There once was a time when there was no Bible, but it was quite a long time ago. The first Bible that we know anything about was written and put into use nearly 3500 years ago. This early Bible was based on the inspiration and authority of Moses and Joshua. When we say “Bible” in this way we are talking about a volume or collection of authoritative writings sanctioned by God that truly reveal something about God and his will for humans. The Bible as we know it in English consists of 66 books containing an amalgam of history, poetry, prophecy, moral instruction and other information about the nature of God and our own nature. It exists as it does for a purpose, perhaps for several purposes, but surely for one primary purpose, to acquaint men with Jesus Christ in such a way as to enable their salvation from eternal death. Before our Bible with all its books there was an earlier Bible, with less material in it, and it too had a purpose, one primary purpose among several, to set the stage for Jesus’ entry into the world. That Bible is usually now called the Old Testament. And before that Old Testament Bible there was an earlier and perhaps smaller Bible or inspired collection of writings, that didn’t contain the books of Ezra-Nehemiah or Malachi, for example, but may have contained other writings later discarded, and so on, back to that first Bible we know about, which we might call, as the prophets did, the “Book of Moses” or the “Book of The Law”.
If there was a Bible before Moses, we are ignorant of it. Some think the book of Job is older than Moses and originates in the days of Abraham, or his grandchildren. We might guess that the stories of the patriarchs were written down, that there were written records of Joseph’s exploits, that Noah had a diary, that Moses read historical records in Egypt that went back to the days of Nimrod, and so forth, and none of that is far fetched, there are clues to support these possibilities, but this is largely guess work. When Genesis 5 starts off telling us that “This is the written account of Adam’s line,” can we infer that it was copied into the Book of Moses from an older existing written source? Perhaps, this seems reasonable, but again, that’s guessing. The first Bible that we really know about is the one called the Book of the Law.
Many times from Exodus through Deuteronomy we have reminders that what was written there was written on the basis of God’s specific command to do so, as in Ex. 34:27, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and Israel.'” The written words were the foundation for the covenant relationship. Without what was written, the people would fail to behave themselves as the covenant required and would forget God’s promises and his expectations. Thus at the close of Deuteronomy a great emphasis is placed on the finished nature of the Law, the fact that Moses delivered it in finished and usable form to the priests (Deut. 30:10, 31:9). The book of Joshua likewise emphasizes that the Book of The Law was a complete Bible for that generation (Josh. 1:8, 23:6). Nevertheless, Joshua himself added to the Book of The Law of God toward the end of his life, expanding the Bible, as the people were settling down in the land and facing a future with no specific divinely appointed civil leader (Josh. 24:25-26).
When we to consider this business of the writing of the Bible and the “first Bible,” we realize that we don’t know “everything” about it. That is, we don’t have everything that was written for God’s people of that generation. There are several examples that demonstrate this fact, and we will note some of them. In Ex. 17:14 we are told that God instructed Moses to write something in a book or scroll for Joshua, in regard to future judgments on Amalek. Whether Moses wrote a detailed account of the conflict, or fuller descriptions of the failings of Amalek, we don’t know, because we don’t have this scroll that was to be a God given reminder specifically for Joshua. What we have is the summary of action and the fact that such a scroll was to be written. Numbers 21:14 refers to a volume called “The Book of The Wars of The Lord” which again we do not have, or know anything else about, but it apparently supplied more detailed information about the historical background of circumstances mentioned there. We would have to understand that the book referred to in Numbers is of similar age and similar authority with Numbers itself, and in fact the Hebrew of the quote in this passage is quite obscure, the place names being otherwise lost in antiquity. Numbers recognizes this book of wars as an authoritative source for additional information, but we don’t have the book anymore. Nor do we have the “Book of Jashar” (see Josh. 10:13 and 2 Sam. 1:18) which seems to have contained supplementary scriptural material at least for the span from Joshua to David.
We can see in these references that we do not have all the “scriptures” from the time of Moses and Joshua. There were other books of scripture that our Biblical books acknowledge that are no longer available. This is not a crisis or a tragedy, but an indication of one part of the process that brought our Bible into being. We haven’t really discussed the Biblical concept of inspiration here, but have assumed in speaking of a “Bible” or “scripture” that God was involved and ultimately responsible for the contents of such writings. This being so, we must realize that God speaks to men very often in specifics. That is, he tells Abraham to prepare a sacrifice in a certain way (Gen. 15:9ff) and I understand that he was not at that time telling me how to approach him, but was talking specifically to Abraham. Similarly, much of God’s communication to mankind has been of a specific nature, relevant to times and circumstances of a particular generation or historical era. The people of Joshua’s day very likely had a Bible that contained not only those writings from their period that we are familiar with, writings that contain the essential core of information future generations would need, but also writings that were needed by pre-kingdom Israel to nurture their sense of community and of uniqueness before God. Later generations of Israelites in the kingdom era needed a somewhat different emphasis (note 1 Chron. 23:24-27), though with the same core material of the law and some of their own history. Thus, while we tend to focus on inspiration in the writing process, it is equally important to recognize the role of inspiration in the “weeding out” process, to effectively streamline the Bible for maximum value and not let it become bogged down in outmoded and irrelevant information.
Who would read a Bible that contained all the material ever written by the inspiration of God? Such a volume would be overwhelming, and confusing, as we tried to sort through the vastly larger quantity of material and determine what is relevant and what is time and circumstance and culturally specific. Many people seem to be already overwhelmed by the volume we do have, and we should be glad that God has used his prophets not only to write that material, but also to periodically limit what was passed on in the sanctioned “canon” of scripture, summarizing and discarding information as needed. If there was a Bible prior to Moses, as we speculated earlier, then we should realize that the Book of Moses was probably smaller than that total collection could have been. Genesis would represent a condensation or summary of what could have been hundreds or even thousands of times as much information in either oral or written form. Too much information becomes overwhelming, and knowledge in overwhelming abundance is effectively lost. It is fair to say of the Bible that it really is the pared down minimum of what God needs to say to us; that he led men to condense, summarize, and eliminate where possible to keep the volume useable and adequate; and that we can’t afford to omit any of what God considered fundamental for the effective propagation of the gospel and our salvation. All that we have of God’s written word is what he considered necessary for our understanding.Share this article: