Archive for Friday, December 1, 2000

Scholar has new theory about Old Testament

December 1, 2000


How was the Old Testament put together?

Scholars expend much sweat and ink pulling the books to pieces, looking for this strand or that source of material. Now comes David Noel Freedman, professor at the University of California-San Diego, urging us to ponder the bigger picture.

Beware when any author claims to have found an important pattern in the Bible "that has gone undetected for more than 2,000 years." But Freedman is a fellow worth listening to; he's been a chief editor since 1956 for Doubleday's monumental Anchor Bible series. The Presbyterian scholar presents his new theory in "The Nine Commandments" (Doubleday, $24.95).

Incidentally, a holiday gift idea: The industrious Freedman is simultaneously editor of the brand-new Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Eerdmans, 1,425 pages, $45). Any serious Bible reader should own one of these one-volume mini-encyclopedias, and Freedman's entrant in this competitive field looks promising.

As for Freedman's own Old Testament theory, he focuses on the first nine historical books, which constitute nearly half the Hebrew Bible. He spurns the current faction that says much of the Old Testament is fiction that was created simply to boost Israeli nationalism, and long after the time of the supposed events.

He thinks the final editing on our Old Testament occurred just after the cataclysmic fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 B.C. But the editor or editors "were not given to wholesale invention. Rather, they worked with the sources available to them, making only minor editorial changes for their own literary and theological purposes." They were "certainly not at liberty to alter the general sequence of major events."

He thinks the final "master plan" of Scripture was devised by an individual or a "very small committee," producing the first full-scale history of a nation a century before Hero-dotus, the "Father of History."

Counting to 10

So just what did the editors do with the Old Testament material? Freedman says they purposely shaped each of the first nine books around one of the Ten Commandments, in order. (The two books of Samuel and of Kings count as single books, which they were originally.)

The overall theme is laid out in Genesis, which begins with exile (Adam and Eve cast out of the Garden, the ancestors of Israel dispersed at the Tower of Babel). The story ends with the final chapter of Kings when the people were taken to exile in Babylon. The repeated pattern: God gives a commandment, Israel violates it, exile results.

The memorable story in Exodus 32 of Israel worshipping the golden calf displays a gross violation of "you shall have no other gods" and "you shall not make yourself a graven image."

The other commandments Freedman links with key passages: God's name in vain (Leviticus 24:10-17), keeping the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), honoring father and mother (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), stealing (Joshua 7:20-26), murdering (Judges 19-21), adultery in David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12), and bearing false witness (1 Kings 21).

What about commandment No. 10, "you shall not covet"? Freedman says this wasn't the theme of a single book because it relates to and summarizes all the rest. Also, it's unique among the 10 as an internal attitude rather than an observable act, and a sin before God but not a crime.

A perfect order?

The theory on structure faces a seemingly fatal problem: His theory on the biblical books lists three commandments in the order theft-murder-adultery, but the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 appear as murder-adultery-theft. Freedman argues that the order was not frozen because different listings were used in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, and by Jesus and Paul in their New Testament paraphrases.

The only place Freedman's exact order appears is in Jeremiah 7:9, the prophet's courtyard sermon. Freedman considers that a possible clue that the editor who put the finishing touches on the Old Testament was Jeremiah's secretary, Baruch.

The whole theory may seem far-fetched, or at least stretched, but along the way one learns a lot about the commandments and biblical history.

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