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CHAPTER 2 - SACRED TEXTS

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE

The Evolution of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of books written over a millennium in the ancient Near East. Rooted in one land, the work touches upon many geographical locations in the ancient Near East and the East Mediterranean. Although representing the literary genius of a single people, the book's message transcends national boundaries. Three great faiths view the Bible as a religious document relevant to mankind not only in the past, but also in the present and future. Yet the Bible encompasses more, providing us with history, philosophy, and manifold types of literature.

The word Bible derives from the Greek biblion, a diminutive of biblos, referring to the inner rind of the papyrus, "paper." The word relates to the city of Byblos, an ancient Phoenician seaport famous for cutting and preparing the papyrus plant for use as writing material. The biblical manuscripts, written on myriad papyri, were named after the locality of the latter's manufacture. Although the date of the actual use of the term biblia for Scriptures has not been ascertained, Saint Jerome (c.374-419/20), the translator of the Bible into Latin, calls the books bibliotheca.

The Jewish Bible

The scope of the Bible varies according to the user. No definitive edition of the Bible acceptable to all Jews and Christians exists: the work contains rather a basic core with a variety of permutations. The Jewish Bible, comprising 24 books, is common to all. It is divided into three main sections. The first part is called "Torah," a term derived from the Hebrew root "to teach." Known as the Pentateuch, the Torah contains five books. We do not know when the Jews divided the Pentateuch into five separate books, because the names Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were given by the Latin translators of the Bible. The Hebrew designations were taken from the first major word of each of the books in keeping with the familiar custom of the ancient Near East of naming books according to the first word of each respective text.

The next grouping of biblical books is known as the "Prophets," which subdivides into "Early Prophets" and "Late Prophets." The first group contains six books--Joshua, Judges, Samuel I, Samuel II, Kings I, Kings II--and primarily describes the political, social, and economic events during the period when the Israelites lived in the Land of Israel. The books from Genesis through Kings are in chronological order, relating the history of the people of Israel from the beginning until the first exile.

The "Late Prophets" are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. The first three are known as the major prophets and the remaining twelve as the minor ones, epithets that reflect the length of the ooks rather than their value. The three major prophets have over 45 chapters whereas the longest book among the minor prophets has 14 chapters, and the shortest has one.

The third section of the Jewish Bible, called the Writings or Hagiography, consists of Wisdom Literature, the Five Scrolls, and historical works. The so-called "Wisdom Literature" comprises Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. The Hebrew acronym for these three books emet, "truth," may also be regarded as an appropriate description of their contents. The Five Scrolls--Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Lamentations--are grouped together because each has a special religious significance and is therefore recited in the synagogue at designated times during the year. The books also represent various literary genres. Ruth and Esther are historical narratives, while Ecclesiastes exemplifies wisdom literature. Song of Songs contains lyric poems, and Lamentations expressions of grief and mourning.

Chronicles I and Chronicles II describe the history of the Monarchy of Judah from the beginning until the exile. Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah recount the story of the Jews under Babylonian and Persian rule from exile through the momentous return to the land of their forefathers to rebuild the religious center in Jerusalem.

The Bible as Revelation

The religious meaning of the biblical text is of vital concern to many. Scriptures are not self-explanatory, and the interpretations provided by different Jewish and Christian denominations invest the Bible with religious meaning. Believers regard biblical passages as the written source of all theological doctrines dealing with God, the role of God in the world, and the mission of human beings upon earth. Unique to biblical thought is the conception of revelation as a source of answers to problems which defy logic.

Many view the text as directly derived from God with the authority to dictate moral precepts and daily conduct. With such importance given to the Bible as the word of God, the translation of the work is crucial. Over time, four translations of the Bible have been dominant. The text in its original Hebrew has traditionally been viewed as God's revelation to the Hebrews. The Septuagint, the Greek translation, has been considered the revealed word to all Eastern Orthodox churches, while the Vulgate, Saint Jerome's translation into Latin, up until about the last century was considered the word of God to the Catholic church. Similarly, The King James Version (KJV) [1611] was long held to be divine by various Protestant denominations. In recent years, however, theologians and linguists have restudied biblical texts in their original language, and reinterpreted many points which once were jealously cherished and preserved even if based on apparent errors in translation.

Authorship of the Bible

The Old Testament writers remain, for the most part, anonymous. Nevertheless, the Jewish Sages assigned authorship of individual books to prominent biblical figures. Scholars, though, believe that many of the early books were the compositions of prophets, priests, and their disciples and that the later books of the Bible were collected and edited by scribes whose identity still remains obscure.

Canonization of the Bible

Since multiple versions of the same text were often in circulation, the Jewish Sages had to choose which versions were to be considered genuine and sacred, and thus canonized, and which were to be excluded from the Bible. Assuming the responsibility of editors and censors, the Sages corrected verses in some books and determined the eligibility of the texts to enter the canon. The omitted texts became known as the Apocrypha, parts of which were incorporated into different versions of the Christian Bible.

This process of selection is unusual in the literature of antiquity; in fact, only two Western cultures, Hellas and Israel, developed the idea of an official "literary textbook." For the Greeks, Homer served as Scripture in much the same way as the Jews viewed the Bible. Paradoxically, pagan Greeks and observant Jews shared this unique belief: both groups considered their literary composition as a sacred guide to daily life.

The People of the Book

The People of the Book are known by three basic designations: Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew. All represent the same people, although each typically is associated with specific periods in the history of the Bible. Abraham, the founder of the nation, was known as "the Hebrew." He, his son Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob collectively are known as the Patriarchs and were called Hebrews until Abraham's grandson Jacob was awarded a second name, Israel. From Jacob/Israel, who had twelve sons, we trace the twelve tribes; their descendants were known as the Children of Israel. This appellation was used until the monarchy of David and Solomon was split into two segments; the Kingdom of Israel (10 tribes) and the Kingdom of Judah (2 tribes). The former inhabitants were called Israelites and the latter, Judeans.

The Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist circa 722 B.C. when Assyria annexed it and sent its inhabitants into exile. These "ten lost tribes" were never heard from again, and therefore, the term Israelites disappeared. The subjects of the Kingdom of Judah, although exiled by the Babylonians circa 586 B.C., retained their identity as Judeans or Jews. Thus the Hebrews became the Israelites, who in turn evolved into the Jewish people, and the religion practiced by them was designated Judaism.

The Land of the Bible

"Canaan" was the original name of the Land of the Bible, derived from the principal export of the region, red-purple wool produced by the original inhabitants, the Canaanites (a word that also means tradesman). The name of the area became the Land of Israel after the Israelites settled in the territory during the late 13th century B.C. This region, promised by God to the descendants of the Patriarchs, also became known as the Promised Land. The Roman designation "Palestine," named for the Philistines who once dwelled along the Mediterranean coast, entered the Christian writings of the Church Fathers. The name has been retained, although the Philistines disappeared long before the appearance of Jesus Christ.

To draw a map of the biblical lands, use Mesopotamia as a starting point, travel northwest along the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, follow a curve to Syria, continue down the Mediterranean coast to Phoenicia and Israel, and finally end in Egypt. The shape thus drawn is that of a crescent. Not surprisingly, the geographical region extending from the Levant to modern Iraq became known as the "Fertile Crescent." Here the center of ancient civilization remained until the Greco-Roman period. The Bible, however, extended its horizons to include territories that are situated to the west of the Ancient Near East, the sea isles of the Mediterranean, and the main two peninsulas of the Greeks and the Romans.

Only a small segment of the crescent, the land of the Bible occupies a comparatively thin strip along the Mediterranean coast, bordering on deserts to the south and the east, the sea to the west. Despite its small size, its importance is derived from its location. Israel was a land bridge between Egypt in the South, Asia Minor to the Northwest, Mesopotamia to the Northeast, and Greece and Rome to the West. Two of the most important ancient international overland trade routes traversed it--the Via Maris along the Mediterranean and the King's Highway along the Transjordanian plateau. Furthermore, through its port cities, Israel connected East and West. Because of its strategic position, the Land of Israel has been the target of countless conquerors, the scene of innumerable battles in times of war, and an artery of international culture and commerce in times of peace. Thus geography helped extend the prophetic message to encompass the nations of world and spread it to the civilizations that came in contact with the people of Israel.

Cultural Background

While the Bible is considered sacred and revealed directly by God to the prophets, note that the Bible was not created in a vacuum. Biblical language, style, and phraseology have their roots in the culture of the entire East Mediterranean, which had reached a cultural highpoint known as the Amarna Age shortly before the occupation of Canaan by the Israelites. The name Amarna comes from a collection of cuneiform tablets unearthed in Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, the capital of Amenophis IV, better known as Pharaoh Ikhnaton. The correspondence preserved on the tablets attests to the intermingling of the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt with the inhabitants of the East Mediterranean, and the consequent cross-cultural fertilization of language and ideas. The Israelites who settled in the Canaanite territories did not have to go abroad to import those rich sources, since they were culturally entrenched on East Mediterranean soil before the Hebrews settled there. In fact, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite literary sources provide extensive background material for understanding biblical literature.

Egypt in particular produced a remarkable civilization: its sacred shrines and pyramids testify to Egyptian technical mastery and resourcefulness. Egyptian influence remains with us through our calendar of the solar year. In the realm of literature, Egypt was a pioneer. The earliest Egyptian writings focused on religious ends, with books of instruction created to insure eternal life for the king and his entourage. During the Middle Kingdom, for the first time in world history, the Egyptians produced secular literature such as short stories and the early novelette for the sake of enjoyment. Since the Egyptians and the Hebrews shared a border, contact between them accounts for the general similarity of Egyptian narrative style and biblical stories.

Mesopotamia was the home of the great Sumerian, Akkadian, and Assyrian kingdoms. These cultures too left an impact not only on their contemporaries but also on our culture today. Astronomy and astrology can be traced to Mesopotamian ancestry. The sexagenary reckoning which divides time into 24 hours, 60 minutes, and 60 seconds is a direct legacy from the Mesopotamian scientific calculation. Sumerian, one of the world's first written languages, and thus ultimately the source of the Indo-European alphabets still in use today, remained the common tongue of Akkadian culture for two-and-a-half millennia.

Perhaps the strongest influence on the biblical text was exerted by Canaanite writings (more accurately, a Canaanite dialect) of the Late Bronze Age unearthed at the city-state of Ugarit. This ancient city was buried in the Ras-Shamra mound about seven miles north of the port of Latakia in Northern Syria. Nearly half a century ago, a plowshare of an Arab farmer accidently struck a Mycenaean-type burial grave, a discovery which led to extensive archaeological excavations uncovering the Late Bronze Age city of Ugarit (1400 B.C. - 1200 B.C.) and its vast literary material recorded on ancient clay tablets.

The study of the literary texts of Ugarit enriched our knowledge of the entire East Mediterranean region, but in no place is the effect more dramatic than in biblical studies. Here was a literature closely related, linguistically and geographically, to the Hebrew Bible. The writings unearthed shed light on the pagan gods of Canaanite tradition whose worship was not tolerated in the Land of Israel. The monotheism of the Hebrews finally triumphed and eliminated the worship of those gods, but only after long and arduous efforts of the prophets who tried time and again to dissuade the Israelites from imitating their neighbors. Although concepts were rejected and Canaanite beliefs denounced vehemently, paradoxically, Hebrew prophets employed the phraseology, metrical pattern, and imagery of the Canaanites to convey and instill the monotheistic teachings of a new culture destined to become a foundation of western civilization.

Ugaritic writings, for example, describe their principal deity, Baal, as a coveting God. (Incidentally, the texts use the same Hebrew word of the tenth commandment, hmd, to describe the deity's passions.)

                     Baal verily covets
                    Dagon's son desires
                              (Ugaritic Text 75 lines 38-39)

The Canaanite deity is viewed positively when depicted as lusting after other people's homes, fields, and animals. Undoubtedly the Ugaritic texts suggest emulating the deeds of this god, so covetous Baal is imitated by his worshippers. These norms of behavior seem to be so central in Ugaritic/Canaanite tradition that the Bible, reacting against Canaanite values, unequivocally opposes covetousness in any form or manner, as in the tenth Commandment. Aware of the prevailing practices, the prophets denounce them using the same mode of expression and examples in order to raise the level of morality and to uproot materialistic and acquisitive behavior.

Acknowledging the impact of extra-biblical materials on biblical accounts of episodes like Creation and the Flood in no way diminishes the originality of the message of the Bible. On the contrary, biblical authors scrupulously tailored language and mythological themes to an audience familiar with the old stories in order to increase the significance of the new biblical versions. Concepts and other representations of pagan religions included in the biblical texts are not offered as religious truths, but rather serve to highlight the differences between biblical and pagan ideas, and to emphasize the truth of Scriptural tradition and the prowess of God. Consequently, the analogies drawn from the contemporary backdrop allow us not only to reach a better understanding of the text, but also to widen our horizon in grasping the Bible and its milieu.

 

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