The Old Testament: Notes

The Old Testament: Notes

The Old Testament: Notes

The Old Testament: Notes


The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.


  • Introduction to the Old Testament
  • Critical Commentaries:The Prophetic Books, The Historical Writings, The Wisdom Literature, Miscellaneous Writings, The Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha

    To understand the Old Testament, it is necessary to have some familiarity with the history of the people who wrote it. Judaism is a historical religion. This means that the ideas associated with it were disclosed to the Hebrew people through the concrete events that occurred in that part of the world where they lived during the centuries in which the Old Testament was in the making. A detailed account of the entire history of the Hebrew people would go far beyond the scope of these notes. A brief outline of some of the major high points in that history will be sufficient for our purpose.

    While it is true that the books of the Old Testament begin with an account of the creation of the world, we must bear in mind that the narratives which deal with such topics as the creation, the Garden of Eden, the fall of man, the great flood, and other events related in the book of Genesis were never intended to be regarded as an accurate historical account of the entire world process. None of these accounts appeared in written form until some time after the Hebrews had become settled in the land of Canaan, west of the Jordan River, modern-day Israel. This did not take place prior to the ninth century B.C. Obviously, the stories that one finds in the early chapters of the book of Genesis, as well as those that have to do with the activities of the patriarchs who were believed to have lived before the time of the exodus from Egypt, were not written by eyewitnesses of the events that were recorded. Neither were they written by people who lived anywhere near the times about which they wrote. It was not until after the men who wrote had reflected on the events connected with the history of their people that any attempt was made to record these events or to set forth their meaning. When this was done, the interpretations necessarily reflected the perspective from which they were written.

    The beginnings of Hebrew history are obscure and cannot be known with certainty. It is generally believed that the people from whom the Old Testament eventually emerged came from a group of Semitic tribes known as the Habiru. These tribes inhabited the region referred to as the Fertile Crescent, a strip of land lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and stretching southward for some distance in the direction of Egypt and the Nile River. They are known to have moved about in this territory as early as 2000 B.C. Eventually some of these tribes migrated to Egypt and lived there for some time, probably three or four centuries. Apparently, they were at first welcomed by the Egyptians, for the Hebrew colony grew and prospered. In time their numbers increased to the extent that the Egyptians became alarmed lest their own security become endangered. In order to protect themselves against any further advances on the part of the Hebrews, the Egyptian Pharaoh inaugurated a program of harsh measures toward the newcomers, forcing them into a condition of servitude and slavery. This situation is the one referred to in the Old Testament as the period of Egyptian bondage. It was in connection with this period of oppression that we first learn of Moses and his role in bringing about the deliverance of his people. It was under his guidance and leadership that the Hebrews were able to leave the land of Egypt and journey to new territory where they were to make their home.

  • Excerpt

    The book of Amos consists of nine chapters. It is the earliest of the prophetic writings to be preserved in book form. Not all of the material found in these chapters came from the prophet himself. Editors and copyists added to the original oracles comments that they deemed appropriate in the light of events that had taken place after his death. Whether the words of Amos constitute a series of addresses or belong to one single address is not known. The theme that runs through all of them is one of protest against the social injustices that prevailed in northern Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II. Along with this protest is the warning that Yahweh will surely punish the nation for violating the demands of justice. The punishment will be nothing short of captivity by a foreign power and the end of Israel’s national existence.

    Amos was a shepherd who lived in the region of Tekoa, not many miles from the city of Jerusalem. He made his living by raising sheep and taking care of sycamore trees. When his produce was ready for market, he would go to the towns and villages of Israel. His journeys would take him through the country districts, where he observed the hardships imposed on the working class of people by the wealthy landowners who lived in the towns or cities in the midst of comparative luxury. While in the cities, he would be deeply impressed not only by the contrast between the rich and the poor but by the way in which the political and religious leaders tried to justify it. They insisted that Yahweh rewards in a material way those who are faithful in the performance of their ritualistic obligations to him. Hence they interpreted their own prosperity and that of the nation as a whole as evidence that the divine favor rested on them and would continue to do so for all time to come. At the same time, they reasoned that the hard lot of the poor was exactly what they deserved since they had not been regular participants in the sacrifices and other religious activities carried on at the established places of worship. Amos was not impressed by this kind of argument. He had been raised in an environment where it was understood that loyalty to Yahweh involved fair dealings among people rather than observance of religious rites and ceremonies.

    As Amos pondered the situation that prevailed in northern Israel, he began to have dreams and visions. Three of these are recorded. In one of them, he sees a man with a plumb line measuring a wall that is about to fall. He is told that the bulging wall is none other than the house of Israel, and just as a wall of this kind will soon collapse, so the nation that it represents will surely go into captivity. In a second vision, he sees a basket of summer fruit and this too represents the people of Israel. Their material prosperity is like the fruit that is fully ripe. But ripe fruit lasts only a little while and then becomes rotten and decays. So the peaceful years of the Israelite nation are about to come to an end. The third vision is one in which he sees a swarm of locusts about to devour the produce of the land. This vision is also interpreted as a warning of the evil day that lies ahead.

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