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The “Old Testament” is the name Christians have given to the Jewish Scriptures and the first part of the Christian Bible. When the earliest Christians quoted from “Scripture,” they quoted from the Jewish Scriptures. It was not until after the New Testament books were written in the first and second centuries A.D. that Christians started referring to the Jewish Scriptures as the “Old Testament.” For the differences in the order of the books in the Jewish Scriptures and the Old Testament, see the chart called “The Old Testament in Christian Bibles.”
The Old Testament is actually many different books of various kinds written by many different writers during a period of at least a thousand years. In fact, some parts of the Old Testament date back to around 1200 B.C. Many of the books that make up the Old Testament were originally stories that were told over and over from generation to generation. They were eventually written down and gathered together into longer collections (like the stories about Abraham in Genesis 12–24). The books of the Old Testament were originally written down in Hebrew, the language of the people of Israel, though a few of the later books (or parts of books) were written Aramaic, a closely-related language.
The Old Testament is a record of Israel’s experience of what God is like and what the people who worship God should be like (Lev 20:7,8). It proclaims the LORD God as the creator of the world (Gen 1; Ps 104), and it describes God as one who promises to bless. God’s “blessings” are described in the agreements (covenants) God made with the people of Israel, beginning with Abraham. God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would become a great nation, that they would have a land they could call their own, and that other nations of the world would be blessed because of Israel’s unique relationship with God (Gen 12:1-3; 15:5-8,18-20; 17:8). God asked Abraham and his descendants to uphold this agreement by circumcising all the men and boys of the Israelite people as a sign of their devotion to God (see Gen 17:9-14).
Many years later, God helped Moses lead the descendants of Abraham (the Israelites) out of slavery in Egypt. But before reaching the land God promised to give them (Canaan), the people of Israel wandered in the desert for several years. It was during this time of wandering that God made an agreement (covenant) with Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. This agreement contained the laws and instructions (Hebrew, Torah) that were to guide the people in how to live together and worship the LORD God. If the people obeyed the laws and remained faithful to God, the promises God made to their ancestor Abraham would be fulfilled. But if they did not obey, they would be in danger of losing their land and being punished by their enemies (Deut 7:6-15). Much of the Old Testament tells the story of how God’s chosen people struggled to keep their part of this agreement with God, and how God continually offered guidance and forgiveness when they disobeyed. See also the Introductions to the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Books of Wisdom and Poetry, and the Prophetic Books.
The Old Testament is a book of faith, which means that both Jews and Christians view it as a sacred book that has meaning and authority for their lives. Much of it is read and sung in worship. Its laws and instructions reflect God’s desire for people’s behavior to stand out as holy and moral. The stories of the Old Testament teach and inspire by giving examples of ordinary people who struggled with issues of faith and obedience, and of how a loving God relates to them. The messages of its prophets emphasize the need for right living and proper worship of God, and reveal a God who cares deeply for the poor and is willing to forgive those who have been disobedient. The wisdom writings offer practical advice for living and explore difficult questions that people have struggled to answer since ancient times.
Not all Christian groups have the same number of Old Testament books in their Bibles (see the article called “What Books Belong in the Bible?”). But all agree that the Old Testament deals in a special way with the relationship between God and God’s people, while it also provides a background for understanding the message of the New Testament.