The Design of the Old Testament
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The individual responsible for designing and completing the Old Testament was Ezra the priest, who had Nehemiah as his assistant. They both lived in the last part of the 5th century B.C.E. In early times it was the universal testimony of Jews and later Christians that Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C.E. were the ones commissioned to complete the Hebrew canon. 1 What Ezra did was to select the books that were to be accepted as canonical. He then arranged them in proper order, and edited them from the beginning making them understandable for the readers of his time (cf. 2 Esdras 14). Such edits as “unto Dan” in Genesis 14:14 and the concluding sections of Deuteronomy about the death of Moses can best be attributed to Ezra when he completed the text of the Old Testament.
Ezra also changed the style of the Hebrew letters within the Old Testament books from the old Phoenician script of Moses and the early prophets to the “square script” that had become common for international communication by the 5th century before Christ. This change in letter style was not done simply to facilitate the reading of the Bible. There were more important reasons for this procedure. Ezra was able to establish through some simple strokes of the pen an official canon of scriptures that was able to be distinguished (by use of the new letter configurations) from Samaritan manuscripts written in the old Hebrew script. The Samaritans were disposed to retain the old script for their sacred writings and they disdained the “new, modern” script that was contemporary throughout the Persian Empire. This change to the modern type of script by Ezra effectively distinguished what Ezra considered faulty Samaritan scrolls from the ones he edited and placed in the hands of the Temple authorities at Jerusalem.
It is important for the modern Christian to realize that Christ sanctioned this literary maneuver by Ezra. He referred to Ezra’s square script when he said not a jot or tittle would pass from the law until all would be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18). These small horn-like projections (jots and tittles) were not used in the old Hebrew script before the time of Ezra.
Ezra also changed the names of the calendar months from the old names (i.e., Abib for the first Hebrew month) to the common ones then in use in the international Aramaic language (i.e., Abib became Nisan, etc.). This further distinguished the Jewish calendar and its official holyday system from that of the Samaritans. Thus, the changing of the style of letters and revising technical details concerning the calendar were simple acts of editing (ingeniously applied) which settled the majority of canonical and calendar disputes between the Jews and the Samaritans at the time Ezra canonized the Old Testament.
Ezra arranged the authorized scrolls into a proper order for teaching the people and deposited them with the priests in the archives of the Temple (Deuteronomy 17:18; 31:9). A group of 120 priests was ordained to be the supreme ruling body of the land (known as the Great Assembly) of whom Ezra was the chief. 2 They certainly had legislative, administrative and judicial duties within their authority. These priests also assumed the name “Sopherim” (e.g., counters of letters in manuscripts) because they were responsible for reproducing the canonical books for use in the synagogues throughout the land. They counted the letters in each manuscript which they reproduced to assure that the letters agreed with the exact number found in the authorized Temple scrolls.
The 22 books within the Tripartite Divisions (as well as the Tripartite Divisions themselves) had their origin with Ezra and the Sopherim. After Ezra’s death there were some genealogical additions and certain textual emendations made by the Sopherim. This particular employment came to an end by the time of Antiochus Epiphanes in 168 B.C.E. and the subsequent establishment of the Maccabean realm in 165 B.C.E. From then, the supreme ruling body of elders was called the Gerusia, and out of that body came the Sanhedrin of seventy-one members which became, for all practical purposes, the Supreme Court (as well as the legislative body in regard to biblical matters).
There can be no doubt that the canon of the Old Testament was settled by the time the Book of Jubilees was written (150 B.C.E.) because that document speaks of the 22 books as though they were a set of standard and official scrolls. Indeed, the Prologue of Sirach (written in 132 B.C.E.) also mentioned the official Tripartite Divisions as already established. Thus, it was recognized that the Hebrew canon of 22 books (which corresponded to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet) was then complete. This was the Bible of Christ and the apostles.
The books of the Old Testament were not haphazardly arranged. Their positioning was to afford a teaching of overall spiritual principles to the readers — especially to the priests who were authorized to be in charge of the divine library and to the secular rulers who were supposed to execute the biblical legislation within Israelite society.
In this official canon of the Old Testament, the supreme position of importance was accredited to the first 5 books called the Law (Torah). The two divisions that followed (the Prophets Division with 6 books and the Writings Division with 11 books) were arranged with the respective authorities of each of the two divisions in view. The first rank in authority after the Torah belonged to the Prophets, while a second rank status went to the Writings (“the Royal Books”).
This principle of rank is demonstrated throughout the pages of both the Old and New Testaments where the prophets had greater rank than the kings. This is seen clearly in the examples of the prophet Nathan commanding King David with direct orders from God (2 Samuel chapter 12) and also with the prophets Elijah and Elisha instructing both Israelite and Gentile monarchs about what they must do. This exalted position of rank is actually shown with every prophet of the Bible. This even included Jonah telling the Assyrian ruler and his people what God expected them to perform. This is the reason the Prophets Division came next after the first five books of the Law of Moses. They were the next in authority.
Among the prophets themselves there were also degrees of rank. The most notable factor in position among the prophets (and even the ordinary people) was that of eldership. A cardinal principle of social rank among biblical peoples of all eras was that of respect for elders. Moving through
the esteem given to eldership was consistent throughout all periods of the Holy Scriptures. The only rank higher than being an elder was that of a person having a direct commission from God (e.g., Genesis 41:40–44; 1 Timothy 4:12). But in all aspects of normal social rank and protocol, the standard procedure for recognized authority was: “You younger, submit yourselves unto the elder” (1 Peter 5:5). Among the prophets, this social distinction was maintained in all parts of the Holy Scriptures.
In Jewish practice this esteem for elder rank was never abated. As an example of this, note that Philo (in the time of Christ) described the actions of the independent sect of the Essenes. Though they maintained equality among themselves different from normative Judaism, the matter of eldership in rank was consistent with that held by ordinary Jewish people.
“On the seventh day they abstain from their works and come to their holy places called synagogues, and sit in ranks according to their ages, the young below the elder, and they listen attentively in orderly fashion.”
Quad. Omnis Prob. 81
The apostle Paul also showed this recognition of eldership in teaching when he said he was trained in Jerusalem (not as an equal) but “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3).
The principle of eldership is also seen in the positioning of the biblical books within the three sections of the Prophets Division. Those three sections within this Second Division are:
(1) the FORMER PROPHETS (Joshua/Judges & the Book of Kingdoms),
(2) the MAJOR PROPHETS (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), and
(3) the MINOR PROPHETS (the twelve books from Hosea to Malachi)
It is clear that eldership demands a chronological factor. It is a matter of age. Eldership means being older than someone else. Thus, the single Book of Joshua/Judges is placed before the Book of the Kingdoms (our Samuel and Kings) because its theme concerns an earlier period in Israel’s history when the nation had no kings. The latter book (as its name implies, the Book of Kingdoms) gives the history of Israel when they had kings (from Saul to Zedekiah). This obvious chronological disposition of the Former Prophets (using the principle of eldership) makes perfectly good sense as anyone can see.
The second section of the Prophets Division (the Major Prophets) is arranged in the identical format. Isaiah gave his prophecies in the middle of the 8th century B.C.E. while Jeremiah later began his prophetic ministry about 627 B.C.E. followed even later by Ezekiel in about 592 B.C.E. (these dates are according to the received chronology).
The third section of this Prophets Division (the Minor Prophets) also has a chronological basis to it. Though not everyone of the twelve books gives a precise dating within its texts, enough of them reveal the eldership principle in action because even the non-dated documents often have a reasonable historic context that reveals their chronological application. This best can be seen by reviewing the last book (Malachi) first, then working backwards to the first book (Hosea). The chronological references in those 12 documents, even when not precisely dated, give a reasonable historical context to indicate that each of the documents (from 12 back to 1) is earlier than the former one.
These chronological factors in the placement of these Old Testament books are important because they reveal a deliberate design being put into play by Ezra and his priestly helpers that anyone can observe. Just what the interpretations behind those arrangements are supposed to signify remain for investigators to determine, but the chronological (eldership) aspect is not difficult to see.
The final division of the Old Testament contains the books of the Writings Division. We should remember that the eleven books of this Third Division were made up of “Royal or Government Books” (for rulers and leaders). They are placed in an inferior position to the Prophets Division and they are not chronological in their arrangement. This canonical disposition does not signify that they are books of inferior worth. In no way are they inferior. It simply means they were not as important in rank in the eyes of Ezra (the canonizer) relative to the purpose behind his arrangement of the 22 books. 3
The first two divisions of the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) were what might be called public books. They were intended for general consumption by all Israelites with out distinction. But this was not so with the eleven books of the Writings Division. Though these Third Division books were as holy as the others, they were not generally considered writings that were primarily for the public at large. Their teaching was to be given within a Temple environment. An example of this is found with the custom about the 1st century B.C.E. of paraphrasing the biblical books into the vernacular language of the people.
When it came time to paraphrase the books of the Third Division, a command from God (a Bat Kol) was supposedly given not to perform this task of putting these books in the language of the common people because there was esoteric knowledge in them that gave the date for the arrival of the Messiah (Megillah, 3a). Since some sections of these books appear to subscribe to customs (or so-called “secret” knowledge) that later people would want to allegorize or add secret meanings to, it was forbidden at first to paraphrase them (which is the first step toward allegorization). Among other things, this was to prevent the allegorizing away of the “eroticism” of the Song of Songs, the “pessimism” of Ecclesiastes, the “too philosophical to be true” attitude of the Book of Job, the “harem” experiences of Esther, and to speculate on the chronological prophecies of Daniel, etc. These books were not read liturgically in the synagogues because in doing so the general tendency would be to allegorize (and consequently, to misuse) some of them.
In a word, these books of the Third Division were not supposed to provide a teaching apparatus within a synagogue environment. They were books primarily designed to be consulted and to be studied within a Temple milieu. They were books for the leaders of the nation at Jerusalem. The readers of these books (and the ones required to heed them) were individuals assembled for an entirely different purpose than the general assemblies of the people each Sabbath in various synagogues. Actually, these books were arranged as legal books for the leaders at the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin had its main building and library for legislative and judicial proceedings at the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Temple (and there was a similar building and library at the village of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives). More on this later.
These eleven books of the Third (or Writings) Division of the Old Testament were actually federal books (headquarters books) intended mainly as guidelines in all matters of society for the executives among the people. This is why they were called “the Royal Books,” or “the Books for Rulers.” They were primarily for Temple use in providing precedents of customs, laws, attitudes, historical examples, etc., which the Sanhedrin and other leaders could use in ruling the people of Israel. The Psalms provided official musical scores with words like our national anthems and other patriotic songs which are ordered to be sung and performed at various times and special events today.
As a matter of fact, all the books of the Old Testament have a basic theme to them that was to provide a full and comprehensive rule of laws, customs (both religious and secular), and historical examples with genealogical lists, etc., to the leaders of the nation. All of the 22 books of the Old Testament were placed in their three divisions, and put into their particular arrangement, to provide a legal basis in all matters regarding the governing of the people of God in the fashion that the authorities imagined God wanted his people to be ruled. This is why the books were basically placed within a Temple environment so that the religious and secular authorities of the nation would have the literary tools from the past (within a legal framework) to govern the people in the present and for the future. In the next chapter we will look at the various sections of the Temple that the books of the three divisions of the Old Testament are designed to accompany in a literary and as well as a legal sense.
1 See Seder Olam R30; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.21; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.22; and Tertullian, Apparel of Women, 1.3.
2 R. Travers Hereford, Talmud and Apocrypha; A Comparative Study of the Jewish Ethical Teaching in the Rabbinical and Non-rabbinical Sources in the Early Centuries (London: Soncino Press, 1933), p.56.
3 The canon of the Old Testament was designed for teaching purposes. The books of the Torah were so needful for all Israelites that a three year cycle of reading through the books was established for the synagogues of Ezra’s time and this reading from the Law was buttressed by selections from the Prophets. But every seventh year (each Sabbatical Year) the Law was read through in a one year period. This gave rise to a triennial as well as an annual reading of the first five books of Moses (with selections from the Prophets Division). After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Jewish authorities shifted to an annual reading of the Law and Prophets in their synagogues, and this has continued to modern times.
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