The Interpretation of the Early Narratives of the Old Testament
[Sidenote: Importance of regarding each story as a unit]

Of all the different groups of writings in the Old Testament, undoubtedly the early narratives found in the first seven books present the most perplexing problems. This is primarily due to the fact that they have been subject to a long process of editorial revision by which stories, some very old and others very late and written from a very different point of view, have been closely joined together. While there is a distinct aim and unity in the whole, in approaching them it is simplest to study each story as a unit in itself. Not only is this practical, but it is justified by the fact that almost every story was once current in independent form. Often, as in the case of the accounts of creation and the flood, it is possible to recover the older versions and even to trace their origin and earlier history.

[Sidenote: Classification necessary to determine the point of view]

The first essential, however, is to determine to the point of view and purpose of the biblical writer, who has taken the given story from the lips of his contemporaries and incorporated it in the cycle of stories in which it is now found, Here the language, literary style, theme, and conceptions of God and religion are the chief guides. If, as in the first chapter of Genesis, the Deity is always designated as God or Elohim; if the literary style is formal, repetitious, and generic; if the theme is the origin of an institution like the Sabbath; and if the Deity is conceived of as a spirit, accomplishing his purpose by progressive stages through the agency of natural forces, -- it is not difficult to recognize at once the work of a late priestly writer. If, on the contrary, as in Genesis ii.4b to iii.24, Jehovah is the name of the Deity; if the style is vivid, picturesque, and flowing; if the interest centres in certain individuals instead of species; if the themes vitally concern the spiritual life of man; if the Deity is conceived of after human analogies, as intimately associating with men, and as revealing himself directly to them by word and visible presence, -- the work of an early prophetic writer is evidently before us. The identification of the point of view of the author at once puts us into appreciative sympathy with him.

[Sidenote: Value of knowing an author's point of view]

It also enables us intelligently to interpret his words and figures. Knowing, for example, that the first chapter of Genesis was written by a priest who lived long after his race had ceased to think of God as having a body like a man, we cannot make the common mistake of interpreting verse 26 as implying physical likeness. Rather, as his conception of God as a spirit demands and the latter part of the verse proves, his sublime teaching is that man, the end and culmination of the entire work of creation, is like his Creator, a spiritual being, endowed with a mind and a will, and as God's viceregent, is divinely commanded to rule over all created things.

[Sidenote: Practical value of the critical analysis]

Where two distinct versions of the same narrative have been amalgamated in the process of editorial revision, the analysis of the original sources is indispensable to a true understanding and interpretation of the thought of the prophet and priest who have each utilized the ancient story, -- as, for example, that of the flood, -- to illustrate the inevitable consequences of sin and God's personal interest in mankind. Here the culminating purpose of the prophet, however, is to proclaim Jehovah's gracious promise that he will never thus again destroy man or living things; that (viii.21, 22):

While the earth remains,
Seedtime and harvest,
Cold and heat,
Summer and winter,
Day and night
Shall not cease.

The priest, on the other hand, is interested in the renewal of the covenant which insures man's dominion over the natural world, and in the sanctity of blood, and in the primitive, divine origin of the command, Thou shalt not kill (ix.1-6).

[Sidenote: The necessary basis for intelligent interpretation]

Fortunately the work of analysis has been so thoroughly carried out during the last century that there is practical agreement among the Christian scholars of the world on the essential questions. These results are now also available in popular form, so that, without wasting time on technicalities, the pastor and teacher of to-day can utilize them as the basis for more important study and teaching. The origin, the literary form, and the scientific and historical accuracy of each narrative all suggest definite and interesting lines of study, but, as has been noted (p.106), these are of secondary value compared with the religious truths that each story is intended to illustrate.

[Sidenote: Principles of religious interpretation]

Since these stories were preserved because they conserve this higher purpose, it is always safe to ask, What are their distinctive contributions to the grand total of ethical and spiritual teaching found in the Old Testament? At the same time it is exceedingly important always to be sure to read the teachings out of, and not into, a given narrative. By unnatural and fanciful interpretation of these simple stories the friends of the Bible in the past have often wronged it more than have its avowed foes. Each story, like the parables of Jesus, had its one or two central teachings, usually conveyed to the mind by implication rather than by direct statement. The characters who figure in them by their words and deeds proclaim the practical truths and embody the ideals in the minds of the ancient prophets and priests.

[Sidenote: Theme of Genesis ii. and iii.]

The heterogeneous group of stories found in Genesis i.-xi. constitute the general introduction to the succeeding narratives which gather about the names of the traditional ancestors of the Hebrews. Each of these originally independent stories illustrates its own peculiar religious teachings. None has taken a deeper hold on the imagination and made a deeper impression on the thought and literature of the world than that which is found in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Its theme -- the origin and nature and consequences of sin -- is of vital, personal interest to every man of every age.

[Sidenote: The problem of presenting it in a form intelligible to early man]

The problem that confronted the early Judean prophet was to present in form intelligible to the minds of his primitive readers a subject that has taxed to the utmost the resources of the world's greatest philosophers and theologians. The task was comparable to that which fell to the Master when he sought to make clear to his untutored disciples the real nature of the mighty tempest of temptation that raged in his soul at the beginning, and, indeed, later in his ministry. The method adopted was strikingly similar in each case. If the language of modern philosophy and psychology had been at the command of these great religious teachers, it would have but obscured the great truths. These truths must be made objective; they must be expressed in the familiar language of the people. Even the inner struggle of conflicting motives must be presented in words so simple that a child could understand.

[Sidenote: Pictorial elements drawn from popular tradition]

The second and third chapters of Genesis record the effective way in which a great early prophet dealt with his difficult problem. From the lips of the people he took fragments of ancient Semitic traditions. Almost all of the elements which enter into the story of man's fall have been traced to far earlier sources; but the narrative in its present unity and suggestiveness never has and never will be found outside the Bible. How far the prophet adapted to his higher purpose the current Hebrew version can not be absolutely determined. The fact alone remains that it is one of the truest bits of history in the Old Testament, and this not because it is a leaf from the diary of Adam and Eve, but because it concretely and faithfully portrays universal human experience.

[Sidenote: Creation of man and the elements necessary for his development]

In the simple language of popular tradition it proclaims, among other truths, that Jehovah, Israel's God, created man, breathing into him from his own nostrils the vital principle of life and making him the commanding figure in the universe; then that the Creator graciously provided all that was needful and best for his true physical and spiritual development. Incidentally the prophet calls attention to that innate and divine basis of the marriage bond which Jesus re-emphasizes (Matt. xix.4-6). Physical death, according to the story in its present form, was not a necessary part of Jehovah's plan; the implication is that man would not die while he remained in the garden and ate of the life-giving tree. Temptation is not in itself evil, but necessary, if man is to develop positive virtue, for beside the tree of life grows the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with its attractive, alluring fruit guarded by the divine prohibition.

[Sidenote: The struggle in the woman's heart]

The elements of the temptation are all presented in chapter ii., but the serpent, the craftiest of animals, in his conversation with the woman is required to make clear and objective the real nature of the conflict within her mind. The role of the serpent is the opposite of that of Balaam's ass, which figures in a story which comes from the same early Judean prophetic school. In the conversation between the woman and the serpent the true character of all temptation is revealed: it is the necessity of choosing between two courses of conduct neither of which is altogether bad. Curiosity, which is the guide to all knowledge, the beauty of the apple, which appeals to the aesthetic sense, and physical appetite, not in itself bad, -- all these powerfully attracted the Oriental woman of the ancient story. On the other side she felt the compelling power of love and gratitude and the definite divine command.

[Sidenote: The essence of all temptation]

The prophet saw clearly that all the elements of temptation are within man -- a truth sometimes obscured in later Jewish thought. Milton has also led us astray in identifying the crafty serpent with the Satan of later Judaism. The prophet graphically presents another great fact of human experience, namely, that what is one man's temptation is not another's, that the temptation to be real must appeal to the one tested. The crafty serpent is not represented as speaking to the man; he would probably have turned away in loathing. His wife, she who had already sinned, the one whom Jehovah had given him as a helpmeet, herself appeals to the sense of chivalry within him. Hence the conflict rages in his soul between love and obligation to Jehovah and his natural affection and apparent duty to his wife. Thus in all temptation the diviner impulses struggle with those which are not in themselves necessarily wrong but only baser by contrast. Duty is the call of the diviner, sin is the yielding to the baser, motives.

[Sidenote: The real nature of sin]

The Hebrew word for sin, which means the missing of the mark set up before each individual, is the only altogether satisfactory definition of sin ever devised, for it absolutely fits the facts of human experience. Deflection from the moral standard set up by each man's conscience, even though his resulting act seem in itself noble, is for him a sin. Although the influences which led the man and woman of the story to disobey were exceedingly strong, the higher standard had been set up, and in falling short of it they sinned. Thus sin is not God's but man's creation, and results from the deliberate choice of what the sinner knows to be wrong.

[Sidenote: The effects of sin]

In the same simple yet powerful way the prophet depicts the inevitable consequences of sin. At every point the picture is true to universal experience. The most appalling effect of a wrong act is that it destroys peace and purity of mind. It also makes cowards of brave men, and the presence and tender affection of the one wronged suddenly become intolerable. Sin also begets sin. To the cowering fugitives Jehovah comes, as he always does, with a message intended to evoke a frank confession which would tear down the hideous barrier that their sin had reared between himself and them; but, like most foolish, blind Adams and Eves, they hug their crime to their breasts and raise the barrier heaven high by trying to excuse their guilt. Thus they pronounce their own doom. For God himself only one course of action remains: it is to send them forth from his presence and from the life-giving tree, out into the school of hardship and bitter pain, that there they may learn the lessons which are necessary before they can again become citizens of the true Garden of Eden.

[Sidenote: The sequel to the story of man's fall]

Two simple yet exceedingly significant touches lighten the gloom of this universal tragedy of human life. The one is that for the guilty, unrepentant pair, Jehovah himself made tunics of skins to protect them from the inclemency of their new life, -- evidence that his love and care still went with them. The other is the implication that the true garden of Eden was still to be found on earth, and was closed simply to the guilty and unrepentant. The Bible is the record of how men learned the all-important lessons in the painful school of experience. Israel's teachers, each in his characteristic way, led their race on toward the common goal. The Gospels tell of how a man, tempted in all points as we are in a distant day and land found his way again into the abiding presence of God. He was one with the Father, not because he did not meet temptation in all its power, but because, unlike the actors in the primitive story, and all other participants in the drama of life, he yielded only to the guidance of divine impulses. Not content with achieving the goal himself, he gave his energies and his life to showing others how they also might overcome the baser impulses within them and find their way to God's presence and become one with him. Thus, because of what he did and said and was, he forever vindicated his title of Saviour of Mankind.

[Sidenote: The religious teachings of other early stories]

No other early Old Testament narrative is perhaps so full of rich spiritual suggestion as the one just considered, and yet each has its valuable contribution. Even such a story as that of the killing of Abel by Cain forcibly teaches the great prophetic truth that it is not the form of the offering, but the character and deeds back of the sacrifice, that determine Jehovah's favor or disfavor (iv.7). Graphically it sets forth the spirit that prompts the greatest of crimes. In contrast to Cain, defiant yet pursued by haunting fear of vengeance, it also presents the divine tenderness and mercy in granting him a tribal mark to protect him from the hand of man. The similar story of Noah, the first vineyard-keeper, preaches the first temperance sermon in all literature, and also suggests the inevitable consequences of moral depravity so forcibly illustrated in the history of the ancient Canaanites. Even the prosaic table of the nations in Genesis x. emphasizes the conception of the unity of the human family which was destined in time to become the basis of Israel's belated missionary activity.

[Sidenote: Ideals presented in the early prophetic portrait of Abraham]

When we pass to the twelfth chapter of Genesis the independent stories coalesce into cycles, and each cycle, as well as each narrative, has its own religious purpose. In definite outlines each successive group of teachers painted the character of Abraham, the traditional father of the Israelitish race, and held it up before their own and succeeding generations as a perpetual example and inspiration. In the early Judean prophetic narratives he is pictured as the friend of Jehovah. His own material interests are entirely secondary, as illustrated in his dealing with Lot. Without hesitation he leaves home and kindred behind, for his dominating purpose in life is simply to know and do the will of Jehovah. To this end he rears altars throughout the land of Canaan. His chief joy is in communion with God and in the promises to be realized in his descendants. Through warring, hostile Canaan he passes unscathed, for his eyes are fixed on things heavenly.

[Sidenote: Its significance]

It matters little whether or not, far back in the primitive days of Israel's history, a Bedouin sheik anticipated in actual character and life all that was gradually revealed to the prophets of a much later age. The supremely significant fact is that the noble ideal of Israel's earliest teachers was thus vividly and concretely embodied in the portrait of him whom the Hebrews regarded with pride and adoration as the founder of their race. In Hosea and Jeremiah, and less imperfectly in the nation as a whole, the ideal in time became an historical reality.

[Sidenote: Later portraits of Abraham]

The early Ephraimite school of writers picture Abraham as a prophet (Gen. xx.7), and therefore as an exemplification of their highest ideal. In the remarkable fourteenth chapter of Genesis he is a courageous, chivalrous knight, attacking with a handful of followers the allied armies of the most powerful kings of his day. Returning victorious, he restores the spoil to the plundered and gives a princely gift to the priest of the local sanctuary. In the later priestly narratives the picture suddenly changes, and Abraham figures as the faithful servant of the law, with whom originates the rite of circumcision, the seal of a new covenant (xvii). Later Jewish and Moslem traditions each have their characteristic portrait. One, which pictures him as in heaven the protector of the faithful, is reflected in the New Testament (Luke xvi.23-30), Thus each succeeding age and group of teachers made him the embodiment and supreme illustration of its noblest ideals, and it is this ideal element that gives the Old Testament stories their permanently practical value.

[Sidenote: Practical teachings of the Abraham stories]

Having noted the teachings that each individual story and the cycle as a whole conveyed to the minds of their first readers, it only remains for the teacher of to-day to translate them into modern terms. Some of the most important implications of the Abraham stories thus interpreted are, for example: (1) God calls each man to a high mission. (2) He will guide and care for those who are responsive. (3) To those who seek to know him intimately, and to do his will, he will reveal himself in fullest measure, and for such he has in store his richest blessings. (4) He that findeth his life (Lot) shall lose it, and he that loseth his life (Abraham) shall find it.

[Sidenote: Significance of the character of Esau]

The Jacob and Esau stories contain marvellously exact and realistic portraits of the two races (the Israelites and the Edomites) that they respectively represent. Of the two brothers, Esau is in many ways the more attractive. He suggests the open air and the fields, where he loved to hunt. He is easy-going, ingenuous, and impulsive. His faults are those of not being or doing. As long as he had enough to eat and was comfortable, he was contented. He is the type of the world's drifters. Since Aram was far distant he disregards the wishes of his parents and marries one of the daughters of the land. No ambition stirred him and no devotion to Jehovah or to the ideals of his race gave content and direction to his life. Thus he remained a laggard, and the half-nomadic, robber people that he represented became but a stagnant pool, compared with the onrushing stream of Israel's life.

[Sidenote: Jacob's faults]

Jacob's faults are also presented by the early prophets with an astonishing fidelity. Rarely does a race early in its history have a portrait of its weaknesses as well as its strength held up thus prominently before its eyes. Jacob is the antithesis of Esau. While his brother was hunting care-free in the fields, he was at home plotting how he could farther his own interests. When the opportunity offers, he manifests a cold, calculating shrewdness. To make good the title to the birthright thus acquired he does not hesitate to resort to fraud and lying. Then he flees, pursued by his own guilty conscience, and, tricked by Laban, he serves as a slave fourteen years to win the wife whom he loves. At last, again a fugitive from the consequences of his own questionable dealing, he returns with quaking heart to face the brother that he had wronged.

[Sidenote: The elements of strength in Israel's character]

The character is far from a perfect one, and yet the ancient stories suggest its elements of strength. By nature he was selfish and crafty; and yet he has what Esau fatally lacks: energy, persistency, and a commanding ambition. From the first his ambition looks beyond himself to the future of his descendants. Measured by our modern standards, his religious professions seem only hypocrisy; but as we analyze his character we find that a faith in Jehovah, narrow and selfish though it be, was ever his guiding star. Out of the tortuous windings of his earlier years it ultimately led him to a calm old age. Imperfect though his character was, like that of the race which he represented, the significant fact is that God ever cared for him and was able to utilize him as an agent in divine revelation.

[Sidenote: The noble teachings of the Joseph stories]

Even more obvious and universal are the practical lessons illustrated by the Joseph stories. In the early prophetic narratives, Abraham is the perfect servant of God, Jacob the type of the Israelitish race, but Joseph is the ideal man of affairs. Graphically the successive stories picture the man in his making and reveal his true character. He is simple, affectionate, and yet strongly ambitious. His day-dreams make him odious, as in the case of many a boy to-day, to his unimaginative brothers. A seemingly hard fate rudely snatches him from the enervating influences of his childhood home and places him in the severe school of experience, where he is tested and trained. It also opens wide the door of opportunity. Fidelity to every interest and an unselfish response to every opportunity for service soon bring him into the presence of the Pharaoh. His judicious counsels, diplomacy, and organizing ability win for him the highest honors Egypt can confer. With modesty and fidelity he endures this supreme test -- success. Toward his brothers, who had bitterly wronged him, he is nobly magnanimous, and to his kinsmen, who belong to the shepherd class especially despised as boors by the cultured Egyptians, he is loyal and considerate. Above all, not by professions, but by deeds, he reveals the true source of his strength, -- a natural faith in the God of his race and an unfailing loyalty to him.

[Sidenote: Conclusion]

In the same way Moses, the exodus, and the great men and events of Israel's dramatic history, all have a religious importance and significance far surpassing the merely historical. At the same time the methods of modern literary and historical investigation reveal rather than conceal the deeper spiritual truths that they illustrate. The more light that can be turned upon them the more clearly will their essential teachings stand forth. Like the Old Testament as a whole, they grew up out of real life and truly reflect and interpret it, and therefore have a living, vital message to life to-day. Any interpretation that does not ring true to life may well be questioned. Finally, the authority of these ancient narratives depends not upon the historical or scientific accuracy of the individual story that is used as an illustration, but upon the fact that through the experiences and hearts of those who employed them God was seeking to make men free by the knowledge of the truth.

xiii the formation of the
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