I like to think of studying the Bible as similar to studying Shakespeare. We first read Shakespeare in 7th or 8th grade and it was like, okay, there’s all this weird English, all this slang I don’t understand, all these different characters, and I can’t figure out what’s going on. And then we read him again in college and realized that it’s all about sex and lust and romance and violence and drama and petty revenge and suddenly it’s like, “whoa, this stuff is kinda fun! Still hard to read!”
It’s like that with the Bible. If you try to look at it all at once, it’s overwhelming and intimidating and hard to read. But once you take a step back and look at the big picture of what’s going, and understand where you are in the storyline, then the individual stories will start to make sense, and it gets a lot more interesting.
WHAT’S IN THE HEBREW BIBLE
The Hebrew Bible consists of 24 books, divided into three sections:
Torah (Teaching): consists of the first five books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Its timeline runs from the creation of the universe to the moment when Moses brought the Israelites right up to the border of the Promised Land, then called Canaan, roughly today’s modern Israel. The Torah contains the most famous biblical stories, including Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, slavery in Egypt, Moses, Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the parting of the Red Sea, and on.
Nevi’im (Prophets): contains eight books relating a narrative and chronological history of how the Israelites settled the land of Canaan, created their own kingdom, established a monarchy, and then weathered various trials and tribulations over the next several hundred years. It starts around the year 1,200 BCE and goes up to about 500 BCE. Some of the famous stories here are Joshua destroying the walls of Jericho, David and Goliath, the reign of the same David as king, Jonah and the whale (actually it’s a just a big fish), the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE, plus King Solomon and the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekial, among others.
Ketuvim (Writings): contains eleven books, including Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, the Song of Songs, and several others. It’s mostly poetry and prose, a lot of it erotic, and tells theological stories. We also find the story of Queen Esther and Purim here.
The question I get asked on Birthright is: are these stories true? Is this actual, provable history?
A few things to keep in mind:
- The author Reza Aslan points out that people in the ancient world "did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality. . . . [T]hey were less interested in what actually happened, than in what it meant." In other words, while our ancestors may have recognized as well as us that the "fact" of a man raising his arms to split the Red Sea must not be literal, the fundamental message that the act was conveying would be seen as true, and therefore accepted.
- Some things we do have archaeological and textual evidence for. Others are clearly myths, or are even disproven by the archeology. Others are myths perhaps based on real events that the authors of the Bible lifted from other sources to re-purpose for the Jewish narrative.
- To take one example, there is very little archeological or textual evidence of the exodus from Egypt of hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves. On the other hand, why would the Israelites construct a myth that they descended from slaves (as opposed to the gods and heroes of other societies), if there wasn't some truth to it?
We can understand the Hebrew Bible as being about three things:
- a narrative history of the Jewish People — our history and origins
- humanity’s relationship to God
- the relationship of us humans to each other
The relationship of the Jewish people to God in the Bible informs our ethical and spiritual behavior, both to ourselves, and to each other.