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Question Did the stories in the Old Testament literally occur or are they mostly allegories with a deeper meaning?


Old TestamemtAnswer Stories in the Old Testament (OT) are not intended to be a record of history, nor intended to be a literal account of an event.  These stories were past orally from generation to generation through the spoken word before eventually in time being put into written form.  Like many stories told by mouth there is no way to actually go back to the original event.  Stories have be elaborated on and expanded.  The OT is a treasure chest of wisdom and inspiration to guide people closer to God and live in right relationship with one another.  It contains profound truths and insight into the meaning of human life though we do not dismiss that these stories may be based on some historical event and can sometimes be verified or likely to have occurred if archeological evidence is found that help point to an event.  More important is that the OT represents stories of a communal faith lived and witnessed by God’s chosen people, the Israelites.

What is more important to consider in reading the OT is ancient people were more concerned with insights into relationships with God and one another than a literal historical account.  The science of archeology and some discovery of documents of early civilization in area of ancient Babylon (modern day southern Iraq) sheds light on how early stories from this civilization may have been woven into the OT.  The Babylonian creation story (Enuma Elish) and part of Genesis Ch 1 have some parallels.  The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic tells the story of king Gilgamesh who builds an ark, survives a flood and is saved by the gods parallels the OT story of Noah, his ark, and the flood.  We do not know whether there was or there was not a great flood that destroyed the world’s population but that is not the intent of the story.  The intent of the story was that humanity became so depraved and distant themselves from God that God want to start his creation over and chose the good, pious, and just man Noah and his family to begin anew and also entered into a covenant with Noah never to again destroy his creation no matter how depraved his creatures became.  Simply put for the ancient authors was that God prefers justice and goodness in his creation over depravity and sinfulness.

Another difference for the ancients was a very limited knowledge of the world in which they lived.  They did not have instant worldwide communication, broadcast news 24/7, and satellite images of the earth from outer space.  Their world was as far as the furthest boundary they may have traveled and early civilizations depending on agricultural crops they grew had no need to wander very far.  For example, a plausible explanation for the great flood could be as simple as:  Gilgamesh lived in the valley area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  The residents along the rivers were already concerned because the winter rains had caused both rivers to overflow their banks and were concerned about more rain.  Being the king, Gilgamesh, I had my shipbuilder build an ark for me and my family.  When the spring brought more relentless rain the rivers destroyed all the homes in the valley and all the people drowned except for me and my family.  Once the waters receded we started life anew with only ourselves. (If God who control the heavens and the rain, brings rain on the only area of the world Gilgamesh knows of, then when told orally to his children his story was that God flooded the whole world which was accurate to Gilgamesh’s world).  Later the Israelites adopted the story but used it within a context of explaining the immorality of people, how the good, just Noah was chosen to start anew, how God saved Noah and his family and then entered into a covenant with Noah never again to destroy creation.

As we can see we do not have to literally believe in all of the stories we find in the OT.  Certainly, stories surrounding King David and Goliath (not a giant but a 6’6” man who was a bit bigger than David who would have stood 5’2” if he was average height for a Hebrew man of the time) are easier to explain and believe in but some of the earlier ones from Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers challenge us.  Another example of how age is used in Genesis to reflect the sin of humanity just read through the narrative, look at how the ages of which people lived to dramatically decreases.  The theological point being made is that is one of the effects of sin which is death is how the life span shortens due to sin and not intended to give us a literal life span record.  So by the time we go from Adam who died at 930 yr old to Abraham who died at 175 yrs old (still a ripe old age) we see the effect of sin.

Fr. Tom

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