The Old Testament is a long, intimidating collection of books. When you crack it open and begin to read the thirty-nine books it is easy to lose track of the overarching storyline. The meanings behind the ancient cultural practices can be hard to understand, the story can be difficult to put into a coherent timeline since the collection of books are not chronologically ordered, and it is easy when reading it to get bogged down, since much of the content is so unrelatable, boring, and redundant–i.e., genealogies, numberings of people, Levitical laws, and vague prophetical rantings against ancient nations. There is much to wade through.
What is the story of the Old Testament?
This blog will layout a concise, easy to follow synopsis of its content.
In Genesis chapter one, the Bible begins with a story where God creates the heavens and the earth. The second chapter focuses in on God’s special relationship with human beings. Humans are uniquely created after God’s own image and are appointed as rulers, stewards and guardians of His newly made creation, earth. Unfortunately, humankind does not do a very good job at managing this heavenly assigned task. In Genesis 3, they fall away from their God-like, image-bearing purpose and separate themselves from the creator through sin, bringing vast consequences upon themselves and the world they inhabit.
As we read the subsequent chapters through Genesis chapter 11, our Sunday school memories revive with the stories of Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel (For deeper look at these first eleven chapters you can visit my blog post, A Summary of Genesis chapters 1-11).
However, everything changes in chapter twelve.
In chapter twelve we are presented with the story of Abram (later to be known as Abraham). With the entrance of Abraham comes something big—REALLY big—for it is from the story of Abraham that the rest of the Old Testament narrative is set in motion and played out.
The origin story of the Jewish people, and the very story line for what follows in the rest of the book of Genesis as well as the rest of the Old Testament, ALL COMES BACK TO ABRAHAM.
THE RISE OF THE NATION OF ISREAL
As a voice out of nowhere in Genesis 12, God speaks to what appears to be a random man living in an Ancient Near Eastern land. Out of the blue, God says to Abraham,
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:1-3
Take note of these three key promises. We will refer back to them throughout this series:
- land will be given to you
- you will become a great and blessed nation
- all the people of the earth will be blessed through you
Upon receiving this divine word, Abraham believed God (put faith and trust in Him) and set out to find the land that God said He would show him—land that God said Abraham’s descendants would eventually inherit and populate into great nation. Abram’s journey took him to what is now the area of modern-day Israel and Palestine.
After arriving in this new land, God spoke to Abraham again and said,
“…to your offspring I will give this land.” Genesis 12:7
But despite God’s promises to build a great nation and to inherit a whole swath of geography, time wore on and years passed by.
Abraham (formerly called ‘Abram’) becomes rich and blessed indeed, but in Genesis chapter fifteen He cries out to God in discontentment. Abraham faces the fact that after all this time believing in God’s promises he still has no children or offspring—offspring who the Lord had promised to him years before, offspring that would fulfill God’s promise in making Abraham the father of a great, blessed nation.
In reply God says:
“Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then [GOD] said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:4-5
God reaffirms His promise of biological children to Abraham. And after waiting many more years, and already very late in age, Abraham and His wife miraculously conceive a son—Isaac.
It is through this miracle child, Isaac, that the beginning of Father Abraham’s great nation is inaugurated.
SLAVERY AND REDEPTION
Starting with Abraham in Genesis 12 and the birth of Isaac that follows, Genesis then continues with the generational life stories of the small Abrahamic family line (later to be called the Israelites). At the end of the book, Abraham’s family (only 70 members at the time) eventually leave their homeland due to a great famine and seek refuge in Egypt. Soon after their arrival the family is taken into slavery by the Egyptians.
The Israelites are enslaved across multiple generations. However, over these years the Israelites were fruitful and they grew in great numbers. Exodus 1:6-7 says,
“Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.”
A new figure arises during Israel’s long captivity in Egypt—Moses. He meets God at a wonderous burning bush and God raises him up to lead the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt. Because Pharaoh does not harken to Moses’s petitions to let the Israelites go, signs, wonders, and divine plagues are released on the Egyptian land. After a tenth plague is released on the land that kills all of the Egyptian’s first born, Pharaoh is finally compelled to release the Israelites.
God originally tells Moses that He is freeing the Israelites so that He can bring them into the land originally promised to their patriarch Abraham—a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-8). But when the Israelites leave Egypt and pass on dry land through the parting of the Red Sea, they do not go directly to the promised land. God instead brings them to Mount Sinai—the place where Moses originally met God at the burning bush. It is on this mountain, wrapped in a cloud of smoke and thunder, that God meets with Moses one-on-one over the course of year. God gives Moses the “10 commandments” as well as 600+ more laws and regulations for the Israelites to follow including: the weekly Sabbath, annual feast and combined meeting days, instructions for animal sacrifices, instructions for priests, judicial and societal laws, and instructions for building a tabernacle for God’s presence to dwell in. God also supernaturally provides a form of daily bread, manna, for the 1 million plus Israelites as they camp at the mountain and prepare to make their sojourn to the promised land.
Shortly thereafter, with the Lord guiding them daily, by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the Israelites set out for the promised land. When they reach the neighboring territory, spies are sent out to survey the promised land and native inhabitants. Upon their return, ten of the twelve spies give a strikingly unfavorable report—there’s no way we can inhabit the land. The indigenous people are too powerful! The negative report sends the Israelite congregation into an uproar leaving them to wonder why God would lead them out of Egypt only to die in the desert or at the hands of these great nations. The congregation is ready to give up and they set their hearts on returning to Egypt. Their grumblings come up before God and He decrees that this unbelieving generation will not enter the promised land after all. Their immediate descendants will, but not until this current generation have all died out due to their unbelief. As a result, the Israelites are resigned to spend the next forty years wandering in the desert as a group of vagabonds.
Forty years later, and at the end of Moses’s tenure as the great leader of the Israelite people, God brings them back to the border of the Abrahamic promised land. Before entering Moses says,
“Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.” — Deuteronomy 10:22 (see also Isaiah 10:22)
Herein Moses confirms to the people that God has fulfilled one of His three promises made to Abraham 400+ years before. The Israelites had become a great nation— as Deuteronomy 10:22 said, “…as numerous as the stars in the sky“. Or just as God said in Genesis 22:17, as numerous “as the sand on the seashore“.
God was faithful in fulfilling this first promise, and finally the Israelites were standing at the cusp of receiving the fulfillment of the next promise as they overlooked the promise land.
However, the land that God had promised to Abram many years before, the land they had been waiting for over 440 years to return to which now lay directly before them had one BIG problem: there were other nations already living there.
How are the Israelites going to possess the promised land if there are people already living on the land? The answer: God tells them that He will drive out the inhabitants slowly over time without violence (Exodus 23:20-31, Deuteronomy 7:17-25).
THE BLOODY HISTORY OF ISREAL OCCUPYING THE PROMISED LAND
With the Israelites escape from Egypt and the forty-year desert journey behind them, a new chapter in their storyline begins. The book of Joshua documents the beginning this next period—taking possession of, and occupying God’s promised land.
Though the Bible doesn’t explicitly say why, we do know that God’s original plan and method for taking over the promised land was modified. And it is this author’s opinion that the reason for this change was due solely to Israel’s doubt in God’s ability to work through them to accomplish His original intentions.
God wanted a non-violent, peaceful, slow relocation of the natives of the promised land (Exodus 23:20-31, Deuteronomy 7:17-25). But, the actual conquest of the land turned violent and bloody. Seeds of doubt about God’s ability to clear out the people of the promised land had already been sown 40 years before (Numbers 13). It seems that God had to concede to this unbelief in order to successfully partner with the Israelites in the land grab. He then moved forward with the only feasible method that sinful humankind was at a level to put faith in, a sinful method that was common to the contemporary culture — a violent takeover of land through force and murder. This wasn’t God’s original plan, nor representative of His loving nature, but since God is non-coercive and doesn’t use force to change people’s opinions of Himself and His ways, God had to work with the people and the level of belief and faith that they had at the time.
Under Joshua’s command, the Israelites move forward and successfully take possession of most of the promised land. It is a bloody conquest during which many times God is credited with giving the sovereign mandate to murder all of the inhabitants— including women, children and even animals. The Israelites eventually overthrow and defeat their enemies and come to control much of the land that God had first promised to Abraham. They then divide the territory between their twelve tribes and set out to inhabit their assigned lands.
Who would be the sovereign ruler over the twelve tribes’ promised land? No one. Unlike all the other nations around them Israel does not appoint a king to act as ruler. God never directs them to do so. Rather, the twelve tribes are all released to their geographically assigned locations to live and seek after God freely among their tribes. They are to be a nation of twelve tribes ruled as a theocracy—God is their leader.
NOTE: Up to this point, God has revealed Himself as: the only true god, the highest power, the one who dwells in the heavens, the one who exists everywhere, and the one who is the creator of the earth and heavens. God does not reside in a statue or stone idol, or a building, which makes the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses truly unique among the gods of the other nations.
Additionally, there is no centralized temple for common worship like other religions. However, after the exodus from Egypt, and during the time of the Israelites wandering in the desert forty years, God gave very specific instructions for Moses to build a tabernacle—a relatively small, humble, and simple, moveable tent-like structure, where God’s symbolic presence could dwell among His people (Exodus 25:8). After the tabernacles’ completion in the wildness, God fills the tabernacle with His glory (Exodus 40:34-38). His presence would, in part, symbolically dwell there. This would also be the meeting place for Moses and God (Exodus 25:21-22) where God would give commandments to Moses for the Israelites to follow. When the Israelites came to a resting period during their wandering, the tabernacle would be set up in the center of the camp and the twelve tribes of Israel would encamp around it. When they entered the promised land, rather than dismantling it, the tabernacle was set up in permanent residence in the area of Shiloh. Shiloh became a centralized place for the tribes specially commanded triannual meetings (Exodus 34:14-17), as well as a place for sacrificial offerings (Leviticus 1-5).
FALLING AWAY FROM GOD, AND THE TIME OF THE JUDGES
The Israelites were faithful to God following their conquest of the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. However, the next generation of Israelites forgot about the god that brought them out of Egypt (God uniquely identified Himself apart from all other gods of the earth with the name Jehovah, or also transliterated as Yahweh—Exodus 3:13-15, 6:3). It wasn’t long before they walked away from following their God outright. They laid aside the directives and commandments of God, forsook Jehovah/Yahweh as the only true god among all others, and worshiped other gods and engaged in the pagan religious practices of the people around them.
Additionally, their hard-fought new residence and rule of the promised land is continually plagued by native resurgences and foreign attacks. Wars and skirmishes are common. The locals don’t give up their territory easily and they do not take kindly to foreign invaders who want to violently usurp, murder, and/or cast out their families from their lands. Perhaps this is why God originally intended to drive out the indigenous people non-violently in the first place!
The Israelites are prone to follow after other gods. Although when Israel gets into big trouble, they always come back to and remember Jehovah, the God of their fathers, and cry out to Him and make desperate petition. In response, God raises up judges who are led and directed by His Holy Spirit. They help Israel out of trouble and provide the twelve tribes with direction to set them back on track. But when Israel returns to God, their commitment to Jehovah alone never lasts long. The narrative depicts the Israelites cycling back and forth between seeking God and His ways/commandments, and seeking the other gods found among the surrounding nations.
It is during the time of these judges that we remember the stories of Deborah, Gideon, Sampson and Delilah, and Samuel.
THEOCRACY REJECTED—ENTER THE KING
The Israelites eventually grow sick of their theocracy and ask God to set them up with a rulership that mirrors the other nations around them—a king. Although God tells them that this will bring them great misery and oppression, God once again accommodates their unbelief and sin and gives them over to their rebellious hearts. He then chooses and raises up kings over Israel.
Saul becomes Israel’s first king, but he doesn’t work out as hoped. Grieved with Saul’s decisions, God chooses David, a young shepherd boy, to succeed Saul as king of Israel. David has a special relationship with God, with God citing him as a “man after my own heart” (I Samuel 13:11-14, 16:1). Years later, David takes over rulership of Israel as rightful King and remains faithful both in following God and in directing the nation to seek God righteously. He, of course, has character flaws, as any human does (his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband), but David’s heart is toward God is generally in the right place.
While God’s symbolic and spiritual presence has been residing inside the simple, modest tabernacle at Shiloh, one day David gets the idea in his head to build a more magnificent and impressive building for God. However, God rejects David’s offer and tells David that He Himself would build up a house for David through David’s own offspring. This predicted ruler would build a house for God’s name in which His kingdom would last forever (II Samuel 7:1-16).
David obviously misses the part about God building the building on His own, and David moves forward with the planning and purchasing of the building materials for his own sacred house of God. David engages in some of the early building process, and then commits the finishing process to his successor, his son Solomon.
David’s son Solomon ruled in the same spirit of his father. He is the king that completes the building process of the grand house of God—the temple in Jerusalem. Upon its completion, and despite going against God’s direction to not even build the temple in the first place, God once again accommodates man’s sinfulness and, in a dramatic fashion, fills the temple with His presence in a show of magnificent visual and experiential glory (II Chronicles 5). This ceremonial completion marks the beginning of what is known as the First Temple Period in Jewish history.
THE ISRAELITES DIVIDED, MORE KINGS, BACK AND FORTH WITH GOD OVER AND OVER
The story line quickly turns from a time of unity among the Israelites to a time of division. With the death of Solomon, the twelve unified tribes of Israel dramatically split: the ten northern tribes band together and are called the nation Israel, and the two remaining southern tribes band together under the nation of Judah.
Each nation then appoints their own kings to rule over them. What results in the Bible account is a two-branched, historical-like narrative that details the rise, affairs, and fall of various kings that unfold in Israel and Judah.
Both Israel and Judah bring forth kings that are good and follow after God, and also kings that do evil and follow after the neighboring gods. When the kings forsake Jehovah/Yahweh they usually turn and integrate the practices of the cultures around them—worshiping multiple gods, engaging in sexual orgies, offering their children up to the fire as live sacrifices, worshiping idols made of wood and stone. Furthermore, these evil kings bring corruption to the nation—social injustice, neglect of the poor, suffering, dishonest courts, and more.
Israel is recorded as having a lineage of almost entirely evil kings. The most well-known being Ahab, along with his evil wife Jezebel, who contend with God’s wonderous prophet Elijah.
Judah has a back-and-forth lineage of both good and evil kings. The most well-known good kings being: Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah. They are known for following God and ridding the land of evil practices and false gods.
God also raises up prophets among both Israel and Judah during the times of the kings: Amos, Obadiah, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Jerimiah, Habakkuk, and others. The prophet’s main job was to sound the alarm bell when Israel or Judah went off course from following the true God. Many of the prophets’ writings condemn the Israelites for the error of their ways, urge them of God’s imminent judgment, and call for them to repent and turn back to God.
Mixed in with these prophetic writings, we also begin to see more, clearer references to a final day when God will bring His ultimate judgment to bear—a time when Israel’s enemies will be defeated, when the knowledge of God will fill the earth and Israel will seek after God only, and peace will rule worldwide. The day of judgement would be ushered in by a figure who would later be dubbed the messiah. While many of these messianic passages of scripture are sandwiched in between prophetic judgments and admonitions, the Jewish people began setting their hearts and minds on a coming messianic figure who would enact global restoration and perpetual peace. They eagerly await a coming messiah who they believed would give them eternal rest from their enemies and bring peace to all the Israelites and the world.
TWO GREAT EXILES–THE END OF FIRST TEMPLE JUDAISM
Following the royal linage of kings, and a little over 200 years after the nation of Israel and Judah split from each other, Israel is judged by God for its wicked ways. The Assyrian king invades, and over a period of a few years carries off most of the population of the ten northern tribes of Israel into exile. Israel’s judgement is fulfilled. We don’t hear anything else about the northern ten tribes in the Bible after this point—which is why now they are sometimes referred to as the “lost ten tribes of Israel”.
The Biblical narrative continues with the lineage of the southern kingdom of Judah and Judah remains free from foreign incursion for nearly two more centuries. But Judah eventually falls to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and many more Israelites are subjected to exile. Nebuchadnezzar burns down Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and brings the official end to 1st temple Judaism. It looks pretty dim for story of Israel.
The prophet Jeremiah writes his words during this time period, the latter contents of the book of Isaiah are added, and the story of Daniel and the lion’s den plays out during this Babylonian captivity.
Having been judged by God and dispersed from their promised land the twelve tribes of Israel find themselves far away from their God-given destiny. Their national identity had been stripped away and their sacred temple burnt down. However, the prophetical words of Jeremiah and the latter section of the book of Isaiah prophesy that Babylon will eventually be overtaken by its enemies through God’s judgement and the Jews living there would be freed. There is at least some hope of freedom for the southern two tribes. And of course, the prophecies continue to speak of a day to come when all the Israelites and the world would be set at peace by the messiah.
THE PERSIANS, DECREE TO RETURN, AND 2ND TEMPLE JUDAISM
The Biblical story picks up again in the annals of Ezra. The Persians come to overthrow the Babylonians. The new Persian king, Cyrus, hears from God and issues a decree that God’s temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. Jews who want to contribute to the rebuilding efforts of the temple are allowed to leave Babylonia and return to their homeland. Many of the temple furnishings that were taken during the exile are generously given back to Israel by the Persian king. Most Israelites stay in Babylon, but a few go to rebuild.
With their arrival, the worship and ordinances of their one true God Jehovah are relearned and correctly observed. The temple is successfully rebuilt and with its restoration begins the second temple period in Judaism.
Years later, more exiles return from Babylonia accompanied with a teacher well versed in the laws and traditions of God—Ezra. Upon his return he notices that the first remnant that returned had intermarried with the neighboring peoples. The familiar pattern of Israelite sin, which was going off and following after other gods and traditions of the people of the neighboring foreign lands, was about to repeat itself.
Ezra cries out to God in repentance. The others join him, and soon they commit to ending these unholy marriages and recommitting to following God’s commandments again.
Nehemiah, the cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes of Persia, also returns to Jerusalem from exile to help in the repair of Jerusalem’s city walls. Despite intimidation from some neighboring aggressors, the project is completed. The remnant of Israelites holds a great feast of dedication in Jerusalem, confesses their sins, and again rededicates themselves to following Jehovah, God only, and His ways.
Haggi and Zachariah are prophets raised up during this period of rebuilding who provide the people with encouragement. While both of them spiritually aid the Jewish remnant present during the temple reconstruction, the prophet Zachariah drops in more and more hints about this coming messiah. Zachariah echoes the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, in proclaiming that this messiah (now called the branch) will build God’s temple, be clothed in majesty, sit and rule on the throne, and proclaim peace to the nations. Furthermore, living waters will then flow out from Jerusalem, and He will rule from sea to sea, to the ends of the earth.
It is here that the timeline of the Old Testament ends.
Abraham’s descendants indeed became as numerous as the sand on the sea, and they undoubtedly took possession of God’s promised land for a time—but it didn’t last. And certainly, they did not come to be a blessing to all the nations. Yet the latter prophets held out hope that the promises God made to Abraham all those years ago would one day become eternally realized with the arrival of their long-awaited messiah.
THINGS UNRESOLVED, AND SOME CLIFFHANGERS
Let us remember the three key promises that God made to Abraham we first took note of way back in Genesis 12: your descendants will become a great and blessed nation, land will be given to you, and all the people of the earth will be blessed through you. Consider the fulfillment of these promises in light of how the Old Testament Biblical text ends:
- With the rebuilding of both the temple and Jerusalem’s walls at the closing of the Old Testament, some hope and pride may have been restored to the Israelites. But the nation of Israel is never reunified. The overwhelming majority of the twelve tribes remain spread out around the neighboring kingdoms resulting from the two exiles. They are not functioning as one people or nation.
- The promised land is not under the Israelites’ control, and for any short period in the centuries that follow where the remnant does gain some regional autonomy, it is only short lived. The Jews are put back under oppression time and time again eventually leading up to the Roman empires take over just before the 1st century—which occurs about sixty years before the assumed historical birth of the well-known figure Jesus of Nazareth.
- And lastly, all nations of the earth are not being blessed through the great unified nation of Israel—far from it. They are a dispersed people who either look back to the glory years of king David, or wait in hope for a future, messianic restoration, and some we assume just happily go on living their lives resettled in other lands building new communities of faith around God.
Cliffhangers remain: Will Israel ever return it its unified glory in the promised land? And what/who this nebulous messiah figure that will being this restoration at sit on David’s throne and rule the kingdom of God forever (II Samuel 7:11-16, Daniel 7:21-28)? What exactly will he do? What will be look like? How will know when he is here? How will he go about to accomplish this transition? And just how can a man rule a kingdom forever?
Proceed with me to part 2
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!