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Great Figures of the Old Testament

Great Figures of the Old Testament takes a closer look at specific characters: who they are, what they do, and how they have been assessed across the centuries, from the early Jewish (Hellenistic, rabbinic), Christian (New Testament, patristic), and Muslim commentaries to interpretations both inside and outside institutional religious settings.
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These twenty-four lectures introduce many of the “Great Figures” whose stories are recounted in the collection called by Christians “Old Testament”; by Jews


Amy-Jill Levine

The study of the Bible is a simply marvelous endeavor, and each time it's approached, students will see new things. I'm continuing to see new things.


Vanderbilt University

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also Affiliated Professor at the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Dr. Levine earned her B.A. with high honors in English and Religion at Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University. Professor Levine's numerous books, articles, and essays address such topics as Second-Temple Judaism, Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and biblical women. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies. A widely sought-after speaker and favorite at the Chautauqua Institution, she has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences, including church, synagogue, and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

By This Professor

The Old Testament
The Old Testament

01: The Old Testament

This first lecture addresses the “hows” and “whys” of understanding biblical figures both in terms of their historical contexts and as realized in religious and cultural understandings.

33 min
Adam and Eve

02: Adam and Eve

Topics explored in this second lecture include the identity of the God who speaks in the plural, the possible disjunction between the creations of Genesis 1 and 2, the Temptation, the Fall, and the expulsion from Eden.

30 min
Cain and Abel

03: Cain and Abel

This lecture begins by investigating questions about the Bible's first murder, then moves to later Jewish and Christian retellings of the story to analyze what answers church and synagogue provide.

31 min

04: Noah

Compare the biblical account of the flood story of Noah to several cross-cultural tales, explore Noah’s personality, and observe the diverse aftermath of the Flood: drunkenness, ethnic division, the “myth of Ham,” and the Eucharist.

29 min

05: Abraham

This lecture addresses several of the major events in Abraham’s life as depicted in the Book of Genesis—the call to leave home, debates over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah, covenant, and the “sacrifice” of Isaac—and explores how the various legends developed.

31 min
Sarah and Hagar

06: Sarah and Hagar

See how the intertwined stories of Sarah and Hagar, rival wives and caring mothers, may be seen as a microcosm of Israel’s history: from freedom to slavery in Egypt and to freedom again. This lecture introduces their presentations in Genesis as well as several of the later stories told about them. We conclude with a look at the two women as depicted in Islamic thought.

30 min

07: Jacob

Inheriting the promises made to his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, Jacob becomes the eponymous ancestor of the covenant community when his name is changed to “Israel.” This lecture follows Jacob on his picaresque adventures.

31 min

08: Joseph

This lecture begins with notice of the relationship between Joseph’s story and the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers, then explores both biblical and later Jewish and Islamic accounts of several moments in his story: pampered childhood, prescient dreams, relations with his Egyptian master and “Mrs. Potiphar,” marriage to Asenath, and rescue of his family.

31 min

09: Moses

Raised in the royal court, commissioned by a voice from a burning bush, deliverer of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and receiver of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses is a dominant figure, not only in biblical but in later Jewish and Christian teaching. This lecture introduces the central events in Moses’s life.

31 min
Joshua and Rahab

10: Joshua and Rahab

Learn about Joshua, the successor to Moses and the military leader who brings the Israelites into Canaan. Look at an analysis of Joshua’s interactions with Moses and his bravery, the fall of Jericho, and meet the prostitute Rahab, who through either religious fidelity or political opportunism saves herself and her family.

31 min

11: Deborah

Called a “mother in Israel,” Deborah the judge—the only female judge whose story is recorded—has no children and may not even have a husband (the translation of key terms is debated). More striking, Deborah’s story includes the account of Jael, wife of a foreigner in league with Israel’s enemy, who kills the invading general Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his temple.

31 min

12: Samson

The Hebraic Hercules, Samson the Judge, represents both the benefits and the dangers of charismatic leadership. On the one hand, his physical strength protects his community; on the other, his love life (Delilah was the last of several female partners) clearly demonstrates the problems that occur when the personal interferes with the political and when desire prevails over duty.

31 min
Samuel and Saul

13: Samuel and Saul

Following an introduction to Samuel and a brief delineation of Saul’s story, this lecture focuses on the major scenes of Saul’s life: commission; rejection by Samuel, David, his children, and God; encounter with the “witch of Endor,” and death in battle.

31 min

14: David

Explore the biblical portrait of the dynamic King David by looking at several of his major exploits, including the (perhaps invented) victory over Goliath; role in a protection racket; receiver of an eternal covenant relationship with Bathsheba; failure to punish his son Amnon, the crown prince, for his crimes of incest and rape; the civil war prompted by the rebellion of his son Absalom; and his last days as a pathetic figure.

28 min

15: Solomon

Renowned for his wisdom as well as his womanizing, see how Solomon represents both the efforts and excesses of the monarchy. This lecture covers his somewhat problematic accession to the throne, his construction of the Jerusalem Temple, the glories and abuses of his court, and his idolatrous downfall. We conclude with some observations on the “great romance” between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

30 min

16: Elijah

This lecture introduces the most famous of the “preclassical” (that is, non-writing) prophets, Elijah, through his miracles; his confrontations with the prophets of Baal and their sponsor, Queen Jezebel; his theophany on Mt. Horeb (Sinai) of a “still small voice”; and his departing the world amid a whirlwind, when a flaming chariot “swung low.” We also revisit Jezebel, to see how this queen—who was actually quite a good wife—gained a reputation for sexual depravity.

31 min

17: Job

The story of Job epitomizes the problem of finding the “justice of God” when the innocent suffer: the righteous Job suffers because of a bet God makes with (the) Satan. In the prose prologue and epilogue, Job may accept the good with the bad; in the poetic material between, he bewails his fate and insists on justice. We’ll compare Job to other Near Eastern theologies, locate his background as a man from the Land of Utz and a righteous Gentile known to Ezekiel, and assess how Job has been understood.

30 min

18: Jonah

This lecture concentrates on the adventures of the prophet Jonah himself: his ironic historical context, his flight from his commission, the encounter with pagan sailors who appear much more righteous than he, the sojourn in the “big fish,” the sermon (a generous description; the text consists of only one line) he delivers to the Ninevites, and his mourning for the plant that provided him shade.

31 min

19: Ruth

Ruth is traditionally hailed for her words of fidelity to her mother-in-law, “Whither thou goest, I will go; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This lecture looks at her as Moabite widow, faithful daughter-in-law, resilient wage-earner, great-grandmother of David, and more.

31 min

20: Esther

Through a combination of farce and tragedy, Queen Esther’s story raises profound questions about politics, religious identity, ethics, and gender relations. This lecture traces her progress from Jewish orphan, to (beauty) queen, to savior.

30 min

21: Daniel

We find Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, young Judeans brought by King Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, practicing their religion, despite the threats of fiery furnaces and lions’ dens. We also encounter three of the world’s first detective stories: The Books of Susanna, Bel, and the Snake.

31 min

22: Judith

This clearly fictional tale offers a rollicking account of a widow who transforms herself into a knockout (in more than one sense); a besotted, beguiled, and ultimately beheaded general; and an Ammonite who joins the covenant community.

31 min

23: Angels

Through analysis of selected biblical and post-biblical accounts, this lecture introduces the beings who comprise the divine court and serve as heavenly messengers (the term “angel” derives from the Greek term for “messenger”).

29 min

24: God

Rather than address the full range of theological speculation, this lecture revisits many of the people discussed in this series and introduces a few more in its exploration of humanity’s encounter with God. We conclude with a few suggestions for ongoing study of this fascinating figure and these fascinating texts.

30 min