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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

Lecture Titles

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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 144 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Sorry it was over. Enthusiastic presentation from an extremely qualified professor. October 5, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Study of the Old Testament... or Myth? I was pleased that I could listen to the course on my computer immediately after signing up for the course, but if I'd had the opportunity to listen to the first class before paying for the entire course, I'm certain I wouldn't have purchased the class. The study has given me a greater knowledge of the epics of time in which the Holy Bible was written, but disappointed that Professor Levine jokes about the "mythological characters" and Old Testament stories. This isn't a study I will be referencing in my women's Bible study classes. I believe a professor who is truly certified to put an Old Testament class together should include the testimony of her personal faith and belief in the Old Testament at the beginning of the class. It probably is acceptable to include theories of what "some may consider as a 'myth'" into the class, but by no means state that the characters and stories are a myth. October 2, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fantastic Overview of a Challenging Text I'm reading the entire Old Testament from cover to cover, and found Prof. Levine to be the perfect intellectual companion for the journey. She is not only a fascinating, brilliant professor, but also an engaging, entertaining speaker. September 27, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Beautifully Presented Religion and politics are very difficult , sensitive subjects to present given the passions these topics elicit. Prof Levine has done an admirable job giving this course. Her excitement and passion for the subject is evident in every lecture. September 17, 2014
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