Although the Old Testament is often referred to as a book, it is really a collection of many books, or separate manuscripts, produced by different individuals over a long period of time. These individual books were not written for the same purpose, nor were they considered to be of equal importance at the times when they were written. Many were in existence in some form long before they were assembled into a single collection and given the status of Scripture, or sacred writing. Not until the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. was any portion of the Old Testament writings arranged in the form in which we have them today. During this period, they came to be regarded as authoritative documents for declaring the word of the deity to the people of Israel. At later times, other writings were added to the original collection, but not until near the close of the first century A.D. was general agreement reached concerning all of the books that are now included in the canon of the Old Testament.
The importance of the Old Testament as reflected in the influence it has had through the centuries can scarcely be overestimated. Its religious significance is indicated primarily by the fact that it is recognized as a part of the inspired sacred literature of three of the major religions of the world. First of all, it was the sacred Bible of Judaism and is so regarded at the present time. Along with the New Testament, it is included in the Bible of Christianity, and it holds a similar place in the religion of Islam, for the followers of Mohammed accept its teachings along with those of the Koran. But the influence of the Old Testament has not been confined to the adherents of these three religions: It has permeated the cultures of many countries of the world and has been one of the main sources of the moral and political ideals that have played so vital a role in the history of Western nations. The ideas of democracy, individual worth, freedom in its various forms, the rights of humans, divine purpose in the world, human destiny — all find their origin, in part, in the literature of the Old Testament. The influence of this book is also reflected in the great literatures of Europe and America. Allusions to passages in the Old Testament are so frequent that many of the great books in English and American literature cannot be read intelligently without some familiarity with the context from which these passages are taken.
To understand the writings included in the Old Testament, we must bear in mind that they are predominantly an expression of the religious life of the ancient Hebrew people. In this respect, they must be distinguished from writings that are primarily scientific or historical in the secular sense in which these terms are used. Modern scientists and historians have as their main objective an accurate description of the way in which events occur. Whether these events are related to some divine purpose or merely illustrate the sequence of their occurrence is not for historians to say; they neither deny nor affirm any divine activity. But this passive stance is not true of the Old Testament authors, who begin with the assumption of a divine being whose character and purpose are disclosed, at least to some extent, in the course of human events. With this assumption, they write for the specific purpose of pointing out the divine element as they see it illustrated in the historical process. In this respect, the real significance of their writings is to be understood, and to judge the value of the Old Testament account of events on the sole basis of either scientific or historical accuracy is a mistake. The individual books of the Old Testament were written with a different objective in mind, which does not mean that the narratives in the Old Testament have no historical value at all. They are recognized, even by secular historians, as one of the most reliable sources available for reconstructing the history of the Hebrew people. But as source materials, they must be evaluated in the same way as any other source material. The greatness of the writings lies in another area: in the disclosure, or revelation, of the divine element in history, along with the moral and religious lessons that are derived from it.
It has long been customary to regard the books of the Bible as the revealed word of God. Speaking of them in this way is justified provided that one understands the meaning of revelation. Important to remember in this connection is that revelation is always and necessarily a two-way process that involves both a giving and a receiving. We may appropriately think of the giving as the divine element and the receiving as the human element. However perfect the source of divine revelation may be, the human understanding of it is necessarily limited and subject to error, which is not to say that divine wisdom can never be imparted to human beings at all, but it does mean that the reception of this wisdom must take into account the limitations that belong to human understanding.
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, which 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 this present study; however, 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 dealing with such topics as the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Fall, 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 after the Hebrews had settled in the land of Canaan, west of the Jordan River, which 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 during the times about which they wrote. Not until after the men who eventually wrote the narratives had reflected on the events connected with the history of their people was any attempt made to record these events or to set forth their meanings. When this recording 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 for three or four centuries. Apparently, they were initially welcomed by the Egyptians, for the Hebrew colony grew and prospered. But their numbers increased to the extent that the Egyptians became alarmed lest their own security become endangered. An Egyptian pharaoh, in order to protect his people against any further advances on the part of the Hebrews, inaugurated a program of harsh measures toward the newcomers, forcing them into a condition of servitude and slavery. This situation is referred to in the Old Testament as the period of Egyptian bondage. In connection with this period of oppression, we first learn of Moses and his role in bringing about the deliverance of his people. Under his guidance and leadership, the Hebrews were able to leave the land of Egypt — the Exodus — and journey to new territory, where they were to make their home.
The Exodus from the land of Egypt, usually dated as 1250 B.C., marked the turning point in the history of the Hebrew people and enabled them to become a separate nation. It was to this event that the great prophets and teachers of later generations always referred when they recounted the way in which their god — known to them as Yahweh — so graciously dealt with them. The Exodus was followed by a period of wandering in the wilderness, after which the various tribes now known as the Israelites established themselves in the land of Canaan. Those who had emerged from bondage in Egypt were then united with other tribes that had not been involved in the Egyptian oppression, and together they formed the nucleus from which the Hebrew state came into existence.
Although the literature that is now included in the Old Testament did not begin to appear until after the settlement in the land of Canaan, it was only natural that the history of the people should be projected back into the period that preceded the migration into Egypt, for a relatively large number of stories and legends had been handed down orally from one generation to another. Although there are good reasons for believing that these stories grew out of actual experiences, the narratives cannot be regarded as authentic history, nor can we place the same reliance on them as we do on the accounts of events that occurred after the settlement in Canaan. Accordingly, biblical scholars customarily refer to the period that preceded the migration to Egypt as the Age of the Patriarchs, or the prehistoric era of the Hebrew people.
After leaving Egypt, the Hebrews are said to have spent forty years wandering in the wilderness prior to their entrance into the land of Canaan. The number forty is generally understood to represent a relatively long period of time rather than an exact number of years. Although the settlement in Canaan is described in two widely differing accounts, we can be fairly certain that it required a considerable number of years before the new settlers obtained full possession of the land. During this time, the various tribes were organized into a confederacy, and judges were appointed to rule over the people. In theory at least, these judges were governed by Yahweh, who communicated directly with them. This theocratic government came to an end when the people demanded a king, and Saul was chosen to head the newly formed monarchy. He was succeeded by David, and after David, Solomon, who was the last ruler of the united kingdom. After Solomon's death, the kingdom was divided. Ten tribes revolted and formed what came to be known as the northern kingdom, or the Israelite nation. Because the tribe of Ephraim was the largest and most influential of this ten-tribe group, the new unit of government was frequently referred to as the Ephraimite kingdom. The two tribes that did not revolt became the southern, or Judean, kingdom.
The two separate kingdoms existed until about the year 722 B.C., when the northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrian empire. The people were taken into captivity, and their national existence came to an end. The southern kingdom continued until 586 B.C., when it was conquered by the Babylonians, and a large portion of the Hebrew people were forced to live in exile. The Babylonian exile lasted for more than a century but finally came to an end when permission was given to the Hebrews to return to their own land. The Hebrews rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, restored the Temple and its services, and organized their state along lines that had been laid down by the prophets and priests of the exile. But the restored state never enjoyed the peace and prosperity that was anticipated. Internal difficulties arose, the land was troubled with drought and pestilence, and the danger of attack from surrounding states never diminished.
The close of the Persian period and the death of Alexander the Great brought about a new set of circumstances most unfavorable to the Hebrews. Egypt and Syria were two rival powers, each struggling for supremacy over the other, and the Jewish nation became a buffer state between them. Toward the latter part of the second century B.C., the Maccabean wars, launched by Antiochus of Syria, brought extreme suffering to the Jews and threatened complete destruction of their state. Fortunately, the Jews were able to survive this crisis. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his successors, they were able to regain the land that was taken from them and once again become free and independent. However, this situation did not last very long, for the Roman government ultimately conquered the region.
Some of the more important events and accomplishments in these successive periods of Hebrew history may be summarized briefly as follows.
The Prehistoric Period
This period is recounted in the stories and legends preserved by the Hebrews as a vital part of their cultural heritage. Narratives concerning the Hebrew ancestors enabled later generations to establish continuity with the great traditions of the past. To what extent these stories record actual events that took place we have no way of knowing, nor does it matter a great deal. The important thing about them is the way in which the ideals of a later age are reflected in them. Because the historical period of Hebrew activities begins with the Exodus from Egypt, we can say only that the stories about what happened prior to the Exodus provide a record of what later generations believed to have taken place, although we do have good reasons for thinking that these accounts were originally based on actual events.
In these stories, the beginnings of Hebrew history are traced back to Abraham, who, according to the record, was called out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans; to him, it was promised that his seed would become a great nation and inherit the land of Canaan. This promise seemed impossible to fulfill because both Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were old and childless. However, Yahweh intervened, and in due time Isaac was born to the couple. Isaac's two sons, Esau and Jacob, were the ancestors of the Edomites and the Israelites, respectively. Jacob's twelve sons were the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Because of a severe famine in Canaan, Jacob's sons went to Egypt to buy food. One of the sons, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery at an earlier time, was now a prominent official in the Egyptian government. He had charge of the food supplies, and when his brothers came to make their purchase, they had to deal with him. His identity was concealed from them for a time, but eventually he made himself known. As a result of these meetings, it was arranged that Jacob and all of his sons and their families should move to Egypt, where they were peaceably settled in the district known as Goshen. Here they remained until the Egyptian pharaoh of the oppression ascended the throne and began a policy of hostilities toward them.
The Wilderness Journey
The journey into the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt was marked by two important, closely related events: the proclamation of a code of laws that, according to the tradition, Yahweh revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the establishment of a covenant, or contract, between Yahweh and the people of Israel. The basis of the covenant was the body of laws that Yahweh had given and that the people had agreed to obey. Yahweh's part of the contract consisted of his promise to care for the people, supplying for their needs and protecting them against attacks by their enemies.
This covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people, one of the dominant ideas throughout the entire Old Testament, served to distinguish Yahweh from the gods of the surrounding nations. Generally, these other gods were believed to be related to their peoples by the natural ties of physical descent. In other words, they were bound to their people by ties that were not dependent on any contractual agreement or on any type of moral qualification. Consequently, they could not abandon their people because of any moral transgression by the people. But this was not true of Yahweh in his relation to the Hebrew people. His promise to remain as their god was conditional on their living up to the terms of the agreement. Whenever they failed to obey the laws he had given to them, he was no longer bound to protect them or even to claim them as his own people. The prophets of later generations would call attention to this fact and thus remind their contemporaries that security for the nation could not be expected so long as people failed to fulfill the requirements of the covenant to which they had committed themselves.
The content of the law code — the Law — on which the covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Hebrew people was based is recorded in what is now known as the Book of the Covenant, in Exodus 20:23–23:19. The famous Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, found in the first seventeen verses of Chapter 20, may have been included in the law code given by Moses, although certainly it was not given in the exact form in which we have it today. Both Jewish and Christian traditions have for many centuries regarded Moses as the great lawgiver of the Hebrews and, accordingly, as the author of all the laws contained in the first five books of the Old Testament — the Pentateuch.
Modern scholarship has produced ample evidence to indicate that many of these laws were not known until long after Moses' own death. That these same laws were attributed to Moses was not intended to deceive anyone concerning the time of their origin; rather, these laws were in harmony with the ones given by Moses and were added to his for the purpose of continuing the work he had begun. How many of the laws contained in the five books known as the Pentateuch were actually given by Moses is not known. However, a reasonable assumption is that the ones contained in the Book of the Covenant were first enunciated by Moses since these laws are appropriate to the age in which he lived. The similarity of this law code to the older Babylonian code of Hammurabi has led many scholars to believe that the Mosaic code was modeled after the Babylonian one. However this may be, unique elements in the Mosaic code may rightly be regarded as a distinctive Hebrew contribution.
The Settlement in Canaan
The accounts of the settlement in Canaan, described in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges, were evidently derived from different sources since there are significant differences between them. The conquest of Canaan required a considerable period of time and was attended by some important changes in the daily lives of the Hebrew people, including a change from a nomadic or shepherd type of living to a permanent settlement and an agricultural mode of securing a livelihood. This new way of life called for a different type of organization among the various tribes, which is why a great assembly was called at Shechem. Under the leadership of Joshua, steps were taken to unite the tribes into a kind of confederacy, an organization similar in many respects to what has been known in other cultures as an amphictyony. The newly formed community was predominantly religious rather than political. Membership in the community consisted mainly of Hebrews but was not limited by racial qualifications. Anyone who chose to worship Yahweh and who promised to obey the Law that Yahweh had given was accepted as a full member of the community. It was this body of people that came to be known as the twelve tribes of Israel.
The government of the new community was placed in the hands of judges, who were believed to receive instructions directly from Yahweh through dreams, visions, and other forms of charismatic experience. Deborah, for example, was one of these judges. She was the judge who sent out a call to the scattered tribes to come to the aid of those who were being attacked by the Canaanites. The call was sent out in the name of Yahweh, whose intervention at a crucial moment enabled the Israelites to defeat their enemies in a battle that was fought on the plains of Megiddo. Gideon, whose band of three hundred warriors achieved another important victory, was also a judge of Israel. Because of his success, some of the people wanted to proclaim him king, the chief reason being the need for a stronger type of organization to resist attacks from surrounding nations. Gideon refused to be king. However, after his death, his son Abimelech yielded to the temptation, and an attempt was made to have him reign as king over Israel. The attempt failed, but the demand for a monarchal type of government continued, and finally Samuel, who was the last of the judges, anointed Saul to be the first king of Israel.
The United Kingdom
Beginning with the reign of Saul, the united kingdom was continued under David and Solomon. In some respects, Saul was an able ruler and a competent warrior who spent much of his time battling the Philistines. His military successes won for him the praises and admiration of the people. He was not an arbitrary ruler but one who tried to follow the charismatic directions that had been in vogue during the period of the judges. During the latter part of his reign, he was subject to prolonged periods of melancholy, which he interpreted to mean that Yahweh no longer communicated with him. He was rebuked by the prophet Samuel for the way in which he conducted the war against the Amalekites, and his career ended in disaster when he died on the hills of Gilboa in the midst of conflict with the Philistines.
David's reign marks the high point in the history of the united kingdom. David was idealized by later generations as Israel's greatest king, and excuses were made for the unfortunate things that happened while he was king. Nevertheless, he was a great king who accomplished much for the nation he served, including successfully uniting the northern and southern tribes under one centralized government, with its headquarters at Jerusalem. His plans for the building of the Temple were carried out after his son Solomon ascended the throne. David's reign was not altogether peaceful, for it was marred by external conflict and internal dissension and revolt. In spite of these difficulties, however, the nation grew and prospered. Centuries later, no higher compliment could be bestowed on an Israelite king than to say he was like King David.
Solomon, too, was idealized by later generations but not in the same way as his father, David. Solomon's greatest accomplishment was the building of the Temple at Jerusalem. In order to extend the power and influence of Israel among surrounding nations, Solomon contracted a number of foreign marriages. The wives whom he brought to Jerusalem were permitted to worship their native gods, and thus idolatry was introduced and encouraged alongside the worship of Yahweh. Solomon's building operations were made possible by heavy taxation, along with other burdens that the people were forced to bear. Solomon was so strongly resented that when the question of who should succeed him on the throne was raised, people inquired of Solomon's son Rehoboam about his attitude concerning the oppressive measures of his father. When Rehoboam replied that he would not only continue these policies but would be even more severe, ten of the tribes revolted and set up a new government of their own.
The Divided Kingdom
The schism began with the death of King Solomon and lasted until the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C., at which time the northern kingdom ended and its people were taken into captivity by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom continued until 586 B.C., when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Babylonian captivity began. The histories of these two kingdoms are recorded in 1 and 2 Kings, whose author evidently belonged to the southern kingdom, for his account indicates a strong bias in that direction. Concerning each of the kings who reigned in the north, the Kings author uses the same statement: "He did evil in the eyes of the Lord." Although some of the southern kings were evil too, the Kings author was usually able to find some excuse for the things that they did. Because there was no fixed system of chronology for recording the dates when things happened, the events in the reign of each king were synchronized with what took place in the other kingdom.
The northern kingdom, known as Israel, had a very difficult time during the first century of its existence. The tribes were frequently at war with neighboring states, and peace was obtained on more than one occasion only by making large concessions to the enemy. Later, the tribes' fortunes changed as they were able to regain most of what they had previously lost. Under the leadership of King Jeroboam II, who reigned for more than half a century, Israel enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity. With the death of this king, a period of decline set in, and conditions went from bad to worse. Moral decay led to political weakness, and soon the nation became an easy prey for the advancing Assyrian armies. During the years that preceded the collapse of the northern kingdom, the prophets Elijah, Amos, and Hosea carried on their work.
The southern kingdom, known as Judah, lasted for more than a century after the fall of Israel. It occupied less territory than the northern kingdom and, for the most part, led a more peaceful existence. All of the kings of Judah were direct descendants in the line of David, which was of particular significance because it was believed that some day the Messiah would come from this line and that under the Messiah's leadership the full realization of the divine purpose in the history of the Hebrew people would be realized. The most prosperous period in the life of the southern kingdom came during the reign of Uzziah. After his death, the country was invaded by the Assyrian army, and for some time it looked as though Judah would suffer the same fate as Israel. Then, suddenly, the Assyrian army withdrew, and the nation was spared. However, for the remainder of their existence as an independent nation, the Judeans were forced to make concessions, including an enormous tribute to the Assyrian rulers. Likewise, after the fall of the Assyrian empire, they were subservient first to the Egyptians and later to the Babylonians. During the decline of the southern kingdom, many of the great prophets delivered their messages, including Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk.
The Exile and After
When Jerusalem was captured by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the inhabitants of Judah were deported to Babylon, the worshipers of Yahweh were put to a severe test. To many, it must have appeared that the gods of Babylon had triumphed over the god of the Hebrews. If Yahweh still retained his power, he must have forsaken his people, for they were now subject to a foreign government. The survival of the Hebrews' religion was due in no small measure to the work of the two great prophets of the exile, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, who provided an interpretation of the captivity that accorded with their understanding of the nature of Yahweh. They kept alive the hope of a return to the Hebrews' own land and the prospects for a glorious future of the restored state.
The captivity lasted for a long time. Eventually, the Babylonian empire was overthrown by the Persians, who exhibited a more tolerant attitude toward the Jews. Cyrus, the head of the new empire, granted the captives permission to return to their own land, and he even aided them in their preparations for the journey back. But the return of the exiles did not prove to be the happy event that they had anticipated. They found the Temple in ruins, and the country was desolate; the land was plagued with drought and pestilence; their neighbors were often hostile; and, in many respects, their lot was now more difficult than it had been while they were in captivity. Prophets offered explanations for the way things were and did their best to encourage the people to look for a brighter future. Priests were especially active, and a new emphasis was given to the ritualistic aspect of their religion. Literary productions were numerous, and legalism became dominant in the religion of Judaism.
Politically, the affairs of the restored state grew steadily worse. The Persian empire was overthrown by the Grecian armies under the leadership of Alexander the Great, whose conquests included Palestine. He was tolerant of the Jews, allowing them to continue their religious activities so long as they did not interfere with his political ambitions. After Alexander's death, the Jews experienced some of the most severe persecutions they had ever known, for Antiochus, the ruler of Syria, tried to obliterate completely the long-established customs and traditions of the Jewish faith. Antiochus' efforts sparked the Maccabean wars. When these wars were finally over, the Jews enjoyed a brief period of political independence, but ultimately they became subjects of the Roman government.
A Chronological Order of Old Testament Writings
The history of the Hebrew people is reflected in nearly all of the literature found in the Old Testament. Sometimes it is the history of the people as a whole; other times, it is that of a smaller group or even the experiences of a particular individual. The writers of the Old Testament believed that Yahweh revealed himself through history in much the same way that we think a person's character is disclosed through that person's actions. For this reason, some familiarity with the historical setting of each of the writings is prerequisite to an understanding of them.
The exact order in which the contents of the Old Testament were initially placed is not known. The literature as we have it today contains many fragments that appear to have existed separately at one time. They have been combined, copied, edited, supplemented, and arranged so many times that not even the most expert scholars are in complete agreement about the order in which they first appeared. This confusion does not mean that we are unable to know anything concerning the Old Testament or that we cannot be reasonably certain about the approximate time when the various parts of the literature were produced. On the other hand, our conclusions should be reached with considerable caution, and we must always be ready to revise them in consideration of new evidence. Our purpose here is merely to outline the approximate order of the writings in accordance with generally recognized Old Testament scholarship.
The oldest writings are now included as parts of historical narratives that did not reach their final form until a relatively late date. Many of them can be located with a fair degree of accuracy in the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Other early fragments are found in Joshua, Judges, and those portions of the Old Testament that deal with the early history of the Hebrew nation. Some of these writings are as old as the conquest of Canaan, and some even older than that. Not all of the early literature of the Hebrews has been preserved in the Old Testament — for example, the Book of the Wars of Yahweh, the Book of Yashur the Upright, the Book of the Acts of Solomon, the "Royal Annals," and the "Temple Annals" — but we know of their existence because of Old Testament references to them. In several instances, extracts have been taken from them and included in other Old Testament writings.
An exhaustive account of these early writings cannot be attempted here, but their general character is indicated by the following examples. Poems were written in commemoration of significant events. For example, "The Song of Deborah," recorded in Judges 5, was written in celebration of a victory over the Canaanites. "The Fable of the Trees," found in Judges 9, discusses the abortive attempt of Abimelech to become king over Israel. "The Blessing of Jacob," part of Genesis 49, recalls Jacob's last meeting with his sons. "The Oracles of Balaam," recorded in Numbers 23 and 24, describe an experience that occurred during the wilderness march. "David's Lament," which commemorates the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, is found in 2 Samuel 1:19–27, and a song celebrating a victory over the Amorites is recorded in Numbers 21:27–30. One of the oldest of these poems is Lamech's "Song of Revenge," found in Genesis 4:23–24. Miriam's "Song of Deliverance," in Exodus 15:21, may be as old as the time of Moses.
Among the early narratives that were used as source materials for later histories are such documents as "The Story of the Founding of the Kingdom." Written by an ardent admirer of King David, it presents the story of David's kingship in a most favorable light. The writer believed in the monarchy and describes in considerable detail the events that led to its establishment. He begins with an account of Israel's oppression by the Philistines, which, he argues, clearly shows the need for a strong and capable leader. The prophet Samuel sees the proper qualifications in Saul and promptly anoints him to be the first king of Israel. The writer tells of important events in Saul's reign, but the real hero of his story is David. The reader is impressed with the charm of David's personality and the accomplishments of his reign. Although David was proclaimed king at Hebron, located in the southern kingdom, he was able to win the loyalty and support of the northern tribes as well. As a means of further unification, he made the city of Jerusalem, located midway between the northern and southern kingdoms, the capital of the newly formed state. The story concludes with an account of the succession to the throne of David's son Solomon.
Two other narratives that furnished valuable information for later historians are the Book of the Acts of Solomon and "The Rise and Fall of the House of Omri." The first of these tells of King Solomon and the events that took place during the early years of his reign. Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple, his request for wisdom to guide his people, and the grandeur of his building operations are given particular emphasis. The other narrative concerns the reign of Omri, who was one of the more important rulers of the northern kingdom. Only parts of this narrative were used by the author of 1 Kings, for some of the material did not serve the purpose for which that author wrote. The reign of King Ahab, Omri's son, is described at considerable length. The account is especially important because it helps to correct some of the unfavorable impressions of King Ahab conveyed by other narratives.
Stories concerning the work of the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha, are also part of the early narratives produced in the northern kingdom. Of these stories that have been preserved, those having to do with Elijah are by far the most significant. They indicate a conception of Yahweh that is far more advanced than previously held beliefs, whereas the Elisha stories are of a somewhat lower level of religious development.
No account of the early fragments that ultimately became parts of the Old Testament would be complete without mention of the laws that were designed to regulate human conduct. Probably the oldest of these laws are those contained in the Book of the Covenant. Although we do not know when they first appeared in written form, there are good reasons for believing that these laws were known as early as the time of Moses, but they were not put in writing until a much later date. We do know that new laws were added from time to time as the need for them arose. Later, all of the laws were placed in a historical framework and, along with the early poems and narratives, were incorporated in the lengthy historical documents that constitute a relatively late but significant portion of the literature of the Old Testament.
The first books of the Old Testament to appear in the approximate form in which we have them today are the ones attributed to the prophets. It would be a mistake to suppose that all of the contents found in the Old Testament books that bear the names of prophets were written by the persons for whom the books are named. Actually, the work of the prophets themselves constitutes only the main basis or essential core of the books. Editors, copyists, and redactors added materials that they regarded as appropriate, and these additions were preserved along with the original materials.
Amos and Hosea are the only prophetic books that belong to the literature of the northern kingdom. Both books were produced during the eighth century B.C., and both concern conditions that existed in Israel prior to that nation's collapse. The Book of Isaiah (Chapters 1–39) and the Book of Micah come from the same century and are addressed to the people of Judah, or the southern kingdom.
From the seventh century B.C., or the era that preceded the Babylonian captivity, we have the prophecies of Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah. Of these four, the Book of Jeremiah, who in many respects is regarded as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, is not only the longest but also the most important. Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40–55 in the Book of Isaiah) are especially significant. They came out of the period of the exile and greatly influenced the development of religious ideals in the centuries that followed. The prophets of the post-exilic period — Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Joel, and Obadiah — are usually classified among the so-called minor prophets. The books in which their messages have been preserved are relatively small, and their contents indicate that their authors were men of lesser stature than the ones who appeared earlier.
The historical writings that make up approximately one-third of the Old Testament — the Pentateuch, or what is often referred to as the five books of Moses; Joshua; Judges; 1 and 2 Samuel; 1 and 2 Kings; 1 and 2 Chronicles; Ezra; and Nehemiah — cannot be dated or arranged as definitely or with the same degree of accuracy as the prophetic writings, the chief reason being that they were in the process of being written and amended over long periods of time. Whether they are to be regarded as early or late will depend on one's point of view. If we have in mind the source materials that were used, they are among the earliest of the writings, but if we consider the final form of these narratives, they will be relatively late but not the latest of the writings to be included in the entire Old Testament.
A complete analysis of the contents of the Old Testament books is a very complex and difficult task, one in which there is no universal agreement among competent scholars. However, some conclusions have found general and widespread acceptance. For example, few people would question that the Pentateuch is composed of documents written by different persons who were widely separated both in time and in point of view. The hypothesis of four separate and distinct narratives, known respectively as J, E, D, and P, has been widely publicized. Although many corrections and modifications have been made since this hypothesis was first proposed, its main thesis is still relevant. Recent investigations merely indicate that the Pentateuch literature is even more complex and requires a larger number of documents to account for all the materials found in these books. In their final form, the historical writings are presented in a manner that is designed to account for the laws and institutions peculiar to the Hebrew people from the time of creation to the post-exilic period. Thus we find the laws of Deuteronomy, as well as those that belong to the so-called Holiness Code and the relatively late ones known as the Priests Code, included in historical narratives that attribute all of the laws to Moses.
During the post-exilic period, it was considered necessary to attach great significance to those religious institutions that were unique among the Hebrew people, and one of the most effective means for doing this was to indicate their ancient origins. Events belonging to the distant past were presented in a manner that would reflect the interpretation given to them at the times when the historical narratives were written. For example, the belief that the increasing sinfulness of man has shortened his life span is reflected in the accounts concerning the large number of years that the early patriarchs lived. And the sordid events so numerous in the Book of Judges reflect the sentiment of those who held that conditions that preceded the establishment of the religious monarchy were intolerable since they permitted everyone to "do that which was right in [their] own eyes."
The sacred writings of the Old Testament include not only the prophets and the historical narratives but also a collection of miscellaneous books, which are sometimes referred to as the Hagiographa. These writings cannot be dated with precise accuracy, nor can they be placed in the exact chronological order in which they were produced. Concerning this group of writings as a whole, they are relatively late and belong for the most part to the post-exilic period. Three of these books — Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job — are known as wisdom literature. Characterized by features that sharply distinguish them from the writings of the prophets, they address problems of a universal nature rather than problems peculiar to the Hebrew people. Their appeal is to essential reasonableness instead of the "Thus saith Yahweh" of the prophets. The topics that they consider are ones that pertain to the practical affairs of everyday living.
The Book of Daniel, one of the latest to be included in the Old Testament, represents a different literary type known as apocalyptic. As such, Daniel stands in sharp contrast with the prophetic writings. Produced during a period of crisis that occurred in connection with the Maccabean wars, it was designed to strengthen and encourage those who were suffering extreme persecution. The Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns, prayers, and poems reflecting both individual and group experiences of the Hebrew people from almost every period of their national history. A part of this collection was used as the hymn book of the restored Temple after the people's return from the Babylonian captivity. "Short stories" is an appropriate title for three books produced during the post-exilic years: Jonah, which is a classic protest against narrow-minded nationalism on the part of the Jews; Ruth, written in protest against the law forbidding international marriages; and Esther, which provides an account of events leading to the origin of the Feast of Purim. The book called Lamentations portrays some of the bitter experiences that followed King Zedekiah's flight from the city of Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian conquest. The Song of Songs is a love poem that came to be included in the sacred writings because of the allegorical interpretation given to it.