novelistic, and the retellings of older stories in the books of Chronicles, as well as a very small amount of first-person narration in Ezra and Nehemiah. But the OT itself shows no awareness of any differences or gradations within this range of material, but records it all in the same steady and neutral style as if it were all much on a level. Sometimes God or an angel makes regular appearances in the narrative, as in Genesis and Judges, sometimes events are recorded without overt reference to divine causation, as in 2 Samuel; but the OT itself does not draw attention to the difference, and we cannot assume that the writers saw any distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history. (See Barr 1980 .)

3. Law.

Within the narrative framework of the Pentateuch we find several collections of laws, such as the so-called Book of the Covenant (Ex 21–4 ), the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26 ), and the Deuteronomic legislation (Deut 12–26 ). In fact the whole of Leviticus and large parts of Exodus and Numbers contain legal material, and from the perspective of the redactors of the Pentateuch the giving of the law is the main purpose of Israel's sojourn at Sinai. At the heart of the law lie the Ten Commandments (Ex 20, Deut 5 ), and the rest of the legislation is presented as a detailed exposition of the principles the Commandments enshrine.


From a historical point of view the laws in the Pentateuch have much in common with the laws of other nations in the ancient Near East, such as the famous Code of Hammurabi. But they also differ from them in striking ways—e.g. in a higher valuation of human life, much more interest in regulations concerning worship, and a greater tendency to lay down general principles. As presented in the Pentateuch, however, the laws are understood as the foundation of the highly distinctive relationship of Israel with its god, YHWH. They are the terms of the solemn agreement, or ‘covenant’, made between YHWH and the people through the mediation of Moses. The idea of a legislative framework which regulates the relation between a god and his people was unusual in the ancient world. It led in post-biblical times to the idea of Torah, a complete ethical code covering all aspects of life as lived before God, which would become the foundation-stone of later Judaism. This tendency can already be discerned in Deuteronomy, where the laws are not just to be enacted and observed jurisprudentially but are also to be a subject for constant meditation and delight. (See Noth 1966 .)

5. Hymns and Psalms.

The Psalms have sometimes been described as the hymnbook of the temple, though since they are hard to date there is no agreement as to whether they are best seen as the hymnbook of Solomon's Temple or of the Second Temple, built after the Exile. We do not know which psalms were intended for public liturgical and which for private prayer—indeed, that distinction may be a false one in ancient Israel. There have been many theories about the use of the Psalms in worship, but all are highly speculative. What can be said is that Israel clearly had a tradition of writing sophisticated religious poems, and that this continued over a long period: Ps 29 , for example, seems to be modelled on a Canaanite psalm and must therefore have originated in early pre-exilic times, while Ps 119 reflects a piety based on meditation on the Torah, and is generally dated in the late post-exilic period. Psalms can also be found outside the Psalter itself, for example in Ex 15, 1 Sam 2 , and Jon 2. (See Gillingham 1994 .)

6. Wisdom.

There are at least three kinds of wisdom literature in the OT. The book of Proverbs preserves many sayings and aphorisms which draw moral and practical conclusions from aspects of daily life. These may in some cases have originated in the life of the Israelite village, in others in the royal court, but all have been gathered together to form the great collection of sayings that runs from Prov 10 to 30 . A second kind of wisdom is more speculative in character, concerned with theological and cosmological questions, as seen e.g. in Prov 8:22–36 . Frequently in such passages Wisdom is itself personified as a kind of goddess, and the writer speculates on the involvement of this being in the creation of the world and on its/her relationship to YHWH. Thirdly, we find what is sometimes called mantic wisdom, which draws on ancient Near-Eastern traditions about the interpretation of dreams and portents to gain insight into the future, and this is manifested by Joseph in Genesis, and in the book of Daniel. Two books, Job and Ecclesiastes, seem to reflect on deficiencies within the traditions of wisdom, and argue for a generally sceptical and non-committal attitude towards the mysteries of life. They are part of a general tendency towards greater pessimism about human capabilities of reason and understanding, characteristic of post-exilic Jewish thought. (See Crenshaw 1981 .)

7. Prophecy.

‘Prophecy’, like ‘wisdom’, is something of a catch-all term covering a wide diversity of material. Its basic form is the oracle: a (usually) short, pithy saying in which the prophet either denounces some current evil, or predicts what YHWH will do in the immediate future as a response to human conduct. One of the difficulties of studying the prophetic books is that these oracles are often arranged in an order which reflects the interests of the editors, rather than registering the chronological sequence of what the prophet himself said. The matter is complicated further by the insertion of many non-authentic oracles, representing perhaps what later writers thought the prophet might or would have said in later historical situations, had he still been alive and able to do so. It is probably in the prophetic books that the concept of authorship breaks down most completely. Many prophetic books also contain brief narratives and biographical details about the prophet whose name they bear. Sometimes these are indistinguishable in style and approach from narratives in the ‘historical’ books—e.g. Jeremiah contains many stories about the prophet that would not be out of place in Kings, and perhaps comes from the same school of writers.


Sometimes the prophets relate visions and their divine interpretations, and towards the end of the OT period this became the normal way of conveying divine revelation, in the form usually called ‘apocalyptic’. Daniel is the only book in the HB generally called apocalyptic, but later portions of the prophetic books show developments in this direction and are sometimes referred to as proto-apocalyptic. Prime candidates for this description are Isa 24–7, Joel, and Zech 9–14 . (See Blenkinsopp 1984 .)

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