Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man:
The New Old Testament

In recent years the study of the Old Testament has for many of us suddenly become alive and relevant to an unexpected degree. This access of vitality to what had been a more or less rigid discipline is the result in large measure of archaeological findings that for the first time enable us to see the religion of Israel against the background of its ancient Near Eastern environment.

With the help of this material we can test and appraise reconstructions of Biblical history and theology which otherwise tend to be at the mercy of presuppositions handed down by the Biblical criticism of past years. To take one example: the patriarchal narratives have frequently been held to reflect less the society and ideas of the age with which they claim to deal than those of a later one—if, indeed, they are not, as some have thought, pure invention. Yet the contemporary evidence from Nuzu in Assyria has shown that these stories faithfully preserve customs typical of the 2nd millennium and not of the 1st. When Sarah, for instance, being childless herself, gave her handmaid to her husband to bear him children, we now know that she was merely following a custom of the time. There is thus a greater disposition today to accept the substantial historicity of the patriarchal narratives and to take at face value what they have to tell us of Hebrew culture in that period. Again, in the last twenty years we have been in the possession of a considerable body of texts from Ras Shamra which allow us to reconstruct with a hitherto unhoped for exactness the culture and religion of Canaan, and which illuminate the Old Testament at many points.

The extensive use of this comparative material for the understanding of the Old Testament is a characteristic feature of the most vital of the modern groupings of Biblical scholars—the Scandinavian school. In any scholarly discussion of the Old Testament for a long time to come, we shall hear the names of Pedersen, Engnell, Haldar, Bentzen, Widengren, Kapelrud, Oestborn, and Lindhagen. One of the most influential works of this school—Engnell’s Gamla Testamentet—is still available only in Swedish, but his Studies in Divine Kingship first appeared in English, as have most of the major works of the other writers.



The older approach from which the Swedish critics dissent so radically is associated with the great name of Julius Wellhausen. The Wellhausen method subjected the Biblical documents to intensive literary analysis for the purpose of reconstructing the course of development of Israelite thought. It was a magnificent synthesis of the imaginative and the scholarly, although one of its most surprising features has always been the virtual disregard of such archaelogical evidence as might be available for checking the reconstruction. It is safe to say, however, that the Wellhausen reconstruction of the development of the religion of Israel has now been decisively demolished. Wellhausen’s analysis of the Pentateuch into four basic documentary sources (a number that some later scholars have increased) has always been the citadel of the theory, and it is just this that the Scandinavians are inclined to reject, heavily stressing instead the role and characteristics of oral tradition in the ancient world.

Yet the older approach was not lightly put forward by idle scholars on a wet Sunday afternoon for want of anything better to do. It represents a serious attempt to grapple with the Unformlichkeit, the formlessness, of the Pentateuch, and to do justice to its repetitions, overlappings, and contradictions. If most of us now have qualifications to make about the Wellhausen analysis with all its textual dissections and emendations, no better hypothesis—and a hypothesis it confessedly is—has yet arisen to take its place.

Wellhausen’s theory of the growth of Israelite religion saw it as a development from the animistic worship of the patriarchs, via the localized tribal deity of pre-prophetic Israel, to the universal monotheism of the later chapters of Isaiah. Now the most obvious objection to raise against this view is that it is not how the Old Testament itself interprets its own history. For the Old Testament sees Israelite history not as proceeding along any kind of line of development, but as a series of crises in which the Word of God descends upon the temporal world in the twofold aspect of judgment (involving the rejection of a faithless people) and Messing (bringing about the recreation of a true and purified nation). This is a dynamic interpretation of history with which we, against the background of our own times, are instinctively more in sympathy than with the “evolutionary meliorism” of an earlier generation.

It is now generally recognized that the Wellhausen approach owed much to the Hegelian evolutionary philosophy of history, and as a matter of fact Wellhausen himself acknowledged the extent of his debt to Vatke, a pronounced Hegelian in whose Die Religion des Alten Testamentes (1835) the seed of the later scholar’s reconstruction was already present. As a result of this Hegelian influence, subsequent Biblical criticism tended to divide the Old Testament against itself over the nature of true religion, with Judaism regarded, in the familiar terms of the Hegelian dialectic, as a synthesis of the pre-prophetic faith (thesis) and the prophetic reaction (antithesis).

Modern criticism exhibits an opposite tendency; it understands (to adapt a phrase Professor H. H. Rowley used in a related context) that “sharp lines of division are not to be drawn, while recognizing that differences exist.” It was characteristic of the old critical orthodoxy to maintain that prophecy stood in sharp contrast to the Law; that the prophets, seeking a more “spiritual” religion, would have none of the sacrificial cult. The prophetic writings do, of course, contain severe strictures on the religion of their day. But many of the Psalms are now thought to have originated in the sacrificial cult, yet these contain features which in style and content recall the oracles of the canonical prophets. Scholars who have followed up this clue therefore postulate the existence of groups of cultic prophets in Israel with the same close relation to the sanctuary which we now know obtained in the case of ecstatic groups in other lands.

This would explain the frequent Biblical yoking of priest and prophet in a single phrase, as well as the presence of cultic and ritual ideas in the canonical prophets. The new tendency is thus to interpret the apparently anti-cultic Biblical oracles as revealing only hostility to the wrong or foreign cult (Amos); to the cult regarded as an end in itself (Isaiah, Jeremiah); and to the cult offered in the wrong spirit (Hosea, Micah). In this account, the prophets are no longer cut off so sharply from their roots in the life of the people, and it once again becomes possible to see the unity of the Old Testament.



But in any case it seems doubtful that the metaphors of growth and development employed by the Wellhausen school can be satisfactorily applied to the ideas of the Old Testament; they derive from biology and are not necessarily valid in the religious sphere, where “advanced” and “primitive” conceptions of God can exist side by side in the mind of any one man. The biological analogy fostered the assumption that the early sections of the Bible must be the most primitive in their religious notions, almost verging on pure superstition; any “advanced” ideas found there would then represent the work of later editors. Consequently the world of the patriarchs, as revealed in the early parts of the Bible, was interpreted in terms of animism and polytheism, with room being made for a few side influences from totemism and ancestor worship.

Yet we know from the comparative study of literature that long before the patriarchs appeared on the scene, the Orient had left animism well behind. In support of this judgment, Professor G. Ernest Wright of Chicago, in The Old Testament Against its Environment, points to the existence of temples in the Near East from the beginning of the 4th millennium. The general trend of religious development may well have been along the lines the older view suggested, but to compress it into the few centuries making up the Biblical period is an impossible procedure. The evidence which we now have from the environment of early Israel not only reveals a more or less sophisticated civilization, but also well-developed concepts of a personal God. The work of such scholars as Andrew Lang, Father Wilhelm Schmidt, and Geo Widengren has led to the conclusion that belief in “High Gods” whose powers were considered universal in extent is quite ancient. Engnell has contended that the God of Moses was fully such a one: “The god of creation and of destiny, the god of lightning and of rain, the giver of fertility and the judge, ethically differentiated” (i.e. not transcending the contrast between good and evil).

Such a Being is a long way from the local, anthropomorphic nature deity of earlier writers. Arguments for a primitive monotheism that spring from our new knowledge of the nature of ancient religion, and not from any theological parti pris, have therefore to be given more serious consideration than was once fashionable—though the monotheism in question is not to be defined in a Greek speculative sense. This position has most recently been maintained by a young Scandinavian scholar, Helmer Ringgren, in his Word and Wisdom (1947).

Ringgren draws attention to two processes in the thought world of the ancient Near East. The first he calls Gottespaltung (“splitting of God”), in which what were originally qualities of a High God, such as his righteousness and truth, are split off, personified, and worshipped as divine. On the other hand, there is a simultaneous process of Göttervereinigung (“uniting of Gods”), whereby different gods could be recognized as manifestations of a supreme God who has absorbed their characters and functions. Of such a nature is a Babylonian text of the late 2nd millennium praising the war-god Ninurta, and listing the more important gods as parts of his body. Enlil and Ninlil are his two eyes, his lips are Anu and Antum, his skull Adad, his breast is Nabu, his neck is Marduk, and so on. In this way, too, other gods could be deprived of independent theological existence.



The central event in the religious life of the ancient Near East was a New Year festival which could be celebrated in either spring or autumn, as both of these were critical times when the threat of famine became real. In such a crisis, human society could not be thought of as standing to one side and out of things. And in fact, the ancient Near Eastern mind made no rigid distinction between the world of men and that of the gods: human history was merely one aspect of cosmic ideas and activities. The whole universe was ruled by the same general cosmic principle of a “right” and secure order which had been established through the ceremonies of this New Year festival. In an important and influential book, Myth and Ritual, edited by Dr. S. H. Hooke in 1933, a group of English scholars enumerated five elements in the annual festival, whose central figure was the king regarded as divine:

1. The dramatic representation of the death and resurrection of the god.

2. The recitation or symbolic representation of the myth of creation.

3. The ritual combat, depicting the triumph of the god over his enemies.

4. The sacred marriage.

5. The triumphal procession, in which the king played the part of the god and was followed by a train of lesser gods or visiting deities.

In sum, the festival was a kind of dramatic representation of “the primeval struggle between the gods which issued in the Creation. As the representation effected what it signified, it was drama with a purpose.

Now one of the most keenly disputed subjects among Old Testament scholars today is whether this type of festival was ever observed in Israel, although the texts discovered some years ago at Ugarit (a port city in Northern Syria) show that it was known in Canaan. It is doubtful whether there is any direct reference to it in the Old Testament itself, but we may have to take into consideration here the possibility of a censorship of our sources by a later age to which such rituals were abhorrent. In fact, at several places in our sources we meet echoes of the festival pattern; the references, for instance, to the fight between God and a monster variously designated as Rahab, Leviathan, the Sea, a Serpent seem to relate to the old myth of the fight between the divine hero, Marduk, and Tiamat, the watery chaos of Babylonian legend. This myth was the spoken element which accompanied the acted ritual combat.

Again, a characteristic observance of the Feast of Tabernacles to this day are the succoth, or booths of greenery. The suggestion has been offered that this is connected with the idea of the sacred marriage where the bridal chamber of the god-king was similarly decorated. These two features, to mention no others, meet us in the Old Testament as disintegrated elements of what was originally a single complex.

But the strongest evidence for the existence in Israel of the New Year festival is to be found in the Psalms, where we come upon indications of such essential features of the ceremony as the triumphal procession. The modern tendency—again in contrast to the older one—is to see the Psalms as early compositions almost all of which come from the pre-Exilic community—if, indeed, some of them are not simply Israelite adaptations of even older Canaanite lyrics. So, far from their being free excursions by poetic spirits moved to composition by some signal event in nature or history, the Psalms are now given a very concrete “setting in life” in the Israelite cult, where they formed the liturgical recitations which accompanied various acts, explaining their purpose.

It is possible, then, to read verses 7ff. of Psalm 24 quite simply as a liturgical antiphon. The procession halts at the Temple gates and the worshippers cry:

Lift up your heads, O Gates;
And be lifted up, O Ancient Doors,
That the King of Glory may enter.

The ministers then inquire:
Who is this King of Glory?

And the people reply:

Yahweh, a Mighty One, a Hero, Yahweh, a battle Hero!

Psalms such as 93, 96, 97, and 99, in which the phrase “Yahweh has become King” occurs, may also be interpreted as revealing the motif of the Enthronement of Yahweh, which figures in the New Year festival. Of particular interest are Psalms 2 and 110, for in them we find not only “enthronement oracles” originally uttered by some prophetic ministrant of the cult, but also the old idea of the ritual combat: the “enemies”—who are at the same time the primeval powers of Chaos and the political enemies that the kingdom might have to face in the ensuing year—are gathered together so that their defeat can be symbolically represented and effected. Many other Psalms (e.g., 29, 47, 48, 40, 68, and 89) point back in the same general direction to a ritual origin and function, and to conceptions of the king as the “son” of God, his humiliated and then exalted servant.

The advantage of postulating the existence in Israel of some such festival as this is that it makes better sense of the Psalms than the older approach. It also throws light on the occurrence of cultic motifs—for example, “the Day” of Judgment of Yahweh in the prophetic books. The cultic “day” was one of judgment upon hostile ritual-political powers. What the prophets do is to historicize this motif. They take it right out of the mythical world of the cult and apply it to present or near-future history, in which not the enemies of God and Israel, but Israel herself stands under the judgment of God. Of this judgment the great empires—whose magnificence and intimidating force we can still feel two and a half millennia later as we contemplate their echoing monuments—are the divinely chosen instrument.



It is also interesting to notice that many of these cultic and mythic motifs entered into Jewish apocalyptic literature. The principle here is that Urzeit equals Endzeit (“In our beginnings is our end”): those features which we find attending a religious conception of the creation of the universe we shall also find attending the conception of its dissolution. In conformity with this principle, the ideas of conflict, of judgment, of a divinely chosen leader, and of a Messianic state all reappear in the Jewish apocalyptic books that date from the 1st century b.c.e. What does this mean? Messianism and apocalyptic modes of thought are not, as had been supposed, late developments in Israelite religion but early ones; when such features are found in early texts like the Book of Isaiah, we are no longer justified in assuming, on that ground alone, that they are the work of later writers. It has further been suggested that the New Year festival, with its two-sided theme of humiliation and exaltation, may have been responsible for the similar double-sidedness of the prophetic oracles, with their alternations of the themes of disaster and restoration. Again the lesson is that we must exercise caution before dissecting the text and assigning the prophecies of restoration to a later hand and time.

Yet however attractive the hypothesis of such a festival may be, it remains speculative and beset with difficulties. The most urgent difficulties center around the question of whether Yahweh was ever worshipped as a dying and rising god. The Old Testament knows him so supremely as the Living God that it is difficult to imagine that normative Israelite religion ever thought of him as anything else or connected him with ideas of his own death. Nor was he a mere nature god, for it is of the very essence of Old Testament religion that salvation is to be found not in the repetitive events of nature, but in all the concrete particularity of history. Taking all considerations into account, therefore, it seems more judicious to restrict ourselves to saying only that Yahweh may have been se worshipped at certain times and places when Canaanite influence was strong, but that the rejection of the idea of a dying god by normative Israelite religion did not prevent features of the old Near Eastern pattern from appearing in its cult and literature.



Some further points in the modern treatment of the prophets call for comment. The Wellhausen scheme laid great emphasis upon their role as originators of all that was distinctive in Israel—its monotheism, Messianism, and its ethical note. Yet, as we have seen, the first two, monotheism and Messianism, have a considerable pre-prophetic history; and a study of other Near Eastern literatures reveals that the ethical concern is not entirely distinctive either. Widengren’s Accadian and Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation illustrates this abundantly, as does the Code of Hammurabi (from the 18th century b.c.e., but containing even older material) in which the king describes himself as divinely commissioned “to cause justice to shine forth in the land, to destroy the wicked and the criminal [so that] the strong should not oppress the weak . . . to further the welfare of the people.” At Ugarit, too, we meet the king in his religio-judicial functions, and a similar ethical note is struck: “He judges the cause of the poor, he administers justice to the orphan.” We can therefore no longer think of the prophets as unique in their ethical concern; it seems more just to conclude with Gunnar Oestborn (in Torah in the Old Testament) that the special characteristic of Israelite religion is, more simply, the energy and consistency with which ethics is emphasized as compared to what has—so far—been found elsewhere.

Another point involves the origin and transmission of the prophetic books. Nahum, Habakkuk, Joel, and Deutero-Isaiah are “liturgy types” and were probably put into writing right off, without any preliminary period of oral currency. Amos and Isaiah are another type, the diwan. Their works, as we now have them, were handed down through oral tradition in individual prophetic circles which felt themselves to be speaking in the spirit of their master. In the process, the tradition doubtless underwent a reshaping and an occasional adaptation. In the diwan type, therefore, it is doubtful whether we shall ever be able to recover the ipsissima verba of the master. Interestingly enough, the same conclusion has been reached by many New Testament scholars, who also stress the role of oral tradition in the handing down of the Gospel material, and that material’s reflection, as it now exists, of the life, the interests, and the needs of the early Church. But since Judaism and Christianity are both so intimately connected with history and concerned about historical truth, it seems improbable that scholars will rest content with such skepticism.



The new interpretation of Israelite religion has arisen, as new interpretations usually do, not only from new evidence, but no less directly from a fresh approach to both old and new evidence. Yet it raises problems for the theologian, and for any Jew or Christian.

If Israel shared so much in common with her neighbors, what is the distinctive element in her religion which has made it of such unique significance to herself and others: in a word, what is the contribution of Judaism? Even prophecy, once thought to be original with Israel, is now known to have a pre-history. Ecstatic individuals and groups existed previously and in other cultures. More than that, in some texts from Mari on the Middle Euphrates which date from the end of the 18th century b.c.e., we come upon a prototype of the Old Testament prophets who appears, as they did, unasked and unbidden with an oracle, and making the same claim that “the god has sent me.” Yet we are accustomed to think of the religion of Israel as the uniquely “revealed religion.” Against such a background, the question is sharply posed of what value we are to attach to the claim of the Old Testament that Israel stands in a special relationship to God as the people of his choice, the bearer of his designs for the human race?

Two points need to be elaborated here. The first is one which is easily forgotten in a comparative study of any subject—namely, the distinction between origin and significance. Cult, kingship, priesthood, and prophecy—these things did indeed exist before Israel, and even her very language is but one in a family, and a young one at that. It is right, then, that we should use a comparative approach to illuminate the history and thought of the Jewish people. But we must never make the mistake of thinking that Israel and its neighbors meant the same thing by the institutions they had in common. Parallels with other nations can shed light on the origins and development of an institution like prophecy, but they can never define its significance for Israel. This can only be done in terms of Israel’s own distinctive faith: as customs and habits were taken over, so—and perhaps only after many vicissitudes—they were filled with a new and special content peculiar to Israel. Predominant in this is the belief that the Israelite God was real as no other gods were real, the Lord of History whose mighty acts are revealed in history as he works out his purpose, creating a people out of those who were not a people, delivering them from servitude, entering into a covenant with them—and all this to make them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

But—and here is the second point—this affirmation, which is written into every page of the Old Testament, has to be made in the teeth of all the contingency and ambiguity of history. Judaism, like Christianity, is intimately involved in what the late Gerhard Kittel once called “the scandal of particularity”: the belief that the ultimate meaning of all history is to be found concentrated in a particular series of events which are construed as Heilsgeschichte, the history of salvation. Since Revelation uses ordinary historical phenomena as its vehicle, it leaves room for both doubt and faith; we cannot prove that at one place we are dealing with genuine prophecy and at another with false, or with divine revelation here and with the product of natural reason there.



Now it is no accident that along with the new comparative approach there has gone also a renewed interest in Old Testament theology. In many ways the disturbed and distracted period in which we live has affinities with that of the Bible. The great Biblical themes of the transcendence of God, of God as the Lord and Judge of History, and of man as created for the freedom of grace but as knowing also the captivity of sin—these things come alive for us with an intensity of meaning they could never have in the more static political and philosophical climate of a couple of generations ago when the old approach took shape. An English Christian like myself who has enjoyed rather close contacts with Judaism in the United States can only express perplexity that so little is heard of these classical themes in American Jewish life. Perhaps it is because the American has not shared in the European experience, which since 1914, as Dr. Albright has remarked, “has been little more than an uninterrupted series of catastrophes and disillusionments . . . just as it was for the Israelite from 735 to 538 b.c.”


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