LEARNING BIBLE TODAY
From Creation to the Conquest of Canaan
by Michael J. Prival
WHAT IS RELIGION? WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
CONTENTS OF INTRODUCTION:
Questions, Questions, Questions...
Everyone growing up has a lot of questions to ask. “Why does it rain?” “How does a tree grow?” “Where did everything come from?”
How do we answer questions like this? To answer questions about nature, we use science. Some scientists study the world as it exists now – for example, how the weather works, or how fish live. Other scientists study the past; they try to answer questions such as, “What was the world like before people lived in houses?” or “What was the world like before there were people?” or “Where did the earth come from?” There are still many questions that scientists cannot answer, but they keep studying nature and doing experiments so that more and more of these questions can be answered.
How did people answer questions about nature before there were scientists? Scientists and the scientific method of experimenting and observing and formulating theories haven’t been around for very long – only for a few hundred years. For thousands of years before that, people had to rely on their own experiences and feelings to answer all important questions.
The Wonder of Nature...
How did people answer questions about nature thousands of years ago? Imagine people who lived at that time out in the forest, without houses. When they looked up at the sky at night, they would see thousands of stars, some bright, some faint, most flickering, a few shining steadily. To these people, the stars seemed to form patterns and shapes. When they looked at the moon, they noticed that sometimes it was big and round, at other times it was just a tiny sliver, and sometimes it looked like it had a face.
Since these people had no scientific understanding of what they saw, they might have begun to wonder – What are these stars? Is the moon really the face of a person? How far away are all those wonderful things in the sky? Did someone put them all there? They might have also thought about other aspects of nature – Who put the plants and animals there for people to eat? How come there is cool water to drink in the springs? The only explanation for all of these wonderful things that they could think of was that there must be some great and powerful person who made the world such a magnificent place. They would have strong feelings of wonder at the marvels of nature.
The Fear of Nature...
In the same way, imagine people thousands of years ago who were trying to sleep outdoors when a terrible storm began. The rain was pouring down, the lightning flashed across the sky, and the thunder was so loud that they were scared half to death. They would begin to wonder why this was happening. It seemed to them as if someone was trying to hurt them. Why, they would think, do these scary things happen? Is there some superhuman being who is doing all these things? Now they were afraid of nature.
People Believed in Many Gods
The feelings of wonder and of fear about things they could not explain caused people to try to answer many questions about nature. These feelings led people to imagine that there were super-human beings, the gods and goddesses, who caused everything to happen. These gods usually looked and behaved like super-strong people, or sometimes like animals.
People imagined that one god made the sun travel across the sky each day by pulling it in his chariot; another was in charge of the moon. One god made the rain fall; another made the thunder and lightning by hurling the lightning bolts to earth with his super-human strength.
Every time there was an important question to answer, people could use a god or goddess as the explanation. Why did hunters sometimes find it difficult to find animals for food? Because the goddess of hunting was angry. Why were people sometimes very sick? Because a god was punishing them for something bad that they did. Where did the world come from? It must have been made by a great god.
So people believed in many gods because it helped them answer the questions caused by their wonder about nature and their fear of nature. Each group of people also thought that it had special gods who would protect them, and this gave them a sense of security in the earliest periods of human history, when they might die from hunger or accidents or attacks by animals or other people at any time.
Since people believed that the gods could help them or hurt them, they wanted the gods to be good to them. So they began to think up ways of keeping the gods happy – in the same way that they might want to keep powerful people happy. The people would give presents to the gods by leaving them at a special holy place, hoping that the god would see the presents and protect them. They would try to talk directly to a god or goddess, asking for help or just telling the god how great he or she was. This is prayer or worship.
Gods are thought of as powerful beings who are supposed to have some control over nature. They are not part of nature, as we are. They can do things that ordinary people cannot do. They live forever. They are above or beyond nature. The word for this is “supernatural .” Religion is usually based on the belief in a supernatural god or gods that have some influence on our world. Most religions also teach people how to communicate with the gods, to keep them happy, and to ask them for help through prayer or worship.
So religion developed because people could not answer important questions about nature, and they didn’t want to live without the answers. They imagined that there were powerful gods in charge of everything. They wanted to make their lives easier, so they began to worship the gods to win their friendship.
People in many parts of the world developed a belief in many gods. Different groups of people worshipped different gods with different names. For example, near the Mediterranean Sea, the Greeks and then the Romans built temples to many different gods. Today, some people still like to read Greek myths, which are the stories of the gods and goddesses, such as Zeus and Athena, that many of the Greek people believed in more than 2000 years ago. No one believes any longer that these gods and goddesses are real.
See if you can learn the names of some of the gods that people have believed in. What did these gods do? What questions were the people able to answer because of their belief in the gods? (For example: Why does it rain? Why does the sun move across the sky each day?) Get a book on Greek or Roman mythology from the library to answer these questions. Remember that many people used to believe that the many gods of Greece and Rome were real. Can you give the modern, scientific explanation for a question that people used to answer by saying that “A god did it”?
One group of people who lived on the land that is east of the Mediterranean Sea, in the area we now call the Middle East, were the Israelites, also called the Hebrews, who later became the Jews. This is a part of the world where the Greeks and the Romans, with their belief in many gods, were very powerful.
Originally, the Israelites had their own special god but they believed that this god was just one of many gods. They believed that this god was the god who protected the Israelite people, while other gods protected other people. Later on, they came to believe that their god was the only god that actually existed. This belief that there is only one real god is called monotheism.
According to the stories in the Bible, there was a period of about 100 years (which is a short period of time in all of Jewish history), during which the Israelites were united in a single kingdom. They then became divided into two separate kingdoms, Judah in the south and Israel in the north (see the time line that follows in the Introduction). The people of Judah prayed to Yahweh; but it seems that the Israelites in the northern kingdom called their god “El” or “Elohim .” The fact that the people the two different kingdoms used different names for their god is very helpful to us today because some portions of the Bible were written in Judah, others in Israel. Knowing the names that each group used for its god helps us to tell which parts of the Bible were written in the south (Judah) and which in the north (Israel).
The people who put the written Bible together thought of Elohim and Yahweh as the same god. Even to this day, religious Jews consider “Yahweh” to be the actual name of their god, while they think of “Elohim” as simply meaning “God.” Since, to them, the actual word “Yahweh” is never supposed to be said out loud, many translations of the Bible insert “The LORD” wherever the name “Yahweh” appears in the original Hebrew text. In this book, we follow the tradition of translating the name “Elohim” as “God,” but we have retained the name “Yahweh” in the text of the stories. (Interestingly, the word “Elohim” is actually plural, and its literal meaning is closer to “Gods” than it is to “God.” No one knows why this plural word was used to describe the single god of Israel, but it may have been left over from an earlier time in which many gods were worshipped.)
The Israelites told stories about their god in order to answer many important questions. Their stories about Elohim and Yahweh explained where the world came from, where the Israelites came from, and why everything seemed to go well sometimes and very badly at other times.
In some of these stories, the god of the Israelites gives instructions to the people about how to behave in their daily lives – how they should worship their god to get favors from him; how they should treat each other. These rules about how to behave are called the commandments. You have probably heard of the Ten Commandments, but the Bible contains many hundreds of commandments in addition to these ten.
For many centuries these stories and rules were told from generation to generation, but were apparently not written down. Eventually, the stories about Elohim and Yahweh and the Israelites, along with the hundreds of commandments, were put into one big book, which we call the Hebrew Bible.
The stories in the book you are reading are taken from the Hebrew Bible, a very big book that was written in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew word for this Bible is the Tanakh.
The Bible contains many sections, which are called the books of the Bible. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are named Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books taken together are called the Torah. The Torah contains stories about the god of the Israelites. It includes many stories about people who probably never really existed, but whose stories are still very important and interesting, such as Adam and Eve, who were the first people according to the Bible; Abraham and Sarah, the Biblical parents of the family that became Israelites; and Moses, who, in the Bible story, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.
We know today that many of the stories in the Torah did not really happen. Other stories may have some historical facts in them, but in many cases archaeologists have been unable figure out how accurate they are.
The Torah also contains the hundreds of commandments from Yahweh telling the Israelites how to behave. Some Jews, called Orthodox Jews, still try to follow many of these rules even today.
The Torah is often written on a scroll rather than in a book with pages. Have you ever seen a Torah scroll? Weekly worship services at a synagogue include reading from a Torah scroll.
The first part of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, tells the story of the world as the Israelites knew it and what they thought to be their own history up to the time of Moses. The rest of the Hebrew Bible tells us about the history of the Israelites after the time of Moses.
There are two kinds of writings in the Hebrew Bible: (1) stories about Elohim and Yahweh, the early history of the world, and the history of the Israelites – where they came from and what they did a long time ago; and (2) rules, or commandments, telling the Israelites how they were supposed to behave.
The Hebrew Bible was first written in the Hebrew language. Have you ever seen Hebrew writing? It looks very different from English writing. One interesting difference is that Hebrew writing is read starting from the right side of the page and moving to the left side, while in English we read from left to right. Hebrew was the language of the Jewish people thousands of years ago. Then the Jews began speaking other languages and only used Hebrew for prayers and the study of their religion. In the 20th century, for the first time in thousands of years, Hebrew again became a daily spoken language in modern Israel.
Look at a Bible translated into English. Find the Table of Contents near the beginning of the Bible. You can see that the Bible is made up of many different parts called the Books of the Bible. The first five books of the Bible make up the Torah. What are the names of the five books of the Torah?
The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, contains writings that are central for understanding the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. How does this relate to the Christian Bible?
Since the people who started the Christian religion were Jews, they made the Tanakh part of their own Bible. They thought of Christianity as growing out from the monotheistic outlook of the Jewish religion.
The Christian Bible has two parts. Christians call the first part of their Bible the “Old Testament.” It is the same as the Hebrew Bible of the Jews except that the order of the books has been changed somewhat. Also, some versions of the Christian Old Testament contain a few books that are not found in the Hebrew Bible.
The second part of the Christian Bible is called the “New Testament.” The New Testament is found only in the Christian Bible.
The word “testament” means “covenant” or “agreement.” The term “Old Testament” means that the Hebrew Bible describes the original agreement that the writers believed was made between the Israelites and their god. This agreement was that the people would obey God and, in exchange, God would take care of them. Christians believe that God has made a new agreement with people who accept the Christian religion. They believe that God did this by sending a man named Jesus into the world. This “new agreement” or “new covenant” can be understood by reading the “New Testament.”
The Christian religion started about 2000 years ago with the story of a Jewish man named Jesus. Those people who accept Jesus as their religious leader are called Christians. Christians, in general, believe that Jesus was the son of God, and was sent to earth to bring knowledge of God to all people. Most Jews did not accept Jesus as their leader, and so they kept the Jewish religion, but many people who were not Jewish accepted this new religion and became Christians.
The New Testament begins with stories about the life of Jesus and then tells stories written by and about his followers, who were the first Christians. Since the Hebrew Bible is part of the Christian Bible, Christians throughout the centuries have also learned and believed the ancient stories of the Jewish people and of their god. In fact, Christian religious leaders have interpreted the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) as containing many elements that actually predicted and paved the way for the coming of Jesus and the establishment of Christianity.
So if you want to read a story from the Tanakh, you can read about it in either a Hebrew (Jewish) Bible or a Christian Bible. If you want to read about Jesus and the other people who started the Christian religion, you have to read that in the New Testament, which is a part of the Christian Bible, but is not found in the Hebrew Bible.
Both Jews and Christians have read and talked about the stories in the Bible for many centuries, and for most of that time they believed that these stories were all true. Today we know that many of these stories are not based on historical facts, especially those at the very beginning of the Bible. We learn about these stories ourselves because they are basic texts needed to understand the Jewish people and the Christian religion. These texts have been an important part of European and American life and culture for many centuries. Many of the great paintings and sculptures by European artists show scenes and characters from the Bible. Similarly, many books can only be understood if we know the stories in the Bible. Whether we are Jews or Christians, religious or nonreligious, it is not possible to understand the world and the culture that made us what we are without knowing what is in the Bible.
The time line that follows shows some of the major events described in the Bible and in later Jewish history. Notice that the earliest events are “Bible myths,” as indicated by the words on the left side of the page. There may be some truth to some of these stories, but they are mostly just the legends of the Jewish people.
The Hebrew Bible describes the events in the time line beginning with the story of the creation of the world and ending at the time of the return to Jerusalem from Babylonia by some Jews who then come under the leadership of Ezra. The next two events shown on the time line, involving the Maccabees and Jesus, are described in Christian Bibles. (Actually, the story of the Maccabees is found in the Bible of some Christians, including Catholics and Greek Orthodox; it is not considered part of the Bible by other Christians, the Protestants, though it may be printed in some Protestant Bibles in a separate section with certain other books called "Apocrypha"). The events shown on the time line after the time of Jesus are neither in the Hebrew Bible nor in the Christian Bible because the books of the Bible were completed shortly after the time when Jesus lived. Two Jewish holidays, Passover and Hanukkah, are noted on the time line because these holidays are, in part, celebrations of the events mentioned.
. 4000 BC 6000 God creates the world.
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
I — —
L 3000 BC 5000
— — Noah and the Flood.
Y 2000 BC 4000
T Abraham and Sarah--beginning of the Israelites.
Joseph and his brothers move to Egypt.
H — —
S Moses leads the Israelites to Canaan (Passover).
Time of the Judges in Israel.
1000 BC 3000 Kings Saul, David, and Solomon.
Israel splits into 2 kingdoms (Judah & Israel).
H Assyrians conquer and destroy Israel.
Babylonians conquer Judah – Exile in Babylonia.
— — Some Jews return to Jerusalem; are led by Ezra.
Maccabees lead Jews against Syrians (Hanukkah).
S 1 AD 2000 Time of Jesus – Beginning of Christianity.
Jews rebel against Romans;
Jerusalem Temple destroyed.
Jewish life is now centered in the Diaspora.
Muhammad; writing of Qur’an--Beginning of Islam.
1000 AD 1000
Y — —
. Many Jews move from Europe to the USA (1880-1920).
World War II--The Holocaust (1939-1945).
. 2000 AD NOW Modern Israel founded as Jewish homeland (1948).
Please send any comments you may have on this book to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “Bible” in the subject line.
Thanks very much.
Copyright © 1995, 2014 by Michael J. Prival
Permission is hereby given for use of any portion or all of this book, with acknowledgment of the source, for educational purposes only. This work cannot be reproduced, in whole or in part, for any commercial purpose without permission of the author.