Come Follow Me Old Testament

The Old Testament: What Are Historical and Literary Analyses?

The books in the Old Testament take on greater meaning when you consider their historical and literary contexts, according to Robert Miller.

The Old Testament reveals not only God, but also the historical and literature cultures of His people. The Bible’s books range from the story of Genesis to the writings of Isaiah to the controversial Song of Solomon. Robert D. Miller II provides a brief introduction to the Bible for those interested in learning more about its origin and context.

Who is Robert D. Miller II?

I started as a student of archaeology, in which I did my undergraduate. I decided soon into graduate school that I was more interested in Ancient Israel than its remains, and especially in the Old Testament within its historical context.

It’s very unusual to have the kind of “we sinned, and then we sinned again” history you have in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. I don’t know of anything like it in the Ancient Near East.

What are some of the most popular misconceptions you see when students first begin studying the Old Testament?

It depends how much (if anything) they know about it. In the 21st century, some students come so ignorant of the Bible that they don’t even know the difference between Old Testament and New Testament. So getting them to see the Old Testament as a pre-Christian document is huge.

Those who know a bit think they know more than they do, and so come thinking it must all go a certain way: all the good guys are always good (hard to square with Jacob in Genesis, for instance).

How much can Bible translation choices affect our understanding of the Old Testament?

This is not as big a problem as some make it out. Too many students think “nobody really knows what these words mean” which often leads to thinking it means whatever you want.

In some places, the translation may differ significantly, so I always suggest a translation done since 1980 (especially so that discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls are utilized).

But honestly most passages don’t read that differently from one translation to another.

What are literary and historical analyses of the Bible?

I always say these have to go hand in hand. One eye has to be to original context, so that we don’t wildly misunderstand metaphors, images, allusions, and intent.

But on the other hand, my teacher always said: “This made sense to somebody.”

So, I want to study the text in front of me, not some imagined precursor.

How does reading Genesis in a near Eastern context help us understand its messages?

The Old Testament regularly uses imagery drawn from their Ancient Near Eastern context. Isaiah 27:1 about God slaying Leviathan would make no sense otherwise.

And what Abraham does with animal body parts in Genesis 15 makes no sense until you know it’s how ancient kings made treaties.

Dr. Robert D. Miller II discusses early Israelite culture on an episode of ‘Ask a Theologian’ produced by Theology and Religious Studies at CUA.

How long after receiving a promise of posterity did Abraham and Sarah have Isaac?

Too long, if you asked Abraham! That’s the whole point of Genesis 12-17.

It is decades after the promise is made that it’s finally fulfilled, and so Abraham has to rely on his faith that God will keep the promise.

What does “Jehovah” mean and what is the origin of the word?

Honestly, it doesn’t mean anything. The original “name” of God was Yahweh. By the time of the New Testament, Jews had stopped pronouncing it out loud out of reverence.

Hebrew was originally written without vowel characters, so the earliest written Bibles had YHWH. When you read those letters, you instead said “Lord” in Hebrew “Adonai.”

When vowel points were invented around 800 AD, when adding them to the consonants of the Bible, it made no sense to add the real vowels of Yahweh since nobody was going to say it aloud.

So, they added the vowels of Adonai instead.

In the 12th century or so, Western Christian writers who learned Hebrew thought they could read the name of God. But what they saw were the consonants of Yahweh and the vowels of Adonai: J (since Latin had no Y)-a-H-o-V (the Hebrew W had changed in Jewish pronunciation to V by then)-ai.

Are there any reasons why the ‘10 Commandments’ might have added importance?

This is a huge topic. Yes, I think they have added importance already in the Old Testament: they are the only commandments repeated twice (in Exodus and Deuteronomy), the only ones called “Words” (“Ten Words” even though they’re more than 10 words long), and the image used for them is “written by the finger of God” (anthropomorphizing).

Judaism numbers them slightly differently, counting “I am the Lord your God who brought you ought of Egypt” as the first commandment. It doesn’t command anything, but instead says what God did for them comes first and keeping the Law is the response.

You’ve said that the Old Testament is the most self-critical history we know of. Why do you think the Old Testament authors took this approach?

I am not sure, aside from the operation of divine inspiration. It’s very unusual to have the kind of “we sinned, and then we sinned again” history you have in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings.

I don’t know of anything like it in the Ancient Near East.

What is biblical parallelism and how does it enrich our understanding of the Psalms? Could you share an example?

It’s how they do poetry, instead of rhyme or meter. You say something and then say it again in different words.

At random, Psalm 24:3-4 has:

3 Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?

4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol.

The parallelism tells me a couple of things: God’s mountain is the same as his Temple, his “holy place.” It also explains what “clean hands” means—not something physical so much as a “no blood on my hands” kind of moral cleanliness.

What books about the Old Testament do you recommend for those who want to learn about literary and historical analyses?

I recommend just about anything by John Barton:

  1. The Original Story: God, Israel, and the World
  2. The Nature of Biblical Criticism
  3. How the Bible Came to Be

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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