The Old Testament answers some of the greatest questions of all time—where did we come from? Why do we desire the good yet do evil? Why do our souls yearn for eternity while our bodies yield to death and decay?
Yet, the Hebrew Scriptures leave so many other tantalizing questions unanswered. These mysteries have nagged at the Christian imagination for centuries, inspired epic quests, and stumped some of the greatest minds of the Church.
Here are six of the greatest mysteries of the Old Testament. (Note to readers: the focus is on historical questions, not scientific issues, such as the six days of creation or the Genesis Flood.)
What happened to Eden? The forbidden fruit had been eaten and mankind was banished from the Garden of Eden. So what happened to Eden? No one is quite sure where it was originally located, although there seems to be a general consensus that the garden was somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps in modern-day Iraq. Presumably, the great flood of Genesis would have wiped out it out, but, for centuries, the Christian world had an unquestioning belief in the continued existence of Eden on earth, hidden from man. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the terrestrial paradise was “shut off by mountains, or seas, or some torrid region” which he said could not be crossed. So firm was the belief in the enduring physical presence of Eden that it was depicted on medieval maps. The belief persisted into the age of exploration: in 1498, Christopher Columbus recoiled with horror from sailing further up the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela, believing that he was about to enter the Garden of Eden and would incur certain death as a result. Today, with our maps now complete, it seems that Eden has truly vanished without a trace.
The giants of Genesis. The world as it existed before the Genesis Flood is one shrouded in mystery: men lived to be hundreds of years old, presumably the Garden of Eden could still be seen though it remained off limits, and a race of giants strode the earth—or so we read in Genesis 6:4 in the Douay-Rheims translation: “Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown.” In the New American Bible we read Nephilim, instead of giants, which only deepens the mystery. Theories abound as to who they were. One hypothesis, now widely viewed as erroneous, is that they were ‘fallen’ angels. Other interpreters take this statement on face value: there were indeed once giants. Many commentators associate these giants with those who are most degenerate among the human race. One Catholic writer describes them as “mere monsters of cruelty and lust.” Yet other commentators connect the word Nephilim to the Hebrew word naphal, meaning he fell—a reference to those who had fallen from faith in God. (In case you were wondering, the “sons of God” mentioned in the above verse are the God-fearing descendants of Seth, Adam’s other son, as contrasted with the race of Cain.)
Where did Melchizedek come from? Seemingly out of nowhere, Melchizedek bursts onto the scene in Genesis 14, venturing out from a city called Salem—a possible precursor to Jerusalem—to bless Abraham and offer a sacrifice of “bread and wine.” Centuries before the formal founding of the Israelite priesthood, Melchizedek is identified as a priest, one who somehow, apart from Abraham, had come to know the true God. Melchizedek was also the ruler of Salem, hence his name, which means king of righteousness. Who was this mysterious man? Later Scripture only raises more questions than answers. In Hebrews 7:3 we read that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest for ever” (Douay-Rheims). According to the Haydock Bible Commentary this verse is not saying that Melchizedek had no parents, only that they are unknown to us: life remains hidden with the Christ Whom he foreshadowed.
The Witch of Endor. 1 Samuel 28 tells the gripping tale of Saul’s turn to dark magic: the judge and prophet Samuel has died and Philistine armies are menacing Israelite forces. Saul calls upon God through dreams, priests, and prophets. All is silence. In a panic, Saul disguises himself and steals away at night to meet the witch of Endor, asking her to conjure up the spirit of Samuel. The witch spies “gods ascending out of the earth” and glimpses Samuel covered in a mantle. “Why hast thou disturbed my rest, that I should be brought up?” Samuel scolds Saul. He then tells of impending terrors for Saul: the rending of his kingdom and his descent to the realm of the dead. Lord Byron once described this episode as “the finest and most finished witch scene that was ever written or conceived” concluding that it “beats all the ghost scenes” he had ever read. The story also inspired a poem by another famed British poet, Rudyard Kipling.
But, for Christians, the witch of Endor presents obvious historical and theological problem: Can souls be recalled from limbo or purgatory? Is this a biblical ghost story? What really happened? Since necromancy was forbidden in ancient Israel, some interpreters, like the Reformer Martin Luther, say the spirit was really a demon. Catholic historian Warren Carroll, on the other hand, says the ghostly apparition was a product of Saul’s “deeply disordered imagination.” The voice he heard, according to Carroll, was that of his own conscience (The Founding of Christendom, vol. 1). Of course, this explanation doesn’t account for why the Witch of Endor saw Samuel as well. The Haydock Bible Commentary offers this solution: the soul of Samuel really did appear—not through the magic of the witch, but through the will of the God.
The ten lost tribes of Israel. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of world history: in 732 BC, Assyria destroyed the kingdom of Israel and relocated ten of the twelve tribes to territory in former Mesopotamia. Aside from a mention in the Book of Tobit, these tribes seemed to have disappeared from history. Their fate is the stuff of legend. In the 17th century, a Portuguese explorer, Antonio de Montezinos, claimed the tribes were among the native South Americans. Some of the Igbo ethnicity in Nigeria say they are descended from the tribes. Similar claims are made about the falasha Jews in Ethiopia while Mormons believe that the ten tribes will be reconstituted on U.S. territory. Carroll simply says these ten tribes became part of the broader Jewish diaspora across the Mediterranean world. But he also links them to the development of the Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that taught that there was a creation, is a heaven and a hell, and will be a savior and a resurrection (according to historian Nigel Cliff in The Last Crusade). The connection is all the more striking when we consider that centuries later three Zoroastrian priests braved the Arabian deserts and outsmarted Herod to pay homage to the infant Christ.
The Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is one of the most enigmatic entities of all time. It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, some manna, and Aaron’s staff that had budded. Encased in gold-plated acacia wood, it was topped by two golden cherubim, angels associated with God’s presence. In ancient Israel, this ark was a force to be reckoned with: it cleared the River Jordan, sent the walls of Jericho tumbling down, and killed the false Canaanite god. Even touching it risked instant death. But in 587 BC, after the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem, the ark went missing. Scripture says little about its fate, other than that it would not be rebuilt, according to Jeremiah 3:16. (2 Maccabees also says that Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave, but this anecdote is quoted from another source. For more on the interpretation of this passage, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Haydock Bible Commentary.) Dozens of theories have been spun as to what happened to it, ranging from claims that it was hidden under Golgotha by the Jews, pilfered by an Egyptian pharaoh, somehow ended up in possession of the African Lemba tribe, or was simply destroyed by the Babylonians.
One of the most intriguing claims is made by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which says that Menelik, the supposed son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, spirited the ark away to Ethiopia where it has been ever since and remains sequestered to this day in a small shed-shaped shrine in the northern city of Aksum, where only one Orthodox monk is allowed to set eyes upon it. In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the ark is no oddity or historical artifact—it’s at the center of their faith. In fact, no church in Ethiopia is a valid house of worship unless it has a replica of the ark within it. The Ethiopian claim is indeed extraordinary, but so is the survival of Ethiopian Orthodoxy in the heart of Africa during the millennium between the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s. Many Ethiopians credit the ark with sustaining their faith over the centuries.
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