Ever since the ancient Greeks, many philosophers have grouped beauty, truth and goodness together as three of the main values of life. As Christians we probably do not need to dispute this, although we will want to say that they can only be properly viewed when we see them in the light of Christ.
Christians believe in the truth of the Bible and see its standards of goodness and also of right and wrong to be those God has revealed. We rarely say much however about beauty. This is perhaps largely due to a long tradition of austerity in influential sectors of Protestantism.
There can be no doubt that the pursuit of beauty can get out of hand. I remember once visiting a famous baroque church on the continent. I opened the door and was almost knocked back physically by what I saw, for not only was everything exceptionally ornate but the colours were most startling. This was over forty years ago, but what I saw then is almost as vividly present to the eyes of my mind now as it was to my physical eyes then. I enjoyed the visit at one level but felt that concentrated worship would be very difficult there for the work of man would be a constant distraction.
In fact a focus on beauty can result in idolatry, and the Reformers were well aware of this. We can visit Athens and see the stunning beauty that is still there from ancient times, but it is noticeable that when Paul visited the city, which will have had many more beautiful things in it in his day, it was not its beauty but its idolatry that struck him (Acts 17:16). Ultimately worshipping only the true God is much more important than appreciating a beautiful building.
Nevertheless a sense of beauty is a gift of God and we can hardly fail to see it in the Bible. I love Genesis chapter 1 and I read it frequently, not simply for the truth it conveys but also for its sheer beauty of expression. At the close of each day’s work, we read there that God saw what he had done and pronounced it to be good, while at the end of the sixth day he said it was “very good”. Now the Hebrew word translated “good” can also mean “beautiful” and I like to think that at the close of his work God said about it, “That’s just lovely!” Because that is exactly what it is. When we admire some beautiful scene we are echoing God’s own verdict on his creation. It is interesting that great scientists like Copernicus and Einstein, both concerned to understand the universe as a whole, placed emphasis on its beauty when it is viewed properly. Paul recognised the splendour of the sun, moon and stars, given to them in God’s creative work (1 Cor. 15:40-41).
Now beautiful things often display some regularity of form plus variety of expression. Regularity without variety can certainly be beautiful but its power to stimulate us to fresh aesthetic delight has limits. Georgian architecture is famous for its regularity and a city like Bath has several breath-taking architectural views in its crescent and circle forms, all in the Georgian style, but its Gothic Abbey shows a different kind of beauty, where there is much variety as well as order. The Bible displays these qualities too. Psalm 136, for example, has a refrain running through it, and this binds together all the items in which the psalmist saw God’s love and for which he praised him.
As you read the Bible, you should avoid two extremes. On the one hand it is possible, though difficult, to ignore its aesthetic qualities altogether, while on the other to be so taken up with them that we miss its message. As a boy, I loved hearing certain passages being read from the Old Testament, especially from Isaiah. Some chapters moved me considerably at the aesthetic level, but I had little inkling of their import as the Word of God. I particularly loved Isaiah 35, which was then read in all its early seventeenth century beauty from the Authorised Version (but which is beautiful in any good translation), but I had very little clue as to its meaning. The beauty is not there for its own sake, but as a vehicle for the truth.
1. The languages of the Bible
The great bulk of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew, although one verse of Jeremiah (10:11) is in Aramaic, which is also the language of approximately half of Daniel and of Ezra. Hebrew and Aramaic employ the same script and both belong to the Semitic language group, which was very widespread in the Near Eastern Old Testament days. Aramaic was the lingua franca for the area for much of the period and the Jews became acquainted with it during their years of exile in Babylon. After their return it gradually supplanted Hebrew as the language of the common people.
Every language has its characteristic features and it is this that makes translation from one language to another such a fascinating and at times such a difficult enterprise. The typical Hebrew sentence style is compound rather than complex; in other words, it tends to use simple conjunctions to join clauses, and sentences with many subordinate clauses are very unusual. This stands out clearly if one turns from the Hebrew of an Old Testament book to a New Testament epistle, for these often abound in subordinate clauses.
Hebrew is also a strongly concrete language, sparing in its use of abstractions, and where there are abstract words these are frequently metaphorical and so have an appeal to the imagination. For example, “sin” is literally “missing the mark” and “to trust” is “to lean on”, “to stand on”, or some other concrete expression.
A missionary working amongst a tribe of people and deeply desiring to make the gospel known to them was confronted with a major difficulty. This society was very dysfunctional and the people had little trust even in each other, let alone in outsiders. This feature of their life was so marked that they appeared not even to have a word for faith. He prayed about the situation. One day a man came into his hut after a long and tiring journey, flopped down on a seat and said to the missionary, “I’m going to lay my whole weight on this seat.” The missionary gave thanks to God that his prayer had been answered, for he now knew how to convey the idea of trust. In fact, the man had, without knowing it, employed a concrete Hebrew way of referring to faith.
The New Testament is in Greek. This differs somewhat from Attic Greek, the literary language of the Greek classics. It used to be thought that it was a kind of “Holy Spirit Greek”, especially adapted to the purposes of the New Testament writers, but it is now clear that it is the common (koiné) non-literary Greek used throughout the Graeco-Roman world, although with some peculiarities of vocabulary due mostly to its subject matter.
This accords so well with the fact that the gospel was intended for everybody, and shows that Tyndale was on right lines when he said he wanted the boy who drove the plough to be able to understand the Bible in his own tongue. I once met a Christian man who said he did not like modern translations of the Bible because he could understand them too easily; they lacked what for him was the mystique of the Authorised Version! How mistaken, especially as there has probably never been a version with clearer language for the people contemporary with its first publication.
The prologues to Luke’s two volumes are more in the style of classical Greek, although interestingly the bulk of Luke, chapters 1 and 2, show such a lot of influence from the Old Testament and its forms of language that the reader feels at times that Luke is introducing us to people with a spirituality not unlike that of Hannah or David.
Although the Old and New Testaments are in different languages, there is a most helpful linguistic connection between them, because in New Testament times there was an important translation of the Old Testament into Greek, known as the Septuagint. This was used in the many Jewish synagogues that were scattered throughout much of the Greek-speaking world. Because it was well-known to so many of the early Christians, it was usually the version of the Old Testament quoted by the New Testament writers.
The Old Testament writers make much use of figures of speech, especially metaphor and simile. There are of course instances where we cannot be completely certain whether the literal or a figurative sense is intended. It is a good principle to assume that the language is meant literally unless to do so will not make good sense, as, for instance, in Isaiah 8:7 and 8, where it is obvious that the River (the Euphrates) stands for the people through whose land it flows (the Assyrians).
The New Testament writers also employ figures of speech, and there is often a consistency about the use of one figure in different parts of the Bible, so that the figure becomes part of the technical language of Scripture. So, for example, the Suffering Servant of God is likened to a slaughtered lamb in Isaiah 53:7 and, because the New Testament writers saw Christ in this chapter, it is often applied in the New Testament to him.
Despite this general consistency, however, we should not assume too easily that the technical sense is always being used. “Leaven”, for instance, often symbolises evil, because of the way evil permeates society, but it is very difficult to understand it thus in Matthew 13;33, where, however, it still suggests permeation. The word “lamb” is applied to Jesus more than twenty times in Revelation, but there is one exception to its technical use there. See if you can find it!
Language can be used to convey emotional tone as well as to articulate meaning. For instance, in Isaiah 5:1-7 the message of God comes in the form of a song. Hebrew is strong in gutturals, but not in this passage until the last line of verse 2 when the whole tone changes, in line with the meaning of the words. The initial tone may have lulled the hearers into a complacent mood (“Oh, what a beautiful song!”) so that the impact of the stern message would be all the greater when it came.
There are times when we can almost hear the tone of voice a speaker uses. In Luke 15:28-32 Luke records the conversation between the father and the older son at the conclusion of our Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Both the son and the father use the word “this”, but with what difference of tone! The son refers contemptuously to “this son of yours” (verse 30), but the father, with gentle rebuke, to “this brother of yours”(verse 32). No doubt in telling this parable Jesus will have used the appropriate tone of voice in each case.
In Mark 15:29, those who passed by the cross of Jesus hurled insults at him. Their first word is rendered “so” in the NIV. The Greek word is exceedingly harsh, almost like the barking of a dog, and so it conveys by its sound something of the venom of those who uttered it. For the discerning, it might even have recalled Psalm 22:16.
For those who are able to do so, time spent in learning the biblical languages is well invested. Greek is the simpler of the two for English speakers, because it is a European language and its system of cases, tenses, moods, voices and so on is not unlike the systems that operate in most European languages that are descended from an Indo-European ancestor. Not only so, but there are links of vocabulary to our own English language. Hebrew is more difficult but has its own fascination, and, even though not easy, is simpler than such languages as Chinese and Japanese or Arabic. There is really no need for anyone, apart from those who intend to do some specialist studies at an academic level, to learn Aramaic.
2. The varied literary forms of the Bible
Serious students of the Bible have always been aware that it contains a number of literary forms known as genres. This variety adds to the joy of reading the Bible, for it adds constant interest for the reader. It does mean, however, that a number of different approaches need to be made to its study.
No acquaintance with the Bible, even a superficial one, can miss the fact that much of it is in the form of history. This is true of much of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and of the books which follow it from Joshua to Esther. This divine library then obviously places much emphasis on past events.
It is important not to have too stereotyped a view of history. Much of the history that has been taught in schools for generations lays considerable stress on political developments and the relationships between nations. It is largely a political and to some extent a military history. More recently, an important element of social history has often been incorporated. Judged by either of these two types, the biblical history may be found wanting. This is because it is not being interpreted in terms of its proper nature. This is what Gilbert Ryle called a “category mistake”.
The history in the Bible is essentially religious history. This is why, for instance, the Books of Kings give little space to the reign of Omri and much to that of his son, Ahab. The political historians reckon the former much more important than the latter, and he was in fact one of the few kings of the northern kingdom who had some international importance; for some time after his death, Israel was known as “Omri-land”. It was Ahab, however, rather than his father, who figured in a major way in the religious history of Israel. If the author of Kings had focused on Omri rather than Ahab, he would have been untrue to his purpose.
The Books of Chronicles often seem to the superficial Bible reader to be redundant, as so much in them also appears in the books of Samuel and Kings. At the Bible College where I worked we once advertised an evening class course on these books and very few people signed up for them. They are by no means redundant, however, for the perspective is different.
Instead of giving much space to the northern kingdom after the division of the kingdoms, as does Kings, Chronicles concentrates on the south with its capital at Jerusalem. There is also a major interest in worship and in the line of David. It is therefore not surprising that Jerusalem figures largely in it, for the temple was there and the city was David’s capital. As Christians we ought to be interested in Chronicles, as the Davidic theme is important for us because Christ came of the line of David. Not only so, but the nature of worship is a major talking-point in churches today.
Remember that a book of history never tells its story in complete chronological sequence. In fact it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do this consistently. There is often a concentration on a particular theme which is followed up in the writer’s account of a number of years, after which he returns to an earlier point to pursue another theme, and so on.
There is history too in the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early church from the ascension of Jesus from the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem to the arrival of Paul in Rome. It’s theme, which is set out for us in Acts 1:8, is mission, ever-expanding mission under the impetus, empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Roman officials appear in it from time to time, but not at all for their own sake or to introduce a political dimension to the history but simply because the story of the church impinges on them in some way.
This covers much of the books from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Several features of it deserve attention from the Bible student:
i. It is very different from the Code of Hammurabi
Hammurabi was an important king of Babylon in the Eighteenth Century BC and the Mosaic Law is often compared to his Code. There are major differences, however, for in his code the penalties attached to infringements of the law depend largely on the status of any person or persons that are affected by somebody’s misdemeanour. The differences can be so extensive that the penalty for some offences ranges from a comparatively small fine to execution. The only measures in the Mosaic law that differentiate between persons concern the offerings and sacrifices, so that in Leviticus 5 the difference is related to wealth, for a poor person was allowed to bring a less costly offering than a richer one. This was surely motivated not by status but by compassion.
Such a big difference needs an explanation, and this can only be in terms of religion, for ethics needs to have a basis (why should I do this and not do that?) and this basis is normally religious. It is the kind of God we worship that determines the kind of things we should and should not do. The ethical and compassionate nature of the God of Israel, what is often called the “ethical monotheism” of the Old Testament, determined this feature in the laws of the Pentateuch.
ii. It is related to the life of God’s chosen people
It is of great importance that we do not forget this, and for two reasons.
First of all, they were a particular people living in a particular land at a particular period of history. Each of these three facts influenced the form taken by the laws God gave them. These laws were not for the Ammonites or the Babylonians, but for the Israelites; Jerusalem was the focus of so much because it was their capital city; there were laws related to the ox and the ass, but not to modern forms of agriculture or transport. Incidentally, they were in the desert when the Law was given but their life in Canaan was in prospect and the laws were tailored by God to the life they would have there.
It is important, too, to remember that the Law was given in the context of the Old Covenant before the establishment of the New Covenant in Christ. There is a new order now. The Epistle to the Hebrews is the New Testament book that deals most with this kind of thing and it emphasises not only that this order is new (Hebrews 9:15; 10:20), but also that it is better (Hebrews 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23).
All this is important, and has to be considered seriously when we seek to see how these laws relate to Christians living in very different situations today.
iii. It should not be confused with the oral traditions of the Jews
Law needs to be a much more flexible element in human society than many people realise. This is because many changes take place in society so that certain laws are no longer applicable in their original form. So, for instance, suppose the British Parliament were to decide that from now on everybody should drive on the right hand side of the road instead of the left; if this happened, many of the laws affecting driving would need to be changed, although of course the principles underlying the laws would not.
As we noted in Study 3, the Jewish Rabbis were concerned both with the Law and with the society of their day, and how the former could be applied to the latter. For this reason they made decisions and pronouncements which adapted the prescriptions of the Law to changed conditions. These Rabbinic traditions were very influential in New Testament times and affected the way the Jews interpreted the Old Testament. Jesus was concerned that these traditions seemed often to be more important in the minds of the Jewish leaders of his day than the Word of God itself (Mark 7:1-8), for the written law was given by God’s inspiration while the oral was not.
iv. It contains important principles valid for all time
It is usual to distinguish three types of law in the Pentateuch: moral, civil and ritual or ceremonial. The ceremonial laws are concerned with the people’s worship of God, the civil with the ordering of their common life, and the moral with the great ethical principles which should govern their conduct, the most basic and important of which are found in the Ten Commandments.
The Epistle to the Hebrews makes it clear that the ceremonial laws, with their emphasis on sacrifice, were fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ, so that worship now is focused on him. Some of those for whom the epistle was written were apparently wondering if they had made a mistake in converting to Christ and were thinking of going back and embracing the Jewish ritual system again. The writer makes it clear to them that because of the work of Jesus on the cross the old system had been abolished; there was no valid system to go back to (Hebrews 10:12, 26). This does not mean these sacrifices have no interest for us; anything but, for they help us to understand the significance of the cross. More about this later.
The civil laws, extensive as they may appear to be, are in fact much fewer than those that appear on the statute books of modern states. As they stand, they do not apply to any such state, for no modern state is a theocracy, a state under the direct rule of God. In any case it is difficult to make laws designed for a largely agrarian society fully applicable to a modern technocracy. We may however discern important principles in them, for they bear the marks of the ethical nature of Israel’s relationship with God. As we noted above, the laws were given to the Israelites, not to the Ammonites or Babylonians. Although this is true, it is also true that the God the Israelites worshipped is the God of all the earth, and so this too is why we can find universally valid principles in them.
The Ten Commandments, which sum up the moral law of God, were given in quite special circumstances which underlined their very special nature. They were given by the audible voice of God with highly dramatic accompaniments (Exodus 19-20). It is evident from their use in the New Testament that they were meant to be abiding standards of godly behaviour. To see this, it would be worth going through the Epistle to the Ephesians, for instance, to discover how many of these commandments are represented there in some form or other. What you discover may surprise you, for a majority of them are there.
Even the small touch of particularism in the Tenth Commandment, represented by the words, “his ox, his donkey”, is put into perspective by the universalism of “anything that belongs to your neighbour’s” (Exodus 20:17). Our neighbours may not possess any domestic animals but they do have possessions, and we must not covet them.
i. Its essential nature
Prophecy is a particularly prominent feature of the Old Testament and it is important to recognise its nature.
Is prophecy prediction? The two are often confused, which is not surprising, for there is an important predictive element in much prophecy. In its essence, however, prophecy is speaking for God, and the prophets often commented on God’s deeds in the past and on the present condition of the people of Israel as well as dealing with the future.
This accounts for the strange fact that the Jews used the term “Former Prophets” to designate the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, while the books from Isaiah to Malachi (apart from Daniel and Lamentations) they dubbed the Latter Prophets. This is because the writers of these history books were not simply recording what happened; they were commenting on it, as the prophets did in relation to the events of their own day. In 2 Kings 17:7-23, the inspired historian virtually preaches a powerful sermon on the evil of rebellion and the inevitability of God’s judgement on it. In fact, when the reader gets to this point in the book, she or he begins to wonder whether the book was written largely to illustrate the points made in this “sermon”.
ii. The Law and the Prophets
Moses had a pre-eminent place as the Old Testament prophet par excellence, so that in a sense the prescriptions of the Law were prophetic utterances, although of course the Ten Commandments were uttered by the audible voice of God.
J. A. Motyer has pointed out that for the Old Testament Moses is not only the greatest of the prophets but that he is also the normative prophet, “he …fixed the theological norm by which all subsequent teaching could be judged… The voice of the true prophet is always the voice of the law of God, once for all declared through Moses”. The place of Moses therefore is very similar to the place occupied by the apostles in relation to New Testament prophets (1 Cor14:37; 1 John 4:1-6).
iii. The extent of prophecy in the Old Testament
This is very considerable. In addition to the written prophecies, there are, for instance, the prophecies of Balaam in Numbers 23 and 24, and the historical books record the acts and words of such prophets as Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and a number of others. In the New Testament David is described as a prophet (Acts 2:30), so we would expect to find some prophetic material in psalms ascribed to him in the Book of Psalms. Even the blessings pronounced by the patriarchs on their descendants in accordance with God’s covenant promises can also be so regarded (Psalm 105:15). We have already seen that the Jews called certain historical books the Former Prophets.
In the New Testament, sometimes the whole Old Testament seems to be described as prophecy ( Matt. 26:56; Luke 24:27; Rom. 16:26), just as at times it is referred to as Law (John 10:34; 15:25; 1 Cor.14:21) or as Sacred Writings (Matt. 21:42; John 5:39; 1 Cor. 15:3,4), following the three divisions of the Jewish canon of Scripture. So the New Testament writers recognised that the whole Old Testament is prophetic in pointing to Christ.
It is, of course, the writing prophets we are thinking of particularly in this section of our study.
iv. Prophetic Styles and Forms
There is a great deal of variety in prophecy. Its literary style varies, so that we get the beautiful Hebrew and hammer-blow repetitions of Amos, the exalted metaphorical style of Isaiah, the multitude of illustrations employed by Hosea.
Most of the prophecies we have in written form were delivered first of all orally. It is possible though that the supremely great chapters in Isaiah which run from 40 to 55 were never spoken but that the written form is the original. This is not certain, but it seems likely because the prophet was unlikely to be able to proclaim the word of God openly during the dark days of Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-18), and, moreover, the continuous flow of the thought in these great chapters has often suggested to readers that they were composed as a continuous discourse.
The written prophecies consist sometimes simply of oracles, speeches inspired by God, whereas on other occasions another element, intimately related to the prophecy, is recorded, such as a dream or vision or the sight or sound of something in the objective world, which furnished the means by which the prophecy was given or introduced. This kind of thing sometimes occurs, for instance, in the Book of Amos There are some dialogues between God and his prophets, as in the Book of Habbakuk. There are also prophetic actions recorded, usually with verbal interpretative comments. There are quite a number of these in Ezekiel.
There were times when the experience of the prophet was a vehicle for the prophecy. This can be seen particularly in the life of Hosea, whose sad marriage became a kind of allegory of God’s covenant “marriage” to Israel. This shows how demanding the prophetic calling could be.
Often the prophets said “the word of the LORD came to me”, or “this is what the LORD says”, or some other similar expression. There are times when we are simply told what they said without the use of such a formula, but there can be no doubt that on these occasions too they were vehicles of God`s message. Whether directly or indirectly they were always given words to speak which were the word of God carrying God’s own authority.
The prophetic books contain forms such as laments (including funeral dirges), taunt- songs, law-suits, love songs, harvest songs, war and victory songs, and so on. These were all taken from the ordinary life of the people.
There were also of course specifically religious forms, such as hymns, prayers, confessions of sin, confessions of faith. It is often assumed that many of these forms, both secular and religious, were somewhat standardized in structure, so that the inspiring Spirit took up already familiar forms and employed them in the service of God’s word.
v. The Structure of the Prophetic Books
It is not known for certain how particular prophetic books were put together, whether by the prophets themselves or by their disciples.
Some of the books show evidence of very careful structuring. This is notably true of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. In these books the structuring is so distinctive that it actually contributes to the message itself. This is much less so in other books. It is not easy to discern structure in Jeremiah, but it does look as though there is something of a thematic arrangement in it.
One important structural feature of Old Testament prophetic books, which distinguishes them sharply from a New Testament epistle such as Romans, Ephesians or Hebrews, is the fact that there is not usually a consecutive argument running through them. Often two oracles may be placed in sequence, without any indication of a break, and these may differ considerably in time, in audience, in tone and in theme. There may also be a move from a local to an universal perspective or vice versa, from an oracle of salvation to one of judgment or vice versa.
Sometimes there are oracle markers showing where one ends and another begins. There is a striking example of this in Zechariah 8, where the repetition of “this is what the LORD almighty says”, appears to indicate that the chapter contains many brief oracles. The use of such markers is not however invariable; simply to realise this is to be saved from all kinds of problems and also from the necessity for performing exegetical gymnastics to try to see a thematic unity which may in fact not be present at all. Such markers are a more consistent feature of some books (e.g. Jeremiah and Zechariah) than of others (e.g. Hosea and Micah).
vi. Some hints on the study of the prophets
1. Begin with one of the shorter prophets, like Habbakuk or Haggai or Malachi. You could then go on to a book like Amos which, although longer than these, has a relatively simple structure and does not contain too much that would puzzle the present-day reader.
2. After a first reading of the book, learn something about its historical background. Your “brief introductions” will give you this. Some of this information will be taken from the Old Testament historical books and some from what is known from other sources, such as the inscriptions on monuments that archaeologists have unearthed.
3. In your first reading of them, do not worry too much about sections you do not understand. Concentrate on those you do. If you still do not understand after several readings, consult a good commentary.
4. Seek to feel the pulse of the prophets: their great concern for the glory of God, their deep sense of the sin of the people, their wonder at the promises of God’s grace. Ask yourself to what extent you can identify with all this.
We will consider other types of Biblical literature in the next study.
For further Reading: G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, Chapters 5, 6, 9, 10.