I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.
These words, spoken by God, articulate God’s covenant, or promise, with Abraham. Initially in the Genesis narrative, the interaction between God and humans seems bewildering and arbitrary. God speaks to isolated individuals and demands certain actions from them. Here, God lays out a plan for an ongoing relationship with humankind. God will be the deity of one group of people, and the rights to God’s favor and blessings will pass on genetically from one man to his descendants. The rewards of this relationship will not only be a nation and a homeland for the Israelites but abundant, “fruitful” life. God’s comments here serve two functions. First, the passage introduces the dominant motif of the Old Testament: the covenant unifies the biblical narrative, for everything the Israelites do from this point on represents either an affirmation or a rejection of God’s promise. Second, the passage implies that the Israelites are not just any group or ethnicity, but a specific people descending from one man with a divine claim to land in the eastern Mediterranean region. Historically, the idea of the covenant was important for the Israelites in sustaining a sense of identity in the ethnic mix of the region as well as during the exile.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.
Stationed on the border of the promised Land, Moses delivers these instructions in his farewell address to the Israelites. In one sense, his speech, which constitutes the Book of Deuteronomy, is redundant. Moses reiterates many of the religious laws and commandments already stated by God in the Book of Leviticus and the latter half of Exodus. However, Moses is speaking to a new, younger generation of Israelites who, after wandering the desert for forty years, are now ready to take the land sworn to them by God, a land they have never seen. Just as the history of Israel is at a turning point, so Moses describes the laws and the covenant in terms very different than before. Previously, the symbols of God’s covenant have been external: the rite of circumcision, the Ark of the Covenant, and various rules for physical cleanliness. Now, Moses describes the laws as internal to the Israelites. The religious laws are words and ideas that should be so precious to the Israelites that they are in their “heart[s],” remaining with the people wherever they go. This passage suggests why Judaism refers to the biblical laws as “Torah”: laws that are not just rules for behavior but models for all of life.
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams. . . .
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.
(1 Samuel 15:22–23)
The prophet Samuel pronounces this grim curse to Saul after Saul disobeys God. Through Samuel, God has instructed King Saul to attack the neighboring Amalekites and destroy them completely, sparing nothing. Saul, however, has brought back the Amalekite flocks as booty, apparently to use as a ritual animal sacrifice to God. This seemingly benign error not only earns God’s wrath but justifies the removal of Saul as king of Israel. As such, the oversight marks a turning a point in the history of Israel, permitting David’s ascent to the throne. More important, the nature of Saul’s error implies a new outlook on religious obedience. Obedience is not adherence to God’s laws but obedience to God himself. As Samuel suggests, God honors obedience to that which is unseen—“the voice of the Lord”—more than obedience to that which is seen—physical regulations and ceremonies. Valuing the unseen over the seen is integral to the theme of radical faith in the Old Testament. Saul does not possess this faith, yet his tragic demise over such a fine distinction earns our sympathy.
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
This rhetorical question is spoken by Job after God has killed all his children and his livestock, and afflicted him with a skin disease. Job’s lament is emblematic of the central question discussed by Job and his three friends. The question is a theme in the Old Testament: how can God remain good despite the fact that he allows evil and human suffering to exist? Job’s friends argue that God would only afflict Job with pain if he had committed some grave act of human disobedience meriting punishment. Job, however, raises two complaints against God, the “watcher of humanity.” For one, Job knows he has done nothing wrong, and he wonders what he could have done to become a “burden” to God and deserve such suffering. Second, Job asks why God is so concerned with human actions in the first place—why he watches humanity’s faults and punishes them in turn. Just as Job’s lament is rhetorical and open-ended, so this question and theme is not explicitly answered in the Old Testament.
For everything there is a season, and a
time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance. . . .
These famous verses are spoken by the unnamed Teacher who investigates the meaning of life in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The poetic interlude in the Teacher’s musings represents an excellent example of the parallelism that defines biblical poetry: the lyrical verse has rhythm because each line is divided into two halves, both of which mirror and oppose each other at the same time. More important, the Teacher’s saying continues the pattern of doubles and opposites developed throughout the Old Testament narrative. Since God’s creation in Genesis, the Old Testament depicts the world as a place of opposing forces—good versus evil, greater versus lesser, light versus dark, seen versus unseen. The Old Testament frequently reverses these opposites, showing the younger dominating over the older, the weak over the strong, and the oppressed over the powerful. This motif suggests that humans cannot confidently discern that which is better or worse without faith in God. Similarly, the Teacher explains that there is a time for every human experience, good and bad. One cannot say that dancing is obviously better than mourning, for both experiences are integral to human life. The Teacher argues that trying to find meaning in life by what people traditionally assume to be better or worse is misguided, and that the only correct way for humans to behave is to fear, or obey, God.