Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Problem of Evil
The Old Testament both raises and attempts to answer the question of how God can be good and all-powerful yet allow evil to exist in the world. From Adam and Eve’s first disobedient act in the garden, each biblical book affirms that human evil is the inevitable result of human disobedience, not of God’s malice or neglect. The first chapters of Genesis depict God as disappointed or “grieved” by human wickedness, suggesting that the humans, rather than God, are responsible for human evil (Genesis 6:6). Later books, such as Judges and Kings, show God’s repeated attempts to sway the Israelites from the effects of their evil. These stories emphasize the human capacity to reject God’s help, implying that the responsibility for evil lies with humanity. Judges echoes with the ominous phrase, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord . . .” (Judges 3:12).
The most troublesome challenge to God’s goodness, however, is the existence of natural evil, which is the undeserved destruction and pain humans often experience. God repeatedly instructs the Israelites to destroy entire cities, killing men, women, and children in the process. The Book of Job directly questions God’s implication in natural evil. God punishes Job harshly for no other reason than to prove to Satan that Job is religiously faithful. In the end, God declares to Job that God’s powerful ways are beyond human understanding and should not be questioned. The book implies that God sometimes uses natural evil as a rhetorical device—as a means of displaying his power or of proving a point in a world already tainted by human corruption.
Read about the related theme of evil as a contradiction of God’s will in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.
The Possibility of Redemption
God typically responds to human behavior with retributive justice, meaning that people get what they deserve. God punishes the evil and blesses the righteous. The theme of mercy and redemption, which develops throughout the biblical stories, contrasts with this standard of retribution.
Redemption appears in two forms in the Old Testament. Sometimes, one person forgives another by simply forgetting or ignoring the other’s offense. When Jacob returns to his homeland after cheating his brother, we expect hatred and vengeance from Esau. Instead, Esau welcomes Jacob with a joyful embrace, reversing Jacob’s expectations no less than Jacob has already reversed Esau’s fate. Similarly, King David treats his enemies with kindness and mercy, a policy that often seems shortsighted in its dismissal of traditional justice.
Another form of redemption involves the intervention of a third party as a mediator or sacrifice to quell God’s anger with the wrongdoers. Moses’s frantic prayers at Mount Sinai frequently cause God to “change his mind” and relent from destroying the Israelites (Exodus 32:14). In the Book of Judges, Samson sacrifices his life to redeem the Israelites from the Philistine oppression brought on by Israel’s incessant evil. These human acts of redemption mirror God’s promise in the religious laws to forgive the people’s sins on the basis of ritual animal sacrifices and offerings.
Read about the related theme of obedience in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The Virtue of Faith
In the Old Testament, faith is a resilient belief in the one true God and an unshakable obedience to his will. The models of biblical faith are not those who are supported by organized religion but those who choose to trust in God at the most unpopular times. Part of the virtue of true faith is the ability to believe in God when he remains unseen. The Israelites betray their complete lack of faith when they complain after God repeatedly shows himself and displays miracles during the exodus from Egypt.
Noah, Abraham, and Elijah represent the three main heroes of faith in The Old Testament. Each demonstrates his faith in God by performing seemingly irrational tasks after God has been absent from humankind for an extended period of time. God has not spoken to humans for many generations when Noah obediently builds a large, strange boat in preparation for a monumental flood. Abraham similarly dismisses the idols and gods of his region in favor of a belief that an unseen and unnamed deity will provide a promised land for his descendants. Centuries later, the prophet Elijah attempts to rejuvenate faith in God after Israel has worshipped idols for decades. Like Noah and Abraham, Elijah develops a faith based on his ability to communicate directly with God.
Read about the related theme of faith and doubt in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.