These summaries cannot possibly substitute for reading the stories of the Hebrew Bible, which Jesus, the apostles and their hearers knew as the context for what was said among them. Instead, perhaps it would be helpful to begin with a few main themes.
The story of the relationship between the descendants of Abraham (variously called the Jews, the Hebrews or Israel) and their God is narrated poetically by prophets and psalmists as the tale of a marriage between of an often wayward and unfaithful wife (Israel) to a reliable, faithful and ever-forgiving husband (Jehovah or Yahweh, as God is called), who has chosen her for all time.
Many of the principal figures of the Hebrew Bible are unsavory and rebellious. Some slay entire towns upon receiving what they perceive as a divine command. Others try to deceive God. Some get drunk and commit incest. But they are heroes and heroines because they keep coming home to faith and are ultimately faithful to God.
From Moses’ Ten Commandments on, the Hebrews are bound by a set of ordinances of divine origin—613 in the modern rabbinical count. These are found in the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch, or Torah. They encompass every aspect of the “good life” a Jew must lead.
The rabbis did not write the law; none would dare usurp the divine prerogative. However, rabbis, teachers and erudite students of the law, often were called upon to apply the law to circumstances; sometimes they disagreed. They wrote endlessly, attempting to help the God-fearing Jew. Some were inspired in teachings of pre-Christian rabbis such as Hillel, whose sayings are found in Jesus’ teachings. All of the principal rabbinical writings are collected in the
Talmud, a book that is not in the Bible, compiled or written between the second and fifth centuries of our era.
In the course of roughly two millennia before Christ, God sent certain individuals (they are mostly men but a few women stand out, too) who discern the divine will for the Chosen People at critical times. Some of these are formally known as prophets, although some stood as judges and kings over the blessed nation.
Prophecy is not a matter of magic, not foretelling but forth telling. The person chosen to speak the divine command decisively to the people often warns about the future. Often the stories told about them in this regard are retrojections of after-the-fact biblical writers who no doubt realized the truth of the sages’ dire words: they warned us we would be conquered if we didn’t change our ways and we were!
The person sent to lead and speak is often an unlikely candidate. Moses grew up a comfortable Egyptian prince in the royal household. Jeremiah complained to God that he was to young, no one would listen to him. David was a king and an adulterer before he penned many, but probably not all, of the psalms.
In sum, the biblical story depicts a Chosen People, the ancestors of Jesus, as ultimately and courageously steadfast, obedient and prophetic. The gospels constantly insist that Jesus came to fulfill the law.