A Walk Through the OT, Part 1 (7/9/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
It is no secret that I most often preach from the New Testament. It’s not that I don’t think there is great merit to the Old Testament stories. It’s just that my faith is so centered on Jesus, every time I prepare a sermon I am drawn to the New Testament.
That means I tend to ignore about three-quarters of the Bible. So I decided to make amends for this deficiency in my preaching, and over the course of this summer I am going to take a walk through the Old Testament. I won’t pretend that over the course of six or eight sermons I can adequately capture the entire Old Testament. So what I will do is attempt to hit the highlights, covering many of the Bible stories we grew up with as children, while trying to see them through an adult lens. And also, I will spend some time on the real life history that permeates much of the Old Testament, and some of the amazing figures who shaped our religious heritage—figures like King David and Solomon.
So where do we begin such an undertaking? We might as well start at the beginning, with the Book of Genesis. In fact, we’ll spend quite a bit of time in that first book of the Bible. Many of our foundational stories come from Genesis. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers and their bondage in Egypt—all of those stories come from that single book of the Bible we call Genesis.
A big part of this series will be spent in the Book of Genesis, so we’d better get started. The Book of Genesis begins with the story of the creation of the universe, or perhaps I should say it begins with the two stories of the creation of the universe. Why two stories? Well, we have hardly begun our walk through the Old Testament and it is necessary to make our first diversion into the area of scholarly research. Bear with me as I explain the most popular theory for how the first five books of the Bible came about. Most of this series will be based on the stories themselves; but first we must lay a little scholarly groundwork.
Questions regarding the authorship of the Old Testament have been around for many years. The first five books of the Bible—also called the Pentateuch, or the Torah—have traditionally been attributed to Moses. Clues that this was not the case were evident from the time these writings were first studied. For example, the final chapter of the fifth book, Deuteronomy, describes the death and burial of Moses. Explaining how Moses somehow described his own death is problematic to say the least.
The fact is, nowhere in the Bible does it state that Moses wrote those first five books of the Bible. And there is a glaring problem one soon faces with an honest approach to the Old Testament. There are many contradictions. Was man created in the beginning or the end of God’s act of creation? Did Noah have one pair or seven pairs of each animal on the ark? These, and hundreds of other questions, were ignored over the ages as people clung to the notion that Moses was the single author of the first five books of the Bible.
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In the 18th century, three independent researchers concluded there were actually two distinct sources used in the writing of the Pentateuch. They reached this conclusion by studying the many doublets within the texts. These doublets, stories that are told twice, occur throughout the first four books.
In the 19th century some scholars concluded a third source existed, largely due to the fact many stories were told three times. It was soon noticed that the fifth book, the Book of Deuteronomy, was clearly written with a different voice from those found in the other four books. And that leads us to modern scholarship, which embraces what is called “the four-source theory.”
The four sources are identified as “J”, “E”, “P”, and “D”. The J Source is also known as the Yahwist, due to the fact this source calls God “Yahweh” throughout his writings. The E Source is also known as the Elohist, because this writer refers to God as Elohim for part of his account. The P Source is also known as the Priestly Source, due to the fact it is traceable to priestly traditions. The D Source is also known as the Deuternomist, because this sourced is credited with writing Deuteronomy, as well as making some changes to the first four books.
So we have four identifiable sources: J, E, P, and D. Now I know this is a lot to take in, but bear with me as I delve a little deeper into the matter. Most scholars argue that J and E are the oldest sources, and understanding the relationship between those two writers is key to understanding the Pentateuch—those first five books of the Bible.
Following the death of King Solomon, around the year 922 BC, Israel split into two kingdoms: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Different religious and political agendas came forth in each kingdom. Those two ancient sources, J and E, are written from the perspective of the different kingdoms. J is written from the perspective of the southern kingdom, Judah; and E is written from the perspective of the northern kingdom—Israel.
This gets quite complicated, but let me get down to the root of things. If a passage we find in the Bible makes Moses look good and Aaron look bad, that is the E source. The northern kingdom had Levite priests, loyal to Moses, and the southern kingdom had Aaronid priests, loyal to Aaron. That is why Moses and Aaron are difficult characters to figure out. For example, the J source tells us that Moses was a stutterer, and that he couldn’t do a think without his brother Aaron. In the same passage, the E source has Moses receiving the Ten Commandments directly from God, and what is Aaron doing? He is fabricating a golden calf for the people to worship! These things are woven together in the same passage. In one sentence Aaron looks like a great leader, and in the next sentence he is guilty of the worst crime of all—the worshipping of false gods.
A similar mixed reading can be found concerning David and Solomon. If the passage makes them look good, it is the J source. If the passage makes them look bad, it is the E source.
In the year 722 BC, two hundred years after the two kingdoms appeared, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Israel was no more. Oddly, the southern kingdom of Judah is soon called Israel in the Old Testament writings, making for lots of confusion. But the important thing, at least for our discussion, is this. After the fall of Israel both histories were considered important enough to the Hebrew people that somebody wove them together. J and E, with their very different agendas, were woven together into a single story. Besides weaving J and E together, two other sources became evident: P and D. P, the priestly source, is not only responsible for the laws and commandments of the Pentateuch, it also has a very transcendent view of God. D, the Deuteronomist, has a distinct theology in which the evils that happen to the Jewish people are a result of their disobedience to Yahweh.
The bottom line: There are four distinct voices in the Pentateuch, and we can sort out those voices with careful scholarship. I’ll provide a over-simplified basic characteristic of each. If God takes human form and walks the earth, that is a J story. If Moses is idolized and the Hebrew text calls God Elohim, that is an E story. If a passage contains lots of commandments and laws to be obeyed, or has a highly transcendent view of God, that is a P story. And if a passage shows Israel being punished for failure to obey God, that is a D story.
Now that we have some understanding of the four source theory, let’s go back to the two creation stories. The second story—Genesis 2—is actually the more ancient account of creation. It is attributed to J, the Yahwist. This is the account with Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the serpent. This story is easily recognized as a J story because God is very humanlike. God walks around in the Garden of Eden just like a man would. The first story, Genesis 1, on the other hand, is the amazing poetic account of creation in which God hovers over the face of the deep and systematically calls creation into being, day by day. This account is often attributed to P, the priestly source. It has a much more developed view of God than the older story that follows it in the Bible.
In my book, Think Again, I talk about how strange it is to think the Bible is literally and scientifically true in all cases, especially in light of those two creation accounts. In that book I explain that a reasonable person can easily understand that the Bible is neither a literal history book nor a science book. All one need do is read the first two chapters where we find two very different creation stories. The first story is one of the most powerful, beautiful, and meaningful stories ever written, and taken literally it claims that God created the universe in six earth days. There are countless voices in the modern church telling us we must blindly accept the literal truth of this story, even though it defies the physical truth of the world God has placed all around us.
Because inerrancy of scripture is the first fundamental, fundamentalists claim thinking about this story in anything other than literal terms is to turn away from God,
This is where many of us who consider ourselves devoted Christians differ with fundamentalists. We don’t have to believe this story is literally, physically, scientifically true to believe the story reveals great and important truth. The ancient writer of that wonderful creation story was truly in touch with the spirit of God. He used his understanding of the world to express some of the most important truths ever expressed. That creation story begins with God saying, “Let there be light” and then lists six days over which God systematically brings forth all of creation.
Consider all the important truths he conveys in that story:
The universe is not an accident—it was created.
The universe was created in an orderly and intelligent fashion.
The process of creation was not instantaneous but rather happened over time.
And most importantly, the universe is good, because with each step of the creation process, God calls creation “good.”
That creation story is a wonderful way to start the Bible, and it is a wonderful place to start our faith. It teaches that life is not a meaningless accident free of intention and purpose. We are more than meaningless and temporary waves of consciousness in a vast sea of emptiness, the haphazard result of a series of fluke chemical reactions.
The author of Genesis 1 knew better, and he said so the best way he knew how. Our faith is not served by those who claim we must accept literally his ancient view of the physical world in order to accept the beauty and truth of his spiritual message.
Just as we are moved to awed silence by the beauty of the first creation story in chapter one of Genesis, we come to chapter two. And it is almost as if chapter one hadn’t been written! We hear the story of creation all over again, but this story isn’t anything like the first story. In Genesis 1, God systematically creates everything in the universe and last of all creates a human male and female, at the same time, both in the image of God. In Genesis 2, the very first thing God creates is a man. After that God creates everything else in creation. Last of all God decides the man needs a helpmate, and when the man is not impressed by all the animals God has created, God causes the man to go to sleep, and from his rib creates a woman. This story line continues in Genesis 3 with the story of the serpent and the forbidden fruit.
Perhaps God reveals in the first two chapters of the Bible the futility of reading the Bible literally. Consider the first story. It very clearly states that the last thing God creates is man and woman, at the same time. This is after the vegetation and animals have been created. The second story very clearly states that the first thing God creates is a man, and then the vegetation and animals, and the last thing God creates is a woman.
Those two creation stories are wonderful. The first story tells us that the universe is not an accident. It is created. It tells us that human beings are not here accidentally, but rather integral, created parts of the universe. The second creation account, the more ancient and hence more primitive story, reveals the fallen nature of humanity in relation to God. It too is full of truth and wonderful insights into human nature. However, it is very different from the first story, and it is certainly not science or history. We belittle these stories by pretending they are something other than poetic accounts of the mystery of the universe and human life in the presence of God. We diminish the lessons and truths of these two creation accounts when we insist on their literal interpretation.
Well, let’s move to the next major story in the Bible, which follows right on the heels of the two creation stories. It is the story of humanity’s first family. We’ve met Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They have disobeyed God and been kicked out of the garden. And now we learn of two of their sons, Cain and Abel.
Cain is the farmer, a tiller of the ground, and Abel is a keeper of sheep. Each brother brings an offering to the Lord. The Bible does not explain why, but for some reason Yahweh likes the sacrifice of the sheep and does not care for the sacrifice of grain. This makes Cain very jealous of his brother. Cain kills Abel, but the Lord finds out and calls Cain to account. Cain claims he knows nothing of Abel’s whereabouts, asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
I have just a few thoughts on that story of Cain and Abel, before we close this sermon and then move on next week to another story. Isn’t it interesting that the first story in the Bible that takes place outside the Garden of Eden involves humanity at its best and at its worst. In one moment humankind invokes the name of God for blessings, submitting to God’s will and offering sacrifices; and in another moment Cain is lying to God. The same hands that bring forth fruit from the earth, a very good thing, are used to slay one’s brother.
And how tragic that this first murder occurs as a result of a difference in religious practices. How many times through the centuries human beings have killed each other over religion! How often the human race uses the hands God gave us to create and to preserve, in order to destroy and to kill.
Next week we’ll move on to the beginnings of civilization, beginning with the story of Noah and the story of the Tower of Babel. Meanwhile may the spirit of God guide us in everything we do, and may our ancient stories shape us into better people.