Old Testament

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Gabbin' with God
Note: The following article is written about the books of the Bible mostly from a Christian perspective.
One could go through the Old Testament book by book, here pausing to notice a lapidary phrase ("Man is born to trouble," as the book of Job says, "as the sparks fly upward") and there a fine verse, but always encountering the same difficulties. People attain impossible ages and yet conceive children. Mediocre individuals engage in single combat or one-on-one argument with God or his emissaries, raising afresh the whole question of divine omnipotence or even divine common sense, and the ground is forever soaked with the blood of the innocent. Moreover, the context is oppressively confined and local. None of these provincials, or their deity, seems to have any idea of a world beyond the desert, the flocks and herds, and the imperatives of nomadic subsistence. This is forgivable on the part of the provincial yokels, obviously, but then what of their supreme guide and wrathful tyrant? Perhaps he was made in their image, even if not graven?
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything[1]

The Old Testament (also OT for short), also known as the Tanakh in Hebrew, is the foundational document of Jewish humor, Christian obscurantism,Wikipedia and, overflowing with deepity for mansplainers, telling the myths and national legends story of how the God of History intervened at various times to cause human editors to constantly rewrite his revelations and stuff so that he would always bask in glory. The main documentary sources for the OT include the Masoritic Text (MT: Hebrew), the Septuagint (LXX: Greek translation by rabbis), the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (60% overlap with MT; sometimes align with LXX).[note 1] The only reason to believe in the OT is that you'll find live music wherever it is read worshipfully; in a world of digital-audio files generated by lossy compression-algorithms,Wikipedia that's fantastic! Ironically, the OT itself is a product of multiple iterations of lossy compression-algorithms, giving dozens of different compressions of the Exodus from Egypt without ever making sense. Add to that the stuff that gets lost in translation, and the possibilities for profundityWikipedia are just amazing!

The Christian translations and interpretations of the Old Testament differ so radically from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh) that to some people, they seem like two different books, as though early Christians edited and translated the available texts in order to align them with the "proof" that Jesus is the Messiah. The distinction is a subtle one: when talking about the Old Testament from a Christian perspective, it is important to emphasize that the OT is not the same as the writings of the Tanakh. Discussions of the source works shared by both traditions often use the terms "Hebrew Bible" or "Hebrew Scripture".

Law, Prophets, and Writings[edit]

The Old Testament contains 39 books for Protestants, 46 for Catholics, and upwards of 52 if you are Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, or Georgian Orthodox — all depending on how your Church dealt with the many Greek translations of the Hebrew which became part of the Hellenistic Jewish tradition, but not part of the more traditional and conservative Palestinian tradition.

Christian commentators typically divide the Old Testament into four sections:[note 2]

  1. the Pentateuch (the "Five Books of Moses," the Torah of Judaism)
  2. the Histories (the "Former Prophets" of Judaism)
  3. the Prophets (the "Latter Prophets" and "Minor Prophets" of Judaism)
  4. the Wisdom booksWikipedia (the "Writings" of Judaism)

The Orthodox and Catholic canons also include the deuterocanon, the books which different churches apportion among the non-Pentateuch sections, or isolate on their own (as what is sometimes called the Apocrypha).

At the time when ecclesiastical authorities addressed the matter of the canon of the Christian Bible, in the 300 years following the missionary efforts of Paul of Tarsus, there were two versions of most of the books that would make up the Old Testament: a Greek translation (the Septuagint, which includes 18 extra books), and the original Hebrew. The writers of the New Testament almost always rely on the Koine Greek translations found in the Septuagint. But religion being what it is, theological, philosophical, ethnic, and political war broke out until "the" Church split; the two major surviving splinter-groups from that era ultimately became today's Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The versions of the Old Testament typify that division: the Catholic Church chose to use new (5th century CE) Latin translation (the Vulgate), while the Orthodox elected to operate on the basis of the Septuagint or of the ancient Syriac translation (the Peshitta).

History of composition and compilation[edit]

In contrast to what we might have thought until recently, in antiquity a book was not necessarily a single product of a single author but was often more like a hypertext, which several, even many, writers might expand, edit, and otherwise modify. In this process, which went on for many generations, a variety of perspectives — or as the documentary hypothesis proposes for the Pentateuch, a variety of sources or traditions — were preserved. For its final editors, as for those of the entire Bible, preserving different sources was more important than superficial consistency of detail.
Michael Coogan,Wikipedia The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction[2]

The usage life of the papyrus scrolls in Palestine is not known (we might use the "Biblical number" of 40 years as a "God-given" basis for speculation); clearly High Priests had an opportunity to tinker with a text a whenever the dilapidation of the old master copy justified issuing a new one. The main priestly centers of composition were Jerusalem, Bethel, and Dan. That the former ShilohWikipedia priesthood living in Anathoth had their own traditions is suggested by a passage in Jeremiah, a member of the Anathoth priesthood, who speaks bitterly of the "false pen of scribes".[note 3]. Other than the Torah proper, they were not understood as a single collection of works, and any given priest may or may not choose to use them as part of his theology — if he even had access to them. There is no record of a priest teaching Torah to anyone else other than a king during the First Temple period (Iron Age II, 1000–587 BCE), although wishful thinking late in the Persian period (539-333 BCE) visualizes a program by king Jehosaphat (870–849 BCE) to send his princes to teach in the cities of Judah (2 Chronicles 17:7).[note 4]

Attempts to combine contradictory texts into a politically useful body of literature (the first four "Books of Moses") would have begun under the reign of Hezekiah (late 8th century), after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom (722 BCE) resulted in priests from Bethel and Dan coming to Jerusalem.[note 5] The function of the Torah to generate wooish obscurantism may be said to date from this time; needless to say, the contradictions would also have generated abundant occasions for humor. [note 6] Later, during the reign of the "good" king Josiah (c. 640–609 BCE), the scroll of Deuteronomy was "discovered" during a major cleaning of the Temple; the Deuteronomistic HistoryWikipedia (Deuteronomy plus Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings) was composed during this time. The best opportunity to impose a formal, unified canon for the Torah came during the Exile, in the 6th Century BCE, based upon the prestige of Ezra and the practice of public readings of the Torah.[note 7] The oldest scrolls of the Hebrew Bible were songs/poetry and the myths of the Patriarchs. The oral traditions themselves probably date back even as far as 4000 years ago, but scholars suggest that the earliest written documents would have been no earlier than 1200 BCE.

The list of books considered canonical by Rabbinical Jews (Tanakh: Torah/Law, Neviim/Prophets, Ketuvim/Writings) was likely finalized between 200 and 100 BCE, with Daniel and Esther being the most iffy texts. By this time, parchment was the primary scroll medium, with text recorded as consonants only, the vowels not being finalized until 1000 CE, and the Rabbinical Bible (Mikraot GedolotWikipedia) used in synagogues today was not "fixed" until 1524-25 CE. Jews consider Daniel and Esther to be "Writings" (hinting at their fictional character), but Christians cluelessly include Daniel among the Prophets, and Esther as part of History.

The Septuagint (LXX) had the final translation completed in 132 BCE.

Despite New Testament (and later apologetic) claims to the contrary, Jesus would likely only have considered the Torah to be truly relevant to his teaching and may or may not have had access to any given set of the rest of the Tanakh or the Septuagint. Although the Gospels mention the Samaritans frequently, the fact that they had a different version of the Torah is never discussed; it is also possible that the Torah scrolls in Galilee represented a different tradition from the (presumably) Masoretic text used in Jerusalem.

The need for damage control[edit]

In The Future of an Illusion,Wikipedia Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from one incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from, or survive, death.Wikipedia This critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable, but it does not really deal with the horrors and cruelties and madnesses of the Old Testament. Who — except for an ancient priest seeking to exert power by the tried and tested means of fear — could possibly wish that this hopelessly knotted skein of fable had any veracity?
—Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

The Old Testament is a problematic set of books for many modern Christians and Jews. Either because the earliest of the oral traditions and laws were written nearly 4000 years ago, the first books (Genesis in part, Leviticus in parts) completed 3200 years ago with the rest written over the next 1200 years (or because Yaweh exists and did write them; he's just an asshole), the Old Testament contains some troubling aspects for those raised to think the Rights of Man[3] are important.

  • God is portrayed as mean, cranky, egotistical, and petty.
    • He punishes people by making them eat their children. He promises to do this in Leviticus 26:14-39 (see verse 29). This threat is repeated in Deuteronomy 28:47-57 (see verse 53). This threat is fulfilled in Ezekiel 5:9-10, Jeremiah 19:8-9, Lamentations 2:20, and Lamentations 4:10.
    • He kills some people for complaining about the food during the exodus. Twice. This happens in Numbers 11:1-33, and Numbers 21:4-6.
    • He kills approximately 40,000 of his own people, the Israelites, during the exodus.
    • He destroys cute kittens, new-born babies, and kiwi birds (death by drowning is, by the way, apparently extremely traumatic) just because his humans started acting, well, human.
    • He sends two bears to maul 42 kids because they taunted his prophet.[4]
    • He tells a dude that he must kill his own son, proving that He, God, is more loved by this dude than the kid.
    • He demands that only the pure and healthy can come worship him. Even those who were scarred in battle for God are presumably not worthy of God's presence (see Leviticus 21:19).
  • The morality of the people of the time is quite different from our own.
  • The laws in place are troubling for modern Christians and religious Jews, beyond those mentioned above.
    • Divorce was unacceptable in most cases.
    • Eating shellfish was not allowed.
    • In fact, there are a whole host of foods that cannot be eaten, clothing that must or must not be worn, prayers that must be said… Those "strange" rites (or at least this is how most Christians see the rites) of Jews like keeping Kosher and not working on the Sabbath are "Old Testament" laws, which really never were rewritten.
  • Violence in the name of God and Truth is not only possible, it's morally required. ("Kill the infidels" started not with Islam and the Qur'an, but the Hebrews, a thousand years earlier.)
  • Surprisingly, Hell as we know it is never mentioned. Take your pick: SheolWikipedia or Abaddon. Sorry, Fundies!

Coping with loss[edit]

See the main article on this topic: But that was the Old Testament
The Old Testament, as everyone who has looked into it is aware, drips with blood; there is, indeed, no more bloody chronicle in all the literature of the world.
H.L. Mencken[7]

How to get around all that Leviticus stuff, and the "Mean old god" stuff, and the calls for war, and killing off those who do not agree with your views.

  • Just ignore it, and it will go away.
  • Jesus changed all that when he said "It does not matter what goes into your mouth but what comes out."
    • Of course, he also said "I come not to change the Law, but to fulfill it." But clearly that's just "details".
  • We do not read the Old Testament, because God gave us a New One.
    • Unless of course we want to bash gays, but that's covered later.
  • The "Law" was really three different sets of laws: Ceremonial, moral, and legal. Only the moral law still applies to Christians.
    • Of course, such a distinction is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, nor is this explanation universally accepted. Some Christians believe no laws apply to them, because their insanity faith will guide them to the right actions.
  • That's not in my Bible.
  • You are reading it wrong, you have to understand the context.
    • I thought I was addressing the context?
  • Look, over there, a shiny thing!
  • I've got money and power at my disposal, I can ignore whatever parts I want. Your opinion is thus irrelevant.

Oddities in the narrative[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Biblical contradictions and Biblical scientific errors

Whatever the specific reason for that might be, the Old Testament contains a great number of oddities.

  • Adam and someone — All of the other animals go boy, girl, boy, girl. Why does Adam get jerked around? And, all of the other animals were POOFed into existence by God, why does Adam have to suffer an invasive surgery?[note 8] Finally, why, like the Garden of Eden, are both Adam and Eve forgotten about for the rest of the narrative?
  • Cain and Abel — God shows a remarkable lack of omniscience when he asks Cain for directions. Notably the whereabouts of Cain's brother Abel. This is all the more odd considering that there are apparently only four humans on Earth to keep track of.[note 9]
  • Moses, the lawgiver stage magician — God commands Moses to go see the Pharaoh and demand that he let His people go. Moses being a poor public speaker and a generally unpersuasive fellow, God decides to spice up Moses's act by teaching him some magic tricks. Such crowd-pleasers as the old "stick-to-snake-and-back-again", the "My hand has leprosy, and now it doesn't!", along with the family favorite "water-to-blood" trick. After hearing of the plan, Moses said "Please send someone else." (Exodus 4:13)
  • Abraham and Isaac — Never mind the whole rigmarole about Abraham being told to sacrifice his own son, only to (attempt to) do so with a shrug and a nod. It never once occurred to Isaac that something was amiss when he was led to the sacrifice (read: be sacrificed) by his own father? Wouldn't the first thing Isaac asked after being tapped to go with his father to perform the sacrifice be something along the lines of, "What shall we take for the sacrifice?" If Abraham had told him right then and there, Isaac wouldn't have agreed to it, not by a long shot (no matter how retrospectively honest Abraham was about it). Isaac comes off as absurdly naive and gullible to just allow himself to be prepared for the sacrifice — especially when many contemporary works depict Isaac bound on the altar. Given the ages and physiology of the two, Isaac would clearly be stronger than his father; how would he be overpowered by him in the first place? Or did he just have no willpower, autonomy, or critical thinking skills of his own and just allow himself to be tied down and nearly disembowled?
  • God having control issues with Israelites all the time in Judges and needing prophets to turn them back towards him — The Israelites are always turning away from God in Judges. You'd think that an omnipotent god could do a better job of making people stick to him.[note 10] He, for some reason, punishes them violently when they stray away him in other chapters, which could have been easily avoided by giving them the Judges treatment. Also, if he is omnipotent and can do pretty much anything, including performing miracles in front of non-believers, why does he need prophets in the first place?
  • Job — The whole thing seems like a pretty sick joke with God and Satan in cahoots for a few lulz, ending with God getting angry at Job for questioning why God was punishing him and admonishing him for not being God. Also, Job's old sons and servants are all killed and are replaced. This is pretty traumatic to anyone who's ever lost a child, because you can't just simply replace a person you've lost.
  • The plague of the firstborn — Another lack of omniscience. God needs a reminder as to which firstborn children are Hebrew and which are not. A slap of lamb's blood on the front door does the trick.[note 11]
  • Mt. Sinai — Moses turns his back for two seconds and the Hebrews devolve into crazy pagan idol worshipers. These are people who have quite likely personally witnessed at least eleven miracles, some with significant SFX (special effects). Particularly, the supposed descending of their god down upon the mountain and speaking to them so that they will "always trust in Moses" just prior to his ascent. Kind of surprising that their god's almighty power was unable to convince them to wait around a bit. And er, Moses sees this and slaughters nearly 3000 of them, even though the Ten Commandments, which he had just brought down from the mountain, say, "Thou shalt not kill", or something like that. Possibly, he hadn't read them yet.
  • An eye for an eye — Grammy Flash always used to say that "the trouble with an eye for an eye is that everyone ends up blind."[8] One would think that a sacred religious text would have more wisdom than the grandmother of a fictional comic book superhero. Go figure.
  • YHWH — the Chatty Cathy of the ancient Middle East: Long ago, God would seemingly talk to anyone who would listen. You couldn't shut the guy up. He doesn't seem to do that too much anymore, nor for a long time. Many would say that he does indeed speak to a great many people. It is fairly certain that those people did hear him. This is called mental illness or drug abuse nowadays, though. However, the Old Testament's implication is the very deep, very "James Earl Jones" bellowing associated with speaking out loud.

Evidence for the Old Testament[edit]

Within this narrative framework is a veritable jumble of material, full of inconsistencies and a bewildering variety of sources and genres.
Michael CooganWikipedia, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction[9]

Eminent biblical scholar Michael CooganWikipedia and author of The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction summarizes the scholarly consensus regarding the evidence for the Old Testament.[9]

What about literary sources?[edit]

Regarding the state of the written evidence, he writes:[9]:26

Among the nonbiblical sources are ancient inscriptions from Israel and Judah. Hundreds of them dating to the first half of the first millennium BCE have been excavated by archaeologists since the mid-nineteenth century. In recent decades, there has also been a flood of inscriptions purchased on the antiquities market, many of which are modern forgeries. Of the inscriptions that come from actual excavations, most are written on fragments of pottery, or potshards. Their content, however, is often as fragmentary as the medium on which they are written.

In addition, there is a handful of monumental inscriptions datable to the same period, and a similarly small number of papyri and writings in other media. There must have been many more texts that have not survived, probably because they were written on perishable organic materials such as papyrus. These inscriptions have some importance for understanding ancient Hebrew, but they rarely mention any individual or event known from the Bible, and so they are difficult both to date and to interpret.

The same is true of inscriptions from Israel's neighbors. From the first half of the first millennium BCE there are many texts from Aram (modern Syria), Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), and the kingdoms east of the Jordan Valley, Ammon, Moab and Edom; again these rarely refer to important individuals or events known from other sources, including the Bible.

What about archaeological sources?[edit]

On the state of the archaeological evidence, he continues:[9]:29

Since the latter part of the nineteenth century archaeologists have excavated hundreds of ancient Israelite sites, many of which can be identified as places named in the Bible, including not only Jerusalem but also Megiddo, Jericho, Hazor, Lachish and many others. As is the case with the Mesha Stela, however, the information unearthed at such sites is often difficult to synthesize with the biblical record, for two reasons.

First, the biblical record itself is inconsistent, and also selective and ideological, not giving a comprehensive history of any single site but mentioning it when it suits the messages that the biblical writers are communicating. The second reason is the nature of archaeological evidence itself: material culture is mute.

In only a handful of cases can we make a direct and unambiguous link between a person or event from the Bible and, say, a layer of ashes or the foundation of a city's wall. In the absence of anything like a "Kilroy [or Joshua, or David, or Omri] was here",Wikipedia dating the many aspects of material culture that have been excavated depends on a chain of inferences rather than on direct links and is frequently debated by specialists.

See also[edit]


  1. The first-century historian Flavius Josephus, in The Antiquities of the Jews,Wikipedia is sometimes closer to the LXX than the MT. The version of the MT used in Jewish synagogues was fluid until it was "fixed" in 1524-25 AD in Venice by Daniel BombergWikipedia and Jacob ben Hayyim Ibn Adonijah,Wikipedia who printed the Rabbinic Bible.Wikipedia
  2. And it is here, in how the books are organized and what associations the authors are given, that one of the most significant edits from "Hebrew scripture" to "Old Testament" occurs.
  3. Jeremiah 8:8; also translated "vain pen" or "lying pen"; vohu as in "the Earth was tohu (without form) and vohu (void)" (Genesis 1:2)
  4. Apparently, the priests themselves held the commoners in contempt, making no attempt to educate them, which suggests that the various traditions of a "God-given Mosaic Law" (Torah) are actually collections of existing social customs; therefore, since the Torah is not really a divine revelation, a special effort to teach them is not required.
  5. Israel Finkelstein has pointed out that, prior to Hezekiah, evidence of writing in Judah is vanishingly small: even graffiti is rare.
  6. Hezekiah's son Manasseh (r. 697–643 BCE), recorded as being outstandingly wicked, to the point where the Destruction of Jerusalem by NebuchadnezzarWikipedia is blamed on him: 2 Kings 30:10-15. Perhaps his sins included the employment of stand-up comedians at his court.
  7. Where "prestige" means "impressive Torah learning" plus "empowered by the King of Persia to impose a manageable unity on the province."
  8. This oddly inspired people to think that men have one less rib than women, even until the modern day. Despite over 400 years of medical evidence pointing to a wealth of dead bodies showing otherwise. To be fair though, back then, the laws of biology could be modified to allow it to be grown back. Or, He could have just created Adam with one more rib than what we have today, though in that case God would have known in advance that Adam wouldn't be satisfied with bestiality, so He needed to create a woman instead, and would presumably have just done so in the first place.
  9. Unless you count the ones which do not have names, like Cain's wife and the people of the Land of Nod, then you may come up with a lot more, but then they can as well be made up on the way, since they don't have a name as the unique identifier.
  10. Maybe they kept trying to abandon him for being an asshole?
  11. That, and the Egyptians are stupid enough not to learn something or notice the oddity when hundreds of thousands of doors are slapped with lamb's blood, not to mention the increased mortality rate of lambs.


  1. Page 107.
  2. The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 20.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  4. 2 Kings 2:23-24
  5. Exodus 31:12-15
  6. Exodus 35:1-3
  7. http://www.azquotes.com/quote/543340
  8. Justice League Unlimited (TV Series): Quotes (2005) IMDb.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction (2008), ISBN 978-0195305050, page 43.