On the whole, I used to find the Old Testament dull, more difficult to understand than the New Testament, and of lesser importance, since Jesus established a new covenant between God and humankind. But in my Communion and Liberation group, one of our leaders, who happens to be a film maker, made an off-hand comment once which was that he loves reading the O.T. because, "Where else can you find such dramatic material?" That piqued my interest.
A year or two later, a woman in our group loaned me a recording of the Bible on CD, read by Hollywood actors. I listened to in my car, through the first 5 books, by which time, I had had enough. What stood out in my mind quite vividly, was the story of a women who had crept up on a man who was sleeping and hammered a tent peg through his head. I guess that was Women's Liberation, circa 5,000 BC!
A friend is currently reading the famous volumes of, The Story of Civilization, by Will Durant, and I am trying to read along. We are currently reading the section titled, "Judea," about the ancient Hebrews. It is in the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, published in 1935. I appreciate it because, to me, the experience of reading the O.T. has always been a long series of dense, convoluted details that are hard to follow. And I never understood the historical context. Durant gives a compact history of the Israelites in the same way that a secular historian would of any other ancient group, and the perspective is helpful. Moreover, the quality and old fashioned style Durant's writing is a breath of fresh air.
Will Durant was an atheist. He was raised Catholic, had a Jesuit education, and had studied to become a priest. With his departure from the seminary, he went on to become a philosopher and advocate of radical social change. With his writings, he became an important disseminater of culture to the masses during a time in America when it was greatly needed. I respect his independence of mind.
When people criticize the O.T., they often fail to appreciate that the oldest books were written as early as 1,000 BC events and cite events that took place as far back as five thousand BC--very primitive times indeed.
Coincidentally, I just discovered a series of twenty-four 50 minute videos on Youtube, from Open Yale Courses, called, Introduction to the Old Testament. The lectures show the ancient nature of the Hebrews and the influence of the surrounding peoples. The videos are very consistent with and a good complement to Will Durant's text.
The professor stressed that in its time, the Bible was a very progressive, counter-cultural document. In my listening to the Bible on CD, I was impressed that under the law, women were allowed to inherit property for example. In our own lifetimes, many societies, including in the very same Middle East have not allowed women to inherit property.
In light of Will Durant and the above Yale lectures, the Ten Commandments were a major advance for civilization. In its time, it was every bit as bleeding-edge, fantastic and wildly radical as the Sermon on the Mount today.
I have always appreciated that the seeds of social justice were contained in the Old Testament. The idea that each person has the same human dignity as anyone else and each is of infinite worth comes from Genesis 1:27--from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. And later on, prophets castigated the people for, among other things, failing to take care of the orphans, the widows, and the foreigners among them. Come to think of it, even in America today, we still don't fully heed this admonition as well as we could. Perhaps humanity has not progressed as much as we like to think.