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

Themes of the Old Testament.


Despite its variety, the OT is a document from a religious tradition that retained, over time, certain characteristic features. These can be introduced here only in the most sketchy outline, but it may be helpful to the reader to be aware of four interlocking themes.

2. Creation and Monotheism.

YHWH is consistently presented throughout the OT as the God who created the world, and as the only God with whom Israel is to be concerned. Older strands of thought do not yet treat him as the only God there is (strict monotheism), a development generally thought to have taken place around the time of the Exile. But it is never envisaged that any other god is a proper object of worship for Israelites. There are occasional survivals of a polytheistic system—e.g. in Ps 82 —but no extended text in the OT speaks of the actions of gods other than YHWH as real or other than purported. The OT presents much of the life of the pre-exilic period as one of warfare between YHWH and the gods of Canaan for Israel's allegiance. We know that as a matter of historical fact many people were far from being monotheistic in their religious practice in this period. But all our texts imply or affirm that for Israel there can in the end be only YHWH.


Alongside the majestic account of creation in Gen 1 , where God creates by mere diktat, the OT is familiar with older creation stories in which creation was accomplished when the chief god killed a dragon and made the world out of its body (see Ps 74, Job 3 )—a pattern of thought widespread in the ancient Near East. However, this theme seems to be used in a literary way, rather than reflecting a genuine belief of the authors—much as English poets in the past might conventionally invoke the Muses though they did not believe these beings actually existed. Jews and Christians alike have seen the Hebrew Scriptures as important, among other reasons, because they affirm the oneness of God and his absolute power over the creation, and in this they have correctly captured a theme which is of central importance in the Bible itself. It finds its most eloquent expression in the oracles of Deutero-Isaiah, as the author of Isa 40–55 is known: see especially Isa 40:12–26 . (See Theissen 1984; Whybray 1983 .)

4. Covenant and Redemption.

It is a central point in many OT texts that the creator God YHWH is also in some sense Israel's special god, who at some point in history entered into a relationship with his people that had something of the nature of a contract. Classically this contract or covenant was entered into at Sinai, and Moses was its mediator. As we saw above, the laws in the Pentateuch are presented as the terms of the contract between YHWH and his people. Acting in accordance with his special commitment to Israel, YHWH is thought to have guided their history, in particular bringing them out of Egypt and giving them the promised land as a perpetual possession. Later prophets hoped for a restoration to this land after the Jews had lost political control of it to a succession of great powers: Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia.


In the prophetic version of the covenant theory, the contractual nature of the arrangement is stressed in such a way as to imply the possibility of the destruction of Israel if the nation is disobedient. It is not too much to say that the main preoccupation of most of the prophets was with how YHWH would ‘manage’ this strict interpretation of the covenant, punishing his people and yet somehow preserving the special relationship with them which the covenant implied. In other strands of OT thought, however, the emphasis falls more heavily on YHWH's commitment to his people and the idea of a bargain is less apparent. Thus the covenant with Abraham, and that with David and his descendants, tend to be presented as almost unconditional. Either the obedience required from the human partner is seen as minimal, or else disobedience (though it will be punished) does not have the power to lead to a complete breakdown in the relationship with YHWH. After the Exile the covenant between YHWH and Israel was often seen as unbreakable on the national scale, but individuals had a duty to remain within the covenant community by faithful adherence to Torah.


The God who makes a covenant with Israel is a God of redemption as well as of creation. He saves his people from Egypt, and then constantly intervenes in their history to deliver them from their enemies, even though he can also use these enemies as agents of his just punishment. In every national crisis Israel can call on YHWH for help, and though his mercy must not be presumed on, he is a reliable source of support in the long term. (See Nicholson 1986; Spriggs 1974 .)

7. Ethics.

In some OT traditions, such as that of the law, ethical obligation is tightly bound up with Israel's contractual obligations to YHWH, whereas in others (notably wisdom) there is more appeal to universally applicable standards of justice and uprightness. Everywhere in the OT, however, it is taken as given that God makes moral demands on both Israel and all human beings. These demands characteristically include two aspects which to modern, non-Jewish readers do not seem to belong naturally together: a strong commitment to social justice, and a deep concern for ritual purity. Ritual and ethical punctiliousness are seen as points on a single spectrum, so that some texts can speak of gross moral outrages such as murder as polluting the sanctuary of YHWH just as do ritual infringements (see Ezek 18 ). Pagan writers in the ancient world often drew attention to the high moral standards of Jews, while simultaneously being puzzled that they were so concerned about matters of diet and ritual purity. At the same time there are prophetic books, such as Amos and Hosea, which seem to distinguish the two types of ethical concern, and which argue that YHWH requires social justice more than ritual purity, and perhaps that he does not care about ritual purity at all: this latter possibility is also envisaged in some wisdom texts.


The OT's moral code is remarkably consistent throughout the period covered by the literature. It stresses justice, both in the sense of fairness to everyone, rich and poor alike, and in the sense of intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves. It forbids murder, theft, bribery and corruption, deceitful trading standards (e.g. false weights and measures), and many sexual misdemeanours, including adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexual acts. It insists on the duty of those in power to administer justice equitably, and forbids exploitation of the poor and helpless, especially widows and orphans. All moral obligation is traced back to an origin in God, either by way of ‘positive’ law—YHWH's explicit commands—or else through the way the divine character is expressed in the orders of nature. Some moral obligations at least are assumed to be known outside Israel (as was of course the case), and especially in the wisdom literature appeal is made to the consensus of right-minded people and not only to the declared will of YHWH. (See Wright 1983; Barton 1998; Otto 1994 .)

9. Theodicy.

In a polytheistic system it is easy to explain the disasters that overtake human societies: they result from disagreements among the gods, in which human beings get caught in the crossfire, or from the malevolence of particular gods towards humankind. This kind of explanation is not available in a monotheistic culture, and consequently the kind of problem which philosophers deal with under the title ‘theodicy’—how to show that God is just in the face of the sufferings of the world—bulk large in the writings of the OT.


On the corporate level, the Exile seems to have been the crisis that first focused the minds of Israel's thinkers on the problem of how to make sense of apparently unjust sufferings. Lamentations is an extended expression of grief at the rough treatment that YHWH has apparently handed out to the people he had chosen himself; Jeremiah also reflects on the problem. Ezekiel tries to show that God is utterly just, and that those who complain of his injustice are in fact themselves to blame for what has befallen them. Second Isaiah combines a conviction that God has been just to punish Israel with an assurance that destruction is not his last word, and that he will remain true to his ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through reflection on the disaster that has befallen Israel all these thinkers come to an affirmation of the superior justice of God—greater, not less, than that of any human power.


At the level of the individual the problems of theodicy are discussed in Job and, to some extent, in Ecclesiastes. Here explanations in terms of human guilt are for the most part rejected, since we are told at the outset that Job is a righteous man, who manifestly does not deserve to suffer as he does. The book concludes that God cannot be held to account, and that his ways are imponderable, though perhaps also that there are forms of fellowship with him in which understanding why one suffers is not a first priority. For Ecclesiastes, the world manifests no moral order such that the righteous can expect to be rewarded and the wicked punished, but ‘time and chance happen to all’.


Convictions about the justice of God are crucial to the way the story of Israel is told in the historical books: Kings and Chronicles in particular are concerned to show that God is always just in his dealings with his people. Kings sees this as manifested in the fact that sin is always avenged, even if it takes many generations for God's justice to be implemented; while Chronicles believes instead in immediate retribution. The Psalms, too, contain many reflections on the respective fate of righteous and wicked, and contain some profound insights on this theme—see especially Ps 37, 49, and 73 . There are, in fact, few books in the OT where the theme of theodicy is absent. (See Crenshaw 1983 .)

I. Arrangement of Books in Hebrew and Greek Bibles

The Hebrew Bible The Greek Bible
Torah: Historical Books:
Genesis Genesis
Exodus Exodus
Leviticus Leviticus
Numbers Numbers
Deuteronomy Deuteronomy
Joshua Joshua
Judges Judges
Samuel Ruth
Kings 1 Samuel
Isaiah 2 Samuel
Jeremiah 1 Kings
Ezekiel 2 Kings
The Twelve: 1 Chronicles
 Hosea 2 Chronicles
 Joel 1 Esdras
 Amos Ezra
 Obadiah Nehemiah
 Jonah Esther (with additions)
 Micah Judith
 Nahum Tobit
 Habakkuk 1 Maccabees
 Zephaniah 2 Maccabees
 Haggai 3 Maccabees
 Zechariah 4 Maccabees
Writings: Didactic Books:
Psalms Psalms
Job Proverbs
Proverbs Ecclesiastes
Ruth Song of Songs
Song of Songs Job
Ecclesiastes Wisdom of Solomon
Lamentations Ecclesiasticus
Ezra-Nehemiah Prophetic Books:
Chronicles Twelve Minor Prophets:
Baruch 1–5
Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch 6 )
Susanna (= Daniel 13 )
Daniel 1–12 (with additions Song of Azariah and Song of the Three Jews)
Bel and the Dragon (= Daniel 14 )
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