The major themes of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament) surely include God, man, sin, righteousness, grace, covenant, law, atonement, and holiness. A final theme we will examine is the Messiah. Nearly everyone would agree that these ten themes are among the most important. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
God – From its opening verse, the Hebrew Bible affirms the following important truths about God: Regarding time he is timeless, regarding power he is limitless, and regarding knowledge he is infinite; He is one and not two or more, He is creator not creature, and He is both loving and holy.
These characteristics, and many more besides, define who God is, and lie at the heart of the Old Testament revelation of Him. He is primarily revealed, however, not in abstractions or propositions, but in relationship with human beings.
Man – In contrast with God, human beings are limited: they have a beginning and are mortal, they have only limited power and knowledge, and they are certainly not always loving and holy. To be sure, the history of humankind has some heroism and stories of noble thoughts and deeds, but it documents the sad history of failed potential, squandered opportunities, and perverted purposes.
The original pair of human beings comes into existence in relationship with God, objects of His grace and love and reflections of His likeness. Unfortunately, however, they give up their standing with the Lord. In the name of independence, they become slaves to sin, in need of deliverance. The progress of their descendants reaches the climax when Genesis 6 says, “Every inclination of the heart of man is only evil all the time.”
Sin – The Hebrew Bible reveals the nature of sin primarily in narrative form–in other words by telling the story of what happened to real people. Human beings were created in a sinless state, even as even now they are born into the world pure and innocent. Sinfulness is abnormal for human beings; it is out of alignment with what God designed us to be and to do.
Since we bear the image of God, sin is whatever contradicts God’s own nature. Because God is true, lies are sin. Because God is holy, defilement is sin. Because God is love, hatred is sin. Because God is unity, division is sin, and so on. This is best expressed in Leviticus 19:1, where God says, “You must be holy, for I am holy.” All through Leviticus, the moral precepts announced are tied again and again to the affirmation, “I am the LORD.”
Doing what is right and experiencing the blessing God brings with it is what the Old Testament means by knowing that God is the LORD (see statements in Ezekiel and elsewhere over and over).
Righteousness – If sin is rebelling against reflecting God’s nature in our lives, then righteousness is living in harmony with that nature. It is maintaining a relationship of trusting obedience with God. Righteousness involves faith, but it also bursts forth from the loyal heart into faithfulness in one’s walk.
The Hebrew Bible describes the righteous person as being devoted to God in with your heart, your soul, and your strength. A right relationship with other human beings accompanies this right relationship with God. The Old Testament portrays the righteous person as treating others as they would want to be treated, with acting toward them as God would act.
Grace – Some readers have the impression that they will not encounter grace in the Hebrew Bible, that it only becomes a primary emphasis in the New Testament. This impression is a false one, dispelled by nearly every book of the Old Testament.
God’s graciousness to human beings begins with the first couple and continues as a constant theme in the Old Testament symphony. The LORD is “abounding in steadfast love” and willing to forgive to a thousand generations. Again and again He reveals His great patience and His tender mercy toward sinners. Unfortunately, some have only focused on passages in which He reveals wrath against sinners, a counterpoint melody to be sure, but one that always plays out in the context of covenant-love and faithfulness.
Covenant – The sovereign, almighty, transcendent Creator-God is willing to stoop to enter into agreements with human beings. These agreements are called covenants, and they provide much of the framework on which the Hebrew Bible unfolds.
The major covenants of the Old Testament include the ones with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses (and all of Israel), Aaron & Levi, and David. Each of these covenants involves promises God makes and expectations He has for the subjects of the covenant. The Hebrew Bible also looks forward to a New Covenant, which is what the New Testament is all about.
Law – The covenant God made with the nation of Israel is called the Law (Torah, or Law of Moses). In the Law, God rehearses the saving acts by which He has placed the nation of Israel in His debt and then challenges them to agree to live in relationship with Him, experiencing the blessings that attend that relationship. Of course, He also warns them of the curses they will bring upon themselves if they break the covenant. Basic to the Law are the Ten Commandments, which lay out the fundamentals of living in harmony with God.
Atonement – Under that same covenant with Israel, God provided a means of gaining forgiveness through a system of animal sacrifices. These offerings were a way the believer had of removing offenses and pleading to God for a renewal of the close relationship the sin made impossible.
According to the Old Testament, atonement was only possible through the shedding of the blood of a perfect sacrifice. This laid the groundwork for the New Covenant’s eternal sacrifice of the Perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
Holiness – In the Hebrew Bible, to be holy means to be dedicated to God. Holiness is a part of God’s nature and is imparted by Him to human beings in a right relationship with him. God intends for all human beings to be holy all of the time. Sin, however, defiles us and puts us in need of atonement so that we can be holy once more.
Messiah – The Old Testament anticipates the coming of the Holy One of God who would have a miraculous conception, live a perfect life, serve as the ideal human being, and then voluntarily offer up Himself as the once-for-all sin offering so that human beings could be restored to God and made holy again.
Over a period spanning more than 1,000 years, inspired prophets foretold aspects of the life of this Holy One. The accumulation of their predictions paints a perfect portrait of the birth, life, character, death, and even resurrection of Jesus Christ. Several of these prophecies in the Hebrew Bible describe him as “the Anointed One” (Hebrew: Meshiakh), or “the Messiah,” in keeping with the practice in Old Testament times of pouring olive oil on the head of a person specially appointed by God to accomplish His purposes.