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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 2 - Sacred Texts 


A methodical history can evolve only if a concern exists for accurately recording past events. The Hebrew Bible, for example, is the product of a desire to preserve a precise record of events for posterity. The biblical text includes annals and chronicles that register historical happenings.

The biblical text is unique among ancient writings in its presentation of actual events. The accounts of the reign of David and Solomon, most notably, show little tendency to idealize and reconstruct occurrences. The motive seems to be a sense of historical responsibility. Some biblical personalities even left concrete evidence of their activities, such as Joshua who erected a pile of stones as testimony to the miracle of the crossing of the Jordan. Archaeologists continually discover artifacts from the biblical period verifying the historical accounts recorded in the Bible. However, in addition to preserving historical facts, the Bible provides moral and ethical lessons. The outline below sketches some of the salient events of biblical history depicted in the Bible through various generic forms.

Overview of Biblical History

Genesis begins with the words, "In the beginning." This phrase, which serves as the theme of the book, presents the genesis of the world and the beginning of Israelite history. Several theories exist about the beginning of the world, yet the biblical version is the best known and most organized. How did the world begin? The biblical version does not parallel the latest scientific theories, and the text is not a scientific treatise. Its purpose is to teach. The Creation Story shows us how the Hebrews explain the origin of the world, a most momentous and mysterious set of events which occur through the medium of the "spoken word." "And God said, Let there be light." (Gen 1:3) Universal in scope, the Story of Creation describes several beginnings including a flood which destroys the entire universe save for the family of Noah and his sons.

In the first ten chapters of Genesis, the biblical text serves as the historical source for the creation of all peoples and not just a specific segment of those created. Only one couple, Adam and Eve, serves as parents of all human beings. Therefore, all peoples living today are their descendants. The text traces the lineage from father to son, focusing on renowned figures who become fathers to families and peoples, thereby emphasizing not only the family bond but also the equality of all human beings descending from Adam and Eve.

In the same vein, the laws instituted after the Deluge are binding on the entire world civilization. If the Mosaic law (the laws listed throughout the Pentateuch) obliges only the Jews, the Noachide Code of Law (seven principles of morality) is obligatory on all established societies.

The major part of Genesis delineates a narrower horizon, the Patriarchal stories, the detailed history of one family covering three generations represented by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This family develops into a people which subsequently becomes enslaved by the Egyptians for several generations until Moses leads the people out of Egypt. They first experience the revelation on Mount Sinai, wander in the desert for forty years, and then enter the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. Jews celebrate this Exodus during the familiar holiday of Passover.

Joshua leads the people in the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. After he dies, no great leader inherits his position, and Israel therefore falls under rule intermittently by heroes and heroines referred to as Judges, such as Deborah, Gideon, Jeptah, and Samson. Theirs is a time of local wars with neighboring foes who oppress individual tribes, sometimes requiring the combined efforts of adjacent tribes in an effort to overcome the adversary. The chronicler views the rise and fall of Israel's fortunes as dependent on the belief in God and observance of His commandments.

As a result of the lack of centralized and successive leadership, Israel's kingship emerges. The Bible relates the achievements of the Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. The historiographer, however, relates not only national events, but also provides insights into human relationships. For example, he delineates the complexities of Saul, the first king of Israel, and the effect of his jealousy. He portrays the passionate love story of David and Bathsheba and reveals the epitome of friendship in the narratives about David and Jonathan.

During the reign of the great kings, David and Solomon, the Kingdom prospers and extends its boundaries. Later the ten northern tribes secede and become known as the Kingdom of Israel. The remaining two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, take the name of the former, creating the Kingdom of Judah. The two kingdoms exist side by side until destroyed by the Assyrians (in 722 B.C.) and the Babylonians (in 586 B.C.), respectively.

The calamity of exile never causes the people of Israel to veer from their belief in one God or to forsake the idea of returning to the Promised Land. They maintained this hope until c.530 B.C., when many exiles return to what was then known as the Kingdom of Judah to reconstruct their national life.

These events relate to the global events of changing empires. The Babylonian empire falls into the hands of the same Persian empire that menaced classical Greece, the Achaemenid dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great (c. 559-530 B.C.); the Achaeminians subsequently build an empire from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1:1).

Cyrus the Great allows the Jews to return to Judah after extending the borders of his empire to the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, hopes for complete independence cannot be realized as long as the Achaeminians are in power. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah, Jewish leaders who return from exile and record the history of the times in the two biblical books named for them respectively, nor a scion of the house of Judah emerges to claim the throne. As a result, the Jewish community maintains autonomy in internal affairs and religion while foreign and military affairs as well as safety of life and possessions remains in the hands of Persian authorities.

Yet the Jews in exile throughout the provinces of the Achaeminean Empire maintain their Jewish identity. Figures such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Mordechai serve their respective Persian kings diligently, reach the high echelons of influence, and therefore are able to offer protection to their brethren. The books describing Jewish life under Persian rule are the last biblical texts believed to be divinely inspired and therefore admitted into the canon.

The accession of the Persian armies to the Greek forces of Alexander the Great marks the passing of the Achaemenian era and with it the cessation of the hegemony of Near Eastern empires in the history of the world of antiquity. However, the amalgam of classical Greece and the Near Eastern legacy produces a new influence, the Hellenistic tradition, which later evolves into Greco-Roman culture.

Although the recorded history of the Jews delineated in the Bible terminates, their impact on general history does not. The Jewish minority continues its creative role in religion, ethics, and literature, leaving an indelible imprint on the culture and history of Western civilization.