Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books
Table of Contents
- General Info, Author and Date
- Brief Survey
- Historical Background
- Themes, Purpose & Theology
- Interpretation Hints and Challenges
General Info, Author and Date
In the Protestant Bible, the OT history section consists of the 12 books from Joshua to Esther, including Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. These books cover a time period from Israel’s entry into the Promised Land (~1405 BC) to the events following their return from exile (~400BC). In addition, the Roman Catholic Bible includes the Apocryphal books of the Maccabees, which extends the history of the Jewish people’s fight for independence though approximately 150 BC.
These books are divided somewhat differently in the Tenakh (the Jewish Hebrew Bible). The word "Tenakh" (commonly spelled Tanach) is a Hebrew acronym derived from the first letters of its three parts, the Torah (Teaching or Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). In the Tenach, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are located in the second section, titled "Former Prophets", while the others are found in the "Writings" section.
The Pentateuch (five books of Moses) ends with the tribes of Israel camped across the Jordan River from the Promised Land of Canaan. The history section of the OT picks up the story and spans the next thousand years or so, including Israel’s entry and conquest of the land, their life under the judges and the monarchy, their division into two kingdoms (Judah and Israel), and finally, their defeat, exile and return to the land. Unlike modern historical approaches, the account of each event is told from a God-centered perspective, that is, the authors are more concerned with God’s dealings with mankind though these events rather than with the events themselves. Thus, while we encounter kings and prophets along with dramatic and exciting events such as the walls of Jericho, the sun standing still, David and Goliath; the primary emphasis is on God’s sovereignty, the people’s response and the resulting blessing for faithfulness and curses for failure to honor the covenant.
See the introductions to the individual books for Author and Date information.
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The historical authenticity of the OT Historical Books were accepted without question by Jesus, the NT authors, the early church, and by almost all Bible scholars for almost two millennia. In the past couple of centuries however, many liberal "scholars" began to seriously question the historical reliability of these books (and the rest of the Bible in general). A common erroneous assertion is that the books were written after the exile so that all the prophecies would have only been recorded after the facts. Much of their doubts about the historical facts are due to their presuppositions against miracles or God intervening in history.
Many Biblical scholars have written volumes of works answering the assortment of charges raised by these critics. We’ve referenced the individual books for more information regarding the various dates of their writing, so we’ll just address the general dating issue here.
Unlike the books of the Pentateuch which, except for a few small inserts, were written by Moses during the desert wandering, many portions of the Historical Books were compiled into their final form much later than the events that they recorded. Regarding their accuracy, this should not concern us in the least because of two reasons. The main reason is that each author recorded or compiled these accounts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2Tim 3:16). This fact alone should be sufficient to remove all doubt, but we also know that the authors had access to earlier records written in close proximity to the actual events such as court transcripts, memoirs of various kings, and other historical records. The authors cite over a dozen sources within their books such as The Book of the Kings of Israel, The Record of Samuel the Seer, The Record of Nathan the Prophet, The Record of Gad the Seer, The Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel, The Record of Jehu, The Commentary on the Book of the Kings, The Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah, The Vision of the Prophet Isaiah the Son of Amoz, The Book of Laments, and many more.
Many of the Biblical accounts can also be supported and validated by a large number of other extra-biblical documents from a multiple of ancient nations, as well as by a whole host of archaeological data. Taken together, we can be confident that the OT historical accounts are dependably based upon real facts. In addition, we consistently are making new discoveries to further support the trustworthiness of their historically accuracy.
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In this chapter, we provide a brief survey of each of the historical books. In the next chapter, "Historical Background", we present a summary of each historical period. Psalms 105 and 106 also offer a very concise review of these eras. See the introductions to the various books for an expanded survey of each.
Joshua describes Israel’s conquest, distribution and settlement of Canaan (the Promised Land). The Israelites fail to rely on God to conquer the entire land as they settle among the pagan Canaanite tribes and become comfortable with the local customs rather than keeping themselves holy to the Lord.
In Judges, Israel’s failure to drive out the Canaanites under Joshua results in a downward spiral of disobedience to God, oppression by the Canaanites, repentance, and deliverance by a God-anointed judge (or leader). The people failed to learn their lesson (much like us today), so the cycle continued to repeat itself.
This book is a wonderful self-contained story of the grace of God, in which Ruth the Moabite shows loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law and as a result, finds a kinsman redeemer in Boaz. Ruth and Boaz become the great-grandparents of King David and ancestors of Jesus the Messiah.
In Samuel, Israel’s leadership transitions from the last judge (Samuel) to their first king, Saul. Saul soon fell into disfavor with God, leading to David’s anointing as King. After Saul’s death, we witness David’s reign, his sins of adultery and murder, and the resulting consequences.
The book of the Kings provides a chronological account of the rulers of Israel, beginning with David’s son Solomon. We then observe the division of the monarchy into the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms. The accounts are formulated around the repeated content of the ruler’s ascension to the throne and their main activities in obedience or disobedience to the covenant with God, eventually leading to the defeat and exile of both kingdoms, Israel first to the Assyrians and Judah later to the Babylonians.
The book of the Chronicles recounts the same period of Jewish history as Samuel and Kings (see Harmony of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles), but while the latter is addressed to the Jews in exile, the Chronicles is told from the perspective of the exiles who have returned from captivity to the Promised Land in order to reassure them that they are still the chosen people. As such, Chronicles is placed as the final book in the Hebrew Bible.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are a single volume in the Hebrew Bible which contains the accounts of the three returns from Babylon to the Jewish homeland. We also witness the rebuilding of the Temple and the protective wall around Jerusalem along with the revival of religious and social reforms.
Esther (like Ruth) is a self-contained story set in Persia during the postexilic period. God foils a plot to exterminate the Jewish people through the faith and courage of Esther and Mordecai.
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The books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy) told the story of the Creation, the birth of the Nation of Israel, and their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, and ended with Israel poised to enter the Promised Land. We now come to the historical books of the OT, whose stories can be divided into the following historical periods.
Israel’s Conquest and Settlement of the Promised Land (~1405~1375 BC)
The initial conquest and partial settling of the land is recorded in the book of Joshua. With God fighting for Israel, she was victorious over many of the Canaanite city-states and took possession of much of the land. Before his death, Joshua allotted certain tracts of land to each tribe along with instruction to finish conquering the remainder of the territory per God’s command and promise. For the most part, each tribe was lax in carrying out this charge, choosing instead to settle alongside the pagan inhabitants.
The Period of the Judges (~1375~1050 BC)
During the period of the Judges (recorded in the book of Judges and part of 1st Samuel), we see the consequences of Israel’s failure to completely conquer and drive out the Canaanites per God’s command. The Israelites indifference toward God and resulting tribal fragmentation allowed the surrounding pagan tribes to strengthen and begin oppressing them. We witness a repeating cycle of oppression, followed by the Israelites crying out to God who then anoints a leader (judge) for their deliverance. This ushers in peace for a certain period, in which Israel falls back into apostasy, leading to oppression once again. Because of their disobedience during this time, the Israelites were also subjected to natural disasters such as famines, one of which forms the background for the book of Ruth.
The United Kingdom of Israel (~1050~931 BC)
A key event in Israel’s history is the change from the theocratic system of government to a monarchy. Over the protests of Israel’s last judge Samuel (1Sam 1-7), the Israelites rejected God’s ultimate leadership and demanded a king like the pagan nations around them. Although God ultimately remained in control (He had promised that Abraham's descendants would include kings), He gave them their wish by having Samuel anoint Saul as the first king over Israel (1Sam 8-10, 1Chr 10). Saul’s reign began well, but he soon fell into disobedience and was killed by the Philistines (1Sam 31). God’s choice for king, David began reigning in Judah (~1010 BC, 2Sam 2), then became king of the united Israel seven years later (2Sam 5) after the death of Saul’s son Ishbosheth, who had assumed rule over the northern tribes. During his reign (1-2Sam, 1Kg 1-2, 1Chr), David captured and established Jerusalem as the new capital. He also conquered many of Israel’s enemies before being succeeded by his son Solomon (1Kg 1-11), who further expanded the kingdom and built the first Temple.
The Divided Kingdoms – Judah and Israel (~931-722 BC)
During Solomon’s building programs, tensions increased between the northern and southern kingdoms over the use of slave labor. After his death, these hostilities erupted and split the kingdom (1Kg 12), with Jeroboam ruling the northern kingdom of Israel (1Kg 12-14) while Solomon’s son Rehoboam retained control over the southern kingdom of Judah (1Kg 14, 2Chr 10-12). This period was marked by frequent skirmishes between the kingdoms, and an occasional invasion by the rebuilt armies of the Egyptians.
In the mid ninth century BC, the Assyrians increased in power and began expanding their empire. Rather than relying on God, the Kings of Judah and Israel often formed alliances with Assyria or Egypt against neighboring enemies or against each other. In the late eighth century BC, the Assyrian domination weakened somewhat, allowing the two kingdoms to reach their greatest power and influence since the reign of Solomon, Israel under Jeroboam II (793-753 BC, 2Kg 14) and Judah under Uzziah (792-740 BC, 2Kg 15, 2Chr 26). This prosperity was short-lived however, as Israel continued to disobey God, ignore the warnings of the prophets and worship idols. As a result, God allowed the Assyrians to re-develop their power, conquer the northern kingdom (722 BC) and exile her people (2Kg 17).
Prophets during this era included Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah. The latter three ministered during the fall of the northern kingdom. The exact time of Joel’s ministry is unknown. Proposals range from the 9th to the 5th centuries BC.
The Kingdom of Judah (722-586 BC)
Although the faith of Judah’s king Hezekiah (728-686 BC, 2Kg 18-20, 2Chr 29-32, Is 36-37) saved Judah from the Assyrians, it was only a matter of time before Judah would meet the same fate as Israel. After Hezekiah’s death, apostasy plagued the land and they would have only one other good king, Josiah (640-609 BC, 2Kg 22-23, 2Chr 34-35). Assyria went into decline and was conquered by the emerging Babylonian empire under King Nabopolassar in 612 BC. A few years later, the Babylonian army, led by his son Nebuchadnezzar, handed Egyptian Pharaoh Necho and his army a huge defeat at the famous battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, as previously prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 46:2-26).
Thus, Babylon took the foreign lands controlled by Egypt and became the new world power. Nebuchadnezzar was even on his way to invade Egypt, but returned to Babylon upon receiving news that his father the king had died. After being crowned King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar launched a series of invasions against Judah, leading to the exiles of 605, 597, and 588 BC. Jerusalem was finally sacked in 586 BC, resulting in the destruction of the Temple and the resettlement of many of the remaining Jewish people (2Kg 24-25, 2Chr 36, Jer 52).
Prophets during the last years of Judah included Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. The latter three ministered during the fall of Judah and into the exile.
The Exile and Return to the Land (605~400 BC)
Selected events of the exile in Babylon are recorded by the prophets of the period, such as Jeremiah (39-44), Daniel and Ezekiel. In 539 BC, the Persians, led by Cyrus II, conquered and brought the Babylonian empire to an end, and became the dominant power. The following year, Cyrus issued a decree allowing all exiled people to return and rebuild their homelands. Zerubbabel then led the Jews on the initial return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1-2), where they rebuilt the altar of the Temple and restarted the sacrificial system. The Temple remained unfinished, but under the encouragement of the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, work was resumed and completed in 516 BC (Ezra 3-6).
In 478 BC, the Jewish Esther became Queen of Persia during the reign of Xerxes. God used her to save the Jewish people from an extermination plot by an evil high official. Jews annually celebrate the festival of Purim to commemorate this deliverance.
A few decades later, we witness two additional return returns from exile, the first led by the priest Ezra (458 BC, Ezra 7-10) followed by Nehemiah’s group in 445 BC. These leaders prompted both spiritual and civil reforms, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s protective walls.
Prophets during the exile included Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel. In the post-exilic era, Zechariah and Haggai ministered during the initial return led by Zerubbabel, and Malachi was the last prophet in the OT during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Though allowed much freedom, Judah remained under the control of Persia until 332 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire and ushered in the worldwide era of the Greeks. See our Intertestamental History Summary for a brief survey of this historical period. The apocryphal books of the Maccabees also record many events of this epoch leading up to NT times as God prepares the world for the coming of the Messiah.
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The historical books cover a time period from Israel’s entry into the Promised Land (~1405 BC) to the events following their return from exile (~400BC). The Roman Catholic Bible includes the Apocryphal books of the Maccabees, which contains Intertestamental events though approximately 150 BC.
|~ 1406 BC (1)||Death of Moses; Joshua assumes leadership of Israelites|
|~ 1405 BC||Israelites Enter the Promised Land|
|~ 1375 BC||Death of Joshua|
|~ 1375 BC||Period of the Judges Begins|
|~ 1075 BC||Samuel as Israel's Last Judge|
|~ 1050 BC||Saul becomes Israel’s First King|
|~ 1040 BC||Birth of King David|
|1011 BC||David becomes King of Judah|
|1004 BC||David becomes King of United Israel and Judah|
|971 BC||Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah|
|967-960 BC||Building of the Temple|
|931 BC||Rehoboam becomes King of United Israel and Judah|
|931 BC||Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms|
|931 BC||Jereboam becomes King of Israel|
|911-870 BC||Asa King of Judah|
|874-853 BC (2)||Ahab King of Israel|
|873-848 BC||Jehoshaphat King of Judah|
|~870-850 BC||Elijah Prophet of Israel|
|~853-798 BC||Elisha Prophet of Israel|
|841-814 BC (2)||Jehu King of Israel|
|835-796 BC||Joash King of Judah|
|793-753BC||Jeroboam II King of Israel|
|791-740 BC||Uzziah (aka Azariah) King of Judah|
|~755-715 BC||Hosea Prophet of Israel|
|753 BC||Founding of Rome|
|~740-685 BC||Isaiah Prophet of Israel|
|~728-686 BC||Hezekiah King of Judah|
|722 BC||Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians|
|696-642 BC||Manasseh King of Judah|
|640-609 BC||Josiah King of Judah enacts Reforms|
|627-580 BC||Jeremiah Prophet of Judah|
|612 BC||The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)|
|605 BC||Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles many of the Jews|
|~605-535 BC||Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah|
|597 BC||Second Invasion by the Babylonians|
|~597-570 BC||Ezekiel Prophet to Exiled Judah|
|586 BC||Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned|
|561 BC||Judean King Jehoiachin Released from Babylonian Prison|
|539 BC||Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire|
|538 BC||First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel|
|~516 BC||Rebuilding of the Temple Completed|
|~478 BC||Esther and Mordecai Foil a Plot to Exterminate Jews in Persia|
|458 BC||Ezra and other Exiles Return to Jerusalem|
|445 BC||Nehemiah Returns to Jerusalem, Begins Rebuilding the Walls|
|~400 BC||Writing of the Last Books of OT - Possibly assembled by Ezra|
|331 BC||Alexander the Great Conquers Persia for the Greek Empire|
|323 BC||Death of Alexander the Great|
|168 BC||Antiochus IV Epiphanes Desecrates the Temple|
|164 BC||Judas Maccabee Reclaims Jewish Control and Cleanses the Temple|
|142 BC||Judah Becomes Independent State under the Hasmoneans|
|63 BC||General Pompey Imposes Roman Rule over Judah|
(1) The date of Moses' death is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt. Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC, and the death of Moses 40 years later, or about 1406 BC. Many scholars believe that the "480 years" is symbolic, placing the exodus in the early 1200s BC. Many conservatives (including ourselves) favor the earlier date. We'll cover the arguments on both sides of this debate in a separate article.
(2) By integrating Biblical data with Assyrian records during the the reign of Shalmaneser III (704-681 BC), we can establish the year of Ahab’s death (853 BC) and the first year of Jehu's reign (841 BC) using astronomical calculations based on an Assyrian reference to a solar eclipse. With these fixed anchor dates, we then work both forward and backward to establish dates for kings of Israel and Judah and other related events. Other Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian documents can also be used to verify the dates.
See Chronology of Israel's Monarchy for a timeline of Kings and Prophets, dating challenges and other information.
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Themes, Purpose and Theology
The main purpose of this section of the Bible is to provide a selective history of Israel, interpreted from the theological prospective of God’s covenants with His chosen people. God chose to bring salvation to all nations through the Jewish people, from which the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would come. We thus see the OT prophets preparing the people spiritually for the coming of His Kingdom. This task proved to be difficult, as there were times of spiritual growth mixed with periods of apostasy, yet in the fullness of time, the Kingdom would come.
The authors’ other agendas varied according to their particular historical perspectives, circumstances and epoch. The authors of the earlier books wrote to encourage the people to stay faithful to God in order to reap the blessings rather than the curses of the covenant. About the middle of the eight century, they became resigned to the fact that the nations would go into exile because of continued disobedience, but continued to call for reform. Those during and after the exile wrote to reassure the Jewish people that they had not been forsaken and that God’s promises would still come to pass. See the individual book introductions for more information.
Since the historical books span across approximately one thousand years and several stages of Jewish history, the themes can also vary from book to book. We can however, identify several themes which permeate throughout most of the books of the historical section, many of which derive their roots from the Books of Moses.
A primary theme which stands out in each book is God’s Sovereignty, not only over Israel, but all other nations as well. His sovereignty over entire nations, individuals, and the forces of nature is often exhibited by miracles. In the historical section, we find these most prominent in the exploits of Joshua, and the ministries of Elijah and Elisha in the books of the Kings. Throughout all the books, we witness God’s authority, supervision and protection of His chosen people.
In addition to His sovereignty, God is also benevolent in that He is present and intimately involved in all aspects of the people and nation. This relates to the other major theme, that of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises, particularly the Abrahamic Covenant. In fact, the fulfillments of the promises to Abraham form the basis for much of the OT history books. These promises included the land, descendants, and blessing on Abraham’s descendants and other nations. We witnessed the descendants of Abraham increase and develop into a great nation in Exodus. In Joshua, God empowers Israel to conquer the Promised Land, even after their rebellion in the wilderness. In the book of Samuel, God continues to fulfill the promises through the new Davidic covenant by channeling the Abrahamic blessings through the line of David, which will ultimately be fulfilled by the Messiah’s establishment of God’s Kingdom.
In return, Israel is to be faithful to God and to His covenants. Moses recorded the blessings and curses associated with obedience or disobedience to the covenants (ie Dt 27-28), and the nation’s political and economic fortunes would often rise and fall with their fidelity.
The author of each book tended to focus primarily on the moral condition of the leader rather than on the fidelity of the people as a whole, since the people almost always adopted the morals of their king. If the leadership remained faithful to the covenants, the people were likely to follow, and vice versa. This highlights the theme of the Importance of Godly Leadership.
In relationship to the other themes is the method that God chose to rule over Israel during this period. We’ve already mentioned His sovereignty over the nation, however, He also exercised His rule through human leaders. The kings were anointed as God’s representative on earth and the Davidic line were often called "Sons of God". Each leader was expected to carry out his rule in accordance with God’s will. While most fell extremely short of the ideal, God remained ultimately in control.
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Interpretation Hints and Challenges
We must interpret the historical books of the Bible as "salvation history". The events were selected to provide a record of God’s dealing with His chosen people as a means to bring salvation to all nations. Nonetheless, the books also reflect an accurate record of real events (see the "Historicity" chapter above), so both the theological and historical aspects should be taken into consideration. Notice how God providentially directs and controls the destiny of each nation and individual.
With this in mind, we offer the following interpretive suggestions:
In interpreting the various books of history, we must first take into consideration the historical and political perspective of the writer. As mentioned in the "Purposes" chapter above, whether the author was writing during the monarchy, the exile or after the return would have a great impact on his point of view and his agenda.
We must also note the interrelationship between Israel’s religious life and their political fortune. Their prosperity as a nation was directly tied to their obedience to the covenants. They were surrounded by hostile pagan nations who had reached the fullness of their wickedness (Gen 15:16, Dt 4:4-5) and, while Israel often acted no better, they were able to genuinely repent and turn back to God at times. Still, it was a constant struggle to maintain their spiritual faith and physical security in the midst of these unfriendly neighboring tribes.
The historical events should also be interpreted within the context of the morals and customs of the era. Remember that the Christological principles of forgiveness, love your enemies, and turn the other cheek etc, were not yet in effect. In addition, while the sacrificial system was in place, the full significance of its fulfillment by Christ was not fully understood. The concept of "salvation" probably meant being "saved from the world’s evil and perilous situations" to most Jews.
Regarding historical issues, we can compare the descriptions of each event with other accounts of the same event in other scriptural passages, often giving us a different, but complementary, perspective. If available, we can consult any available extra-biblical records, keeping in mind that these are not inspired or inerrant like the Biblical accounts. We should also use caution when relating the meanings and outcomes to contemporary situations and issues, taking into consideration the various cultural differences between the eras.
Finally, we must consider the literary techniques employed by the various authors. The largest genre type used in the historical books is prose narrative. These accounts should be interpreted as straightforward descriptions of real events, regardless of whether involving a miracle or just an ordinary incident. Other genres, such as poetry and some prophecy are interspersed with the narratives. Prophetic texts are usually concerned with future events, whereas the narratives generally record past events. Poetic accounts generally are more selective in their details and use more figurative language as compared to the narratives. See Bible Genre Analysis for more information concerning interpreting various types of literature.
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