The Bible: history

Sixteen Old Testament books, which bring together material from many sources, tell the history of the Hebrew people.

The story begins with Abraham.  Uniquely for his time he believed that there was only one God.  He left his home in present-day Iraq and travelled thousands of miles to settle in the land where Jesus would be born centuries later.  He declared that God had called him to this journey.  In his old age he and his wife Sarah bore a son, Isaac, whom the Jews recognise as their ancestor.

Many years later the Hebrews took shelter in Egypt during a time of famine.  There they were first welcomed, then enslaved.  A series of natural disasters, which they regarded as the work of God, rocked the Egyptian economy.  They escaped across the Red Sea into the desert in a dramatic event known as the exodus (a book of the Bible is named after this).

Under their new leader Moses they came to see this release from slavery as the event that defined them as a nation.  The God whom Abraham worshipped had done this because this small and vulnerable tribe was the best vehicle for him to demonstrate his superiority to all the powerful nations of the world and their worthless gods.

Four decades of wandering in the desert followed.  The Hebrews learnt the expectations that God had of them.  Hundreds of laws were established, including the ten commandments, which Christians regard as the foundation of their moral values.  The laws covered crime and suitable punishments, health, environmental care, sexual decency and provision for the poor and refugees.  During these years the Hebrews worshipped God through animal sacrifices in a highly decorated tent called the tabernacle.

Under Moses’ successor Joshua the Hebrews invaded Canaan, the land in which Abraham had made his home.  They called this the Promised Land.  Their relationship with the Canaanite people they conquered, and especially their gods, was a source of anguish for many centuries.  A series of military and religious leaders known as Judges (also the title of a Bible book) helped them consolidate their hold on the land.

The foundation of a monarchy was both their triumph and their undoing.  Their most significant king, David, united the fractious tribes who had settled in various parts of Canaan.  About a thousand years before Jesus he established Jerusalem as his capital city.  He was both heroically devoted to God and deeply flawed.  He made the land militarily and economically secure.  His son Solomon was responsible for the first temple to God being built in Jerusalem.

Solomon’s successors, however, ruled their people in an oppressive way.  A civil war divided the nation between those in the north (the Israelites) and those in the south (the Jews).  Israel was conquered by Assyria, its people dispersed and its culture destroyed forever.  The Jews of the southern kingdom survived for a hundred years before they too were conquered.

Vast numbers of Jews were brutalised and taken into exile in Babylon.  They were a broken people, because they believed that they had lost not only their homeland, but also their God.  They assumed him to be crushed forever in the rubble of their temple.

However, their captivity proved unexpectedly to be a time in which it was possible to prosper.  They became aware that God had not been left behind in Jerusalem.  He had come with them to Babylon.  In fact, he was already there, and indeed everywhere.  Worship began again, in buildings called synagogues.  They started to compile their Scriptures, beginning the process that would end in the creation of what Christians know as the Old Testament.  And the expectation grew during those years that a just and compassionate leader would restore their fortunes – the Messiah.

After about seventy years the Jews were repatriated.  The final narratives of the Old Testament describe the Jews returning to Jerusalem and its surrounding lands under new leaders – Nehemiah, Ezra and Zerubbabel.

Four hundred years passed before the New Testament resumed the story.  During those years the Jews became subject to different world superpowers – the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Selucids.  An uprising by a Jew called Judas Maccabaeus led to a century of independence.  These times are recounted in the books of Maccabees.  They form part of a collection called the Apocrypha, which is regarded as part of the Bible by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  Other Christians regard these books highly but do not include them in their Bibles.

The descendants of Judas Maccabaeus became locked in a battle for power.   Six decades before Jesus was born the side that had the upper hand made a treaty with the Roman empire, which was expanding rapidly.  Under the terms of the treaty the Jews came under Roman rule, which proved tyrannical.  The emperor appointed a puppet ‘king of the Jews’ in Jerusalem.  His name was Herod the Great, and he was the king who was so distressed to learn of the birth of Jesus, who threatened to have a rival claim to that title.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better.

Where to find it:

Hebrews 11:39-40.

About these words:

These words come from a letter written some decades after the life of Jesus to Jews who had become Christian.  They put the history of the Jewish people in its context in God’s unfolding plan that would climax in the life of Jesus.

And they said…

Victoria Coren, broadcaster and journalist:

Come on, let’s make this a fair fight, at least.  Identify yourselves, thinking believers!  Don’t be cowed into silence by the idea that faith is the weakness of a halfwit, like buying your goldfish Christmas presents or watching ITV2.  It isn’t.  I’ll start.  I believe in God and I’m perfectly intelligent and rational.  Not that you’d think so if you saw me on Wednesday night!

Dag Hammarskjöld, 1905-1961, secretary general of the United Nations:

Thou takest the pen – and the lines dance;
Thou takest the flute – and the notes shimmer;
Thou takest the brush – and the colours sing;
So all things have meaning and beauty in that space beyond time where Thou art;
How then can I hold back anything from Thee?