500 Bible readings
The Yahwist sagaThe Yahwist saga (J) is the oldest substantial strand of the Bible. Here we will follow the highly plausible theory that this is the document David's scribes prepared to legitimize the setting up of his kingdom. There are other theories that have scholarly respectability. Readers of the Bible have to come to terms with the fact that certainty about even major questions is often not attainable. J - the symbol is used equally for the writer and the document - has a somewhat whimsical picture of Yahweh, as a God who begins creating things without worrying too much what the end result will be. Humans give him a lot of trouble (the biblical writers are in no doubt that Yahweh is male) and the created world gets out of hand. But he sticks with it - just - and at last the response of faithful Abram sets a train of events in motion that will end, in the story, with the children of Israel about to enter the promised land. The kingdom they will establish there will reach its full glory under David, and this, the scribe intends us to see, is what Yahweh has been working towards for so long.
We are making the effort here to follow some sort of chronological
order of composition - necessarily very rough - so
the first block of readings is selected from the J
saga. But often we cannot avoid having some material from later
writers or editors mixed in with the original text.
The garden of Eden.
The first pair have their eyes opened.
The Hebrew tradition did not develop a 'Fall' theology on the basis of
Cain and Abel.
Godlings mate with human women.
J's picture of the heavenly realm is not far evolved
from that of other Canaanite religion.
Noah builds an ark.
Yahweh shuts Noah and his company into the ark.
The confusions and duplications in the Flood stories
are due to the efforts of much later priestly editors to
get their own point of view across. For
example, the priests didn't believe animal
sacrifice was in order before there were priests, so for them two of
each animal was enough. J intended to have Noah
offer sacrifices so, as he saw it, Noah needed to carry seven of
each clean animal.
They all come out of the ark.
The tower of Babel.
The call of Abram.
Abram and Lot go different ways.
Abram and Melchizedek, king of Salem.
When Abram does a notable service Melchizedek
pronounces a blessing in the name of God Most High.
Abram is scrupulous to accept blessing only from Yahweh,
and he sees this title as a reference to Yahweh.
Therefore he is able to accept the tenth of the booty that Melchizedek
offers him. The Hebrew is not specific, but this is
obviously the way the gift went.
Hagar the slave girl bears Abram's child.
Yahweh visits Abram and Sarai at Mamre.
Abram bargains with Yahweh for Sodom.
The wickedness of Sodom is punished.
Yahweh chooses a wife for Isaac.
Jacob gains Isaac's blessing by deceit.
Yahweh encounters Jacob at Bethel.
This story is now a mixture of J and E.
Judah acknowledges Tamar more righteous than he.
ExodusCritical scholars no longer regard the biblical account of the establishment of Israel as essentially a factual record. It owes its shape in the first place to J's skill in creating a connected and directed story out of a miscellany of older traditions. This story, however, eventually provided the framework for national self-understanding. Its religious value does not depend on its historical reliability.
It seems that Israel actually emerged as a more or less
distinct people over a couple of centuries, as social
conditions, and perhaps technological advances in farming,
encouraged the migration of Canaanites from the territories of city-states
to the highlands. It may well be that one group that had had a
bad experience in Egypt became part of the mix.
J tradition concerning Moses.
J implies that Yahweh chose Moses as liberator because
of his two specific acts of siding with the oppressed.
Yahweh calls Moses at the burning bush.
The first 8 verses are mainly from J, the rest
5:1 - 6:1|
Bricks without straw.
The death of the firstborn.
Deliverance at the Sea of Reeds.
Balak tries to hire the prophet Balaam.
Balaam's donkey sees an angel.
22:36 - 23:10|
Balaam blesses Israel.
Balaam blesses Israel a second time.
The Elohist additionsThe Yahwist saga has a perspective closely identified with the southern tribe of Judah to which David belonged. However we find additions to J which reflect the concerns of the northern tribes which eventually separated from the southerners, as Israel. One likely hypothesis suggests that when the split came northern scribes made additions - E - to their copies of J, to redress the balance. We have already met their work in the second part of the burning bush story, where the name Yahweh is given and explained, and in part of the story of Jacob at Bethel. One thing they disliked was the familiarity of the J depiction of Yahweh. They preferred to have Yahweh approach humans in dreams rather than directly. There is a lot of E in the Joseph stories. We find, too, that E's Yahweh is much more in charge of what is going on.
It is clear that, despite the early schism, there were
groups in Judah that had considerable respect for northern
religion. The Hebrew Bible in its final form, as developed
in Judah, contains much material that can be traced back to the prophetic
and scribal traditions of Israel.
Hagar and Ishmael: the E version.
The sacrifice of Isaac.
1:15 - 2:10|
Moses - the infancy stories.
The administration of justice.
ProverbsThe Hebrew Wisdom tradition developed early, having its beginning, maybe, in the time of Solomon, sparked off by contact with the older wisdom tradition of Egypt.
The call of Wisdom.
How to acquire wisdom.
Wisdom gives clarity of thought.
Wisdom at the beginning of creation.
The righteous are established forever.
30:15b-31 (omit 17, 20)|
Three things and four.
Ode to a capable wife.
The Song of SongsThe Song of Songs is a collection of 20 or 30 secular love poems celebrating not just human sexuality in general, but the relationship of particular lovers. The plain meaning is the intended meaning. The book sneaked into the canon of Hebrew scripture, and therefore into the Christian Bible, because it was ancient national literature to which the name of Solomon had somehow got attached, and because rabbis had worked overtime trying to draw symbolic meanings out of it. This poetry also shows the strong influence of similar literature from other nations.
of Songs 2:3-13|
of Songs 4:9-15|
How sweet is your love.
PsalmsThe book of Psalms has been called 'the hymn book of the second temple' - that is, of the rebuilt temple after the exile. But a good deal of the material must have been used in the first temple also. The collection grew over a long period. In spite of the attributions it is not possible to determine the authorship of particular items. The term selah, which quite often appears in the middle of psalms, is thought to call for a pause, which in liturgical use might be filled with a musical interlude. In this listing the psalms have been divided into two blocks, very roughly suggesting earlier and later dates.
In the Lord I have found my refuge.
O Lord, who may lodge in thy tabernacle?
My God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The Lord is my shepherd.
The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Thou hast lifted me up.
I will bless the Lord continually.
I waited for the Lord.
As a hind longs for the running streams.
Be gracious to me, O God.
God takes his stand in the court of heaven.
How dear is thy dwelling-place.
AmosWith monarchies in both Judah and Israel, social conditions became vastly more difficult for the 'little people'. Prophets stepped forward to condemn this development, in the name of Yahweh. Amos is the first whose words have been recorded for posterity. The book now contains some of his original damning oracles, a historical framework obviously contributed by someone else, and more moderate material from later scribes who felt there were other things that needed to be said to address a different time and circumstance.
For the transgressions of Israel . . .
A word for the 'cows of Bashan'.
The day of Yahweh is darkness, not light.
Let justice roll down like waters.
Buying the poor for silver.
HoseaHosea also spoke up for justice and faithfulness in the northern kingdom, a little later than Amos. His writing is important, but unfortunately most of it does not make easy reading for us now.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
MicahMicah of Moresheth gave an uncompromising message to the southern kingdom perhaps around the same time as Isaiah of Jerusalem. What was said above about the book of Amos applies largely to Micah as well.
Zion shall be ploughed as a field.
What does the Lord require of you?
This passage will be from a later hand.
Isaiah of JerusalemIsaiah was a prophet of high importance for Jerusalem. The original record of his work was much edited and elaborated, eventually attracting bodies of material clearly by other, much later writers. We cannot with complete certainty draw the line between what original Isaiah said and what numerous others contributed, even in the earlier part of his book.
Isaiah was a Jerusalemite of some standing. He argued not so
much from the ancient Moses/exodus traditions as from the perspective of
Jerusalem and the temple, the dwelling-place of Yahweh. He
believed that Yahweh's patience with Judah was at an end and that punishment
must come, through the Assyrian power, after which restoration
would be possible. The ancient tradition that Yahweh promised
the throne in perpetuity to David's line (#109) remained in mind, as
did the thought that the holy city and temple would never be entirely
forsaken by Yahweh.
They shall beat their swords into pruning-hooks.
The song of the vineyard.
The call of Isaiah.
In purpose wonderful, in battle God-like.
In Isaiah's scheme of things, restoration will come after Yahweh
has used Assyria to punish Judah. The renewal is here pictured
as bringing a new Davidic king - just, righteous,
mighty, God-like. (The NEB gives the more satisfactory
translation.) 'Being born' may refer to the moment when
God adopts and acknowledges the king, as in Psalm 2:7.
The peaceable kingdom.
For an extraordinary J account of feasting with Yahweh
see Exodus 24 9-11.
The ransomed of the Lord shall return.
The Deuteronomist writingsThe last of the strong kings of Judah was Josiah, who was given some room to move by the waning of Assyrian power. He chose to align himself with the Levite religious party, and to set in motion reforms that would concentrate religious and civil authority in Jerusalem. The programme was set in motion by the 'discovery' of the testament of Moses in the temple. This happened to demand just the kind of changes Josiah intended to make. It now sits in our Bibles as the book of Deuteronomy. His scribes put together a substantial history, working sometimes from older records, sometimes creatively, to underline their conception of right and wrong ways to go. This now appears in the Bible as the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Scribes added to this history after Josiah's movement had collapsed. It records his death, and the Babylonian conquest.
The great speech of Moses.
3:23 - 4:9|
The last instructions of Moses.
The Ten Commandments.
There is another version in Exodus 20.
The great commandment.
Teach your children.
Zero tolerance for other religions.
Concentrate everything on
Jerusalem and the temple.
Clean and unclean animals.
The sabbatical year.
16:21 - 17:7|
Abuses in worship.
Rules for kings.
True and false prophets.
The Deuteronomists advocate ethnic cleansing.
Those excluded from public worship.
The levirate law.
The death of Moses.
The golden calf.
This story is 'getting at' the worship at
the northern shrine of Bethel, and is likely to be a Deuteronomist
Joshua takes over.
Joshua sends two spies into Jericho.
Joshua crosses the Jordan.
The walls came tumbling down.
There was no walled city at Jericho at any time when
these events could have happened. Moreover, The
destruction of the city of Ai, Joshua's supposed next target, had
taken place centuries before. The 'history' recorded in the book
of Joshua is particularly fanciful.
Joshua addresses the people at Shechem.
Gideon and the altar of Baal.
In the surrounding story Abimelech, a worthless
son of Gideon, has had himself chosen king of
Shechem, after slaughterimg all but one of his
brothers. Jotham, the survivor,
tells this story of the trees seeking a king.
The birth of Samson.
Samson destroys the Philistines.
The household shrine of Micah.
The war party from Dan.
Dan was the second of the two major sanctuaries set
up by Jeroboam after Israel seceded from Judah.
The Deuteronomist scribe wants to give it a sordid
The birth of Samuel.
God calls Samuel.
What do you expect from kings?
The Deuteronomists were prepared to say nice things
about Josiah, but they had grave misgivings about kings in
Saul is chosen king by lot.
Yahweh rejects Saul.
David chosen to succeed Saul.
David and Goliath.
Just for the record - in
2 Samuel 21:19 the slaying of Goliath is
credited to Elhanan son of Jaareoregim. It
doesn't seem likely that Gath produced two Goliaths.
The medium at Endor.
David learns of Saul's death
and sheds (crocodile?) tears.
David anointed king. Jerusalem captured.
Nathan declares David's line established for ever.
David and Bathsheba.
It is not safe to assume that this is a kind of
eye-witness account of David's doings. Very likely someone at a
later time grew a story intended to entertain, or perhaps to
instruct, from a small seed of real information.
Nathan calls David to account.
David's grief. The birth of Solomon.
Samuel 16:15-23; 17:1-16, 23|
Absalom rejects Ahithophel's advice.
David mourns for Absalom.
How Solomon took the throne.
It helps to have the military on your side.
Solomon's legendary wisdom.
The Queen of Sheba.
Solomon wasn't perfect.
The revolt of Jeroboam.
|#121:||1 Kings 12:1-24|
Israel separates from Judah.
Verse 10 contains what is in fact a sexual
boast, rather delicately translated in most
Elijah and ElishaThe Deuteronomist scribes have incorporated into their work, largely without alteration, a body of traditions relating to the doings of Elijah and Elisha and the school of prophets surrounding them. Elijah and Elisha were remembered with awe by ordinary people, as miracle-working champions of Yahweh's justice. These tales help us to understand the way Jesus later caught the imagination of the common folk of his time, and how the stories about him grew.
Elijah's story begins.
Elijah restores the widow's son to life.
Showdown on Mt Carmel.
Ahab covets Naboth's vineyard.
Elisha succeeds Elijah.
Sundry miracles of Elisha.
The widow's oil.
Elisha cures Naaman of leprosy.
The end of Jezebel.
The origin of the Samaritans.
The wickedness of Manasseh.
The scroll found in the temple.
|#136:||2 Kings 23:1-20|
The death of Josiah.
The destruction of Jerusalem.
JeremiahIn spite of the dating at the beginning of the book, it contains no indication that Jeremiah was prophetically involved in Josiah's programme. His work is likely to have begun after Josiah's death. This is another book that has suffered a great deal of editing, amendment, and enlargement, and we should not expect to find in it an orderly and reliable account of Jeremiah's activities.
When Josiah died in a confrontation with Egyptian forces his reform
programme came to a halt. Babylon was the growing threat,
and there were two factions amongst the Jerusalem elite, one favouring
resistance, the other submission. Jeremiah was in the
second camp, which did not prevail.
The call of Jeremiah.
A stubborn and rebellious heart.
I am not blind, Yahweh says.
Have no fear of the idols of other nations.
The mockery of idol worship found in various places
in the Hebrew scriptures is actually rather cheap.
Religions that use crafted objects to focus their
awareness of the divine do not pretend that the image is
itself their god.
The great drought.
Jeremiah in the potter's house.
Jeremiah in the temple court.
When prophets disagree.
29:1-14 (omit 8,9)|
Jeremiah's letter to the exiles.
A new covenant with Israel.
The scroll read in the temple.
Is there any word from Yahweh?
I will give you your life.
EzekielEzekiel was one of the priests taken to Babylonia in the first deportation. He would have shared their dismay and disorientation at the turn of events, and probably hoped like the others for a reversal of fortune that would restore their status and their jobs. But with his prophetic call he was given a message of ultimate disaster: Jerusalem itself was to be destroyed. Once the worst had happened he became a pastor and messenger of new hope for the other exiles.
Ezekiel's vision of the chariot of Yahweh.
2:1 - 3:15|
Ezekiel given the scroll.
Ezekiel's task and responsibility.
Ezekiel carried to Jerusalem.
The glory of Yahweh leaves the temple.
Against the false prophets.
The shepherds of Israel.
The valley of dry bones.
LamentationsLamentations is a series of five laments in poetic form, composed when the memory of the devastation of Jerusalem was still fresh, and expressing the extreme distress of the inhabitants at that time. Although traditionally associated with the name of Jeremiah, Lamentations has no connection with him.
The sorrows of captive Jerusalem.
Second IsaiahSome time in the period of the exile, an unnamed prophet brought a message of salvation and restoration. There were many in Judah who longed for the reversal of fortunes, and there is no clear evidence that Second Isaiah was one of the exiles in Babylon.
Comfort my people.
The majesty of God.
The first servant song.
Before me no god was formed.
I am doing a new deed.
A satire on idolatry.
We would not expect a convinced Yahwist to show much insight into other
Cyrus, God's anointed one.
Yahweh is Lord of the future.
The second servant song.
The third servant song.
52:13 - 53:12|
The suffering servant.
The question as to who Second Isaiah was thinking of is
still open. It was inevitable that
Christians should apply this to Jesus, though its
primary reference must be in its proper context.
We should not distort our awareness of Jesus to make him agree with this
text. Jesus did not live only to fit an ancient scriptural
Everyone who is thirsty, come!
The priestly revisionThe Hebrew Bible approached its final form through a massive editorial revision and expansion of earlier scriptures. This was the work of priestly scribes of the Aaronid or Zadokite persuasion, who became dominant again in Jerusalem, under the Persians. As a result we now find in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers substantial additions with a keen interest in the social and cultic law which they understood themselves to be guardians and administrators of. The book of Leviticus is entirely priestly in origin. The label P is now attached to material recognized as the work of this priestly school.
We are fortunate that in general the ancient editors and revisers had sufficient respect for the traditions they worked with to preserve them alongside their amendments. It makes for some confusing narrative, but it does help us to understand what was going on.
The creation account in Genesis 1 points to the heart of priestly
belief. God made a world in perfection, and pronounced it
good. Humanity is the crown of creation, made in God's
image, and the priests no doubt saw themselves as the crown of
humanity. The strict seven-day week which Genesis 1
enforces seems to have originated with them.
1:1 - 2:4a|
The priestly account of creation.
The balanced reference to male and female should not
lead us to imagine that the priests built equality into
their system. They were of course thoroughly
patriarchal in their outlook.
The rainbow covenant.
In the priestly
creation account humanity is vegetarian. Only now, in the wake
of the flood, are they allowed to eat flesh. The rainbow
covenant is a priestly idea, and it includes this new food
The covenant of circumcision.
The priests were as eager as anybody
else to give their rules and regulations the authority that came with the
revelation at Sinai. Exodus 25 begins a long section of priestly
legislation that continues through Leviticus and into Numbers.
Of course this particular extract is in reality a description of what the
well-dressed high priest wore in the Persian period.
Rules for the burnt offering.
Clean and unclean animals.
Regulations regarding leprosy.
The blood is the life.
The whole chapter gives explicit rules about what sexual connections are
permitted and what are not. In particular, homosexual
relationships are forbidden. You have to have a wooden approach
to scripture to suppose that priestly opinion sets the rules for us
now - coupled with some clever rationalizations to explain why
you yourself don't, in fact, stick to all the biblical
Love your neighbour as yourself.
The holy years.
Korah confronts Moses.
This story functions as an Aaronid (priestly) warning to Levites to keep
to their proper station.
The inheritance of daughters.
Joshua to succeed Moses.
Ezra and NehemiahPersian policy required effective administration to arise out of local populations. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which originally occupied one scroll) arise out of two Persian initiatives to help this to happen in Jerusalem. The text of these two books now seems to have become a bit confused.
Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem.
A necessary cancellation of debts.
RuthThis is a fine story, which can be enjoyed for its own sake. The level of sensitivity it shows leads some to think the author may have been a woman. The story has no villains, which is refreshing in itself. The final note about David's genealogy is probably not original to the story. This is not what it is about. It has been suggested that Ruth was written to protest against the intolerant and exclusive policies of the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, but that is not really what it is about either.
Naomi and Ruth.
Boaz marries Ruth.
Third IsaiahChapters 56 to 66 of Isaiah's book belong to the Persian period. It is somewhat distressing, especially after the hopeful excitement of Second Isaiah, to find once more the condemnation of social injustice and careless religion, seen as the root cause of the nation's failure to reach its goal.
Is not this the fast that I choose?
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.
A just society.
In this vision of the just society God intends to
establish, the needs of children will be provided
for and they will have the prospect of a good life.
The elderly will be honoured and cared for.
There will be work for people to do and they will enjoy
the fruits of their labours. They will not
A little lower than God.
An elitist psalm, with echoes of Genesis 1.
The earth is the Lord's.
I can say it now: God is good to us.
Justice and peace will join hands.
Why do you cast me off?
You have been our dwelling-place.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
Bless the Lord O my soul.
How manifold are your works.
In the succession of Melchizedek.
It may be that this psalm was composed to honour one of the Maccabean
kings - who took the High Priesthood to themselves,
though they were not of the accepted priestly lineage.
When Israel came out of Egypt.
I love the Lord for he has heard me.
I lift my eyes to the hills.
If the Lord had not been on our side.
When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion.
O Lord, my heart is not proud.
A psalm that deserves to be better known. It could well have
been composed by a woman.
By the rivers of Babylon.
JobThe author, or principal author, of Job is very much aware that, in our experience, the world doesn't demonstrate a simple correlation between virtue and reward, whatever the wise men of Israel may say. What the book intends us to discover, through Job's struggle, is that God is something more, and more mysterious, than the mere heavenly counterpart of a well-intentioned human patriarch.
There is not much in the book of Job that helps us to fix its
date of composition. It may have been written in the century
or so after the exile.
1:1 - 2:10|
The prologue to Job.
Job curses the day of his birth.
The thoughts of Eliphaz.
I have understanding as well as you.
A short life, full of trouble.
Is not your wickedness great?
Job's friends are getting impatient that he will not
admit wrongdoing that would justify the level of his
suffering as a punishment from God. They are
now prepared to tell him just what is wrong with him.
Job reflects on others' suffering.
Job thinks back to happier times.
They make sport of me.
Your God is too small.
Finally God responds to Job - but in such a way as to make
clear how inadequate Job's conception of God is.
Job's direct encounter with God - at last -
suddenly shows him how inappropriate it is that a human should expect to
fathom all God's reasons. Somehow, this 'answer' meets his
need. He now sees differently. From this point we
go back to the once-upon-a-time tale, and Job's fortunes are
EcclesiastesEcclesiastes is another critic of the simple wisdom faith in a just God. His complaint is that what happens is ultimately beyond human understanding and beyond rational explanation. Yet he does not deny God, and he thinks it foolish to go out of your way to antagonize God. The best policy is to accept such good as life offers. That may not bring you happiness or joy, but if God apportions you pleasure you don't add anything useful by turning away from it.
Some commentators regard bracketing sections of this book
as being from different authors. However it is
possible to suppose that all is from one hand, with
the apparent divisions a literary device.
Everything is utterly absurd.
1:12 - 2:17|
He undertakes an experiment.
It is God who decides when things happen.
We have been given a sense of time past and future
(v.11) but no insight into why things work out as they do.
Making vows; the use of money.
Don't play games with God. Don't be
surprised at the oppression of the poor, or
the corruption of bureaucrats. Don't
just hoard money for its own sake.
A live dog is better off than a dead lion.
Remember your Creator.
This is not a standard summons to the religious life. What
you need to be aware of is that God will inevitably call back the breath
loaned to you. The injunction is to remember your death,
and therefore to make what you can of whatever is given to you.
The obscure imagery seems to relate mainly to elements of funeral
rites. What is offered is a prevision of one's own
JonahThe story is meant to be humorous, albeit with a sharp point. It is certainly not meant to be treated as historical fact.
The reluctant prophet.
EstherThe most real moment in an otherwise undistinguished story comes right at the beginning when queen Vashti refuses to present herself to the king for her beauty to be shown off in front of his drunken friends. Of course it did not occur to the writer that this detail had any other significance than to open the way for a Jewish girl to become queen.
DanielA visionary writer in the late Greek period has used some older stories of heroic faithfulness as a platform for his apocalytpic message. The writer is not urging his audience to engage in military resistance. He wants them to trust that God will soon intervene to destroy all evil. In the final chapter we find the only indisputable prediction of a resurrection in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Daniel, and especially its seventh chapter, was of key importance to the early Christian movement.
Introducing the four heroes.
The heroes thrive on a vegetable diet, not because it is good for
them, but through a miracle of God.
The fiery furnace.
The writing on the wall.
Daniel in the lion's den.
I saw one like a son of man . . .
The resurrection of the dead.
(compiled by Evan R. Lewis)