You Gotta Know These Characters from the Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible is, approximately, the set of books known in Christianity as the Old Testament.
- Abraham (originally known as Abram) is the first patriarch in the Book of Genesis. Abraham, who was originally from Ur of the Chaldeans, is promised the land of Canaan, which he enters with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot. To test Abraham’s faithfulness, the Lord orders him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah; Abraham complies, but at the last second, he is stopped by an angel and given a ram to sacrifice instead. Abraham then makes a covenant with the Lord, who promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. In Islamic tradition, Abraham (known as Ibrahim) is instead told to sacrifice his son Ishmael, whose mother is the concubine Hagar. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are collectively known as Abrahamic religions due to Abraham’s central role in the scriptures of all three.
- Jacob is the third and final patriarch in the Book of Genesis, the son of Isaac and Rebekah. In Isaac’s old age, he intends to bless Jacob’s elder twin brother Esau, but Jacob wears goatskins to impersonate his sibling and receives the blessing instead. While traveling to his uncle Laban to escape Esau’s wrath, he has a vision of angels moving up and down a ladder to heaven. After working for seven years, he is given Laban’s daughter Leah in marriage, but works another seven years to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel instead. His name is changed to Israel after he spends a night wrestling with an angel; the angel defeats him by striking his hip socket, which is why Jewish law forbids eating the sciatic muscle. Jacob’s sons become the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel; his son Joseph receives a coat of many colors, is sold into slavery by his brothers, and becomes vizier for the pharaoh of Egypt.
- Moses leads the Israelites during the Exodus, freeing them from their captivity in Egypt. He is abandoned in a basket as a child and is raised by the pharaoh’s daughter. After killing an Egyptian overseer, he flees to the land of Midian, where the Lord appears to him in a burning bush. Moses and his brother Aaron go before the pharaoh to request he release the Israelites from bondage. When the pharaoh refuses, the Lord afflicts Egypt with Ten Plagues, the last of which causes the death of every first-born male child. The Israelites avoid this by painting their doorposts with lamb’s blood, a ritual that leads to the establishment of the holiday of Passover. Moses then leads the Israelites out of Egypt by parting the Red Sea, after which they spend 40 years wandering in the desert. Moses receives the tablets of the Ten Commandments from the Lord on Mount Sinai, but smashes them in anger when he sees the people worshipping a golden calf. Moses dies before entering the Promised Land and is succeeded by Joshua as the leader of the Israelites. Since the books of the Jewish Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are attributed to Moses, the rules set forth in the Torah are known as the Mosaic Law.
- Samson is the last of twelve namesake leaders of Israel in the Book of Judges. He possesses superhuman strength as he never cuts his hair. After falling in love with a Philistine woman and preparing to marry her, Samson tells the groomsmen a riddle involving honey in the carcass of a lion; the groomsmen force his betrothed to tell them the answer. Samson’s betrothed is eventually married to another man, causing an enraged Samson to burn the Philistines’ crops and slay 1,000 men with the jawbone of a donkey. Samson’s downfall comes when he falls in love with Delilah, who seduces him for the secret of his strength, then cuts his hair while he is asleep. He is captured and blinded by the Philistines, who display him in the Temple of Dagon. However, he regains his strength and collapses the temple, killing himself and everyone else inside.
- Samuel is a prophet and the namesake of the two books that follow Ruth and precede 1 Kings. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, prays to the Lord for a child, and promises that should she conceive a son she will dedicate him to the service of the Lord. Shortly thereafter, Hannah becomes pregnant with Samuel. When Samuel is a young boy, the Lord calls to him during the night, though he mistakes the voice for that of the head priest Eli, whose downfall he subsequently foretells. As an adult, Samuel leads Israel to a major victory over the Philistines at Mizpah, erecting the stone Ebenezer on the site. At the Israelites’ request, he anoints Saul as the first king of Israel; Saul eventually loses his favor by sparing King Agag of the Amalekites in battle. After Samuel’s death, Saul calls upon the Witch of Endor to summon up Samuel’s ghost; Samuel’s spirit predicts a crushing defeat for Israel at the hands of the Philistines.
- David is a son of Jesse of Bethlehem. David succeeded Saul as King of Israel and is traditionally held to be a direct ancestor of Jesus. David first takes command of Israel’s army after he uses a simple sling to slay the massive Philistine champion Goliath, an event depicted in sculpture by Michelangelo and Donatello, among others. Though Saul becomes jealous of David and tries to kill him, David escapes with the help of Saul’s son Jonathan, with whom he shares a deep relationship that some modern scholars have interpreted as romantic. As king, David captures the city of Jerusalem and installs the Ark of the Covenant there. He falls in love with the married woman Bathsheba and sends her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle; this earns him a strong rebuke from the prophet Nathan. David’s children include Absalom, who leads a rebellion against him. David is recognized as the traditional author of the Psalms.
- Solomon is a son of David who succeeds his father as king. As a young man, Solomon is visited by the Lord, who asks what Solomon desires; Solomon’s reply of “wisdom” pleased the Lord, who granted the request. In the best-known episode illustrating Solomon’s wisdom, he orders that a child be cut in half to determine its true mother. Under Solomon’s rule, Israel built the First Temple of Jerusalem, also known as the Temple of Solomon, whose innermost chamber housed the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon amassed great wealth and had 700 wives. In a short episode that inspired numerous artists, Solomon was visited by the Queen of Sheba. Traditionally, Solomon is considered the author of the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs), as well as the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon.
- Elijah the Tishbite is a powerful prophet during the reign of King Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel. Elijah denounces Ahab’s worship of Baal and predicts a three-year drought, after which he flees into the wilderness and is fed by ravens. During this time, Elijah stays with a widow in the town of Zarephath and performs miracles such as multiplying her flour supply and raising her son from the dead. At the end of the drought, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel where he summons fire from heaven to ignite a burnt offering. Elijah’s mission is carried on by his student Elisha, who asks for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit as Elijah bodily ascends to Heaven, carried up on a chariot of fire. Elijah also appears briefly in the New Testament, when both he and Moses converse with Jesus during the Transfiguration. In Jewish tradition, Elijah will appear to herald the coming of the Messiah.
- Daniel is the title character in the last of the books grouped together as “major prophets.” Daniel is a Jew who is brought to the court of Nebuchadnezzar II during the Jewish captivity in Babylon. Daniel interprets dreams for the king, including one in which an enormous statue represents four successive kingdoms that will supplant Babylon, and another predicting that Nebuchadnezzar will suffer from seven years of madness. In one episode, Nebuchadnezzar casts Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a furnace, but all three emerge unscathed. Daniel also serves the later ruler Belshazzar and interprets a mysterious hand that writes on the wall during a feast, predicting Belshazzar’s downfall—which comes that night. In the best-known episode from Daniel’s life, Darius the Mede casts Daniel into a lion’s den after Daniel disobeys an order not to worship the god of Israel; after Daniel emerges unharmed, Darius has those who accused Daniel thrown into the lion’s den instead, where they are killed.
- Jonah is a minor prophet sent by God to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. Jonah is reluctant to do so and instead boards a ship to Tarshish, but God sends a massive storm to disrupt his journey. Jonah is cast overboard by the crew and swallowed by a large fish, which spits him onto the shore after three days. Jonah eventually continues on to Nineveh and convinces its inhabitants to repent by donning sackcloth and ashes. Indignant that God spared the city from destruction, Jonah sits outside the city, where God causes a gourd to grow over him and provide him shade. A worm then devours the gourd, exposing him to the heat of the Sun; God uses Jonah’s suffering to show Jonah that he should have pity on the people of Nineveh. The Book of Jonah is traditionally read in the afternoon on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Jacob Augelli.