The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER TWO: THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES
God entered into a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. Since Christians believe that God made a new covenant, which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper, they have traditionally referred to the covenant that God made with Israel as the old covenant. But if God made a new covenant, some ask, why bother reading the Old Testament? Because Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises to Israel, which are recorded in the books of the Old Testament. God’s plan of salvation did not begin with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem; it began some two thousand years earlier with the call of Abraham in the Mesopotamian city of Ur.
The Pentateuch: Creation, Fall, Election and Covenant
The story of Israel becoming a nation is contained in the first five books of the Bible, which in the Jewish Scriptures are called the Torah, from the Hebrew word tora, meaning “instruction.” In the Christian Old Testament they are called the Pentateuch, from the Greek words penta (“five”) and teukhos (“scrolls”). The Pentateuch contains Israel’s most important and sacred writings, those in which God chose or elected Israel to be his people (the covenant with Abraham), spoke to Israel’s patriarchs and leaders (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses), rescued or saved Israel from its bondage in Egypt (the exodus) and entered into a covenant with Israel (the Mosaic Covenant). The Pentateuchal books are central to Jewish worship and are read aloud in their entirety each liturgical year. The five books are as follows.
- Genesis: The creation of the universe, the earth, vegetation, living creatures and humankind; the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood and the Tower of Babel; the call of Abraham to go to a new land; and the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
- Exodus: Israel’s enslavement in Egypt; the birth and call of Moses; the ten plagues; the exodus (“going out”) from Egypt; God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai; and the Ten Commandments.
- Leviticus: Levitical rules relating to religious offerings; clean (kosher) and unclean food; diseases, sexual relations and cleanliness; and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Israel’s high holy day (Judaism’s “Good Friday”).
- Numbers: The census (numbering) and organization of the twelve tribes of Israel into a community or nation; God’s call to take possession of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham’s descendants; and Israel’s forty years in the Sinai desert as God’s judgment for refusing to do so.
- Deuteronomy: The second (deutero) telling of Israel’s story; the Shema, Israel’s great confession of faith: “Hear, 0 Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (6:4 NIV); Moses’ instructions to the twelve tribes before their invasion of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua; and Moses’ death.
Genesis 1-11 is the story of the downward fall— Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden, Cain’s murder of Abel, God’s displeasure with creation and the great flood, and the Babylonian Tower of Babel. It is also an answer to the question, “Why did God call Abraham?” God called Abraham as the first step in his plan to rescue the human race. Why Abraham? According to later rabbinic literature, God called many, but only Abraham responded. The working out of God’s plan of salvation begins in Genesis 12 and continues through the rest of the Old Testament and all the way to the end of the New Testament.
Abraham: The Founding Father
The biblical story of salvation begins with the “call” of Abraham (Genesis 12:1), whose descendants were to bring God’s blessings to “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham’s wife Sarah is old and barren, but God’s grace comes upon her, and she bears a son, who is named Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to test his loyalty and obedience (Genesis 22). Abraham proves faithful, and God instead provides a ram for the sacrifice. Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The ancestral line continues through Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel by an angel of God (Genesis 32:28). Jacob’s “sons” become the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers; he later becomes the viceroy (second-ranking official) of Egypt. A famine in Canaan brings Jacob and his family to Egypt, where Joseph cares for them, after which they settle in Goshen in northern Egypt.
Moses: Deliverer and Lawgiver
Some six hundred years after Abraham, the Israelites find themselves living as slaves in Egypt. God hears their cries for help and calls Moses at a “burning bush” (a bush that burned but was not consumed) to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The exodus— Israel’s salvation from bondage in Egypt (c. 1290 B.c.)— is the single most important event in Israel’s history. The story of the exodus is retold every year at Passover. It is the story of the angel of death who struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians but passed over the homes of the Israelites (Exodus 11-12). Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Sinai Peninsula to Mount Sinai, where God entered into a covenant with Israel (Exodus 19:3-6) and gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
God prepared Moses for his “calling.” First, his early years with his mother, who was miraculously retained by Pharaoh’s daughter to nurse and help raise her own child, made him aware of his Jewish heritage. Second, his education in Pharaoh’s household prepared him to confront the Pharaoh when called by God to do so. Third, his years in the Midian desert (southeast of Sinai) enabled him to lead the Israelites through the desert to Mount Sinai, where they received God’s law and commandments. It is said that the New Testament was written after the followers of Jesus had experienced the risen Christ—that is, from the other side of the cross. The same might be said of the Old Testament: it was written after the Israelites had experienced the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—that is, from the other side of the Red Sea.
The Historical Books: The Rise and Fall of Israel
The historical books trace the history of the Israelites in the Promised Land from their entry into Canaan in the thirteenth century B.C. to the return of the exiles and the restoration of Jewish life in the fifth century B.C. Why the land of Canaan? Perhaps because it sat at the crossroads of the world— between Asia, Europe and Africa— where Israel would be God’s “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
- Joshua and the Judges. Israel’s history in Canaan begins with an invasion under Joshua (c. 1250 n.c.), when the Israelites secured footholds in the central hill country of Canaan. The story of Israel taking possession of the land continues for another two hundred years, during the period of the judges. (Israel did not take full control of the land until the reign of David.) The “judges” were charismatic leaders like Deborah, Gideon and Samson whom God raised up to lead Israel when it was attacked by warring neighbors.
- The United and Divided Kingdoms. The Israelites wanted a king to lead them against their enemies (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Saul was Israel’s first king (c. 1020-1000 B.C.). He was followed by David (1000-961), Israel’s greatest king. God made a covenant with David, through the prophet Nathan, that a descendant of David would one day rule over a kingdom that would have no end (2 Samuel 7:12-16). In Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her son will inherit “the throne of his ancestor David and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). David was followed by his son Solomon (960-922), who married non-Jewish foreigners for political purposes and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 11:6). After Solomon’s death, the united kingdom split in two. The ten northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel; the two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) became the kingdom of Judah. Israel was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and Judah by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., after which Israel and Judah ceased to exist as separate nations.
- The Exile in Babylon. After destroying Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple, the Babylonians hauled Israel’s leaders off in chains to Babylon. The exile severely tested Israel’s faith. The people asked, What happened? What happened was foretold by the prophets, who said that God would judge and punish the Israelites if they disobeyed the covenant he made with them at Mount Sinai and if they did not live as a people of “justice and righteousness.” In 539 B.C., the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persian king, Cyrus, issued an edict that allowed the Jews (those from Judah, the remnant tribe) to return to their homeland. The exiles who returned (many did not) found Judah in shambles. It took men like Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem, and Ezra, who reinstituted Jewish religious life, to strengthen the faith of those who returned and took up residence in the Promised Land.
The Voice and Message of the Prophets
During the period of the united and divided kingdoms, Israel became faithless and disobedient. God called prophets to exhort the Israelites to return to the Mosaic Covenant and to prophesy dire consequences if they refused to do so. The word prophet comes from a Greek word meaning “one who speaks for another,” referring to those called by God to speak his Word (“Thus says the Lord”). The prophets had a special concern for Israel’s covenant with God. They came on the scene during the time of the kings; they faded out in post-exilic Israel when there were no longer kings.
There are two kinds of prophets in the Old Testament. Prophets such as Nathan, Elijah and Elisha, whose lives and words are woven into the biblical narratives, are called speaking or narrative prophets. Prophets whose words were written down and collected by their disciples, to be remembered and passed on, are called writing or canonical prophets. We often think of a prophet as one who speaks about the future, but this was only a minor part— perhaps 10 percent— of the prophets’ words to Israel. The prophets’ purpose was to address the Israelites in the context of their everyday lives, calling them to return to the Mosaic Covenant.
Elijah is the most important of the narrative prophets. According to Malachi 3:1 and 4:5, Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) in the 800s B.C., will return to announce the coming of the Messiah. Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the “Elijah figure” sent to proclaim the Messiah (Matthew 17:12-13 and Luke 7:24-28). Amos spoke out against Israel’s oppression of the poor and its ritualistic-only worship; he is considered the greatest of the minor prophets. Isaiah is the prophet quoted most often in the New Testament. The book of Isaiah contains prophecies that the New Testament interprets as messianic: the one sent by God will be born of a “virgin” (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23); the Spirit will anoint the Messiah “to preach good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:17-19); he will come as a suffering servant to bear “the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12 and Mark 10:45). Jeremiah is the prophet of the new covenant (31:31), which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper.
The Wisdom and Devotional Literature
The remaining five books in the Old Testament comprise the wisdom and devotional literature. Two of them, Psalms and Proverbs, are collections of songs and sayings, with several authors. Job is first in line because its setting is earlier than the other four; Psalms and Proverbs are next, and in this order because David, the patron of psalmic literature, lived before Solomon, the patron of wisdom literature. The other two books are Ecclesiastes, the reflections of an old man who writes that only in God can one find meaning in life, and the Song of Solomon, an allegorical love poem.
- Psalms. In contrast to other writings in the Old Testament, the Psalms are Israel’s words to God rather than God’s words to Israel. It is difficult to date the Psalms, because most do not deal with events in Israel’s history to which they can be related; the dates probably range from the united kingdom through the period of the exile. David is given credit for writing seventy-three of the Psalms, but a Psalm of David can also mean a Psalm for or dedicated to David. A unique feature of the Psalms, also seen in the Proverbs, is the parallelism and rhyming of thoughts, with the second line reinforcing the first. The book of Psalms (or Psalter) is the longest book in the Bible, is the book quoted most often in the New Testament, is used in church services for responsive readings, and is widely used for personal devotions.
- Proverbs. The book of Proverbs contains wonderful advice on how to live in the world, even the twenty-first-century. There are more than five hundred sayings in all. The book is attributed to Solomon (1:1), but most scholars believe the book of Proverbs is anonymous. The individual proverbs have to do with wisdom, hard work, honesty, self-control, sexual temptation and other matters.
- Job. Job is the story of a wise and just man who revered God but lost everything— his flocks, his children, even his health (he suffered from painful, festering sores). The book of Job is a theological discussion of the question of suffering. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why do the righteous suffer? And why do some suffer more than others? God does not respond to Job’s pleas for an answer; instead, he asks Job a question of his own: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4). Job, reflecting on his personal misfortune, says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb… the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
Today there are 14 million Jews in the world; 30 percent live in Israel and 40 percent in the United States. Orthodox Judaism is the smallest and most legalistic expression of Judaism and the only form of Judaism recognized by the state of Israel. Reform Judaism began in Germany in the early 1800s; it sought to reform Judaism to bring it into the mainstream of society. Conservative Judaism is a middle course between the legalism of Orthodox Judaism and the liberalism of Reform Judaism.
Judaism and Christianity have many similar beliefs: both believe in a supreme, sovereign God; in the centrality and authority of Scripture; and in an afterlife. The principal differences are as follows. First, Judaism believes that God revealed himself in the Torah, not in a person. Second, Judaism regards God as pure spirit, which precludes his incarnation in a human. Third, Judaism believes that God is one, not triune. Fourth, Judaism has no doctrine of original sin; men and women have inclinations to do good and evil but are not innately sinful. Fifth, Judaism believes that salvation comes through righteous living and faithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant, not through Christ’s atoning death.