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Old Testament

Old Testament

Professor Amy-Jill Levine Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Course No.  653
Course No.  653
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

The Old Testament, or Tanakh, was written in ancient Israel over 1,000 years by many authors. What can this book teach us about the ancient Israelites? What does our faith find in new scholarly understanding? As scripture or as the most influential piece of literature ever written, this book is a source of constant wonder, inspiration, and intrigue.

It is cited on the floor of the Senate and from the bench in the courtroom. Contemporary politics is inextricably intertwined with it, from conflict in the Middle East to the claim by many in the United States that a return to "biblical values"is warranted.

The Bible influenced the Pilgrims to leave England in the 17th century; it inspired the founders of the new republic in the 18th; it roused both slave and abolitionist to seek a new Moses and sponsor a new Exodus in the 19th and the Jews to establish a homeland in the 20th.

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The Old Testament, or Tanakh, was written in ancient Israel over 1,000 years by many authors. What can this book teach us about the ancient Israelites? What does our faith find in new scholarly understanding? As scripture or as the most influential piece of literature ever written, this book is a source of constant wonder, inspiration, and intrigue.

It is cited on the floor of the Senate and from the bench in the courtroom. Contemporary politics is inextricably intertwined with it, from conflict in the Middle East to the claim by many in the United States that a return to "biblical values"is warranted.

The Bible influenced the Pilgrims to leave England in the 17th century; it inspired the founders of the new republic in the 18th; it roused both slave and abolitionist to seek a new Moses and sponsor a new Exodus in the 19th and the Jews to establish a homeland in the 20th.

It has meant more to more people than any other book in history. The influence of ancient Israel's religious and national literature is evident in everything from medieval mystery plays to modern novels, art, music, theater, film, and dance.

As Professor Amy-Jill Levine observes: "The Old Testament is endlessly fascinating because it offers everything to explore: myth, saga, and history; tragedy, comedy, and farce; economics and politics; literature and poetry of surpassing beauty; court intrigue and prophetic morality; heavenly miracles and sometimes heavenly silence; questions of theodicy; answers that satisfy and answers that may not; destruction and rebuilding; despair and hope."

Lively and Learned Commentary on the Old Testament

Professor Levine's commentary thoughtfully explores selected passages from the texts called the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and the Tanakh. She provides clear examples of how various approaches to biblical research and interpretation can enrich your understanding of this inexhaustibly fruitful and powerful text.

Joseph Hough, the Dean of Union Theological Seminary, says Professor Levine is "the best classroom teacher I have seen in my 35 years in theological education, bar none."

Customers concur: "Levine is dynamic, exciting to listen to, and her knowledge of her subject is well organized and conveyed." "Wonderful course. Interestingly taught. Thought provoking, stimulating. Wow!"

A Conceptual Road Map to Biblical Studies

The Old Testament prophets' poetic calls for personal and social justice continue to urge people and nations to reform their lives, even as biblical wisdom literature challenges our views of God, and the Psalms enrich the prayer lives of millions.

Studded with genres ranging from myth and saga to law and proverb, from military history to love poetry, informed by world-views radically different from yet still fundamental to our own, the Old Testament tells a people's sacred story. It is a narrative of divine action in history that is holy writ to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

Of course, 24 lectures cannot hope to cover the Old Testament in its entirety. The early parts of the Genesis narrative or the stories of Moses and David alone could easily occupy a whole course.

The method of the course is to discuss especially interesting or prominent passages from a cross-section of all the genres the Old Testament contains, using each passage as an example of how to apply a particular method of interpretation to the Bible.

Often Professor Levine uses representative figures or episodes as a highway into biblical meaning. Whether it's the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis, David and Bathsheba from II Samuel, or the apocalyptic imagery found in the book of Daniel, she brings biblical characters and passages to life and vividly reveals the magnificent artistry that suffuses the Old Testament.

Through these lectures, you will not only probe the content of the biblical books, but you will also explore debates over their meaning, the historical and cultural situations they reflect and address, and the critical methods by which they have been interpreted.

The lectures presuppose only the most general familiarity with biblical figures and themes—the Garden of Eden, Moses and the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, etc.—biblical literacy, sociologists have noted, is on the wane in the West.

Although students do not need to follow the lectures with an open Bible, reading the texts listed at the top of each of the outlines will enhance appreciation for the material.

Writings that Form the Spiritual Bedrock for Millions

Even if you know the Old Testament well, you will find it enlightening to hear Professor Levine discuss how it appears against the larger background of the ancient Near East as revealed by research in archaeology, cross-cultural studies, and comparative religion.

Even were one to argue that the text is divinely inspired or dictated by God, one might still want to know as much as possible about the particulars: Why these words? Why this order? Why this social context? Why this translation?

Although she focuses on historical and literary issues, Professor Levine also provides thoughtful reflections and useful information on the religious questions that arise from these sacred texts, and the lectures do not avoid raising issues of religious concern.

The goal of an academic course in biblical studies, she maintains, is not to undermine religious faith, but to use the best available knowledge and research to give believers richer insight into the writings that form their spiritual bedrock.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    In the Beginning
    What are the diverse issues, critical methods, and approaches that can play a role in biblical interpretation? How do they shed light on the chapter where God says "let there be light"? x
  • 2
    Adam and Eve
    This lecture follows Genesis selectively, episode by episode, to highlight its status as a foundational narrative, its complexity, the possible order of its composition, its ancient Near Eastern connections, and the questions it raises. x
  • 3
    Murder, Flood, Dispersion
    This lecture investigates the major themes of Genesis by analyzing the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah's Flood, the Tower of Babel, and more. x
  • 4
    Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar
    Here we meet Abraham—faithful hero, morally ambiguous trickster, and patriarch—first briefly via historical investigation, and then through a close reading of Genesis 12:10–20. x
  • 5
    Isaac
    The accounts of Abraham's son Isaac and daughter-in-law Rebecca (Genesis 21–24) provide the opportunity to introduce the method of biblical study known as "source criticism" as well as to demonstrate its limitations. x
  • 6
    The Jacob Saga
    The story of Isaac's sons Jacob and Esau (beginning in Genesis 25) provides an example of the insights that can be gleaned from "form criticism." This approach attends carefully to metaphor, double meaning, narrative voice, physical descriptions, handling of motivation, and use of dialogue. x
  • 7
    Folklore Analysis and Type Scenes
    Source and form criticism can help us understand common biblical plot lines, or "type scenes." Type-scene analysis, a method pioneered by folklorists, reveals narrative art and teaches about community heroes and values. Here we focus on betrothal scenes. x
  • 8
    Moses and Exodus
    Combining folklore, morality, theology and, perhaps, historical memory, Exodus 1–15 offers quick-witted women, a reluctant hero, and a mysterious deity. This lecture introduces "text criticism" while discussing slavery in Egypt, Moses' infancy and commission, and the Exodus itself. x
  • 9
    The God of Israel
    More than an account of the liberation of Hebrew slaves, the opening chapters of Exodus also provide insight into the name of the deity and the sources employed in the Pentateuch's composition. x
  • 10
    Covenant and Law, Part I
    Knowing the forms that legal contracts could take in the ancient Near East helps us understand the character of the covenants that the deity makes with the people (through Moses), and with individuals such as Noah, Abraham, and David. x
  • 11
    Covenant and Law, Part II
    Likely products of centuries of development, the Torah's laws concerning diet, farming, and sexual practices mark the covenant community as a holy people. Scholars still debate the laws' origin, symbolic meaning, and implementation. x
  • 12
    The “Conquest”
    With this lecture we move to Joshua, the first prophetic book. After looking briefly at the account of Moses' death and the function of "holy war," we address Joshua through three major explanations for Israel's presence in Canaan: conquest, immigration, and internal revolt. x
  • 13
    The Book of Judges, Part I
    In essence a large type scene of apostasy, punishment, repentance, and rescue, Judges ultimately spirals into idolatry, rape, and near genocide. Yet this deep tragedy is leavened by high comedy, which this lecture introduces even as it raises historical, theological, and moral questions. x
  • 14
    The Book of Judges, Part II
    Returning to Gideon's son Abimelech and then introducing the tragic judges of Jephthah and Samson, this lecture unveils the increasing instability of the judge as political leader and the descent of Israel's tribal confederation into moral and political chaos. x
  • 15
    Samuel and Saul
    This lecture begins with Samuel, who represents the transition from charismatic leader to prophet, and then turns to the tragedy of King Saul to reveal the benefits and liabilities of monarchy. x
  • 16
    King David
    What is David's status in history? How does the complex story of his relationship with Bathsheba combine the personal and political while revealing his charm, his ruthlessness, and his faith? x
  • 17
    From King Solomon to Preclassical Prophecy
    Biblical prophets were known less for predicting the future than for communicating divine will, usually through poetry, and often in debate with kings and priests. This lecture focuses on the "preclassical" (nonwriting) prophets, particularly Elijah. x
  • 18
    The Prophets and the Fall of the North
    Amos and Hosea, the first two classical prophets whose words are preserved in the canon, offer poetic critiques of the government of Israel, the priesthood, and the rich. What followed from their warnings about both personal behavior and political machinations? x
  • 19
    The Southern Kingdom
    What was the context in which the major prophet Isaiah issues his oracles? How did the Southern Kingdom of Israel respond under its kings Hezekiah and Josiah? x
  • 20
    Babylonian Exile
    This lecture begins on the eve of the Exile, with the prophetic warnings of Jeremiah. It introduces the prophecies, narratives, and law by which the Judean exiles maintained their identity. x
  • 21
    Restoration and Theocracy
    What did the exiles find on their return from Babylon? How did these conditions lead to the breakdown of classical prophecy and an increasing concern with assimilation and intermarriage? x
  • 22
    Wisdom Literature
    Since the "Sumerian Job" of the 4th century B.C.E., authors have attempted to make sense of the world and our place in it. Biblical contributions to such "wisdom literature" range from the optimistic Song of Songs to the practical proverbs and the pessimistic Ecclesiastes. But the most famous, and most controversial, is the Book of Job. x
  • 23
    Life in the Diaspora
    The Babylonian Exile gave rise to the Diaspora ("dispersion") of the Judeans, now known as Jews. New questions of identity arose. The court tales of Esther and Daniel, like those of Joseph and Moses, gave answers at once humorous, macabre, and profound. x
  • 24
    Apocalyptic Literature
    What are the literary devices and sociological origins of apocalyptic writing? How are these typified by the Old Testament's only full-blown apocalyptic account (Daniel 7–12)? We conclude with a few comments on messianic speculation and future hope. x

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Amy-Jill Levine
Ph.D. Amy-Jill Levine
Vanderbilt University

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also Affiliated Professor at the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Levine earned her B.A. with high honors in English and Religion at Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University. Professor Levine's numerous books, articles, and essays address such topics as Second-Temple Judaism, Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and biblical women. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies. A widely sought-after speaker and favorite at the Chautauqua Institution, she has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences, including church, synagogue, and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

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Reviews

Rated 3.7 out of 5 by 140 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Scholarly Course At the beginning of this course, Professor Levine suggests that the academic study of scripture should enhance one's faith. This course certainly increased my appreciation of my faith. Through this study, I learned a great deal about the origins of the Bible, how it was influenced by myths from other cultures, and how it boldly states something different than what those other myths were saying. I have read the creation story dozens of times, and yet, I never read it as carefully as Prof. Levine suggests. I never noticed, for example, that Adam was WITH Eve while she was having her conversation with the snake. I can see how this series might threaten the dogma of people with a more conservative or fundamentalist Christian theology--but if you are open to the idea that every word of Scripture does not have to be literal, historical fact in order to be replete with intelligent, meaningful, spiritual truth, then I highly recommend this wonderfully rich study of the Old Testament. Dr. Levine presents us with a gold mine. August 13, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Course taught in a sectarian world view Even though the professor is smart and interesting with an acceptable presence she taught the course from a sectarian worldview. She did not present the course from a scholarly theological view and she did not appear to believe or really understood the subject. She presented the course using a lot of conjecture, speculation and innuendo. Taught the Biblical text as an ordinary history book with the attitude that if you believe this stuff you are seriously wrong. I would highly recommend that if you want to try this course you should wait until it is put on sale below thirty dollars. August 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by An eye-opening course, suitable for all In response to some of the other reviews: I am a practicing Christian (Catholic) and I did not find this course at all "offensive" or anti-Christian. First of all, knowledge and information should never be offensive. Second, even if you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, that is no conflict with also exploring it from a literary standpoint. Professor Levine did a fantastic job of pointing out literary themes and parallels to other religions throughout the course of the lectures. If anything, this has enhanced my appreciation for the Old Testament as a complex and important work to all people in the western tradition, not just people who adhere to an Abrahamic religious tradition. I highly recommend this course for anyone who hopes to learn more about one of the cornerstone works of western civilization. June 3, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding course I am just about done with this course and have found it to be fantastic. I have spent a lot of time in the Old Testament-- and have found that her account is enlightening, accurate, and so compact. She also likes to dialogue with this text from her own perspective-- which would be an educated middle-aged white woman. And so these dialogues she has-- I find really interesting and coming from such a different viewpoint ( breath of fresh air and delight me). A lot of people suggest that she is not religious-- and I don't know where they're getting that from. She connects the Old and New Testament in this course often. I would definitely say that she handles herself very academically-- but for other reviewers to say she is a nonbeliever-- and have the extensive knowledge in the Old and New Testament like she does-- sorry I don't buy it. There is no evidence to suggest that she's a nonbeliever-- she just doesn't want to show any type of discipline in her responses. You can't tell if she's Jewish or if she is a Bible-Only Christian. That's what makes her so good at this content. She has a slight bias for women-- but she is a woman and her current perspective on things are needed because she speaks for the women of the past who were not free to dialogue. And it is worth listening to her-- I think she's right on almost every perspective. She also is not hard-core about respecting the Jewish people by calling this the Hebrew Bible-- or by using the strict naming convention of BCE. Before Common Era. It doesn't interest her to follow these rules. I like that. She refers to it sometimes-- but most of the time she's not bothered by it. My only request would be-- that she goes further. I would love an extra 10 chapters. One example-- just listen to her content on the Judges-- absolutely fascinating and she pulls out all the punches. After listening-- there are no questions of interpretation. She is perfectly clear. I am a very strong Christian (Catholic)-- whether she wanted to or not-- she testified beautifully to God in this course. Listen to what she has to say. She knows her stuff. Respectfully, a religious customer and fan. (Oh and no pot shots about me being Catholic-- I'll take you on any day on biblical acumen). May 6, 2014
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