Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Very Short Introduction:
In the Bible, the primeval sea has several names, some of which are the same as those used in nonbiblical texts, including Deep, Sea, River, Leviathan, and the dragon or the serpent. Others, such as Rahab, occur only in the Bible. Likewise, Yahweh the god of Israel is frequently described as a storm god. Like his Canaanite counterpart and sometimes rival Baal, he is the “rider on the clouds” (Ps. 68:4), whose voice is thunder (Ps. 29:3), and who reveals himself in a storm cloud (Nah. 1:3; Job 38:1)….
The myth of a deluge caused by the gods is found in several different versions in Mesopotamian literature. These share with the biblical account of Noah and the Flood the rescue of a hero and his family in a boat built according to divinely given specifications, and the hero offering a sacrifice to the gods after the flood had subsided….
[One] version of the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments] … is that found in Exodus 20. But there are two other versions of the Decalogue in the Bible. A second is in Deuteronomy 5, in the context of a lengthy speech given by Moses just before his death, as the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land. In that speech Moses reviews the events of the preceding forty years of wandering, from the Exodus onward, and reminds the Israelites of the laws that they had been given by God. Those laws, however, are not always identical to the ones found earlier in Exodus, and there are about twenty, mostly minor, differences between the version of the Decalogue in Exodus and that in Deuteronomy. The most significant concerns the motivation for keeping the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy it is humanitarian—“so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 5:14–15), whereas in Exodus it is in imitation of the divine rest after creation—“for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Exod. 20:11).
A third version of the Decalogue is found in Exodus 34:11–26. According to the narrative, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites cavorting around the golden calf, he was so angry that he smashed the two tablets on which God had written the Decalogue. So, after punishing some of the perpetrators, Moses had to go back up the mountain for a replacement set. But this version is a very different set of “ten words” (Exod. 34:28), entirely concerned with proper and improper worship, which is why scholars refer to it as the Ritual Decalogue.
There were thus several versions of the Ten Commandments used in ancient Israel at various times and in various places, and, wishing to preserve them despite their inconsistencies, the editors of the Bible took advantage of the plot to include the Ritual Decalogue. These different versions are another illustration of how various sources are incorporated into the final version of the Bible. Even the version found in Exodus 20 has its own literary history: it starts off with Yahweh speaking in the first person, but then shifts to the third person after the first two commandments, probably because of later expansions.
Like the Covenant Code, the Decalogue originated in an agricultural and essentially patriarchal society. Addressed to individual adult males, who preside over a household comprising wife, sons and daughters, slaves, livestock, and resident aliens, the Decalogue only hints at a slightly higher status for women with the mention of “father and mother” (Exod. 20:12). The frequent modern appeal to the Ten Commandments as a timeless moral code blithely ignores its original context and some of the questionable values it incorporates.
The Decalogue divides naturally into two parts, which specify the Israelites’ obligations to God and to each other. The first part begins by requiring the worship of Yahweh alone. This prohibition of worshipping other gods is not strictly monotheistic—in fact, the commandment presumes that other gods exist but prohibits the Israelites from worshipping them….
[T]he Bible refers to rituals concerning birth, puberty and marriage, and death. In connection with birth there are naming ceremonies and, in later periods at least, circumcision, although that was likely originally a puberty ritual….
The three principal religious festivals in ancient Israel were originally regional celebrations, held at a local shrine to which the participants would travel. The Hebrew word used for these festivals literally means “pilgrimage” (hag, a word related to Arabic hajj, used for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). They were also linked to the agricultural cycle. In the early spring there was the festival of unleavened bread, which occurred at the time of the harvest of barley that had been planted in the late fall. Another early spring festival, known as the Passover, involved the sacrifice of a newly born lamb. These two festivals came from separate socioeconomic contexts, those of farmers and herders, but were joined at a relatively early stage.
A second festival was the festival of weeks (Hebrew Shavuot), coinciding with the harvest of winter wheat, occurring seven weeks (fifty days) after Passover. This holy day was also called “festival of harvest” (Exod. 23:16) or “first fruits” (Num. 28:26), and is later known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “fifty.”
Completing the cycle of agricultural festivals was the “festival of ingathering” (Exod. 23:16), which took place at the time of the harvest of grapes, olives, and other fruits in the early fall, in the seventh month. It is also known as the festival of booths (or tabernacles; Hebrew Sukkot), probably because the harvesters, whether members of the household or hired laborers, spent the night in the fields in temporary structures. The Bible also mentions in passing a “day of atonement” (Lev. 23:27–28; 25:9), also observed in the seventh month, apparently a ritual of cleansing to prepare the sanctuary, the priests, and the community as a whole for the fall harvest festival; as Yom Kippur this holy day becomes much more important in subsequent Jewish tradition….
The important festival of the Passover, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, provides an example of the complicated history of ancient Israelite rituals. In postbiblical Jewish tradition the Passover is celebrated in the home, and that is how it is described in Exodus 12:3–8. But other texts indicate that in some periods the Passover, like the festivals of weeks (Shavuot) and booths (Sukkot), was celebrated at a central location, either a regional shrine or the national temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where pilgrims from all over Israel reportedly came to celebrate the Passover during the reigns of Hezekiah in the late eighth century BCE and Josiah in the late seventh, as well as in the first century CE according to the Gospels of the New Testament and other sources.
Passover is celebrated for a week in the spring, beginning on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exod. 12:18; Lev. 23:5). A fall new year, in which the first month occurs in the fall, is also attested, which eventually became the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashanah (literally, “the beginning of the year”). The new year thus seems to have been celebrated in the spring in some periods and in the fall in others.
The terminology for the spring holy day is revealing. In two very early ritual calendars it is called the “festival of unleavened bread” (Exod. 23:15; 34:18), and in both of these it is listed along with the two other pilgrimage festivals. Like them, the festival of unleavened bread is connected with the agricultural cycle, in this case with the early spring barley harvest. This festival was therefore a farmers’ ritual, who would bring to their local shrine a portion of their crop as an offering. In slightly later texts, it is combined with the holy day called the Passover (Hebrew pesah), as in Leviticus 23:5–6: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” The originally separate holy day of Passover featured the slaughter of a young lamb and presumably was a sheep-herders’ ritual.
The core meaning of the word pesah is probably “protection.” The slaughter of the lamb in the spring was a sacrifice to secure divine protection for flocks and their owners. There is another possible meaning, however, conveniently rendered in English as Passover: because the Israelites smeared the blood of lambs on their door frames, Yahweh passed over their houses when he crossed (that is, passed over) the land of Egypt.
The second meaning points to how the combined festivals of unleavened bread and Passover became associated with the narrative of the Exodus. Different biblical sources do not, however, connect the festivals with the Exodus in the same ways. While the earliest ritual calendars refer only to the date—“You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib; for in the month of Abib you came out from Egypt” (Exod. 34:18), another text links more than just the chronology—it is unleavened bread that is eaten because the Israelites left Egypt so quickly that they had no time to let their bread rise (Exod. 12:39). The bread, originally unleavened to keep it pure rather than contaminated with old yeast in the form of starter dough, is called “the bread of affliction—because you came out of the land of Egypt in great haste” (Deut. 16:3). Likewise, the sacrifice of the lamb as a substitution for the firstborn, as in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22) and in the Ritual Decalogue (Exod. 34:18–19), is connected with the killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians.
Thus the festivals of unleavened bread and Passover were originally independent rituals that were joined at a fairly early stage, and both were linked with the narrative of the Exodus. This process of linkage continued in Jewish tradition as the Passover service developed over the ages. For example, the typical modern Passover Seder or meal includes haroset, a blend of fruits, nuts, and spices that represents the mortar the Israelite slaves used when laying bricks, and karpas, green herbs dipped in salt water that recalls their bitter service.
The same linking of originally seasonal festivals with the Exodus occurs with the other two pilgrimage festivals, those of weeks (Shavuot) and booths (Sukkot). In early biblical texts they are simply agricultural: “You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exod. 34:22). In postbiblical Jewish tradition the festival of weeks becomes a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai; and even before the end of the biblical period the fall harvest festival of ingathering, also called booths, recalls the temporary structures that the Israelites lived in during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus (Lev. 23:42).
The ritual calendar included other observances, each of which has its own history. There were daily offerings, weekly offerings on the Sabbath, and offerings at the appearance of the new moon. As Jewish tradition continued, other holy days were added, such as Hanukkah, at the time of the winter solstice, associated with the rededication of the Temple in the second century BCE after the successful revolt of the Maccabees against Greek rule, and Purim, celebrated in the late winter, probably originally a Babylonian ritual assimilated into Judaism and legitimated in the biblical book of Esther….
In both biblical and nonbiblical sources there are examples of prophets entering ecstatic states prior to delivering their message. When the newly anointed King Saul “prophesied,” he became “another man” (1 Sam. 10:6). Sometimes that ecstatic state was reached by means of music (1 Sam. 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15), and it could involve nakedness (1 Sam. 19:24) or self-mutilation (1 Kings 18:28; Zech. 13:6). Other abnormal behavior is reported, for example, of the prophet Ezekiel, including speechlessness and lying on one side for a long time….
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the exile to Babylon associated with it, prophecy also took a new twist. There was more and more focus on a future restoration of the glorious days of the past, days of independence and prosperity, especially the time of kings David and Solomon in the tenth century. We find detailed pronouncements of such a future in the prophecies related to the events of the sixth century, especially Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah 40—66, chapters, which although part of the book of Isaiah were written not in his time, the late eighth century, but two centuries later. And, as the prophetic books continued to be revised, expressions of future hope were added to others as well.
But these divinely promised hopes were not immediately fulfilled, and so they were projected into a distant future, an “end time” in which Yahweh and his heavenly armies would definitively defeat the forces of evil, both primeval and historical. This led to the development of what is known as apocalyptic literature, occurring in the Bible in an early stage in Ezekiel 40–48 and Zechariah 9–14 and more fully in Daniel 7–12, and, in the New Testament, in the book of Revelation….
The practice of consulting the dead, necromancy, confirms that there was some notion of survival beyond the grave. Although prohibited, it was widely practiced, and in at least one case was successful, when at King Saul’s request a woman who was a medium summoned the dead prophet Samuel from the underworld. But unlike the ancient Egyptians, who were obsessed with life after death, as their elaborate tombs demonstrate, the ancient Israelites give us scant information about it. All the dead lived in a place called Sheol, a dark and dank place, more like the Greek Hades than the blessed west of the Egyptians. There was no contact with God in Sheol, and ordinary life apparently had ended. Ecclesiastes describes it this way: “The dead know nothing … There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” (Eccles. 9:5, 10). Only relatively late in the biblical period, partly in an effort to resolve the problem of inconsistent divine justice in this life, did Jews begin to develop a more elaborate set of beliefs about the afterlife as a place of reward for the just and punishment for the wicked. This would eventually become the familiar heaven and hell, which Christians and Muslims adopted….
[W]e are introduced to Job as a perfect man, who “feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). His piety had been rewarded by great wealth and a large family—seven sons and three daughters. One day, at a meeting of the divine council, Yahweh engaged in a debate with a mysterious figure called the satan over whether Job’s piety was authentic….
With divine approval, the satan apparently causes a series of disasters, in which Job’s many herds of animals were captured or killed, and finally, most horribly, his ten children were killed as well….
The satan is apparently one of the “sons of God,” a member of the divine council. His title means “accuser”—perhaps even, in the forensic language that permeates the book, something like a prosecutor. This figure will later become Satan, the devil of Jewish and Christian tradition, but he is not that yet. He is only a kind of foil, who disappears from the book after chapter 2—both Job’s friends and Job himself attribute his suffering directly to God.