In the beginning was the covenant. Israel formed around a covenant, and the model for this covenant is to be found among the Hittites who lived N of Israel in the territory now known as Turkey. It was called a “suzerainty treaty,” and it was the model that Israel used to designate their relationship as the servant or vassal to God, who is envisioned as the suzerain or King. The covenant has promises on the part of God toward Israel, in response to which Israel is called to follow the Torah or “law” or “instruction” which God intends for their governance in all aspects of life: social, ceremonial, and ritual.
The covenant was comprised of twelve tribes that came from disparate areas of the ancient near east and were somehow related. Leagues of tribes were not unknown at the time and formed to create larger units for governance and protection. These units were known among the Greeks as amphictyonies, “leagues of neighbors.” That name was applied (by the scholar Martin Noth) to the league that made up Israel in the land formerly known as Canaan. In recent years, OT scholars have retreated from this concept to focus on a simpler form of organization based on familial ties and family tribes. This fits with the biblical record.
The league of tribes that made up Israel was in some way involved with the movement of the Hyksos people (who were Semites) out of the Levant into Egypt. These are often identified with the Joseph-tribes that were in Egypt and rose to power. The history involves a number of factors: the different tribes were identified with the patriarchal tradition (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), with the sojourn in Egypt, with the exodus from Egypt, with the wilderness wanderings and the revelation at Sinai, and ultimately with the settlement in Canaan, the land of Israel. Involved in this tradition were peoples who were commercial travelers, and who may have been known collectively by the term Hebrews, from a word which means “those who cross over boundaries,” presumably along trade routes. The word is ancient and occurs in Akkadian as hapiru, with the same meaning. Ahmose I rose to power in Egypt and expelled the Hyksos rulers as interlopers not of Egyptian stock in the 15th C BCE. Josephus the early historian identified the Exodus with the expulsion of the Hyksos, which he erroneously translated as “shepherd kings.”
Once the league of tribes was settled in the land, several questions arose in the consciousness of the people: first was, of course, where did we come from? What is our origin? What is our warrant for being in this land as a governable aggregate of peoples in the first place? A second major question was, where did the world come from? Why is there something and not nothing? These questions led to and proceeded from the storytellers. The third question and perhaps the most important one was, who is our God? In a sea of options in the mythologies of the surrounding peoples, how does this people come to understand the God who they serve?
The covenantal answer to the third question was, “God is the one who brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, into this land flowing with milk and honey, with cisterns we did not hew and vineyards and olive trees we did not plant.” So God is connected intimately with two things: freedom from slavery and the possession of a promised land. The third aspect of this connection is what is known as election; namely, that God chose them to be his peoples and gave a promissory note that was fulfilled once they entered the land and took possession of it, fulfilled in the form of land, progeny, and prosperity.
The storytellers gave different renditions of different aspects of the tales that gave response to these questions. Some spoke about the creation of the world and of humanity, and they utilized models with which they were familiar from other cultures but with a difference: they began to move in the direction of understanding that there was and could be only one God, not a collections of gods in some relationship one to another. Hence they began to reduce the mythological element in the other stories they knew, relegating the gods to minor positions and, most importantly, perceiving their God as being outside the creation, not part of it.
These storytellers pondered the problems of humanity, chiefly the origin of evil in the world and its spread throughout humanity. They imagined it as a disease that more or less infects all of us, and they traced a primordial genealogy of sin from the first parents through the sibling rivalry that leads to murder and on through the generations. They utilized the tale of a generic flood to indicate the displeasure their God had at the wickedness of humanity and the desire to begin again. They saw in the well-known Ziggurat of Babylon an image of the confusion that was rampant as people attempted to communicate with those who spoke other languages. Perhaps they yearned for the world to know, once again, a common language.
Some storytellers began to weave together tales about ancestors who were known to some, if not all, of the tribes: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham was the father of the covenant, in their telling, and prominent in the legacy. Jacob was portrayed as the father of the tribes that made up the Israelite confederation. From Jacob came Joseph and that cycle of stories, which was separate from the three patriarchs that became part of the bigger epic of Israel. All these stories are filled with intrigue and human transgression and failure, on one hand, and with redemption or success on the other. This tension between the good and the bad is unresolved.
These stories were eventually compiled into a book we know as Genesis (“origins” in Greek). There are four cycles of stories in Genesis: the primeval history, the Abraham cycle, the Jacob cycle, and the Joseph cycle. They are skillfully interwoven and related in an artistic manner that uses spare language and repetition in order to make its points boldly and memorably.
The next cycle of stories concerns the towering figure of Moses: Moses the Lawgiver, Moses the Prophet, Moses the mediator between God and his people. The laws, most of which were compiled in the book of Leviticus, come in part from the surrounding culture (the Law Code of Hammurabi served as a model for a portion of the laws), but they demonstrate a concern and compassion that was rarely found at the time. All of these laws are in some sense grounded in the covenant that is commemorated in the light of the Exodus, the evacuation of the peoples from the land of Egypt. The monumental aspect of the Exodus is seen in the Revelation at Sinai, where Moses receives the ten words that form the foundation for an entire view of human behavior in relation to God and others.
All of these rich stories were then compiled with the story of the settlement of the tribes in Israel and the disposition of their lands. The one tribe that receives no land is the Levite tribe, who are designated to receive cities but no other land. But there is a hitch here: in the Exodus cycle, Aaron arose as the brother of Moses, and was to be the leader of the priestly order in Israel. So we have here a contended position: on one hand was the Aaronite priesthood, theoretically descended from Moses’ family; on the other hand, we have the Levites. The matter is solved because Aaron (and Moses) designated as Levite in the early documents. But it will arise again later in the books of the Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah where there is a two-tiered priesthood, recognizing both Aaronites and Levites. This may indicate that in the post-exilic period the Aaronites became dominant; hence, the documentary source that points to Aaron’s prominence in Exodus and Leviticus. In the Book of Numbers the Levites serve the Kohanim (priests) and kept watch over the tabernacle.
Lastly in the Torah came the book of Deuteronomy which holds a place of its own, and which has long been identified with the book of the law that the high priest found in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah, and which is dated from 621 BC. This book is a recounting of the law and includes the death of Moses. It became the foundation for the revival of Israel as a covenant people.
Remember, now, that Israel’s covenant was with God the King. As the settlement took root, numerous attempts were made to continue thinking and acting as if Israel were a theocracy. The obvious question was, who can represent the theocratic ideals and governance implied in such a view? So at first there rose up a central charismatic leader, Joshua, the inheritor of Moses’s mantle. The book that bears his name demonstrates that the settlement was not complete until the time of Joshua, which led earlier scholars to refer to the first six books of the bible as a unit called the Hexateuch. Joshua is also concerned with religion: circumcision and Passover rites that mark the entry to the land. Joshua is finally concerned with establishing clear lines for the history of and subscription to the covenant, culminating in chapter 24.
The book of Judges and the books of Samuel and the Kings (I – IV Kingdoms in the Septuagint) continue the same pattern of writing in theme, composition, content, and slant, and thus have been considered to be a continuation of the Deuteronomic history, under the guidance of several scribal hands. Judges continues the theme of the search for an acceptable form of governance, yet maintaining the theocratic motif, under various tribal leaders like Gideon, Deborah, and Samson who rise to prominence among all the tribes as potential governors for all Israel. The final search for a solution occurs after the last of the Judges, Samuel, capitulates to the request of “the people” for a King who can consolidate them as a formidable military power (II Samuel 8). Saul then becomes King, a conflicted man but powerful, and following him is David, the great hero of the period of Kingship. David consolidates empire but dies with his one dream unfulfilled: to build the Temple, which it is left to Solomon to complete.
During the latter period of kingship, the northern and southern parts of Israel cracked into two with rival kings occupying thrones north and south. During this period a group of men arose who are known as the prophets. They stand, for the most part, in tension or opposition to the forces of the kings. Their origin is unclear, but there were precedents among sages and seers in other areas of the Ancient Near East. Only in Israel, however, do they rise with the directed zeal of protecting the covenant and its outreach into the community. Thus the tension seen from the very beginning of the covenant continues down through the ages, this time personified in the ruling powers on one hand and the prophets on the other.
After Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE the southern kingdom continued on until its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Obviously these events were cataclysmic and forced the remainder of the people to rethink their position not only in the land but in their relationship to God. At this point we see the early rise of what will eventually become Rabbinic Judaism, but which goes through a period of the rebuilding of the Temple and a rigid adherence to Law. During this period the book of Psalms was compiled, as well, which has become a classic collection of religious poems beloved across many traditions and none.
During the relatively short period when Israel was essentially untouched by foreign powers in any way that was completely destructive, the people began to muse in a universal way about the gifts they could bring to others or share with them; hence, the period of Wisdom Literature, especially the Book of Proverbs.
The Old Testament was a long time in the making. By the time of Jesus the Torah and the Prophets were place, and most likely the Psalms and the Proverbs. The other books in the writings may have been ratified later but they were surely in existence at that time, although not with the same force of influence that was reserved for, first, the Torah and, secondly, the Prophets. The Bible, in any case, is the crowning achievement of Israel.