If you were to read the earliest text of the Bible first, and then follow with later texts in the order in which they were written, where would you start?
We can’t be sure, but the 13th chapter of 1 Samuel would probably come first. It’s the story of King Saul and how he and his son, Jonathan, led a successful military campaign against the Philistines. That narrative continues through the rest of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel and the first ten chapter of 1 Kings. Mostly, it’s about King David and King Solomon.
So if we put the first text at the front of our Bibles, it would start with Israel’s great kings and how Israel became a mini-empire in its own right.
Next would be a text written soon after: Exodus—or at least major portions of its first 24 chapters. It tells the story of slavery in Egypt, Moses’ encounter with a god with no name (YHWH) in the desert, Moses’ confrontation with the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh, the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, their encounter with YHWH while standing at the foot of the mountain in Sinai, YHWH’s gift of the law to Moses and the people’s covenant with YHWH.
Next we would read the first three or four chapters of Deuteronomy, which piggy-backs on Exodus with an account of the Hebrew people journeying from Mt. Sinai to the land of Canaan.
Then we would return to the stories of the Israelite kings, picking up at the 11th chapter of 1 Kings with the story of Israel’s division into two kingdoms (Ephraim in the north and Judah in the south). Slowly we would move forward in time; along with a succession of kings, we would meet the prophets Obadiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Jeremiah. Also along the way, we would come to Joshua and Judges and a greatly expanded version of Deuteronomy.
Next we would read Lamentations, Ezekiel, Job and 2nd Isaiah. Only then we would get to Numbers, Leviticus, the last part of Exodus and the stories of creation in Genesis. Genesis would be #25 on the First Testament’s list of 39 books. See pages 44-45 of If Not Empire, What? for a table that reflects this.
If you think it’s difficult to read the First Testament now, imagine what it would be like to read it chronologically!
Theologically, it’s important that the Bible does not start with the stories of Saul, David and Solomon. The accuracy of those stories is much in doubt, for one thing.
But more importantly, when we look at the Bible as a whole, we see that the stories of the Israelite kings reflect a huge misunderstanding. The authors of those first stories thought that because their god was the greatest, the Hebrew people should rule. But they knew little-to-nothing of the god who called all of creation into being without any violence whatsoever. They knew little-to-nothing of the god who resisted the imperial impulse of Babel and Gomorrah, who called Abraham and Sarah to leave the heartland of the Sumerian Empire, who called them to settle in Canaan. They knew little-to-nothing of the covenant this god made with Abraham and later with all of the Hebrew people, a covenant this god intended to use to bless all of Earth’s peoples.
This is the god—YHWH—we meet in Genesis. Wisely, the Jewish compilers of the First Testament put it first, even though it arrived rather late in Jewish history. And by this choice, they confirmed the god first described in Exodus. It is the god—YHWH—the prophets proclaimed and Jesus called “Daddy.”
Two different beginnings, two different gods, two different religions; one explains why kings should rule and why violence is necessary, the other how without the so-called help of kings, the people of YHWH create a way of life that leads to peace.