The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001) 239 pages.


  • Archaeological evidence for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra (chapter 6).
  • The weaknesses of the documentary hypothesis/ JEDP theory and unifying theme of the Pentateuch (chapter 10).
  • Archaeological support for the reliability of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel (chapter 12).
  • The role of the Law and its relationship to God’s promises to the patriarchs (chapter 14).
  • God’s promises as a controlling theme in the Bible (Epilogue).


  • Introduction: Does it Matter?
  • Part 1: Are the OT Canon & Text Reliable?
    • Chapter 1: How did the OT originate?
    • Chapter 2: Which books belong to the OT canon?
    • Chapter 3: How well was the text of the OT preserved?
  • Part 2: Is the History of the OT Reliable?
    • Chapter 4: How reliable is Genesis 1-4?
    • Chapter 5: How reliable is Genesis 4-11?
    • Chapter 6: Are the historical accounts of the patriarchs accurate?
    • Chapter 7: Does archaeology help the case for reliability?
    • Chapter 8. Are the stories of the exodus and conquest reliable?
    • Chapter 9: Are the chronologies of the OT kings trustworthy?
  • Part 3: Is the message of the OT Reliable?
    • Chapter 10: How reliable is the message of the Torah?
    • Chapter 11: How reliable are the wisdom writings?
    • Chapter 12. How reliable are the prophets?
  • Part 4: Is the Message of the OT Relevant for Today?
    • Chapter 13. How relevant is OT narrative for us?
    • Chapter 14. How relevant is OT Torah for us?
    • Chapter 15. How relevant is OT prophecy for us?
    • Chapter 16. How relevant are the Wisdom Materials and the Psalms?
  • Epilogue: What is the OT about?
  • Glossary of Terms >> This is very useful glossary that would help with reading other books on inspiration and canonicity.


The goal of the book is to address the question: Are the OT documents reliable and if so, are they relevant? This book was meant to complement F.F. Bruce’s book, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?

Kaiser is squarely in the conservative camp on his view of scripture: “The great divide in biblical studies is not over differing systems of interpretation, but whether one believes that God is the ultimate author of Scripture. Everything else, compared to that central affirmation, takes a lower rung on our ladder of priorities and commitments.” (11)

Part 1: Are the OT canon & text reliable?

Chapter 1: How did the OT originate?

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers at many times and in various ways.” (Hebrews 1:1) This is how we should view the OT. How did this process occur?

  1. Through inspired utterances:
    • God spoke with Moses “face to face” (Numbers 12:6-8).
    • Wisdom writers observed the world around them and “received” instruction. (Proverbs 24:30-34)
    • The Ten Commandments were on tablets of stone “inscribed by the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:8 & Deut. 5:22) The same is true of the replacement copy. (Ex 34:1)
    • God told Moses to write down “everything the Lord had said” (Ex. 24:4) and it became the book of the covenant (Exodus 21-23).
    • Men like David and Balaam spoke oracles from God (Num. 24:15-17; 2 Samuel 23:1,2).
    • David said, “the spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue… The God of Israel spoke, the rock of Israel said to me…” (2 Sam. 23:2-3) Compare with Paul in 1 Cor. 2:13.
    • “Thus says the Lord” appears over 5000 times in the writing prophets. The prophets’ word was recognized as being from God even when it was unpopular and damaging to national pride.  (Jer. 26:17-19)
  2. Through inspired books:
    • God commanded Moses to place his book of the law beside the Ark. These books formed a self-contained unit. (Deut. 31:24-26; 4:2) But what about the “post-Mosaica” – comments in the Pentateuch that Moses couldn’t have written? Kaiser says that Joshua wrote some or all of them. See Joshua 24:26.
    • It didn’t take until 400 B.C. for OT books to be recognized. Books were recognized well before that. (e.g. Prov. 30:2-6 shows that Agur understood that David and Moses were authoritative. He quotes Psalm 18:30 and Deut. 4:2). Daniel, writing 70 years after Jeremiah, recognized Jeremiah’s writing as “prophetic.” Nehemiah kept a collection of OT books (2 Maccabees 2:13).
    • This argues for progressive acceptance of the OT books.
    • Some books were compiled:
      • e.g. Proverbs was compiled 200+ years after they were finished.
      • e.g. The collection in the Psalms spans the time between David and the exile.

Chapter 2: Which books belong in the OT Canon? 

“There was a progressive recognition of certain books as being canonical right from their inception by readers and listeners who were contemporaneous with the writers and who were thereby in the best position to determine the claims of the writers.” (31) This contrasts with the popular notion that books gradually became revered over a long period of time before they became canonical.

The OT canon was not determined at Jamnia in the first century AD. The canon was already settled by then.

There was a succession of prophets who recognized each others’ writings as inspired:

  • 1 Chr. 29:29 – Samuel, Nathan, and Gad write the history of David.
  • 2 Chr. 9:29 – Nathan,  Ahijah and Iddo wrote the history of Solomon.
  • 2 Chr. 12:15 – Shemaiah Iddo wrote about Rehoboam.
  • 2 Chr. 13:22 – Iddo wrote about Abijah.
  • 2 Chr. 20:34 – Jehu wrote about Jehoshaphat.
  • 2 Chr. 32:32 – Isaiah wrote about Hezekiah.
  • 2 Chr. 33:18-19 – Unnamed prophets wrote about Manasseh.
  • Dan. 9:1,2 – Daniel regarded Jeremiah’s writings (75 years earlier) as being from God and part of he “books” which may have been a collection of inspired books to date.
  • Jer. 26:18 – Jeremiah regarded Micah’s writings (125 years earlier) as being from God.
  • Ezra 9-10; Neh. 8-9 – These verses show that the Law of Moses was normative for the people.

So books were not being recognized in councils, but gradually, as they were written.

The earliest historical evidence for a Hebrew canon:

  • Jewish writings show that there were known collections of OT books by the first century BC.
  • Philo mentions one by 50 A.D.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) contain every book of the OT except Esther. (200BC-50 A.D.)
  • Josephus said the Jewish scriptures contained 22 books which corresponding to our current OT canon. (70AD)
  • Our present concept of the Hebrew canon dates back to several centuries before Christ.
  • The two-fold division of the Old Testament books (the Law and the Prophets) seems to predate the three-fold division (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) of OT canon. But the 2-fold division includes the wisdom books.
  • Jesus says in Matthew 23:35 “from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah” – these are references to murders mentioned at the beginning of Genesis and end of 2 Chronicles – the first and last of the books in the Jewish canon. Very similar to us saying from Genesis to Malachi.

Chapter 3: How well was the text of the Old Testament preserved?

The three most important witnesses to the original text of the Old Testament are:

  1. The Masoretic Text (MT): 1008-9 A.D.
    • This term is often restricted to a particular manuscript of the OT copied by Aaron Ben Asher.
    • “The accuracy of the MT was validated when some of the oldest DSS, dating from the first and second century B.C., were found to reflect essentially the same text we have inherited from the Masoretes and the text set forth in Ben Asher’s tenth-century A.D. Hebrew Bible.” (42)
    • See pages 43&44 for a good description of the care that the Masoretes took in copying the Old Testament.
  2. The Samaritan Pentateuch: Date?
    • “A modernized, smoothed-over and somewhat expanded text as compared to the Masoretic Text.” (44)
  3. The Dead Sea Scrolls: 200 B.C. – 50 A.D.?
    • There are 800+ scrolls containing parts or in some cases the entirety of the text of all 39 books of the OT except Esther.
    • The scrolls are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
    • 60% of the text institutionalized in the Masoretic Text can be found in the DSS.
    • Here’s an example of the purity of transmission in some of the texts: “In one complete Isaiah scroll, only three words exhibiting different spelling were found for a book that runs about one hundred pages and sixty-six chapters in our English texts.” (46)

Scholars us the term “urtext” to refer to an original source or archetype for the MT. Most OT critics have embraced Urtext theory. But there is no way to verify a theory about texts preceding the DSS.

All we know is that there were several families of texts (3 major ones) at the time of the MT.

How much variation was there between these textual traditions? Not enough to affect any major doctrine.

“The scope of variation within all these textual traditions is relatively restricted. Major divergences which intrinsically affect the sense are extremely rare. A collation of variants extant, based on the synoptic study of the material available, either by a comparison of parallel passages within one version, or of the major versions with each other … results in the conclusion that the ancient authors, compilers, tradents, and scribes enjoyed what may be termed as controlled freedom from textual variation.” – Shemeryahu Talmon, “Textual Study of the Bible – A New Outlook,” in Qumran and the History of Biblical Text, ed. Frank M. Cross and S. Talmon (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 326. Quoted by Kaiser. (48)

“Over 90% of the OT is textually sound and uniformly witnessed to by major exemplars. Of the remaining 10% of the text that exhibits any type of variation, extremely few are of such significance that would involve any major doctrinal issues.” (49)

Part 2: Is the history of the OT reliable?

Chapter 4: How reliable is Genesis 1-4?

Literary source criticism and the documentary hypothesis were heavily influenced by a Hegelian philosophy of history (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Biblical tensions requiring synthesis include farmer vs. shepherd, prophet vs. priest, etc. But Kaiser says the criteria for identifying underlying documents (e.g. J, E, D, P, etc.) can’t be trusted.

Proponents of the documentary hypothesis like Hermann Gunkel reject the claim that the early chapters of Genesis record historical events. Kaiser responds to six ways that Gunkel says Genesis 1-11 differs from real history (56).

  1. Gunkel: Genesis 1-11 originates in oral tradition while history is found in literate societies and in written documents of actual events.
    Kaiser: It’s true that Moses, the traditional author, was separated from the events by 1000’s of years. But he may have relied on earlier written records.
    • Gen 5:1 claims dependence on a scroll for Adam’s lineage.
    • The author also appeals 6 times to named sources that he calls “accounts,” “generations” or “histories.” See Gen 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27.
    • We know that writing dates as far back as 3400 B.C.
  2. Gunkel: Genesis 1:11 deals with personal and family stories while history concerns itself with great events of public interest.
    Kaiser: Families are at the heart of God’s overall plan in history, so this is a non-issue.
  3. Gunkel: Genesis 1-11 reflects borrowing from other ancient Near Eastern mythologies.
    Kaiser: There are other explanations for supposed “borrowing” in Genesis. Kaiser offers a detailed explanation for four examples:
    1. The word “deep” (Genesis 1:2 - taimat in Babylonian; Tehom in Hebrew);
    2. “brood” (Genesis 1:2 – connecting the biblical creation account with the Phoenician myth about a world egg);
    3. "great sea monsters” (Genesis 1:20,21 “tannim” is not a proper name or mythical creature; it’s a generic term for a large water animal);
    4. flood account borrowed from the Babylonians.


  • There were textual sources for Genesis 1-11.
  • The events of the lives of people in a family still have great significance and are of public interest.
  • Genesis 1-11 is not borrowed from surrounding cultures.

Chapter 5: How reliable is Genesis 4-11?

Kaiser continues to respond to Gunkel’s view of Genesis 1-11:

  1. Gunkel: Genesis 1-11 narrates the scientifically impossible. Objections include (a) mention of iron working in Gen 4.22 (too early); (b) the limited number of generations between Adam and Eve and Abraham (c) the longevity of Adam and Eve’s early descendants (d) the “waters above | land | waters below” view of the universe (e) the tower of Babel “reaching the heavens.”
    • On iron working: Kaiser admits that the earliest hard evidence is 1500 B.C. But skills in the ancient world were often lost and rediscovered. The Hebrew word for iron was used for 2.5 millennia before the official start of the Iron Age (1200 B.C.). There is some evidence that ironworking goes back as far as 6500 B.C.
    • On the limited number of generations from Adam to Abraham: Genesis never totaled the number of years that separate Adam and Abraham. The genealogies exhibit symmetry – 10 names each with 3 sons at the conclusion of the list. Instances can be cited in scripture of up to seven generations missing in gaps. The declining ages of each person shows the advancing effects of sin.
    • On the lifespan of the pre-patriarchal people: They actually did live that long (God originally intended them to live forever).
    • On the three-deck cosmology in the OT: The Bible never says the firmament (expanse) is solid or firm. It simply refers to an extended surface or expanse… this is not an astrodome-like structure. Windows of heaven are figurative; other things come through these windows, like barley, trouble, anguish and blessing. Flat earth? We still use figurative language like “four corners of the earth” or “sunrise” that are not precise scientific statements about the universe. Pillars holding up the Earth? Figurative language again. Job 26:7 says the earth rests on nothing. Waters below? Below the shoreline.
    • On the sons of God marrying daughters of men with giants as progeny: Citing Meredith Kline… “Kline’s solution is to interpret sons of God… as a title for nobles, aristocrats and kings. These we sociologically mixed marriages where the aristocrats, or titled people, lusted after power, reputation and wealth.” (78)
    • On the tower of Babel: Two problems here – the world speaking one language and building a tower “to the sky.” Response – details in the story, like the use of bricks and tar for mortar indicate accurate knowledge of Mesopotamian building techniques. “To the sky” is obviously figurative… as is our expression “sky scraper.” Ancient Sumerian tablets mention a golden age when everyone spoke the same language – could this be a memory of a historical era?
  2. Gunkel: Genesis is written in a poetic literary form and not narrative prose.
    Kaiser: It’s actually in narrative form (80-82) – “historical narrative-prose, interspersed with reports, lists, sayings, and a few poetical lines such as Genesis 4:23-24.” (82)
  3. Gunkel: Genesis 1-11 is different in form from the classic example of true Hebrew historiography, 1 Samuel 9-20, where history is identical in form and style to those searching, uncomplimentary documents of David’s court.
    Kaiser: Gen. 1-11 contains numerous references to places, individuals and cultural items. This type of language is scarce in the Koran, for example. “The generations of” and “the happenings of” is repeated uniformly throughout the book implying that the author saw chapters 1-11 and 12-50 as the same type of literature. In addition, we’ve since discovered that 12-50 is very true to the era it describes.
    The linear progression of events portrayed in the Pentateuch was the beginning of modern history as we know it, unlike the cyclical view common in many cultures.

Chapter 6: Are the Historical Accounts of the Patriarchs Accurate?

Debates still rage over the historicity of the patriarchal accounts.

Albright, Gordon, and Speiser amassed “an impressive number of parallels between the patriarchal stories and second millennium laws and social customs.” (85) But their work has been disputed. See example parallels on pages 86 & 87.

Archaeology has supported the place names, people’s names, and city names mentioned in the Patriarchal narrative.

The kings mentioned in Genesis 14 have not yet appeared in cuneiform records, but their names indicate Moses was using very old records. So do some of the terms used. (91)

There is evidence that Sodom and Gomorrah did exist and were destroyed as the Bible describes.

  • “Non-biblical authors wrote about Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction in a way that indicated they regarded it as a real event.” (91)
    e.g. Josephus
  • Where is the site of Sodom and Gomorrah? Some say the south shore of the Dead Sea. The water level has risen there, submerging ancient structures, but there is no evidence that these are the five cities of the plain. Others say the eastern shore of the Transjordan, just south of the Lisan (a tongue protruding into the Dead Sea). A site there (Babe dh-Dhra) has the remains of a heavily fortified community dating back to 3150-2200BC. Here there are “huge layers of ash reaching many feet in depth. Moreover, so hot and intense had been the flames that destroyed this site that the bricks had turned red permanently from the intense heat.” (92)
  • Archaeologist Bryant Wood believes this site is Sodom. He says, “just at the time the city was destroyed, there was a particular type of burial… the dead were buried in a building right on the surface, a structure the archaeologists referred to as a charnel house…. what they discovered was that the fire started on the roof of the building, then the roof burned through, collapsed into the interior, and then the fire spread inside the building. And this was the case with every charnel house they excavated.” (93 – Kaiser quoting Byant Wood) This seems to match the biblical account of God raining down fire and brimstone.
  • Four other settlements were found near this site. All 5 sites were abandoned or destroyed at the same time. 4 of the 5 sites exhibit burn layers (up to 7 feet deep in some cases). Recall that Lot asked that Zoar be spared (Genesis 19). Wood says the destruction occurred between 2450 and 2350 B.C.

The Egyptian background of the Joseph narrative is proving to be authentic.

The biblical account was not borrowed from the Egyptian tale of the two brothers. Egyptian names, terms, and titles in the account were used at this time (1800 BC). Customs mentioned also reflect this era. The Egyptians were also into dream interpretation at this time. (95-96)

Chapter 7: Does Archaeology Help the Case for Reliability?

Archaeology doesn’t prove the Bible. But it can…

  1. Illuminate the Bible.
  2. Anchor the events of the text in our kind of history and geography.
  3. Build confidence in God’s revelation.

Over the years, Bible critics have identified individuals (usually kings) mentioned in the Bible that aren’t found in the archaeological record. They are sometimes cited as examples of historical errors in the Bible. Examples include…

  1. Darius the Mede – We still haven’t found evidence outside the Bible that he existed.
  2. King Belshazzar – His existence has been confirmed by recent discoveries. (99)
  3. Sargon the king of Assyria – Evidence discovered in the mid 1800’s.
  4. Johoiachin, king of Judah – Since discovered. (100)
  5. Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem – Since discovered. (100-101)

There are many similar examples of supposedly lost or “erroneous” names that have since been discovered.

The same is true with peoples…

The Hittites and Horites were doubted by skeptics but have since been discovered.
See p. 104-105 for an interesting comparison between Egyptian and OT descriptions of the promised land.

…and places.

  1. Ophir. (105)
  2. Sites mentioned as being along the route of the Exodus.
  3. Hebron.

These have been discovered. As the facts keep coming in, the Bible continues to show itself reliable.

Chapter 8: Are the stories of the exodus and conquest reliable?

“With only a few exceptions, most scholars today doubt that anything like the Bible’s description of the conquest of Jericho took place.” (109)

Archaeologists have conflicting views over the dating of the ruins at Jericho. Garstang originally confirmed the Bible’s account. Kenyon overturned it.

Bryant Wood agreed with some of Kenyon’s work, but argued again for Garstang’s early dating. Everyone agrees the city was destroyed rapidly, that the walls fell, and that they fell outward. “Kenyon (not a conservative) found that outside the revetment wall, in her excavation on the west side of the city, the bricks of the city wall had fallen outward… Kenyon’s 80 foot balk would have been sufficient to build a wall 6.5 feet wide and 12 feet high. And what is more, since the bricks fell on the outside of the stone revetment wall, this explains how it was possible that ‘every man charged straight in [to the city]’, for the debris had formed a sort of natural bridge or ramp to scale what was left of the walls.” (112)

Kaiser proceeds to argue that this occurred around 1400 BC, and not 1230-ish B.C., like many scholars believe. He examines three reasons to support the 13th century date of the Exodus and conquest and argues that recent finds show that the 13th C date has little to support it. (114-115)

There is some dispute over the location of Ai.

Chapter 9: Are the chronologies of the Old Testament Kings Trustworthy? 

Modern scholars denounce these records as unwieldy and irreconcilable. But a thorough reconciliation of these chronologies has been provided by Edwin R. Thiele.

Kaiser explains Thiele’s approach to reconciling the chronologies of the kings.

  1. Using an eclipse, we can absolutely date the Assyrian eponyms or names of years. The Assyrians named each year after a man of the year that they selected.
  2. This allows us to date the reign of Jehu, which enables us to anchor Israel’s history to a timeline.
  3. Next we factor in differences between Israel and Judah’s calendar (their years started at different times), differences in the way they reckoned accession years, and difference in the way they calculated the length of each king’s reign.

Kaiser also offers support for 930 BC being the date of the divided monarchy. (122-123)

For more on this detailed argument, see Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings: A Reconstruction of the Chronology of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965).

Liberals say that our edition of the 1&2 Kings was probably written during the middle of the 500’s BC. Kaiser counters, if that were the case, “we should expect a host of errors in the chronology, names, and internal events. However, the results are just the reverse. The list of events for which we have confirmation from non-biblical, non-Israelite sources is staggering.” Kaiser provides a table (126-128) showing corroboration between events in 2 Kings and non-biblical inscriptions from the same period of time.

Part 3: Is the Message of the Old Testament Reliable?

Chapter 10: How reliable is the message of the Torah?

Questions about the Torah

  • Is the Torah history or historical fiction?
  • “Did the Torah emanate… from a plurality of disconnected sources, or do the first five books of the Old Testament evidence some type of unity, wholeness, and continuity to its message?” (131)

The Passover

Some reject the Passover account, but Kaiser says the memory of this event is so strong in the Jewish people that it must have a historical core of truth.


Abraham is central to the Genesis account, which is a succession of complications, problems, and promises.

What is the documentary hypothesis?

The documentary hypothesis is a theory that attempts to explain the sources used to compile the Pentateuch. It is a product of the Enlightenment whose roots trace back to Jean Astruc (1753). He believed the varying names of God used in Genesis were clues to the sources that lay behind its composition.

He and other theorists said that Exodus 6:3 (“by my name (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to (the Patriarchs)” contradicts the dozens of references to Yahweh during the life of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Kaiser weighs out different ways to address this problem and concludes that the phrase “I did not make myself known” can be translated as a rhetorical question. Exodus 6:3 would then read: “My name is Yahweh. Did I not make myself known to them?” This would explain why the name Yahweh is used during their lifetime.

The fragment theory expanded Astruc’s source theory to include Genesis-Deuteronomy. This view stated that an editor (not Moses) alive during the time of Solomon composed the first four books from fragments of sources (not full sources) taken from two separate circles, one using the name Yahweh and the other Elohim. This also included the notion that Deuteronomy was composed later… maybe in the 600s BC.

The four-source theory (JEDP)

This was promoted (not originated) by Graf, Wellhausen, and Keunen. It has become a widely accepted explanation of how the Pentateuch came into its present form since the beginning of the 20th century. This theory denies, “for the most part, the reliability of the Pentateuch as a document that came from God…” (135)

According to this theory, there are four sources that comprise the Pentateuch:

J (Yahweh/Jehovah) 8th C B.C.; written from a Judean point of view.
E (Elohim) From an Ephraimite (Northern Israel) point of view.
D (Deuteronomic) A pious fraud “found” in the temple.
P (Priestly) Written during exile in Babylon.

There are many conflicting source theories about the Pentateuch. Most source critics agree that “a repetitious and contradictory account resulted.” (137) Quoting Whybray, Kaiser responds, “the hypothesis [JEDP and others like it] can only be maintained on the assumption that, while consistency was the hallmark of the various documents, inconsistency was the hallmark of the redactors. What the source critical theory lacks most of all is an appreciation for a single plot that unifies not only the Abrahamic narratives, but also the entirety of the Pentateuch.” (137)

Kaiser goes on to argue that this unified structure argues for a common origin.  

JEDP does a poor job handling the unity of narratives like the Joseph story.

Is there a unifying message in the Torah?

The idea of “covenant” serves as a key concept in the Old and New Testaments.

In the second millennium BC, suzerainty treaties followed a fixed format. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Pentateuch exhibit this form. So does the entire book of Deuteronomy. Since there were different treaty forms in the 1st millennium, this argues that Deuteronomy originated in the second millennium.

How do you reconcile the conditional Mosaic covenant with the unconditional covenant to Abraham?

“Not all those in the promised line of the ‘seed’ of the patriarchs, or the promised line of David, personally partook of the blessings of God’s promise-plan by faith, but all had to transmit the blessings that would ultimately be fulfilled since they were guaranteed by God, not by the obedience of the recipients.” (146)

Chapter 11: How reliable are the wisdom writings?

These include Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Other parts of the Torah and the prophets have features of wisdom literature.

“Can those sayings that appear to emanate from common sense, common grace and the order of creation be trusted to point us to truth that is divine in its reliability?” (147)

Some see biblical wisdom as indirect revelation. Kaiser sees it as (1) observations about the created order + (2) implications drawn in the context of the fear of God.

There are clear parallels between Jewish wisdom literature and the wisdom literature of surrounding nations. In some cases, it is not clear which came first. In the Bible, the fear of God is the pursuit of wisdom. And this was a unique emphasis in Jewish wisdom literature.

Wisdom is “the practical art of being skillful and successful in life… with the fear of God as its guide.” (150)

Proverbs are general maxims which are true in most, but not all, cases. Interpreters must not absolutize proverbs.

Proverbs must also be read in their context, just like any other part of scripture. “Collections of proverbs like those in the book of Proverbs are turning out to be grouped into small collections that do, as a matter of fact, provide context.” (152) See sample collections on page 152.

Are the wisdom books revelation or just human reflections on the natural order?  “Biblical wisdom never beings its search at this point or concludes that empirical observations and human reflections are all there is to the search for wisdom. Wisdom is radically oriented toward God from the start to finish: a God who is personal, communicative, creative, just, righteous, directing the whole secular and sacred process from start to finish. Surely these elements form its revelatory nature…” (154)

Do the wisdom books teach a health and wealth gospel? Kaiser says the promise is broader than material prosperity… the promise is that as we follow God we will find wholeness in life. This can come in many forms, including financial prosperity. “Neither Proverbs nor any of the other wisdom books supports the proposition that the rich are righteous and favored by God while the poor are wicked and hence under his punishment.” >> Kaiser is right, but he doesn’t get into the text of Proverbs to make his case. See lecture notes from week 3 of CM2.

Chapter 12: How reliable are the prophets?

The Reliability of Jeremiah

We actually have a bulla (a lump of clay impressed with a scribe’s seal) that reads “belonging to Berekhyahu, son of Neriyahu” (159). This is Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe. A second bulla with the same seal also has a fingerprint on it… maybe Baruch’s fingerprint! So we have evidence that Baruch existed and was a scribe. We have found a third bulla bearing the name of Gemaryahu, the son of Shaphan, who is mentioned in Jeremiah 36:10-12, and a fourth bulla that mentions “Jerahmeel, a son of the king” (see Jeremiah 36:26). Other names mentioned in Jeremiah have also been discovered by archaeologists.

The Lachish letters (590 B.C.) complain that a prophet is “weakening the hands of the people.” Jewish officials used a similar expression when they accused Jeremiah of demoralizing the army. (Jer. 38:4)

>> Great material for an introductory teaching in Jeremiah.

The Reliability of Isaiah

The text of Isaiah has been transmitted faithfully. “Usually scholars date the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of Isaiah around the first century B.C., which is over one thousand years earlier than any complete Hebrew texts of this book know prior to their discovery in 1947. But the amazing fact about the text is that when the Revised Standard Version went to press, shortly after this find, they made only thirteen insignificant changes in the spelling or wording of the Hebrew texts of this prophet – a prophet whose text extends over 100 pages in most English translations.” Later, the man who translated the DSS scroll said really only 3 changes were needed, and all were due to spelling. “It was a spectacular witness to the purity of the text as it had been carried down for over a millennium…” (164)

Sayings, people, and references to other religions found in Isaiah match the period when Isaiah would have written.

The Reliability of Ezekiel

Ezekiel’s depiction of the cultic practices of surrounding pagans, his use of a brick for a map, his description of the king of Judah being pulled with hooks into a cage, his mention of a holy site being defiled by royal burials, and his prediction of the destruction of Tyre (>> very cool – see p. 168), all match practices and events of his era.

Messianic Prophecies:

Many predictions about the Messiah have come true…

  • His birth in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:).
  • His forerunner, John the Baptist (Is. 40:3-5).
  • Being sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zech 11:12-13).
  • Suffering and being mocked (Ps. 22).
  • Dying vicariously (Is. 53).
  • Being resurrected from the dead (Ps. 16:10).

Part 4: Is the Message of the Old Testament Relevant for Today?

Chapter 13: How Relevant is the Old Testament Narrative for Us?

The OT is primarily narrative.

The components of narrative:

  • God is the main character of OT narratives.
  • The main point is not often directly stated but found in the dialogue.
  • Be careful about making contemporary personal application.

The problem of particularity and specificity:

Because God is the central figure in many biblical narratives, contemporary readers consign many OT stories to legend.

Kaiser says the events happened and were selected and arranged to lead to a certain interpretation.

But how can these events apply to our lives today?

The prophets applied very old writings to the people of their day (e.g. Hosea drawing lessons from Genesis) and the NT writers applied OT stories to NT churches. “Therefore, we conclude that particularity must not be an impediment to our general use of the Old Testament or a hindrance in the formulation of universal or abstract injunctions based on very specific events or persons.” (177)

Biblical faith is anchored in real historical events.

How can ancient narratives have contemporary relevancy? Narratives rarely come out and state their main point. But there are hints to the main point:

  1. The selection of the details of the narrative.
  2. The arrangement of the details.
  3. A quotation by a key individual.

Kaiser uses 1 Kings 17, 1 Kings 18, and Jeremiah 18 as examples.

Chapter 14: How Relevant is OT Torah for us?

Paul tells Timothy that all scripture is useful for teaching, but is the Torah relevant for us today?

People mistakenly perceive the OT Law as a system of regulations that must be observed in order to attain salvation.

  1. Salvation in the Bible was never possible by doing meritorious good works.
  2. Torah does not literally mean “law.” It refers to guidance and direction for one’s life, a “path” to follow. Regulations are only 58 of the 187 chapters of the Pentateuch and can’t be divorced from their context. They are a way for the Jews to “attest to the reality of God’s presence in the affairs of their everyday lives.” (185)

The Theology of the Pentateuch

The Pentateuch teaches faith in God and belief in his promises. The theme of God’s promises did not end with the patriarchs. It is extended throughout the Pentateuch.

God’s promises hold priority over his law.

Torah is seen as the “natural outflowing of obedience in a person who has received so much in the gracious promise of God.” (187)

The Torah, despite its regulations, is essentially narrative along with clear statements of grace:

  • “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans.”
  • “I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – repeated 125 times in the OT.

The giving of the Law itself is tied with God remembering his covenant with Abraham (Ex 2:24;3:13, 15-16; 4:5; 6:3,5,8).

Commands in Genesis (see p. 189) were made in the context of promise. “Obedience [to the Law] was never the condition of any of the covenants or promises made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; neither was it the condition for the continuation of the blessings and grace of God in the good news of the gospel for those who came out of Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. It was only the condition for full enjoyment in the life God had so graciously granted them in his covenant-promise plan, but disobedience could in no way block or stop the transmission of those benefits of grace to succeeding generations.” (190)

Remember that the same law which did have standards also included a provision for those who failed to keep the law.

The Torah shows that “faith and trust characterized the life of God’s people before the giving of the law, but after the giving of the Law faithlessness and failure characterized their lives.” (190) Kaiser quoting Sailhamer, The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch in the Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991) p. 260.

So are the laws relevant today or not? “How is one to move from the specific, individual, particularized command to any sort of abiding relevancy in different times and places?” (192) Four ways have been suggested:

  1. The way of analogy.
    Too often, Israel is made analogous to the church. This is too reductionistic and selective to be trustworthy.
  2. The method of middle axioms.
    A middle axiom is something between a general principle and a specific action.
    These tend to be too general and lack biblical support.
  3. The method of general equity.
    The moral law is seen as the backbone for all biblical law. Each law has a moral principle behind it. Applications of the moral principle are not made based on logic, but on the informing theology behind the text.
  4. The ladder of abstraction.
    Similar to #3. Start with specific law in specific situation, ascend one leg of an A-frame ladder (Old Testament) to reach general principle, descend on the other leg of the ladder (New Testament) to apply the general principle to a specific situation.
    e.g. Compare Hosea 6:6 to Matthew 9:10-13. Principle: God desires mercy, not adherence to external laws.


Torah “is a narrative of the blessings and promises of God initially offered to one person and family, but through which the whole world will ultimately be blessed.” (194)

>> Keeping the Torah is a response to God’s gracious promises. Each generation’s temporal realization of the good life God has to offer depended on adherence to the Law. But God never wavered on his overall promises. The Torah is spiritual and good, if one uses it properly.

Chapter 15: How relevant is Old Testament prophecy for us?

Paul tried to convince people that Jesus was the messiah from the Law and the Prophets. So should we.

“The prophets are often thought of as merely prognosticators or predictors of the future, but this is incorrect. Almost two-thirds of what the prophets did was a telling-forth of the word of God against a backdrop of the spiritual, social, economic and international events of that day.” (196)

Their ministry had five characteristics:

  1. Preaching the Law of Moses.
    Aside: Because the Law reflects the structure of a second millennium BC treaty, more and more folks are again placing the writing of the Law prior to the time of the prophets.
  2. Summoning the people to return to God and believe his promise plan.
    A repeated plea: “Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’” The need to turn away from our idols and back to God is still relevant today.
  3. Calling for social reforms: justice, fairness, righteousness at all levels of society.
    The prophets weren’t just concerned with spirituality. They wanted justice for the mistreated, help for the poor, etc. They called for change not by going after unjust institutions but by calling for change in individual hearts.
  4. Announcing God’s judgment and being optimistic about God’s present and future salvation.
    Compare Amos 4:6-12 with Leviticus 26 & Deuteronomy 28.
    “Judgment was not the end of the matter for the prophets; they declared that God would be just as faithful to his promises of salvation in the present day as he would be in history’s final day. God would restore his people, national Israel, to their inheritance just as he would restore the whole universe to the original glory it had back when it was created.” (201-202)
  5. Announcing God’s oracles to the Gentile nations.
    e.g. Jonah
    God is sovereign over all.


The material in the prophets should be taken at “face value” (202); it teaches “u-turn” theology when God’s people begin to imitate the surrounding culture.

We must hold on to a view of the second coming of Messiah that includes both judgment AND deliverance. “God must finally act, lest mortals falsely conclude that God is a paper tiger who never really rises to defend what is good, right and just.” (203)

Chapter 16: How relevant are the wisdom materials and the Psalms?

“The wisdom materials deal with the meaning of life in all of its mundane ordinariness while the Psalter describes the words of approach to God.” 

The teachings of the wisdom books


  • The fear of the Lord in Proverbs “initiates the proper course for all the mundane decisions of life.” (204)
  • e.g. One area where practical wisdom is offered is the area of human sexuality.
  • All wisdom is derived from God.
  • We must have proper humility before God and submission to his will. He is sovereign.

Song of Solomon:

Kaiser argues that the Song of Solomon expresses God’s desire that marital love be “invincible, intimate, intense, indestructible and ineluctable (Song of Solomon 8:5-7).” (207)


The point of the book: “Unless we come to seek and find God himself, our inner beings, having been made in the very image of God, remain restless until they rest in God; indeed, not knowing the beginning from the end of anything.” (209) Vanity “means that no good thing in God’s good world can, in and of itself, give us the key to life, or supply what is the summum bonum, the chief end of all living, loving, and laboring.” (209)


  • God is addressed in many ways – hymns, laments, and thanksgivings.
  • They guide us in our own acts of praise and giving of thanks to God.
  • On imprecatory prayers the psalms of lament: “These invocations are no mere outbursts of a vengeful spirit; they are, instead, prayers addressed to God… they do not invoke their own judgment, calamity, or curse. God alone is the judge and adjudicator of all such things, thus the appeal must be put in his hands and his alone. However, these are legitimate expressions of the longings of Old Testament saints for God’s honor and righteousness to be restored… utterances of zeal for God’s kingdom and glory.”  (212-213) Dashing infants heads on the rocks (Psalm 137:7-9) is hyperbole (compare with Psalm 141:6). Jesus echoes the same words, by the way, in Luke 19:44. It means “God will destroy Babylon and her progeny for her proud assault against God and his kingdom, for that is what the attack against Israel at that time meant.” (214)


“The words of the psalmists teach us, then, how to pray, to sing, to give thanks, to earnestly long for the success of God’s kingdom, and to worship.” (215)

Epilogue: What is the Old Testament all about?

Some say the OT is irrelevant and that it failed to reach the ethical and moral heights of the New Testament.

Others would not degrade the Old Testament, but so neglect it in practice and end up with almost the same effect.

A third group says it is dry, cumbersome, uninteresting, etc.

And then there are those who still read it, who still view it as God’s revelation, and who still attempt to apply it to their lives today.

To read the OT successfully, we must recognize the unity of scripture and see how it is woven together by the “promise plan” (217) of God.

The extensive use of the OT by the NT should motivate us to read the OT.

Mistakes to avoid when studying the OT:

  1. Seeing the OT as a succession of character studies with moral lessons.
  2. Failing to distinguish between what the Bible describes and prescribes.
  3. Not paying attention to context.
  4. Failing to relate the part to the whole. You must have an appreciation for the basic unity of the Bible… paragraph… periscope… chapters… books… general theme/plan of the Bible.

The promise plan of God as a unifying factor in the Bible

“God gave a promise to Abraham, and through him to all humankind; a promise eternally fulfilled and fulfilling in the history of Israel; and chiefly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, he being that which is principle in the history of Israel.” – Willis J. Beecher quoted on p. 219-220.

See Luke 24:27,44. From these statements we can say…

  1. The New Testament writers regard the teaching about Christ as the unfolding of a single promise plan and doctrine.
  2. The New Testament writers do not leave us with any doubt as to the identity of the one promise. They equate it with the promise made to Abraham.
  3. The New Testament writers rarely use “promise” without the definite article: “the promise” (e.g. Rom 9:4; 15:8-9). This definite article points to the fact that there is a specific unity and substance to this plan of God.
  4. This one promise, with all of its specifications, the New Testament regards as the theme of the whole Old Testament.
  5. The NT writers are in continuity with the OT and use the same speech patterns.
  6. The promise is seen as eternally operative and irrevocable.
  7. The promise includes:
    • The salvation of the Gentiles.
    • The proclamation of the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.
    • The resurrection of the dead and future rewards.
    • The gift of the Holy Spirit.
    • The doctrine of redemption from sin and justification by faith.

“These promise passages connect us with everything that is essential in Christian doctrine… Therefore, we are obligated to search the ‘whole counsel of God,” from Genesis to revelation.” (221-222)