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Understanding the Historical Context of the Old Testament Writings

January 24, 2007

(I’m required to write a three-minute homily every Wednesday for my Old Testament class, so here is my first one)

The Old Testament needs to be understood as the history of salvation of the people of God. We see that throughout the Old Testament there are conflicting representations of God as being loving and patient, but often times being a strong punisher and short-tempered. Perhaps at first, the Christian may find the Old Testament disappointing just as the young Augustine did—influenced by Manichaeanism—when he realized how legalistic and brutal some of the narratives of the Old Testament could be.[1]

Understanding the socio-political context in which the Biblical authors lived in plays a critical role in understanding how their image of God originated and ultimately evolved. However, one needs to practice care in such task and not rely solely on historical or archeological evidence to reach conclusions about the authors’ perception of God. To do so, would result in minimizing the journey of faith of Israel and the divine revelation of God to His people.

Revelation can also be understood as a process of unveiling, discovery, and discernment. If revelation is then understood as a discernment process, then we can also conclude that to take part in revelation involves faith, commitment, and perseverance. In the Old Testament, we are faced with a God who wants to reveal Himself to His creation and at the same time a people who wants to meet their God. Accordingly, we can go on to say that we find in the Old Testament writings the representation of this discernment process—or journey of faith—by the people of Israel.

Although the history of Israel happened many centuries ago, we cannot forget that this journey of faith was experienced by human beings in a given historical context that shaped their perception of God. Just as our perception of God today is influenced by specific political, social, and economic circumstances to our time, we are still individual thinkers with a Christian conscience capable of developing distinct and valid conceptions of God as well as capable rejecting those that are not legitimate. Even our discernment of God today does not limit itself to our present time in history. One only has to see how century-old writings such as the Confessions by St. Augustine or St. Teresa of Avila’s the Interior Castle keep inspiring generation after generation to develop a deeper personal relationship with God. Likewise, regardless of whether their conception of God was influenced by their context—by the Babylonians, Egyptians, or Persians—the validity of their evolving faith in God and the image of their Creator should not be called to question. At the same time, we need to understand that the Hebrews did not borrow all of the religious elements from other cultures and they separated themselves from other ancient religions, because they were distinctively monotheistic and worshipped an invisible God.

Because the Israelites were also human beings, we see that their journey is everything but a linear progression of their embrace of God and His law. There are wanderings and questionings of God’s presence and authority, but there are also passages filled with praise and joy for God’s love. This revelation went from Moses’ understanding of God as a very legalistic one to a more intimate one such as that of the psalmist. Thus, when we submerge in the surroundings that affected the Biblical authors’ experience of God, the Sacred Scriptures become transcendent and we start to walk along with them through their sufferings, doubts, and joys. As Christians, then, we can understand and appreciate Israel’s journey of faith and also recognize how this discernment process was ultimately perfected in the Father’s revelation of his son, Jesus Christ.

[1] The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish Bible and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible

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