Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
By Don Ruhl
What do you know about Judaism? And how do you know it? Is there a difference between the religion of the Jews practiced today and what they practiced in the first century?
The Jews arrange their Bibles differently than Christians do. First, do you think the Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Christ, call it the Old Testament? Why would they not call it the Old Testament and why do we call it the Old Testament? They have not accepted the New Testament, so to them, the first thirty-nine books are the Bible or the Scriptures.
When conversing with a Jew, we would do well to refer to the first thirty-nine books as the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Jewish Scriptures (Bible), or as they do, Tanakh, an acronym for the first sounds of each of the three sections of their Bible. This is something we have to do whenever we encounter another culture. Paul, as an example, showed us what he did. We would do well to imitate his formula for success when he said he would, “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (1Co 9.19–23).
Torah (Teaching): The word means, “Teaching.” Sometimes we call it the Pentateuch. These are the first five books, even as we have them.
Nevi’im (Prophets): Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea–Malachi
Ketuvim (Writings): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, First and Second Chronicles
Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim = TNK, which they pronounce tah•NAWK.
How the Jews Read the Bible
In America, there are four Jewish traditions:
- Orthodox Judaism – A rigorous adherence to the Law of Moses.
- Reform Judaism – More liberal, emphasizing innovation and tradition.
- Conservative Judaism – Follows the Law of Moses, but accepts different interpretations.
- Reconstructionist Judaism – Emphasizes community life over certain traditions.
Many Jews are simply secular.
There are four, often intertwining methods, of reading the Hebrew Bible:
- A plain sense reading, emphasizing the surface, using grammar, syntax, context.
- An inquiring reading, looking for more layers of meaning.
- An allegorical reading, looking for parallels between texts and looking for the abstract.
- A mystical reading, looking for symbolic code that will reveal wisdom.
How do we read the Old Testament? We see it summarized primarily in the life of Jesus Christ.
Things to Keep in Mind When Reading
- Know the power of words.
- Words often have symbolic meanings, such as in people’s names or the names of places.
- The Hebrews uses a form of poetry known as parallelism, not rhyme or meter as we do.
- Watch for figures of speech.
The Name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures
Since names have great meaning in the Old Testament, we are not surprised that God’s name is special. Exodus 3 reveals the name of God to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exo 3.13–15).
Hebrew long ago did not write down the vowel sounds. They only wrote the consonants. Therefore, they wrote only the four consonants of God’s name. Out of fear of misusing God’s name, they refrained from even saying it. Therefore, the exact pronunciation was lost. However, most scholars say something similar to Yahweh.
When they came to the place in the Scriptures where His name appeared, they did not say it, but said the Hebrew word for Lord instead, which is Adonai.
When you come to God’s name, known as the Tetragrammaton, in the Old Testament, you will know it because Lord or God in all capitals or small capitals appears. Compare the differences:
Lord or Lord ≠ Lord
God or God ≠ God
The words in all capitals or small capitals represent God’s name. The same words in lower case refer to the title. For an example of the first set both appearing in one verse, look at this, “The LORD said to my Lord…” (Psa 110.1).
There are other names of God revealed in the Scriptures:
- Yahweh-jireh (Gen 22.14)
- Yahweh-rohe (Exo 15.26)
- Yahweh-nissi (Exo 17.15)
- Yahweh-M’Kaddesh (Lev 20.7, 8)
- Yahweh-shalom (Jdg 6.24)
- Yahweh- tsidkenu (Jer 23.5, 6)
- Yahweh- rohi (Psa 23.1)
- Yahweh-shamma (Eze 48.35)
The Jews developed a tradition of sitting with one another to discuss the Scriptures. Eventually, they wrote down this oral commentary around AD 200, calling it the Mishnah. They continued to talk about the Mishnah. What they said about the Mishnah they called the Gemara, a commentary on the commentary! They called the collection of all this, they called the Talmud.
While this developed centuries after Christ, yet, this tradition had gone on for a long time. Perhaps this is why Jesus impressed the Jews after His Sermon on the Mount, “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt 7.28, 29). Jesus did not quote rabbinical authorities, but spoke as though He is the authority, which He is!