Understanding the Old Testament

Course No. 6013
Professor Robert D. Miller II, PhD
The Catholic University of America
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Course No. 6013
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover the epic story of the ancient Israelites on their journey across the Fertile Crescent.
  • Study the richness and diversity of the literature, songs, poetry, and prophecy embodied within the text.
  • Reflect on the notions of ethics, moral philosophy, and social justice that have guided the unfolding of Western civilization.
  • Learn more about the history of the cultures of the ancient Near East.

Course Overview

The 39 books of the Old Testament constitute the Hebrew Bible, comprise nearly three quarters of the Christian Bible, and contain substantial material considered sacred within Islam. As such, the Old Testament is among the most influential and widely read texts in world history.

Even beyond its religious functions, the Old Testament has permeated Western culture since its creation, giving rise to innumerable references to the text and stories within Western literature, historical writing, philosophy, and art. For these reasons and more, the importance of the Old Testament in cultural, religious, and historical terms would be hard to overemphasize.

Now, in 24 dynamic lectures, Understanding the Old Testament takes a new look at this seminal text, filled with fresh perspectives, rich visual aids, and fascinating examination of the text, shedding light on the monumental impact of one of the world’s most beloved books.

Even beyond its religious functions, the Old Testament has permeated Western culture since its creation, giving rise to uncountable references to the text and stories within Western literature, historical writing, philosophy, and art. For these reasons and more, the importance of the Old Testament in cultural, religious, and historical terms would be hard to overemphasize. A grasp of the core writings of the Old Testament offers you valuable insight into subjects such as:

  • The conceptions of divinity and theology at the heart of Judaism and Christianity;
  • The epic story of the ancient Israelites on their journey across the Fertile Crescent;
  • The history of the cultures of the ancient Near East;
  • The richness and diversity of the literature, songs, poetry, and letters embodied within the text;
  • The ways in which the writings have shaped our intellectual and artistic heritage; and
  • The notions of ethics, moral philosophy, and social justice that have guided the unfolding of Western civilization.

A World-Shaping Literature

In 24 engrossing lectures, enriched with vivid color imagery and maps, Professor Miller guides you through many of the major books of the Old Testament, inviting you to probe their meaning and relevance in incisive and thought-provoking commentary. Among the books of the Old Testament that he highlights in detail, you’ll explore:

  • Genesis: Uncover revealing features of the opening text of the Old Testament, such as how the events of the first week of creation form an elaborate pattern, expressing the complex order of the universe; and how the text does not lay primary blame for “the fall” on the woman, Eve;
  • Deuteronomistic History: Across the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, study the dramatic history of the people of Israel in the Promised Land, bound to God by a covenant; follow the story of the Israelites’ disobedience to God, and its tragic consequences;
  • The Prophets: Through the dramatic narratives of Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, take account of the challenges faced by those who sought to actualize God’s plan for humanity;
  • The Books of Ruth and Esther: Among notable women in the Old Testament, explore two stories of women in the ancient Near East who are doubly at risk, and who prevail through loyalty, resourcefulness, and integrity;
  • Daniel and the Apocalyptic: In the Book of Daniel, encounter the genre of apocalyptic literature—revelation initiated by God—and contemplate the figure of “the Son of Man,” a promised redeemer.

Probe Deeply into the Inner Meanings of the Text

Throughout these extraordinary lectures, Professor Miller offers a wealth of intriguing perspectives on how to approach the text of the Old Testament. In numerous cases, you’ll assess the role of translation in the understanding of the texts, studying the meanings of key Hebrew words and words of ancient languages. You’ll also look in depth at the history, dating, and writing of the texts themselves. In addition, you’ll study the literary and linguistic features of many of the texts, noting how they achieve their impact on the reader.

In Understanding the Old Testament, you’ll take a revelatory look at this epically impactful document, learning to find its deeper historical and religious meanings, as well as to savor its sublime literary treasures.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 27 minutes each
  • 1
    The Old Testament as Literature
    Consider the historical and literary contexts of the Old Testament, and take an overview of this course. Then, study the events contained within the first six days of creation. For each day, note what was created, how God evaluated it, and how the events of the days are interconnected. Also, observe how the events establish an elaborate pattern and what that pattern meant to ancient Israelites. x
  • 2
    The Genesis Creation Story
    Look at the creation of humanity according to Genesis Chapter 1, and in particular, at how we interpret the idea that humans were made in the image and likeness of God. Then learn about the unique seventh day— the Sabbath—and how the Sabbath was also a day of creation. Investigate the intriguing question of the authorship of the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch or Torah. x
  • 3
    What God Intended for Adam and Eve
    Here, delve into the story of the Garden of Eden. Grasp God's purpose in creating humans as beings that are both material and spiritual. Consider the significance of the god-like role given to Adam to name other creatures. Learn how woman was created as a counterpart (and even rescuer) of man, and how the creation story accounts for a world that is not what God intended. x
  • 4
    When Things Go Wrong in the Garden of Eden
    In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, explore how ancient Israelites understood the nature of sin. Follow Adam and Eve's transgression in eating the forbidden fruit and note how this act disrupts both the relationship between the two humans and between humanity and nature. See how the ultimate consequence of the humans' actions is the loss of fellowship with God. x
  • 5
    Abraham, the Father of Three Faiths
    In a deep look at the figure of Abraham, the spiritual father of three major religions, examine the features of the Covenant made between God and Abraham as Abraham embarks on his legendary journey. Study the three promises God makes, and what God asks of Abraham. Learn about the paradox embodied in God's command that Abraham sacrifice his son, and what this signifies about the nature of faith. x
  • 6
    Moses and the Exodus
    Read the Call of Moses to liberate the Israelites in Egypt and observe how it resonates with the call of other Biblical prophets. Investigate the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh; how God's nature is expressed in the name; and why Jews did not speak or write it. Finally, take account of scholarly controversy regarding interpretations of the Ten Plagues and the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt. x
  • 7
    The Ten Commandments
    Consider why the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, has a significance beyond that of the other 603 commandments in the Torah, and note how the Ten are numbered within different religious traditions. Examine each of the commandments and grasp how these directives by God were intended not to constrain humanity, but to guarantee freedom, of the community and of each individual. x
  • 8
    The Covenant Code in Exodus
    The Covenant Code contains some of the oldest laws of ancient Israel. Read the Code's many laws, on subjects from religious regulations to social justice, noting that they are considered divine in origin. Compare the Code to the laws of other ancient Near Eastern societies. Learn how, more than legal codes, the laws functioned as moral education regarding notions of human justice. x
  • 9
    Leviticus at a Crossroads
    The book of Leviticus sets out the ways Israelites were to live as God's people. Delve into three sections of the text, beginning with sacrificial practices. Examine five types of ritual sacrifice and the motives or purposes of each. Investigate the Manual of Impurities, which includes dietary rules on the purity of food. Then learn about the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. x
  • 10
    Deuteronomy to Kings
    Take account of the context of Judges, within the Old Testament books that reveal the story of the Israelites in the Promised Land. Assess different accounts of how the Israelites came to the land of Canaan. Then witness the violent cycle in which they fell into idolatrous behavior, then wound up in enslavement, followed by God sending them a series of charismatic leaders (“judges”) to free them. x
  • 11
    The Book of Judges
    Follow the unfolding narrative of Judges, as the leaders sent to free the Israelites themselves fall from virtue. Study the stories of Gideon and his son, Abimelech, and note archaeological discoveries that show amazing similarities to the biblical story. Conclude with the trials of Jephthah and Samson, and the tragic conclusion of Judges, as Israel descends into immorality and violence. x
  • 12
    The Books of Samuel
    Chart the origins of prophecy in ancient Israel, with prophecy seen during ecstatic, trancelike spiritual practices. Observe how Samuel, the last judge, initiated monarchy among the Israelites, appointing Saul as king. Trace the disastrous reign of David, and the story of Bathsheba. Then meet the wise Solomon, builder of the first temple to Israel’s God, where worship—significantly—focused on a text, not an image. x
  • 13
    The Books of Kings
    Examine the role of the prophet in ancient Israel as the conscience of the nation. Study the life of the prophet Elijah, his actions to affirm the supremacy of God, and his later disillusion and disobedience to God. Grasp Elijah's role in the fall of the Israelite kingdoms of Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon, a story which, nevertheless, ends on a note of hope. x
  • 14
    Biblical Short Stories: Ruth and Esther
    Discover the genre of the biblical short story: Old Testament books that recount single plots, often focusing on displaced women. Learn the story of Ruth, of the land of Moab—Israel’s hated enemy, who survived in Bethlehem through loyalty and resourcefulness. Also, encounter the Jewish, Persian Queen Esther, who saved her people by honoring her Jewishness while being queen of a gentile society. x
  • 15
    Amos, Prophet of Justice
    Explore the preaching of the prophet Amos and his passionate theme of justice for the poor and vulnerable. Note how, as an outsider, Amos brings the northern kingdom of Israel to task for its crimes against the poor, seen in acts such as debt slavery, distortions of justice, and the treatment of concubines. Contemplate Amos’s “three woes” against Israel, and also his concluding vision of hope. x
  • 16
    The Prophet Isaiah in Three Movements
    Examine the three distinct sections of Isaiah: first, the prophet’s stern denunciation of social injustice, and his intimation of a new era of peace under a messianic king; next, a promise of restoration and redemption for Israel, through the figure of the “Suffering Servant”; and finally, the vision of a post-exile Jerusalem, where all peoples are included within the worship of God. x
  • 17
    Jeremiah, Persecuted Prophet
    Within the life and preaching of the prophet Jeremiah, study the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 7, regarding his “temple sermon” preaching against idolatry, injustice, and fraudulent worship. Witness the prophet’s response to his later persecution, and his struggle against his own call to be a prophet. Also read the hopeful prophecy in which God offers a new covenant to Israel, a covenant of forgiveness which will be everlasting. x
  • 18
    Daniel and Apocalyptic Literature
    In approaching the prophetic oracles and stories of the book of Daniel, delve into the genre of Apocalyptic literature—revelation which discloses a transcendent reality. Note the appearance in Daniel of the figure of “the Son of Man,” a divine, human-like being enthroned by God. Study the story of Daniel’s exile to Babylon and take account of its message for diaspora Jews. x
  • 19
    How Scholars Study Psalms
    Uncover the musical nature of the book of Psalms, which were prayers that were originally sung, and how the Psalms embody the words of humans to God. Study the poetic features of the Psalms, highlighting parallelism (correspondence of lines). See how these patterns structure the Psalms and help to decipher meaning. Learn about the titles of the individual Psalms and what they tell us, and how the Psalms fall into five sections or “books.” x
  • 20
    The Music of the Psalms
    In a second look at Psalms, investigate the primary psalm genres—hymns, thanksgivings, and laments— taking account, in each, of who is speaking within a given Psalm and with what intent. Also delve into lesser genres, such as wisdom psalms, pilgrimage songs, and penitential psalms. Discover how psalms are structured, and how these beloved prayers express the gamut of human emotions. x
  • 21
    Proverbs in the Bible: Wisdom Literature
    As context for the book of Proverbs, discover the Old Testament genre of “wisdom literature” and the varieties of knowledge it encompasses. In the first, nine sections of Proverbs, study the use of paired metaphors that guide the reader’s understanding. Examine the use of personification in Proverbs to express wisdom: as referred to as a woman, as present with God at creation, and as equivalent to the nature of the universe. x
  • 22
    Job's Suffering and Understanding
    Immerse yourself in the mysteries of the book of Job, first identifying its biblical genre and unusual literary structure. Witness God's wager with the accuser, who questions Job's faith, and see the unfolding of the guiltless Job's ensuing tribulations and reckoning with God. Contemplate the many historical explanations of God's actions, and what the narrative suggests about divine providence and human value. x
  • 23
    Ecclesiastes and the "Vanity of Vanities"
    Grapple with the fascinating and elusive text of the book of Ecclesiastes. In the apparent bleakness of Qohelet's words, grasp why many through the centuries have found the book depressing. With a careful and rigorous reading, plumb the verses for their deeper meaning: a singular vision of affirmation, reaching beyond the futility of human life to an authentic joy in the gifts of God. x
  • 24
    Slaying the Dragons of the Old Testament
    Conclude by examining a recurrent image within the Old Testament: the figure of the dragon as the personification of evil. Look back through the entire Old Testament at the metaphor of dragon-slaying, at the hands of God, and explore its appearance within earlier mythic traditions. Through multiple textual references, see how this unusual metaphor constitutes an analogy for human suffering and redemption. x

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Your professor

Robert D. Miller II

About Your Professor

Robert D. Miller II, PhD
The Catholic University of America
Robert D. Miller II is Ordinary Professor of Old Testament at The Catholic University of America. He received a PhD in Biblical and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. He is a research associate at the University of Pretoria and a life member of St John’s College Cambridge. Professor Miller is a scholar of the history, literature, religion, and archaeology of ancient Israel. His books Chieftains of the...
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