When we visit the Holy Land today, we see it in much the same way as it has been for the past 5,000 years. It is rather stark land without the lushness of Europe or the Americas, a region where rivers are rarely more than several yards wide. We do not find here remains of the glorious ancient civilizations. There is nothing that can approach the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Mesopotamia, the Colosseum of Rome, or the Acropolis of Athens. We see it as a plain land which has been fought over for thousands of years, a land which today is still wet with the blood of Arab and Jew. What has made this land so special? How can these few square miles have been the scene of the birth of a message that has transformed the entire world? In this place God spoke to man; it is as simple as that.
The ancient Near Eastern civilizations, which flourished in the area which now extends from Iraq to Egypt, were nature-oriented. Man was seen to be part of a never-ending natural cycle. Birth, death, and rebirth were central to their thinking. The thought of a progressive revelation by their gods was impossible. Their gods were only interested in themselves, not in man. Mans duty was to placate the gods, to keep them happy, and thus to protect man from the gods meddlesome, and sometimes dangerous, intervention into human affairs.
In this milieu a man named Abraham received a special revelation from God. He was promised a great progeny, a land for his descendants, and a continuing relationship with his God. Thus we have the beginning of a radical development in Near Eastern, or Semitic, thought. Man, who up to that time had been only a part of nature, was now elevated above the rest of creation. His relationship to nature was decidedly altered. The endless cycle of birth and death with no measured progress was shattered; God had spoken to man in history with the promise that he would continue to do so.
Most Semitic thought patterns remained. Man still retained his basic reverence for the natural world. He looked at a river or a tree and thought, thou, not, it no longer because of a belief in the trees personal existence, but because the tree in its own right had a certain being. In other words, it was more real than it is to us westerners today. So too, a word spoken by someone had an actual reality. In some way a word endured, contained something of the speaker, and produced a personal effect upon the person or persons addressed. Many examples of such thinking occur in the ancient literatures; for example, the case of Isaac blessing Jacob. Even though Jacob obtained by trickery the blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother Esau, Isaac could not correct the situation, because the words had been spoken. Likewise, in a criminal case where there were no witnesses, the defendants word on oath was alone sufficient to clear him of guilt.
When seen in this light, it is easy to appreciate the impact the word of God had upon Abraham and his descendants. It transformed them, and was central to their social, religious, and even economic life. After settling in Canaan, present day Israel and Jordan, the Israelites began to treasure the word of God as revealed to the Patriarchs. Initially the revelations were memorized and passed on from father to son. This process was followed through the years that some Israelites resided in Egypt and eventually became enslaved there. Still, the word of God burned within the small oppressed community, and inspired them with the determination to go on. A great national literature formed around the stories of the nations past Adam, Noah and the flood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, some ancient hymns and communal laws.
After the Exodus, and Gods revelation to Moses at Sinai of his special covenant with the Israelites, Joshua led the people in a successful conquest of the land of Canaan. The people returning from years of captivity in Egypt reunited with their brothers who had remained under Canaanite rule. The Israelites who had not been part of the Sinai experience took on themselves the obligations of Sinai, the Ten Commandments, as we see from the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua.
It was only about 1200 B.C. that the legends, laws, revelations, and hymns began to be written down by the Israelites. The composition of the Bible would continue down through the centuries until slightly before 100 B.C. We see three different steps in the compilation of the Old Testament as we know it: the work of the original authors, the editing and arranging of their writings, and finally the actual canonization of the work. This process lasted over a thousand years. The formulation of the New Testament was far shorter by comparison, a period of only about 300 years.
The major problem, then, in understanding and appreciating the Bible lies in being able to place and connect the various inspired works with Gods progressive revelation to his people in history. The span of over a thousand years, during which the Old Testament was written, may be compared to the span from Beowulf to Tennyson in English literature, or from Homer to the New Testament in Greek literature. Although Israel did not undergo the drastic cultural and religious changes that England did in such a time span, yet the people did progress and change in many ways. The invading Israelite tribes of 1200 B.C. grew from a loosely-knit confederation to the kingdom of David and Solomon. Finally the northern part of the land was conquered by the Assyrians and the southern part was assimilated into the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Persians first, and then the Greeks, gained control until finally the land was absorbed by Rome. Thus, when we realize the changes of the times we see that the literature of the Old Testament is extremely varied. The New Testament also contains its differences the Gospels sometimes portray the same events in the life of Jesus from different perspectives; the Letters are addressed to many local Churches with particular problems.
Out of a large body of Hebrew and Aramaic literature only a certain portion was selected to form the Bible. The collectors took the books that tended to preserve and foster the worship of the one true God. They were literarily beautiful and appealed to Israels nationalism. All types of literature were chosen and every human problem touched: the laws of the community, the epics of the peoples beginnings, the narratives of the peoples growth, the stirring speeches of the prophets, the gracious psalms and proverbs, the wisdom literature. Every word was seen to be divinely inspired by God. Each syllable was a living reminder of Gods love for man and mans obligations to God.
Todays biblical scholar confronting the Bible tries to bring his understanding of it to the worlds peoples. Its a formidable task, for the Bible is yearly the best seller on every continent. Since 1804, almost one and a half billion copies have been printed in 1,200 languages and dialects. Truly, the divinely-inspired book of the Near East has become the book of all the world.
Father Donald Magnetti is co-author of An Introduction to the Near East which was published last year by Our Sunday Visitor Press as a resource supplement in modern history.