God’s Ways and God’s Words
The Old Testament was the first part of the Bible to be written. In its pages is the history of many people who lived over two thousand years ago. Often they faced similar problems that you and I face today, and they reacted in the same way we do. They trusted God, but doubted Him sometimes. They saw His mighty miracles, but needed the assurance of His presence. They were His chosen people, but they often endured severe trials and hardships.
The Old Testament is more than this, though. It was written not only to tell us the stories of these men and women but also to help us understand the nature of God himself. As we study it we will discover how God revealed himself to us in two basic ways: 1) through His mighty works, and 2) through His prophetic messages.
The Old Testament contains many different kinds of writings. Some of these give the history of the nation Israel; some are collections of wise sayings; some are songs of devotion and praise; and others are prophetic messages of great power. Yet in all of them God speaks to us today. As you study this lesson you will learn many facts about the Old Testament and discover that it is a personal message to you.
God Gave Us the Bible
There are many important things about ourselves that others must tell us. The answers to the questions “Who am I?”, “Who are my parents?”, and “Where was I born?” cannot just be imagined! In the same way the Bible, God’s message to us, deals with the important, ultimate questions about God: What is God like? What has God done in the past and why? And above all, what relationship is there between God and humans? The Bible answers these questions since it is the words and revelation of God himself, the Creator and Redeemer.
The Bible Is God’s Message to Us
God created humans for fellowship with himself. He speaks to us in distinct ways through the voice of nature or creation, and that voice is heard plainly every day (Psalm 19). The apostle Paul affirms that God’s eternal power and divine nature are plainly seen in creation (Romans 1:20).
The second way by which God speaks to us is through the Bible, His written Word. The written word has only one theme: the history of God’s plan for the redemption of humanity from sin through His son, Jesus Christ.
In the Bible, Jesus Christ is often referred to as the living word of God (John 1:1–18). Therefore, Jesus is the third distinct way in which God has spoken to us (Hebrews 1:2).
The Bible Was Inspired by God
The name Bible comes from the Greek word biblia which means “many books.” The Bible was written by more than 40 authors in many lands over a period of 1400 to 1600 years. The 66 books contained in the Bible were written in several languages and under widely differing circumstances. Yet the Bible is one great book with one great theme. The fact that all these different writings have only one main message is proof that the Bible has its source in God, not in man. Its very existence testifies to this fact. It is a book distinct from all others.
According to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, the Bible was inspired by God. In the language in which they were first written, the words inspired by God actually mean “breathed by God”—His very life. When believers speak of the verbal inspiration of the Bible, they mean that every word of it is God-breathed and is not merely a man’s effort to express important truths.
It is true that God miraculously allowed the individual nature of each writer to shine through his writings. Moses, Isaiah, and Samuel, who wrote several of the Old Testament books, were not simply secretaries to whom God dictated His message. Their own personalities are revealed in their writings
But overall, a sovereign God directed each word in the Scripture. Thus the Bible gives us God’s own inspired message. The Bible not only contains the word of God; it is the Word of God. More than 2,000 times in the Old Testament the words the Lord says or similar ones are used (see Exodus 10:3, 11:4, Joshua 24:2, and 2 Samuel 24:12). No other book makes such claims.
The Bible Has Great Value and Worth
The first part of the Bible was written more than 3,000 years ago and the last part over 2,000 years ago. Although it was not the first book to be written, it was the first book to be printed when the printing press was invented in 1450 A.D. Now millions of copies are printed each year. Some parts of the Bible have been translated into 2,300 languages, and the whole Bible has been translated into over 300 languages.
The Bible has influenced writers, artists, musicians, and politicians all over the world. They have painted pictures of the events it describes. They have written songs and poems on its themes. They have made laws and changed their societies to conform to the ideals it presents. A great university president once said, “I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women; but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible.”
William Tyndale gave his life so that people in his country of England could read the Bible in their own language. He began to translate the Bible into English in the year 1525. In 1536, with his task incomplete, he was condemned to die for translating the Bible. As he was being burned to death in flames of fire he prayed aloud: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” What a price Tyndale paid to give the Bible to others!
God Speaks Through the Old Testament
The Old Testament Is God’s Word
You might ask, “Do we have good reason for accepting the Old Testament as the Word of God? One simple way of answering that question with a yes is to point out that Jesus Christ, our Lord and ultimate authority, quoted extensively from it, even validating the use of individual words. Jesus also spoke of and believed in famous Old Testament figures like Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah who are routinely dismissed by liberal scholars as mythical. The apostles and other New Testament writers quoted widely from the Old Testament too.
These facts show us that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament valued the Old Testament and recognized its authority. In the Bible, the Old Testament is often referred to as “the Scriptures” and “the Law”—meaning the commandments that God gave to His people. When we find these terms in the New Testament, then, we can usually take them to mean what we call the Old Testament. Today we use the term “Scriptures” also, but our meaning includes the whole Bible or specific verses or portions of it. It is important to keep these different usages in mind when studying and reading the Bible.
The Old Testament tells many historical facts about the Jewish nation. But it is more than just history. It is a sacred history that tells of God’s revealing himself to us. The Old Testament shows how God worked with the nation of Israel. However, God is not only the God of Israel but also the supreme ruler of all people everywhere. The following truth is very important: The basic theme of the Old Testament is God revealing His nature to humankind through mighty acts and prophetic words.
The written record of the Old Testament as it was received by Jews and Christians was considered to be a divine-human product, free of error. What is more, it contains truth for the entire human race.
We Can Rely on the Old Testament
From earliest times God has caused men to keep a written account of His words and revelations. The kings of Israel were to have a copy of His law (Deuteronomy 17:18–19). Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, the language spoken by the people of Israel until about 500 years before Christ. At that time Aramaic became the common language of Palestine and the surrounding countries. A small portion of the Old Testament was written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8–6:18; 7:12–20; Jeremiah 10:11; and Daniel 2:4–7:28).
The material on which the Old Testament was written was called vellum. Skins of animals were used to prepare this substance. A piece of vellum on which the Scriptures were written usually measured about 10 inches in width and 30 feet in length. These strips were rolled up to form what is called a scroll. When a scroll became worn out through use, a particular group of scholars called Masoretes copied the texts onto a new scroll with great care. The old scroll usually was destroyed. We have manuscripts of this type from around 900 A.D.
However, the discovery of some much earlier manuscripts from around 70 A.D. was made in 1947 at a place called Qumran near the Dead Sea. These manuscripts are called the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” They show that the Old Testament which we have received has been faithfully passed on to us. It deserves our wholehearted trust and acceptance!
Many translations of the Old Testament have been made. In the last centuries before Christ, Jewish scholars made a translation into Greek. Tradition says there were 72 translators. Thus the title Septuagint, a Greek word meaning seventy, was given to this translation. This made it possible for many more people to read the Old Testament. Along with the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint was used during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
In the latter part of the 4th century A.D. a translation was made into Latin by a scholar named Jerome. Then in the 14th and 15th centuries several other translations appeared in German, French, Italian, and English. After the time of William Tyndale, the famous “authorized” or King James Version appeared in 1611. In our day, many other translations have been made. The Bible is now available in the languages of people who live all over the world.
The Old Testament Is a Personal Message to Us
Abraham was the great man of faith who was the father of the nation of Israel. But he was the father of not just that nation. According to Romans 4:11, 16, and 24, believers today are his spiritual descendants. It is this fact which gives the Old Testament meaning to us. It is not only the revelation of God’s ways and words, but also the story of our spiritual ancestors and forefathers. Although our circumstances today are different, the spiritual lessons they learned apply to our lives as well.
Hebrews 4:12 notes, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Because the Old Testament is the Word of God it gives us insight not only into His nature but also into ours. As we study the events it records we can discover many things about our own lives. Often we find ourselves in situations similar to the ones encountered by the men and women of the Old Testament. God can speak to us today through our study of their lives and the messages He had for them.
Our Approach to the Study of the Old Testament
The Writings in the Old Testament
Of the 66 books of the Bible, 39 make up the Old Testament. Further, the 39 books of the Old Testament can be divided into three groups. The first 17 books, Genesis through Esther, account for Israel’s historical development as a nation until about 500 years before Christ came to earth. These are called the books of history.
The first five books of history were closely associated with the life and ministry of Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This group of books is often referred to as the Pentateuch, a Greek name meaning “five vessels.”
Five books—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon—are called the books of poetry. They express the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of various people who lived during Israel’s history. But they are not closely tied to particular events of it.
The remaining 17 books are called the books of prophecy. God raised up prophets from time to time to declare His word. They had a message for their own generation, but they often spoke of future events also. Details in the historical books are the keys to a proper understanding of the message of the prophets. On the other hand, the words of the prophets help the reader to understand what is in the books of history. Chart 1 on the following page shows the arrangement of the Old Testament books in each of these three divisions.
Chronological Study of the Old Testament
For the purpose of this Old Testament survey course we will study the books of history, poetry, and prophecy in what is called a chronological order. That is, the order of our study will follow the actual period of time each book is about. We will begin with the book that tells about the first or earliest events, and end with the book that tells about the last or latest events.
We have seen that the basic theme of the Old Testament is God’s revelation of His nature through historical events. But these events, though they were guided by God, could not give us a revelation of His nature by themselves. So God raised up men not only to see those events but also to explain what they revealed about God. These men were the prophets. The seeing and telling of the revelation of God was the task of the prophet. For this course we will study the prophets along with the events they saw and spoke about. We will study the books of poetry along with the period of time during which they were probably written.
The words of Micah 4:2 provides a beautiful theme as we begin our study of the Old Testament: “Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
As you study the Old Testament, expect God to speak to you through it. It is a personal message for you!