March 12, 2016 – Making Sense of the Bible Week 2 – The Old Testament

Genesis 12:1-4

        I want to begin today’s sermon with a pop quiz. I don’t know about you but I always hated these in school! Here goes – how many books are in the Old Testament?  Is it 24, 39, 46, or 49?  The answer is all of the above – it depends on who is responding.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters will tell you there are 24 books. Our Protestant brothers and sisters will tell you 39 – the books you see in your pew Bibles.  Our Catholic brothers and sisters will tell you there are 39, while our Orthodox worshippers will say 49.

If you are confused that’s ok, but for the purposes of continuing our series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible, I will compare our Jewish worshippers’ Hebrew Bible vs. our Protestant Old Testament.  Take a look at your Bibles, and find the first book after what our Jewish friends call the Torah – so find book six = Joshua. Then a little further back you see there are two books of Samuel, two books of Kings, and two books of Chronicles. These are considered one book each in the Hebrew Bible.  Next we see Ezra and Nehemiah.  These are also combined into one book in the Hebrew Bible. Finally, look toward the end of the Old Testament and you find a lot of prophet writings that are very short (from Hosea to Malachi.) These are known as the ‘minor prophets’ and are all lumped together in the Hebrew Bible in one book called ‘The Twelve.’ Hence the books of the Jewish Hebrew Bible and the books of our current Old Testament are the same books but in a different order.

The process of including or excluding certain books of scripture was the process known as canonization. The Holy ‘Canon’ would become what is known as those books to be included in the Bible. From the Latin, ‘canon’ means rule or standard.  Determining which books were considered the most authoritative was not a clean, easy process.  First and foremost, the Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy, ranked high on the list of authority because they are considered to hold the very word of God dictated in stone and encased in the Ark of the Covenant.  The Ten Commandments are held in the most agreement as highly authoritative.  Included in the Torah we find the covenant to God’s people, along with the story of their delivery from slavery to the Promised Land.

The next in line of authority are the Prophet Writings.  What we see as historical accountings of the Israelites in Joshua through 2 Kings, our Jewish neighbors call the ‘Former Prophets.’ They include stories of judges and kings, as well as the prophets Elijah, Elisha and Nahum.  Of similar importance and authority are the ‘Latter Prophets’ who spoke at the leading of the Holy Spirit. These include all the books from Isaiah to Malachi.

Finally we get to the writings which include stories of heroes – Esther, Daniel, Ruth. The Writings also include Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, all thought to have been written by Ezra after the Jews returned from Exile. [refer to timeline]  “Jewish rabbis debated up until the time of Christ whether some of the books in this section should be considered scripture (Hamilton, pg. 40.)  For example, I will challenge everyone to read the story of Esther this week by reading the book of Esther. It’s a fairly short story, yet you will notice that God is never mentioned in the entire book.  The same is true for the Song of Songs, but this book had an additional debate quality for its eroticism.  While this book acknowledges the value of human sexuality, it is hardly something you’ll readily hear preached from the pulpit!  The book of Ecclesiastes brings a conclusion that all life is folly, therefore it was also questioned as being authoritative enough to read aloud in the synagogue.  Proverbs was also questioned because at least 2 Proverbs directly contradict one another.  Take a look at Proverbs 26:4 and then read the verse right after it, 26:5. Do they not seem to contradict?  I think you can probably understand a bit about why and how the debate occurred for many years.

If that wasn’t enough, around 300 BC a group of 70-72 Jewish scribes began the process of translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek language.  This work continued until around 100 BC.  These writings became known as the Septuagint, for the Greek word meaning 70.  This translation included 10 books that were not considered authoritative by Jews in the Holy Land.  After continued debate and a great deal of time, the final decision to demote these additional books occurred around the Protestant Reformation. In 1534 Martin Luther included these books in his German translation of the Bible, but he noted them as ‘The Apocrypha’ which means ‘hidden.’  Check your Bibles to see if they include The Apocrypha. If not, perhaps you can venture into a quest to read books like Bel and the Dragon, Story of Susanna, or maybe Psalm 151.

At this point I need to ask the question – who wrote the Old Testament?  It reads like a composite of writings from differing authors.  Many credit Moses with writing the first 5 books of the Bible, and it does appear that he wrote parts of these scriptures. However there are clues that other writers had a hand in even these books.  First, take a look at Number 12:3 [pause.] “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.”  Does that sound like a humble author? It appears someone else wrote this.  Now let’s turn to Deuteronomy 34:5-8. [read] It seems Moses could not have written these verses.  When you read through the Bible you are faced with multiple styles of writing, and often differing viewpoints on historical figures, similar to what we see today. If you would like to see this in action, read the stories of King David as told in 2 Samuel vs. 1 Chronicles.

So far, we have looked at the books included in the Old Testament, the process for these being included or excluded, and possible authors that bring varying viewpoints and perspectives on God’s relationship with God’s people.  But let’s go back to one of our original questions. What is the Bible? Last week we looked at what the Bible is not. Here is a summation of what the Bible is. [Quote Hamilton, pg. 19]

Our scripture read from Genesis 12 is an initial promise of God to God’s servant Abram, that in spite of his old age his nation would be a great nation. It continues with a promise that Abram’s children would inhabit the desirable land that became the central focus for scriptural writers.  Refer to your maps I handed out last week.  The small area inhabited by the Canaanites was desirable by the surrounding kingdoms because of its location. Understand the Arabian Desert that is just to the east of this area.  The Egyptian kingdom was to the South and the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires to the North.  This area eventually known as the Holy Land includes valuable trade routes between the continents of Africa and Asia.  Everyone wanted to control it.  Much of our scripture writings occurred somewhere near this valuable region that God had promised to God’s people.  All this gives us an idea of the focus of scripture writers, along with the timeline that notes when Israel prospered and when the nations fell and the Jews were exiled then allowed to return to their land.

As we begin to shift gears a bit, let us consider how Jesus looked at and read the Bible.  First, the Bible was not a neatly bound group of writings but a set of scrolls.  These were not carried about but “…read and expounded upon in the synagogues by the rabbis” (Hamilton, pg. 30.)  It was highly likely that Jesus’ parents were illiterate, therefore Jesus most likely went to the synagogue regularly to study the scrolls.  We know from reading the Gospels that Jesus had his favorite passages, particularly those from the Psalms, Isaiah and Deuteronomy.  Last week we read the scripture passage concerning Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.  Each time Jesus quoted scripture to Satan, he was quoting Deuteronomy chapter 6.  That is the same chapter that contains what Jesus considered the first and greatest commandment. Turn to Deuteronomy 6:5. We read these words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  One thing we can note about Jesus and scripture: Jesus routinely challenged the religious leaders of his time to go beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.  Time and again we see Jesus calling his followers to radical obedience to God.  With this goes hand-in-hand with Jesus’ emphasis on God’s infinite grace for the outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, adulterers, and thieves – even for you and me. As we segue into the New Testament next week, let us turn to a final scripture reference today from the first gospel – Matthew 22:34-40. We are challenged to read scripture and live out our lives as reflections of these greatest commandments – love God and love our neighbors. Amen.

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