Last time we talked about getting a grasp of the overarching Old Testament story. We looked specifically at the way the invasions and conquests of the Assyrians and Babylonians (detailed in 2 Kings) dramatically changed the course of Israelite history and the way these events generated many of the books of the Old Testament. For this exercise we are going to zero in on a related but slightly different category, a text that was added to an older Old Testament story in light of the Exile event.Genesis 1 is one of the most well known texts in the entirety of Scripture. Short of certain specific sayings of Jesus (like the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount) or the Ten Commandments it might be the best known specific section of Scripture. Its also the center of a great deal of debate, especially at the intersect of faith and science. But as with any text we read we have to keep certain parts of the context in mind. When we read a specific section of Scripture we actually have three different layers of text going on.
1) The words themselves. When we read Scripture we are interacting with the specific words of the Bible (or usually a good English translation of the actual Hebrew or Greek). This element doesn’t really change. The words are the same today as they were a decade or a century ago.
2) The context of the words. Every word of Scripture is written for a time and place different than the one in which we currently live. Paul wrote to largely Gentile Christian churches in the 1st century Mediterranean world. Isaiah and his students wrote for exiled Jews in approx. the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Revelation is written to 1st and 2nd century AD Christians suffering under specific Roman persecutions. These contexts help us to understand imagery and language which is unfamiliar today. By looking at other writings in the same period and understanding the worldview of those communities we can better translate those texts to today’s terms.
3) Our own context. Whenever we read Scripture we’re bringing our own world into it. Scripture is historically specific but in God’s consistent character (the God of the earliest OT is the same God as the God of the NT and the God of today) we learn about God’s vision for us and our world. Scripture is also a product of God’s work as well as a human author. The original context is important (or it wouldn’t have been written that way) but God’s Spirit breathes life into the words in ways that go beyond another historical document. So God’s word also speaks to where we are today and the situations we face.
These three pieces together help make up a good reading of Scripture. So how does our Old Testament timeline help us understand Genesis 1? Well Genesis 2 is actually the older version of the story. It existed long before the Genesis 1 version. So why did the Israelite communities need a new version? Well based on specific phrases in the text and the historical record of texts (the way ancient collections of the biblical texts show slight changes over time) we can date Genesis 1 to the Israelite community in exile in Babylon, around the 7th or 6th century BCE.
The Israelites needed a new text because they had been utterly defeated. In the ancient world getting defeated didn’t just mean your army was weak, it meant your gods were weak. The Israelite poets and priests and sages had been taken away into a foreign land, surrounded by towering idols and they were being mocked and harassed day after day, told that the idols had triumphed over their god. That they were abandoned now and with the temple in ruins, far from home, their god could no longer hear them.
Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
They were defeated in a way that had never happened before. The old words had been shattered just like the walls and the temple. The old words had been ground into dust and sand during an endless captive journey from Israel to Babylon. The old words had been silenced by the songs of Marduk and Nebo, the Babylonian gods who had delivered the Israelites to the Babylonians. And it was not just any song. The Babylonians had their own Creation song. The Enuma Elish. Which told of how the great god Marduk violently conquered the waters and brought forth the creation from the blood and gore of dead gods. Of how Marduk set all the stars and lights in the sky for the gods to reside there. And it gave it in a day by day account.
We read Genesis 1 and hear a story about science books and big bangs and evolution. Because we come to the text with only the first and third layer, the words themselves and our needs and concerns. We are prone to seeing science because that is the culture we’re coming from. But when we add in the middle piece, the context, and we look at the words and phrases in light of where they come from the meaning shifts. The storyteller and author isn’t worried about literal days and scientific processes.
This song is a resistance song, a song of rebellion against violence and idolatry. The Israelites are answering a question.
“Where is your god? Why have you been abandoned? What meaning is left for you in the world when our gods of violence have delivered you into our hands?”
And they reply with Genesis 1. “Our God is the God of all the Creation, He made the promised land and the desert in which we wandered and Babylon where we have been exiled. This world and all its beauty was spoken into life and order by the voice of our God, not the violence of yours. We are all of us made for dignity and true life, made in the image of our God. We were not born to be slaves of you or your gods. God created everything, the earth and the seas and the stars and they are good but they are not God. We are not alone or abandoned even here in Babylon”
Their new song answered new questions. And those answers, when we see them in their original context, still speak to our world today. The world around us is fundamentally good (even when it is skewed by brokenness), people are beloved by God and good (even when they too are skewed by brokenness). The world is intended for peace and growth, not violence. It doesn’t help us much with dinosaurs and cosmological events but these words still speak to us today, rooted in what they first meant to a people struggling to find God in suffering in a distant time and place. When we can bring together the words of Scripture, the world in which they were written and read and our concerns today we find that Scripture is still alive and speaking to us, ancient words coming to life in new ways (informed by the old!) to answer and teach today.
When we try and lay out the broad timeline of the Old Testament it usually goes something like this:
Creation, Fall, Noah, Abraham, something something, Joseph, Egypt, Exodus, Desert, Law, Joshua and Conquest, Judges, Kings (Saul, David Solomon)…
And then we lose it. We tend to be pretty good on these first few books. We tend to get them a lot in Sunday School, VBS etc. They’re very narrative driven (story centered, as long as we skip the big chunks of law). But then it gets a bit fuzzy. There are so many cool stories about David. And Solomon was wise and built the temple. But after that we get lost. And there’s a reason for that.
The Old Testament suddenly goes all out of order. We go Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And that gets us from Creation to the death of Moses. Joshua and Judges tell us about conquering the promised land (Canaan/Israel) and then trying to live in it. 1 and 2 Samuel tell us of the life of the prophet, the people’s demand for a king (over God’s objections), the anointing of Saul and then his downfall and replacement by David. 1 and 2 Kings tells us the story of the Solomon and all the kings who followed after him (Chronicles hits all this over again from a different perspective).
And then everything is blown apart. What happened? We had this fairly neat straight line and then suddenly we have all of these prophets and a lot of what they have to say isn’t narrative at all but long blocks of verse and poetry and song. We have Ezra and Nehemiah first but they seem to be talking about things that are at the very of the OT story. And what is up with Jonah?
Well, there are two events that are only referenced in 2 Kings but might be as important for understanding the Old Testament as God giving the law at Mt. Sinai or Saul being anointed as King.
The first happens in 2 Kings 17. In the ancient world leading up to the 9th century BC Assyria (one of Israel’s ancient neighbors) had largely been everyone’s punching bag. They weren’t militarily, socially or economically strong. But then they discover how to work high-grade Iron weaponry. The rest of the world is using bronze weapons and shields and Assyria suddenly takes the field with this strange new gray metal that cuts through bronze like it wasn’t even there. Its like bringing a machine gun to the American Revolution or GPS and drone strikes to WWII. It’s a technological jump so big they might as well be from the future.
Assyria conquers everything in sight in no time at all. Including the northern kingdom of Israel. Back in those days one of the best ways to control a conquered people was to shuffle them up with other conquered people. So Assyria took a huge chunk of the population and sent them away to other lands they had conquered. Then they brought in large numbers of peoples from other lands. They forced them to intermingle with the local peoples. This meant there was no unifying culture to help shape resistance against them. Within a few generations these peoples were integrated into Israel, bringing their own foreign religious and cultural customs with them. The Northern Kingdom wasn’t just gone but there was no coming back. (This is where we end up with the Samaritans we see in the New Testament.)
The second event happens in 2 Kings 24-25. Once iron technology had started to spread to their neighbors Assyria quickly lost its dominant status. In their wake came a unified Babylonian empire. A series of Babylonian kings (you might recognize Necbuhadnezzar from Daniel) had united their people behind a religious and cultural revival and they were using that momentum to conquer their neighbors. With the Northern Kingdom mostly destroyed only Judah remained of the Jewish nation.
Babylon swept through them and laid siege to Jerusalem. The current King, Jehoiachin, ultimately surrendered. Babylon carried away the royal household, all the treasures of the palace and temple and many of the ruling and cultural elites of the city, taking them back to their own capital. When his successor, Zedekiah, tried to rebel against Babylon they came again and this time laid waste to the city. They destroyed the walls, desecrated the temples and burned or otherwise destroyed much of the city. Then they carried away another large part of the people into exile in Babylon.
Its hard to explain how huge this is. In Joshua the people trust in God and he gives the land over to them. It’s the promise to Abraham and to Moses. The land promised them by God. Saul and David and the judges before them and the kings after them were always able to defend it with God’s divine aid. But because of the grievous sins of kings like Manasseh and the idolatry and wickedness of the people God has finally withdrawn that protection. Jerusalem and its temple, the physical symbols of God’s presence on earth and with the people of Israel are wrecked. This is devastating, beyond devastating. They could never have imagined this happening. The only contemporary U.S. event that is even close would be September 11 but even this falls far short. It changes everything.
So why are these two events so important?
-They scatter Jews all over the world. Instead of just being concentrated in one tiny region they are scattered over dozens of countries. This group of displaced Jews is often called the diaspora (which is gk. for scattering).
-This scattering also means their faith needs to change. They had primarily understood God in terms of the land promised to them, the King watching over them and at the middle of it all, God’s temple where they worshiped and sacrificed and celebrated their faith and identity together. In the diaspora we start to see new institutions called synagogues and new leaders called Rabbi’s. Without the temple for celebrations and sacrifices Judaism refocused around the law. Its new leaders were masters of the law and its interpretation, teaching the people how to follow God’s commands and maintain their Jewish identity in a new place surrounded by gentiles.
-This also lead to the writing of what we call the Old Testament as a written document. Much of the law and stories of the OT had been largely oral tradition, stories told and retold and passed down from one generation to the next. But scattered, living with strange people with strange customs, they needed a more concrete means of recording and teaching their faith to the next generation. This period led these scattered sages and rabbis to choose a specific written canon and share and reproduce it for all Jews.
-This also left a gaping hole in their worldview. Why would God punish them so? How could they ever recover? The scriptures they had gave them some tools to comprehend this but they weren’t enough. The exile generated dozens of new texts and biblical stories. The lives, works and words of the major prophets came about during this time, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who helped the people process what it meant that God was still with them in the midst of their suffering and offered them hope for the future. Lamentations is a book of pure grief, lifting the people’s pain and outrage to God. Other books saw additions and edits during this time period, like the writing of Genesis 1. Finally Ezra, Nehemiah Haggai and Zechariah were written after exile, relating the stories of the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
–It changed the way they thought about God. Before these events the Jewish people tended to think of God as mostly centered around Israel and its people, even specifically around the temple and Jerusalem. (This wasn’t uncommon, many ancient peoples thought of their gods as regional or tribal gods, powerful only in one area and concerned with only a small region or set of interests). When Jerusalem falls the people have to expand their understanding, they begin to understand God as God of the whole world, not just their people or land. God isn’t just concerned with Israel but is shaping the fate of the entire world. Isaiah in particular shows us a God who is suddenly universal, no longer contained by one nation and its concerns. This is hinted at in earlier books but it is the exile that makes it suddenly distinct and noticeable.
–Israel never really recovers from this, they would never again be an independent self-ruling people. Assyria conquered them. Then Babylon. Persia conquered Babylon and sent them home but still ruled over them. Alexander the Great and the Macedonians conquered Persia and ruled over Israel. When his empire fell apart one of his generals would found the Seleucid dynasty which would rule over them for several more centuries. For one brief shining moment a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees (found in the non-canonical books of Macabees and giving us the story of Chanukah) succeeded in establishing Jewish self-rule but they were soon conquered by the Romans who would hold Israel into Jesus’ life and for centuries beyond.
–This conquest leads to a new belief, based on promises in Isaiah, that God would send them a new deliverer, God would send a messiah. A warrior-king like David or a prophet like Moses who would free them again and restore them to past glory. (This should sound familiar)
These two events, the conquest by Assyria and the conquest by Babylon, radically changed the course of history for Israel and Judah. They also change the course of the Old Testament. Where the first half of the Old Testament is mostly one long story, the second half is broken into dozens of different voices offering a different perspective on events. These events generated more books of the bible than anything, nearly as many as the entire New Testament but generally much longer in content. We have to be aware of them to read the Old Testament in a way that makes any sense at all. Before our next entry we will take a short interlude to look at how this can help us read certain texts better than before and then we will take a look at the New Testament context and what the world of Jesus was like.