The Old Testament

Bob Caldwell

As we saw in the last article, there are two main parts of the Bible, commonly called the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament. This article briefly describes the contents of the OT.

bibleguidelogoA. Overview

One description of the OT is "religious history." It tells the history of God's dealing with human beings through one man and his descendents. It begins with the creation of the world and proceeds to the re-settlement of Israel in its land in the 6th century B.C. It contains history, laws, genealogies, poetic works, and prophecy.

B. The Law

The first section of the OT is called "Torah" by the Jews. This is the Hebrew word for "Law," and was called this because a major portion of it lists the rules of the covenant that God laid down for Israel. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch ("five books" in Greek) by scholars. However, the Torah is much more than laws.

  1. Genesis (which means "beginnings") traces human history from the first people, their sin against God, the salvation of Noah and his family from the great flood, the call of Abraham as the originator of a nation through whom God would reveal himself to the world, the story of his grandson Israel and his twelve sons and their families, who all ended up living in Egypt.
  2. Exodus tells how the descendents of Israel were made slaves in Egypt. God raised up Moses, who performed miracles until the Egyptians let Israel go. At Mt. Sinai, God gave the first of his laws that Israel was required to follow to be his people.
  3. Leviticus (Israel's priests were from the family of Israel's son Levi) contains many more laws.
  4. Numbers (named for a census taken in the first chapter) tells of Israel's failure to obey God and take the Promised Land and their subsequent wandering in the desert.
  5. Deuteronomy (means "second law" in Greek) is a series of messages delivered to Moses before entering the Promised Land. It summarizes the events of the 40 years of wandering, adds a few more laws, and charges Israel to stay faithful to God.

C. History

The next 12 books trace the history of Israel from their entrance into the Promised Land (15th century B.C.) through their exile from the land because of their sin to their return to the Land in the 6th century B.C.

  1. Joshua describes Israel's conquest of the Promised Land and its distribution among the twelve families.
  2. Judges describes Israel's difficulty in completing the taking of the entire land and how God delivered them from enemies on many occasions through leaders called "Judges."
  3. Ruth is the story of a woman from Moab whose great-grandson became Israel's greatest king.
  4. 1 Samuel tells how God gave Israel its first king (Saul) and raised up David to succeed him.
  5. 2 Samuel describes David's kingship over Israel and how he united the nation and defeated its enemies.
  6. 1 Kings tells how Solomon succeeded David and built the temple. The nation was split into Israel (northern ten families) and Judah (two families in the south). Israel mostly failed to serve God while Judah, ruled over by David's descendants, sometimes obeyed God and sometimes failed.
  7. 2 Kings continues the story of the divided nation through Israel's destruction and deportation by Assyria in 722 B.C. and Judah's deportation by Babylon in 685 B.C.
  8. 1 Chronicles gives lists of genealogies for the twelve families of Israel. It then tells a parallel story of David, roughly equivalent to 2 Samuel.
  9. 2 Chronicles parallels the books of 1 and 2 Kings. It tells the story of Judah's deportation but ends with a decree of the Persian king Cyrus to allow them to return in 535 B.C. Both books of Chronicles are told from different sources than Samuel and Kings and have some different stories along with some of the same.
  10. Ezra tells how Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and re-built their temple under the governor Zerubbabel and Ezra the priest.
  11. Nehemiah is the first-person account of Nehemiah, who was appointed governor of Judea and how he rebuilt the city walls of Jerusalem and established order in the nation.
  12. Esther is the story of a young Jewish woman who became queen of the Persians. Through her heroic efforts, a plot to kill Jews throughout the empire was stopped.

D. Poetry

A major portion of the OT is written in Hebrew poetry. The majority of the material in the Prophets are written in poetic form. These five books that we call poetry are also called "Wisdom Literature" by some. This section contains songs of praise to God (mostly Psalms) along with poetry that reflects on God and the human condition. The poetry is hard to see in English for two reasons: 1). The original language is Hebrew and poetry is difficult to translate between languages. 2). Hebrew poetry is different than English poetry in that it rarely rhymes but uses other techniques to mark it as poetry.

  1. Job answers the question, "Why do good people suffer?" The first two chapters and the last chapter tell Job's story. The other 39 chapters are a poetic dialogue between Job and his friends before God shows up and speaks words of correction.
  2. Psalms contains 150 songs of praise to and about God.
  3. Proverbs are many wise sayings.
  4. Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book that examines the human situation.
  5. Song of Songs (also known as Song of Solomon) is a love or wedding song that many interpret allegorically.

E. Prophets

Prophets existed throughout Biblical history. A category of writing prophets rose up in Israel from the 8th century through the 5th century B.C. Historically, the books of the Prophets have been divided up between Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel) and Minor Prophets, based mostly on size. The Minor Prophets, sometimes called the Twelve, were typically written on a single scroll since many of the books were so small.

Major Prophets:

  1. Isaiah is considered the most important of the prophets for Christians as so many of his prophecies seem to relate to the coming of Jesus Christ.
  2. Jeremiah prophesized to Judah during the time just before and after Babylon conquered it.
  3. Lamentations is a book of poetry which grieves over the calamity that has fallen upon God's people. It is included here because it was traditionally believed to have been written by Jeremiah.
  4. Ezekiel spoke God's messages to Judah while the people were exiled by Babylon.
  5. Daniel is a mix of stories about a Jew who was taken to Babylon and served in the royal court of Babylonian and Persian kings. The second half contains prophecies about future events by him.

Minor Prophets:

  1. Hosea prophesied against the abuses in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.
  2. Joel prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century B.C.
  3. Amos prophesied in Israel in the 8th century B.C.
  4. Obadiah prophesied against Judah's enemy Edom at an undetermined date.
  5. Jonah tells the story of a prophet from Israel who was called by God to prophesy against the Assyrian city of Nineveh in either the 8th or 7th century B.C.
  6. Micah wrote from Judah against Israel in the 8th century B.C.
  7. Nahum wrote about the fall of Nineveh in the 7th century B.C.
  8. Habakkuk presents a dialogue between the prophet and God regarding Judah in the late 7th century B.C.
  9. Zephaniah describes the destruction of God's enemies and the restoration of Jerusalem in the 7th century B.C.
  10. Haggai wrote to encourage the people to rebuild the temple after returning from exile late in the 6th century B.C.
  11. Zechariah wrote with a similar purpose to that of Haggai.
  12. Malachi presents a dialogue between God and his people to correct their sins in the fifth century B.C.

Bob Caldwell, PhD, is Theologian-in-Residence at Network 211.

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