The Beauty of the Hebrew Scriptures

Added about a year ago by Anthony Phillips

GUEST BLOG: #BookOfTheMonth author Anthony Phillips delves into the riches of the Old Testament.

If I have learnt anything in my eighty-plus years, it is that God is a God of surprise. I left school at seventeen to train as a solicitor in my native Cornwall. Seven years later to my and my friends’ surprise I entered King’s College, London, having been accepted for ordination in the Church of England. I looked forward to becoming a parish priest. Instead I ended up an academic serving as a College Chaplain at Cambridge and then Oxford before – surprise again – becoming Headmaster of a large and ancient boarding school, the King’s School, Canterbury. My only qualification for the job was my wife who had been a Headmaster’s Secretary.

All this would never have happened had I not fallen in love with the Hebrew Scriptures, some of the finest literature ever written and sadly now little known. For my first degree four of my ten papers were on the Old Testament. So when I went to Cambridge to study for a doctorate, I drew on my past legal experience as well as my degree and produced a thesis which was later published as Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law.

Right from the start of my degree and still today I remain captivated by the vigour, robustness and love of life found within the Hebrew Scriptures. Whether in narrative or poetry, the Old Testament exhibits an earthy realism. Its heroes are no plaster saints but men and women capable of good and bad like all of us. Who else would venerate as their ideal king a man who both committed adultery and, when about to be found out, got the husband of the woman he had violated murdered? Yet God can still work through David whose line would give birth to the Messiah.

Nor are the Hebrew sages frightened of taking God on, as both the Psalms and Job witness, exposing what I have called his shadow side when he appears as an enemy. Think of Abraham being charged to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise; or Jacob wrestling with the stranger of the night at the Jabbok. All of us at some time will feel let down by God, angry with him, and the Old Testament gives us licence to let rip.

Then there are the heart-rending poetic passages in the prophets which bring tears to one’s eyes. Consider Hosea describing God wrestling with Israel’s infidelity when he has nursed her like a child and recognising that despite everything he cannot abandon her. Or ponder Ezekiel’s extraordinary vision of the valley of dry bones, in which he sees the recreation of Israel after the exile taken up further in the later chapters of the book of Isaiah – attributed to an unknown prophet of the exile who describes a second triumphant exodus, this time over a transformed land. The riches of the Hebrew Scriptures are inexhaustible. 

But no one would claim that the Old Testament is an easy read. It is a massive and disorderly collection of writings compiled and edited over centuries. It needs unpacking, which is why, having been lucky enough to study it in some depth, I passionately wanted to share that knowledge. So very unusually for a Headmaster of a big boarding school I committed myself to teaching the A level Old Testament paper. It was the teaching of bright teenagers that I missed more than anything when I retired.

It was also that passion that has led me to write not only scholarly books and articles, but popular books for the general reader. God B.C. was such a book, written over forty years ago, in which I attempted to show the development of Israel’s understanding of her God culminating in the Christ event. I went on to publish other books including a study of Genesis 1-11, a book about those like Job who stood up to God, and a study of David. Consistently whether writing, lecturing or preaching, I have tried to persuade others to embrace these Scriptures, for they are after all the foundation documents of both Judaism and Christianity. Indeed the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the Old. 

Now, forty years on, I have returned to my original aim of providing a guide through the Old Testament leading on into the New. As in any discipline, there have been many developments in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures since I wrote God B.C., many somewhat negative, but I too have had to revise earlier opinions as researchers continually must do. So the new edition entitled God B.C.: God’s Grace in the Old Testament contains much new material but essentially remains positive as it asserts that God cannot desert his people, but wills to run out and embrace them like the father of the prodigal son. And although the word grace – God’s unwarranted love for his people – is never found within the Hebrew Scriptures, they are permeated with this concept.

In a way this rewriting of my earlier work is at eighty-plus my last will and testament. It sums up in layman’s language a lifetime of research and thought and reaffirms my passion for not only great writing but the love of a God who cannot let us go. We may not be able to answer every question and as I point out, we have to be agnostic over some things, but we can even now experience that grace which the Hebrews encountered centuries ago and which their scribes so lovingly recorded. I have been greatly encouraged by Archbishop Rowan Williams’s endorsement that “This book will undoubtedly establish itself as a classic of biblical interpretation that is both scholarly and deeply imaginative”.

In rewriting the original God B.C., I feel I have repaid the debt I owe to those teachers who fostered in me the love of the Old Testament, a love which I hope I have sought to pass on to others.

God B.C. is a clear and profound introduction to the spiritual world of the Old Testament, enabling us to see how the whole Bible reveals the character of our humanity as well as that of God’s divinity. Get your copy of our #BookOfTheMonth today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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