The Old Testament Story

By Kersley Fitzgerald

The Old Testament is comprised of 39 books by over 25 different authors over a period of 1000 years. The books are divided into the Law, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. But the Law also includes history — and poetry and prophecy. Two of the poetry books are historical accounts. Much of the largest poetry books, Psalms, is prophecy. And a lot of the prophecies are written as poetry.

No wonder it's all so confusing.

But if you take it in sections, the story of the Old Testament isn't that difficult.

The Beginning

This is just Genesis, which, strangely enough, means "the beginning." It encompasses the creation of the world, the Fall, Noah's flood, the tower of Babel, and God choosing Abraham. Abraham has Ishmael and Isaac; Isaac has the red neck Esau and the tricksy Jacob. Jacob wrestles with God, and God changes his name to Israel (although the narrative goes back and forth with the names). Jacob has a whole lot of kids by four different wives. His next-youngest, Joseph is sold into slavery by the older brothers. Joseph lands in Egypt where he goes from servant to prison to second-in-command. He saves the country from famine and then brings his family down.

The Establishment of Israel

After Joseph died, the next Pharaoh fears the ever-procreating Israelites and enslaves them. They stay as slaves for 400 years, which was enough time to build the numbers needed to take over the land God had promised Abraham. God chooses the cowardly murdering foster-child Moses to lead His people. The Pharaoh won't let them go; God sends the ten plagues; Pharaoh changes his mind. The Israelites take off, and Pharaoh chases after them with his army. The Israelites escape through the parted Red Sea which crashes on the army when the Egyptians try to follow. Moses leads the people to Mt Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula where God gives him the Mosaic Law. And that's Exodus.

Leviticus is more on the law, particularly the ceremonial law which was supervised by the Levites. Numbers picks up with the Israelites continuing to southern Canaan where they decide to fear the people they are there to conquer instead of fearing God. God punishes them by saying the only adults who will inherit the land will be Joshua and Caleb. The people realize their mistake and attack, leading to getting their hind-quarters kicked. While the Israelites wander around the Sinai for forty years, they alternate between whining and disobeying God. God takes the odd break to punish them.

After forty years, all the old generation except Joshua and Caleb are dead, and the Israelites reach the east side of Canaan. In Deuteronomy, two and a half tribes take their inheritance there, and more laws are added. Moses dies, and the people are ready to cross the Jordan River. Joshua takes up the pen and records the exploits of the Israelites as they take over Canaan. They cross the river (which God has again made dry for them), and spend some time making sure all the males are circumcised. Then they start, conquering each area and inhabiting it before they move on. They have a hiccough when the Gibeonites trick them into thinking they're not locals, but the tables are turned and instead of being destroyed, the Gibeonites are enslaved. Before Joshua dies, he has the people reaffirm their commitment to God. A vow they take very seriously and solemnly before forgetting the following Tuesday.

In the book of Judges, God proves he can use absolutely anyone do get His will accomplished. While the Twelve Tribes alternate between disobeying God and getting spanked by their pagan neighbors, God uses a coward (Gideon) and a ladies' man with anger management issues (Samson) to rescue His people and remind them how to live godly lives. It's telling that the judge who is possibly the most righteous and heroic is Deborah — the only woman.

The Time of the Kings

Despite the fact that God preferred to use fallen people to lead and give guidance to the Israelites on an individual, on-call basis, the people want a centralized king who can drag down all the tribes at once. So they ask Samuel, the last judge, to ask God for a king. God doesn't give them the king they need, but the king they deserve — Saul. Saul would have been an okay king if he'd managed to control his temper and stick with serving God. But the whole thing goes to his head, and God chooses David to replace him. This is all found in 1 Samuel.

David gives reassurance to Christians for millennia by proving that you can sin really badly and love God a whole lot at the same time. He's like the anti-Pharisee. God gives him some political victories and he takes on some failures. But a good king doesn't always mean a good father, and toward the end of his reign, his son Absalom rebels and takes the throne for a while. Absalom is killed, and when David finally dies of old age, his son with Bathsheba, Solomon, takes the throne. David's reign is recorded in 2 Samuel, despite the fact Samuel actually died sometime in late 1 Samuel.

Solomon is the richest, most successful, and wisest king Israel or any part of Israel ever had or will have, apart from Jesus. He is also a fool. Despite his extensive wisdom into the inner workings of the human mind, his 700 wives and 300 concubines bring in foreign gods and Israel never recovers. Upon his death, the kingdom is split into the Northern Tribes (Israel) and the Southern Tribes (Judah).

First and Second Kings goes on to recount the kings of Israel and Judah, while 1 & 2 Chronicles concentrate on Judah. The majority of the books of prophecy fall into this timeframe. The prophets include warnings for the Israelites to obey, warnings to other nations who harass the Israelites, and prophecy about Jesus. But they are widely ignored. Most of the kings are bad. Some are horrid. A few are good. The kings of the north are so bad Israel is not only taken into captivity to Assyria, they pretty much cease to exist as Israelites. Eventually, despite the hard work of a couple of good kings, Judah is taken into exile to Babylon (more detail is given in Jeremiah).

Post-Exilic Israel

After Judah was sent to Babylon, they didn't exist as a sovereign nation again until 1947 (not including a short stint around the time of the Maccabees). Esther and Daniel give examples of the hostility from the people and of God's protection and favor. But the narrative really picks up with Ezra and Nehemiah who tell the story of the return of the Israelites (now "Jews") to Jerusalem and the restoration of the Temple and the city wall. Haggai, Zephaniah, and Malachi add God's word to Ezra and Nehemiah's administration.

Here is pretty much the end of the story of Israel until the time of Christ. Extra-biblical books like 1 & 2 Maccabees give historical detail into that time period, but Scripture stops here. We hear stories in Sunday School and church, but rarely get the chance to put them all together. When we do, we see the over-arching theme of how people are pickle-heads and God is more gracious and forgiving than we could ever wish for. Which is why the coming of Jesus was such a big and necessary thing.

Image Credit: Rebrandt; "David Offering the Head of Goliath to King Saaul"; 1627; Public Domain

Published 3-12-15
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