The Origin and Permanent Value of the Old Testament Part 14

In the simple language of popular tradition it proclaims, among other truths, that Jehovah, Israel's God, created man, breathing into him from his own nostrils the vital principle of life and making him the commanding figure in the universe; then that the Creator graciously provided all that was needful and best for his true physical and spiritual development. Incidentally the prophet calls attention to that innate and divine basis of the marriage bond which Jesus re-emphasizes (Matt. xix. 4-6). Physical death, according to the story in its present form, was not a necessary part of Jehovah's plan; the implication is that man would not die while he remained in the garden and ate of the life-giving tree. Temptation is not in itself evil, but necessary, if man is to develop positive virtue, for beside the tree of life grows the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with its attractive, alluring fruit guarded by the divine prohibition.

[Sidenote: _The struggle in the woman's heart_]

The elements of the temptation are all presented in chapter ii., but the serpent, the craftiest of animals, in his conversation with the woman is required to make clear and objective the real nature of the conflict within her mind. The role of the serpent is the opposite of that of Balaam's ass, which figures in a story which comes from the same early Judean prophetic school. In the conversation between the woman and the serpent the true character of all temptation is revealed: it is the necessity of choosing between two courses of conduct neither of which is altogether bad. Curiosity, which is the guide to all knowledge, the beauty of the apple, which appeals to the aesthetic sense, and physical appetite, not in itself bad,--all these powerfully attracted the Oriental woman of the ancient story. On the other side she felt the compelling power of love and gratitude and the definite divine command.

[Sidenote: _The essence of all temptation_]

The prophet saw clearly that all the elements of temptation are within man--a truth sometimes obscured in later Jewish thought. Milton has also led us astray in identifying the crafty serpent with the Satan of later Judaism. The prophet graphically presents another great fact of human experience, namely, that what is one man's temptation is not another's, that the temptation to be real must appeal to the one tested. The crafty serpent is not represented as speaking to the man; he would probably have turned away in loathing. His wife, she who had already sinned, the one whom Jehovah had given him as a helpmeet, herself appeals to the sense of chivalry within him. Hence the conflict rages in his soul between love and obligation to Jehovah and his natural affection and apparent duty to his wife. Thus in all temptation the diviner impulses struggle with those which are not in themselves necessarily wrong but only baser by contrast. Duty is the call of the diviner, sin is the yielding to the baser, motives.

[Sidenote: _The real nature of sin_]

The Hebrew word for sin, which means the missing of the mark set up before each individual, is the only altogether satisfactory definition of sin ever devised, for it absolutely fits the facts of human experience. Deflection from the moral standard set up by each man's conscience, even though his resulting act seem in itself noble, is for him a sin. Although the influences which led the man and woman of the story to disobey were exceedingly strong, the higher standard had been set up, and in falling short of it they sinned. Thus sin is not God's but man's creation, and results from the deliberate choice of what the sinner knows to be wrong.

[Sidenote: _The effects of sin_]

In the same simple yet powerful way the prophet depicts the inevitable consequences of sin. At every point the picture is true to universal experience. The most appalling effect of a wrong act is that it destroys peace and purity of mind. It also makes cowards of brave men, and the presence and tender affection of the one wronged suddenly become intolerable. Sin also begets sin. To the cowering fugitives Jehovah comes, as he always does, with a message intended to evoke a frank confession which would tear down the hideous barrier that their sin had reared between himself and them; but, like most foolish, blind Adams and Eves, they hug their crime to their breasts and raise the barrier heaven high by trying to excuse their guilt. Thus they pronounce their own doom. For God himself only one course of action remains: it is to send them forth from his presence and from the life-giving tree, out into the school of hardship and bitter pain, that there they may learn the lessons which are necessary before they can again become citizens of the true Garden of Eden.

[Sidenote: _The sequel to the story of man's fall_]

Two simple yet exceedingly significant touches lighten the gloom of this universal tragedy of human life. The one is that for the guilty, unrepentant pair, Jehovah himself made tunics of skins to protect them from the inclemency of their new life,--evidence that his love and care still went with them. The other is the implication that the true garden of Eden was still to be found on earth, and was closed simply to the guilty and unrepentant. The Bible is the record of how men learned the all-important lessons in the painful school of experience. Israel's teachers, each in his characteristic way, led their race on toward the common goal. The Gospels tell of how _a man, tempted in all points as we are_ in a distant day and land found his way again into the abiding presence of God. He _was one with the Father_, not because he did not meet temptation in all its power, but because, unlike the actors in the primitive story, and all other participants in the drama of life, he yielded only to the guidance of divine impulses. Not content with achieving the goal himself, he gave his energies and his life to showing others how they also might overcome the baser impulses within them and find their way to God's presence and become one with him. Thus, because of what he did and said and was, he forever vindicated his title of Saviour of Mankind.

[Sidenote: _The religious teachings of other early stories_]

No other early Old Testament narrative is perhaps so full of rich spiritual suggestion as the one just considered, and yet each has its valuable contribution. Even such a story as that of the killing of Abel by Cain forcibly teaches the great prophetic truth that it is not the form of the offering, but the character and deeds back of the sacrifice, that determine Jehovah's favor or disfavor (iv. 7). Graphically it sets forth the spirit that prompts the greatest of crimes. In contrast to Cain, defiant yet pursued by haunting fear of vengeance, it also presents the divine tenderness and mercy in granting him a tribal mark to protect him from the hand of man. The similar story of Noah, the first vineyard-keeper, preaches the first temperance sermon in all literature, and also suggests the inevitable consequences of moral depravity so forcibly illustrated in the history of the ancient Canaanites. Even the prosaic table of the nations in Genesis x.

emphasizes the conception of the unity of the human family which was destined in time to become the basis of Israel's belated missionary activity.

[Sidenote: _Ideals presented in the early prophetic portrait of Abraham_]

When we pass to the twelfth chapter of Genesis the independent stories coalesce into cycles, and each cycle, as well as each narrative, has its own religious purpose. In definite outlines each successive group of teachers painted the character of Abraham, the traditional father of the Israelitish race, and held it up before their own and succeeding generations as a perpetual example and inspiration. In the early Judean prophetic narratives he is pictured as the friend of Jehovah. His own material interests are entirely secondary, as illustrated in his dealing with Lot. Without hesitation he leaves home and kindred behind, for his dominating purpose in life is simply to know and do the will of Jehovah.

To this end he rears altars throughout the land of Canaan. His chief joy is in communion with God and in the promises to be realized in his descendants. Through warring, hostile Canaan he passes unscathed, for his eyes are fixed on things heavenly.

[Sidenote: _Its significance_]

It matters little whether or not, far back in the primitive days of Israel's history, a Bedouin sheik anticipated in actual character and life all that was gradually revealed to the prophets of a much later age. The supremely significant fact is that the noble ideal of Israel's earliest teachers was thus vividly and concretely embodied in the portrait of him whom the Hebrews regarded with pride and adoration as the founder of their race. In Hosea and Jeremiah, and less imperfectly in the nation as a whole, the ideal in time became an historical reality.

[Sidenote: _Later portraits of Abraham_]

The early Ephraimite school of writers picture Abraham as a prophet (Gen. xx. 7), and therefore as an exemplification of their highest ideal. In the remarkable fourteenth chapter of Genesis he is a courageous, chivalrous knight, attacking with a handful of followers the allied armies of the most powerful kings of his day. Returning victorious, he restores the spoil to the plundered and gives a princely gift to the priest of the local sanctuary. In the later priestly narratives the picture suddenly changes, and Abraham figures as the faithful servant of the law, with whom originates the rite of circumcision, the seal of a new covenant (xvii). Later Jewish and Moslem traditions each have their characteristic portrait. One, which pictures him as in heaven the protector of the faithful, is reflected in the New Testament (Luke xvi. 23-30), Thus each succeeding age and group of teachers made him the embodiment and supreme illustration of its noblest ideals, and it is this ideal element that gives the Old Testament stories their permanently practical value.

[Sidenote: _Practical teachings of the Abraham stories_]

Having noted the teachings that each individual story and the cycle as a whole conveyed to the minds of their first readers, it only remains for the teacher of to-day to translate them into modern terms. Some of the most important implications of the Abraham stories thus interpreted are, for example: (1) God calls each man to a high mission. (2) He will guide and care for those who are responsive. (3) To those who seek to know him intimately, and to do his will, he will reveal himself in fullest measure, and for such he has in store his richest blessings. (4) _He that findeth his life_ (Lot) _shall lose it, and he that loseth his life_ (Abraham) _shall find it_.

[Sidenote: _Significance of the character of Esau_]

The Jacob and Esau stories contain marvellously exact and realistic portraits of the two races (the Israelites and the Edomites) that they respectively represent. Of the two brothers, Esau is in many ways the more attractive. He suggests the open air and the fields, where he loved to hunt. He is easy-going, ingenuous, and impulsive. His faults are those of not being or doing. As long as he had enough to eat and was comfortable, he was contented. He is the type of the world's drifters.

Since Aram was far distant he disregards the wishes of his parents and marries one of the daughters of the land. No ambition stirred him and no devotion to Jehovah or to the ideals of his race gave content and direction to his life. Thus he remained a laggard, and the half-nomadic, robber people that he represented became but a stagnant pool, compared with the onrushing stream of Israel's life.

[Sidenote: _Jacob's faults_]

Jacob's faults are also presented by the early prophets with an astonishing fidelity. Rarely does a race early in its history have a portrait of its weaknesses as well as its strength held up thus prominently before its eyes. Jacob is the antithesis of Esau. While his brother was hunting care-free in the fields, he was at home plotting how he could farther his own interests. When the opportunity offers, he manifests a cold, calculating shrewdness. To make good the title to the birthright thus acquired he does not hesitate to resort to fraud and lying. Then he flees, pursued by his own guilty conscience, and, tricked by Laban, he serves as a slave fourteen years to win the wife whom he loves. At last, again a fugitive from the consequences of his own questionable dealing, he returns with quaking heart to face the brother that he had wronged.

[Sidenote: _The elements of strength in Israel's character_]

The character is far from a perfect one, and yet the ancient stories suggest its elements of strength. By nature he was selfish and crafty; and yet he has what Esau fatally lacks: energy, persistency, and a commanding ambition. From the first his ambition looks beyond himself to the future of his descendants. Measured by our modern standards, his religious professions seem only hypocrisy; but as we analyze his character we find that a faith in Jehovah, narrow and selfish though it be, was ever his guiding star. Out of the tortuous windings of his earlier years it ultimately led him to a calm old age. Imperfect though his character was, like that of the race which he represented, the significant fact is that God ever cared for him and was able to utilize him as an agent in divine revelation.

[Sidenote: _The noble teachings of the Joseph stories_]

Even more obvious and universal are the practical lessons illustrated by the Joseph stories. In the early prophetic narratives, Abraham is the perfect servant of God, Jacob the type of the Israelitish race, but Joseph is the ideal man of affairs. Graphically the successive stories picture the man in his making and reveal his true character. He is simple, affectionate, and yet strongly ambitious. His day-dreams make him odious, as in the case of many a boy to-day, to his unimaginative brothers. A seemingly hard fate rudely snatches him from the enervating influences of his childhood home and places him in the severe school of experience, where he is tested and trained. It also opens wide the door of opportunity. Fidelity to every interest and an unselfish response to every opportunity for service soon bring him into the presence of the Pharaoh. His judicious counsels, diplomacy, and organizing ability win for him the highest honors Egypt can confer. With modesty and fidelity he endures this supreme test--success. Toward his brothers, who had bitterly wronged him, he is nobly magnanimous, and to his kinsmen, who belong to the shepherd class especially despised as boors by the cultured Egyptians, he is loyal and considerate. Above all, not by professions, but by deeds, he reveals the true source of his strength,-- a natural faith in the God of his race and an unfailing loyalty to him.

[Sidenote: _Conclusion_]

In the same way Moses, the exodus, and the great men and events of Israel's dramatic history, all have a religious importance and significance far surpassing the merely historical. At the same time the methods of modern literary and historical investigation reveal rather than conceal the deeper spiritual truths that they illustrate. The more light that can be turned upon them the more clearly will their essential teachings stand forth. Like the Old Testament as a whole, they grew up out of real life and truly reflect and interpret it, and therefore have a living, vital message to life to-day. Any interpretation that does not ring true to life may well be questioned. Finally, the authority of these ancient narratives depends not upon the historical or scientific accuracy of the individual story that is used as an illustration, but upon the fact that through the experiences and hearts of those who employed them God was seeking to make men free by the knowledge of the truth.



[Sidenote: _The various methods of approach_]

The Old Testament may be studied as literature, as history, as the record of an important stage in the evolution of religion, as the revelation of God to the race, or as a practical aid to the individual in living the true life. Each angle of approach calls for different methods and yields its correspondingly rich results. Studied in accordance with the canons of modern literary investigation, a literature is disclosed of surpassing variety, beauty, and fascination.

After the principles of historical criticism have been vigorously applied, the Old Testament is found to contain some of the most important and authentic historical data that have come down to us from antiquity. To the general student of religion there is no group of writings that equals in value those included in these ancient Scriptures. As a simple, clear revelation of the character and will of the Divine Ruler, present and regnant in all life, the Old Testament is surpassed by only one other volume, and that is its complement, the New.

[Sidenote: _The supreme aim of Old Testament study_]

It is, however, as the guide to right thinking, and being, and acting, _that the man of God may be perfect, completely equipped for every good work_, that the Old Testament is and always will be studied by the majority of people. In so doing they will be realizing its primary and supreme purpose. Like true religion, it is not an end in itself, but simply an effective force, drawing and binding individual men to God and to the right. Any method of study that fails to attain this definite and practical end does not achieve the chief aim of the Old Testament writings.

[Sidenote: _Necessity of studying the Old Testament as an organic whole_]

This practical and personal end, however, cannot be attained at a leap.

It is impossible to achieve the best results by taking a truth or a passage here and there and applying it at once to the individual. Both the Old Testament and the individual are something organic. Each book has a unity and a history that must be understood, if a given passage is to be fairly interpreted or its truths intelligently applied, Individual books are also related to others and to their historical background.

Also, as has already been shown, to appreciate fully the vital message of a given writer it is necessary, not to know his name, but his place in history, his point of view, his method of expression, and his purpose. The Old Testament and Israelitish history as a whole are the best and most essential interpreters of individual books and passages.

The most serious handicap to the ordinary Bible teacher and scholar is the lack of this broader, systematic, constructive knowledge. Much earnest, devoted study, especially in the Old Testament fields, is deficient in inspiration and results, because it is simply groping in an unknown land. It is all important, therefore, to ascend some height and spy out the land as a whole, to note the relation of different books and events to each other, and to view broadly the great stream of divine revelation which flows out of the prehistoric past on through the Old and New Testaments to the present.

[Sidenote: _Remarkable adaptation of the Old Testament to different ages and degrees of moral culture._]

In order effectively to apply the truths of the Old Testament to life, it is also necessary to regard the point of view of the individual to be taught. This fundamental principle of all education was fully appreciated and applied by Israel's great spiritual teachers. The result is that the Old Testament contains truths marvellously adapted to every age and type of mind. The importance of the religious culture of the child is emphasized by the comparatively large proportion, of writings especially fitted to hold the attention and arouse the imagination and shape the ideals even of the youngest. Nearly half of the Old Testament consists simply of narratives. Those inimitable stories, which come from the childhood of the race, have a perennial fascination for the child of to-day. They find him on his own mental and moral plane, as they did the primitive child, and by natural stages lead him on and up to the higher standards and broader faith of Israel's later prophets and sages, and thus prepare him to understand and appreciate the perfected life and teachings of Jesus.

[Sidenote: _The prophetic stories the children's Bible_]

In the modern use of the Old Testament, the faithful application of this fundamental principle also leads to a most practical conclusion; the stories peculiarly adapted to children are not the mature, legalistic narratives of the late priestly writers, but the early prophetic stories, which begin in the second chapter of Genesis. If children are taught only these, they will not be disconcerted by widely variant versions of the same events. Above all, they will be delivered from the inconsistencies and erroneous impressions which are often the cause of stumbling to the child. The later process of unlearning, which is always dangerous, will be avoided. If the problems presented by the priestly narratives be reserved until they can be studied from the broader and truer point of view, they will be readily solved, and the great positive teachings of these later didactic stories will be fully appreciated.

[Sidenote: _The prophets the best story-tellers_]

The subject-matter, therefore, supremely suitable for the earliest moral and spiritual culture of the child, is clearly the simple and yet profound prophetic stories of the Old Testament. It is very questionable whether the many excellent paraphrases now current are a gain or a hindrance. The ancient prophets and the generations who have retold them were inimitable story-tellers. To attempt to improve upon their work is futile. A simple, clear translation is all that is required. [Footnote: A Children's Bible is now being prepared according to the plan suggested above.] The interpretation and application of their practical teachings can best be left to the intuition of the child and the direction of the intelligent parent and teacher.

Chapter end

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