Overview Hebrew Bible

Overview of Hebrew Bible – Five Themes of Torah

The five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, give us an enduring but partial understanding of the activities of the Israelites and Hebrews 2500 years ago. We learn of Abraham, who I will refer to as Avraham, which is the proper Hebrew pronunciation. We are told of Moses, called Moshe, the Lawgiver and the scribe of Mosaic Law in all its sternness and stark purity. We experience many characters, their lives and accomplishments, meanwhile learning of Israelite culture, philosophy, challenges and triumphs. Moreover these records of the people who became a Jewish nation describe a fabric, a household, Bet Yisroel, the House of Israel. I am referring to a specific atmosphere, a set of traditions and experiences that have molded the Jewish people and have bound them into a family. What we read as the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, discloses central themes which can teach us if we ponder them about the essential themes in life, service, sin, repentance, faith, longsuffering, love and hate, and so on. This testament is a fascinating cornucopia of human experience and an infallible record of how the Lord works in the affairs of men.

These central themes do more than define the Hebrew/Jewish people than all other writings about them. Why is that? Because those who wrote the stories and who faithfully tried to tell of the workings of God and His Chosen people, really were the shapers of Judaism itself. These authors, scribes, prophets and priests of hymns, prophecies and laws put down their words in the period between 800-400 BC and they became the essential compilation of Torah in the larger sense. Latter day revelation ascribes authorship of the Pentateuch essentially to Moses and to Joshua who wrote of the patriarch’s birth and death, but in the Hebrew Bible, which includes the prophets, the Talmud and other writings, many other voices are heard.

Historical Timeline

Since you’re studying the history of the formation of a people, let’s see where it began. From the research I have done I’ve learned there is no written history about the lives of the Hebrews in their homeland or about the Dispersion from Babylon after about 430 BC but there are narrative histories from the period 170 BC to AD 70. These come from the works of Josephus (37 BC- AD 100) who was a priest in the rebuilt Second Temple, Herod’s temple. He was a Pharisee and politically astute. He was of course not immune to bias or self interest or even selective ignorance, but his works are better than none at all.

So Jewish history really began with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the period between 722 BC and 586 BC. Through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah we read the warnings that were given the Israelites about their enemies, the Assyrians. It was at that time the name “Jew” really became their identity. Before that they were pre-exilic, pre-Babylonian Exile, not to be confused with the Exodus from Egypt back in 1250-1200 BC, also known as the beginnings of the Iron Age. They were called Hebrews at that time.

Some historians believe they fled before the advance of the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who conquered Egypt in about 1650 BC.

Some of them were Semitic, descendents of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. They were wandering tribespeople from northern Arabia, around the area of the Tigris and Euphrates River valley. They were called the Habiru, Hapiru, or Apiru. Josephus tells us many of these people made an exodus from Egypt in about 1550 BC. Some of the Habiru groups became the ancestors of the Arab people. The later chapters of Genesis appear to chronicle these times. The Hebrews coalesced as a social order during this period, though there is no real history of them until the 13th century BC. It is also possible the name came from the word “eber”, which means “to cross”. This denoted those people who had crossed over from beyond the Euphrates. Our Bible Dictionary does not apply dates to a sequence of events until after the death of Joshua and the period of the reign of Judges in Israel. It lists the start of Saul’s reign as 1095 BC. We read of his reign in 1 Samuel.

The fog really lifts by the eleventh century BC with the rise in the north of the kingdom of Israel and in the south, the kingdom of Judah, lasting until the eighth century BC. King David wrote many of the Psalms during his and Solomon’s reign from 1000-925 BC. The Hebrews at that time worshipped a primary god called Yahweh, which comes from the Hebrew letters YHVH, called the Tetragrammaton, a four lettered symbol which stood for the actual name of God, according to the priests of the time. In the Jerusalem Bible, Yahweh is always written in place of the word “God”. They also paid homage to other gods who were public deities of the general Canaanite population.

That period was a time of radical change in the eastern Mediterranean area. Empires were broken down into city-states; ideographic writing gave way to syllabic script. The Greek and Hebrew alphabets were coming into everyday usage.Babylon gave way to Persian rule in 500 BC. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews religious freedom and encouraged the rebuilding of their temple. He introduced the Aramaic language, which was to become to the Jews a language second to Hebrew. Persia eventually fell to Alexander the Great who introduced Hellenism the Jews to in 330 BC, and that is where the apostles of Christ found them on their journeys around the Mediterranean in the first century AD.

But the discourses of the prophets Amos and Hosea did a lot to change that. Yahweh dwelt on Mount Zion. They taught that Yahweh was no tribal god; he controlled the fate of humanity and ruled with justice, not mere whim. These Yahwist prophets, as they were called, came largely from the Judahite upper classes. They had Semitic names, meaningful names, like Yehoyishma (Yahweh will hear).

These prophets encouraged the Israelites to accept a declining interest in the worship of multiple gods. But during the reign of King Josiah in 609 BC the king of Babylon overthrew his Assyrian emperor and destroyed his city of Ninevah. We find our information on this war in the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied until after the downfall of Jerusalem under King Zedekiah.

In 586 BC the capture of Jerusalem occurred. The kingdom of Judah survived only two more decades. The Jews were deported to Babylon, but by then the religious life of the Judahites had become somewhat established as a monotheistic life. They gradually, in two major waves, returned to their homeland during the 5th and 6th centuries BC. It is from this period that the transformation of Israelite religion to Judaism is thought to have its most formative roots.

Read Five Themes of Torah –  Torah, God, Land, Covenant and Temple, and rest of article: 


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