This article aims to provide a thumbnail sketch of the sequence of books of the Old Testament and the major sets of events. For example, it shows where the time of the Judges fits, rather than going into detail about each of each judge in Israel. Only occasionally does it touch on the teaching of the books or events.
The OT is a wonderful outline of God’s dealings with mankind, his moral dealings with the earth, but particularly with the call and formation of Israel. From Genesis 1:2 we get the formation of this present world and the creation of man. The period of innocence ended with judgment - Adam and Eve driven from their paradise. From that point man was left to his own conscience. God’s ways with Adam and Eve, both in discipline and in redemption were carried down orally. There were ten generations living just prior to the flood. Cain went out from the presence of God and built a city with all its trappings – an environment where man could be comfortable away from God’s presence. The population descended into violence and corruption. This necessitated God judging again - cleansing the earth with the flood. Just prior to that Enoch, a godly man, was translated, i.e. he did not die. He had walked with God, had pleased God (Hebrews) so was taken out of the coming trial – the flood, 1,656 years after the creation of Adam (Genesis 5:3-29, 7:11). Noah and his family went through the trial and were then sent out to begin afresh. This time they were told to settle on the earth and were given the right of government, i.e. to discipline others for wrongdoing. Also man was given meat to eat and fear was put upon animals. In Noah’s son Shem, the line of faith was carried on. Whenever God commits responsibility to man, failure comes in. Noah got drunk. The world later descended into idolatry. God cannot go on with evil indefinitely so judgment was seen, this time at the tower of Babel when language was confused and peoples were scattered.
God then carried on his purposes by calling Abraham out of the city of Ur in Chaldea, in what is now Iraq. The promises of God were given to Abraham and his seed. He was called out from his “country and kindred and father’s house”, to be a wanderer, a pilgrim. He was given the land of Caanan only as a promise to his seed. He was to be the father of the nation of Israel, the father of many nations, and of the faithful. The only land that he owned was a burial plot. He was not a citizen of this world although he traded in it and was prosperous. He looked on to Christ’s day and rejoiced. In many ways he is typical of a Christian. Abraham was born some 2,008 years after Adam was created.
From his call in Genesis 12, all through the Old Testament and on until Acts 7, we have God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. If not about Israel, it concerns the judgment of those nations because of their dealings with Israel. All scripture is written for us, but it is not all about us. We then have the family of Jacob in Egypt, with Joseph second only to Pharoah. Again he is a type of Christ ruling among the nations. In Egypt God forged the nation of Israel over a period of 430 years (Exodus 12:40). Oppression kept them a separated people and they were brought out with great signs and wonders into the desert under the leadership of Moses. Jacob’s name had been changed to Israel, hence the name of that people.
It is obvious that each tribe was named after their father, each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Due to the fact that Joseph had been rejected by his brethren, his two sons - Ephraim and Manasseh - were “adopted” by Jacob, as his own sons. So the tribe of Joseph became the two “half-tribes”. This allows thirteen tribes to be regarded as twelve tribes!
Then the law was given via Moses. This involved the building of the portable tabernacle, the establishment of the Levitical service under that tribe, and the priestly system of approach to God and worship under Aaron and his sons. The book of Exodus describes the exit from Egypt and the giving of the law; Leviticus was the priests’ guidebook; Numbers is the account of their journey through the wilderness towards Canaan - the promised land. Deuteronomy is the second reading of the law to Israel, by Moses, just prior to their entrance into Canaan. In these books we get a great deal of typical teaching – types or examples that looked on to Christ and our time. The Epistle to Hebrews states that the whole tabernacle system and its ceremonies were a “shadow of the coming good things”. We now have the substance, so there should not be any going back to the “shadows”. Their journey through the wilderness took 40 years; of those over 20 years of age who came out of Egypt, only two men, Caleb and Joshua, went into the land. The rest died in the desert due to their lack of faith. It was a new generation that passed over the river Jordan into their inheritance. Although there had been a few enemies and the city of Jericho seeking to bar the way into the land, it was after they crossed the river Jordan that their conflict began in earnest. God had given them title to it, but they had to make it their own by conflict. This shows that Jordan is not a figure or type of physical death and “going to heaven when we die”. There is no conflict for us in heaven. Moses died in the wilderness and Joshua led the people to take up their inheritance. The book of Joshua describes that process.
The peoples in the land - seven nations - were to be dispossessed and destroyed. God was giving it to Abraham’s seed as promised. By this time their wickedness was now fully developed. In Genesis 15:16, God told Abraham that he could not have the land then as “the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full”. That verse, along with others, shows that God acts in judgment only when evil is full blown. This explains the apparent cruelty sanctioned by God. It will happen again to this present evil world, as explained in The Revelation. Each tribe had to take their territory. Some displaced the inhabitants extensively and secured a large area; some had less faith, were less diligent, and so had less. Israel did not destroy all the peoples of the land, and these became a thorn in their side ever afterwards. Another key point to understand in this action – the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh decided that they would go over the Jordan with the others to help fight the inhabitants, but they returned to the eastern side for their own possession. They claimed that Canaan could not take their big herds of livestock. This left ten tribes on one side and the two and a half tribes on the other – Manasseh being a half-tribe as described above. Manasseh had territory on both sides of Jordan. Maps are available that show the divisions.
It is worth noting that the tribe of Ephraim became influential among the ten tribes of Israel. The elders spoke with authority, Hosea 13:1, “When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he exalted himself in Israel”. [There is at least another verse that points to that fact – but I can’t find it at present.] Therefore scripture sometimes uses the name Ephraim to represent the ten tribes of Israel in much the same way as we might say “Brussels” (the capital) to represent the European Union. The book of the prophet Hosea addresses Israel often – but not always – as Ephraim. It is necessary to consider the context to determine which is meant. I have spent time on this point because it can cause confusion.
After Joshua died, the state of the nation deteriorated dramatically. God disciplined the nation by allowing enemies to rule and oppress them. They cried to God and he raised up judges to save them. This cycle of failure and recovery during the period of the judges, went on for about 400 years. The book of Judges describes these times. Each bout of failure took them further from God and his mind, and each recovery seemed to be weaker. Finally, the last verse of Judges tells us that “every man did what was right in his own eyes”. How like our times! The book of Ruth is set in the end of that period.
Samuel then appears. He is the link between the period of the judges and the setting up of a kingdom. Samuel seems to be the first of the official prophets, as well as judging Israel. It was in his time that Israel asked to have a king, like the nations. They had been a theocracy up to this point – God was their king. God acceded to the request of the people, but it was not his will at that time. He gave them Saul, the type of king that they wanted. God used it to discipline them. He said later through the prophet (Hosea 13:11), “I gave them a king in mine anger, and took him away in my wrath”.
This was a major turning point in the dealings of God with them. God had ruled them directly through the priesthood. The priesthood had failed. The behaviour of Eli’s sons was so bad that worshippers were repelled rather than attracted. The high priest had been their representative, under God. Now the three offices became separated – prophet, priest and king.
King Saul was rejected by God for disobedience. Samuel was told to anoint David as king, a man after God’s own heart. David was anointed in the presence of his own family. This happened while Saul was still publicly the king. This created tension and Saul sought to take David’s life. Two tribes - Judah (David’s own tribe) and Benjamin (which tribe had its inheritance within Judah’s) - supported David, and the other ten remained loyal to Saul. These ten were called “Israel”, and the two were called “Judah”. Saul finally died in a battle with the Philistines and Israel and Judah were again united under David. Although a godly man when under pressure, and one who never lost a battle against the enemies of God’s people, yet he indulged his own lust and was unable to exercise discipline in his family. Although repentant and his sin forgiven, David had to be disciplined by God who told him that the sword would never depart from his house. Soon afterwards Absalom his son led a rebellion against him. The two books of Samuel describe the history of Saul and David – man’s king and God’s king. God gave David the pattern of the temple, but the work of building had to be left for Solomon his son.
Solomon’s reign was the high point of the kingdom, in Israel’s public history; the whole twelve tribes were united and at peace and the nations brought their gifts and taxes. It was a prefiguring or type of the coming millennial reign of Christ. Saul, David and Solomon each reigned 40 years, 1095-975 B.C. Solomon gave us Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon (sometimes called The Canticles).
After Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided again. Judah remained with King Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and the ten tribes (Israel) were ruled by Jeroboam, an outsider appointed by God. This division remains to this day.
We then have the period of two lines of kings, those of Judah, of the house of David, and those of Israel. Similarly, God sent a series of different prophets to Israel and to Judah, to recall the peoples to himself and the law. The headquarters of Judah (and God’s temple and the then true worship) was still at Jerusalem; Damascus (in Samaria) was the centre for the ten tribes (Israel) where Jeroboam established a false altar and led Israel into idolatry. The Books of Kings give the kingly power established in glory, and its failure, and God’s testimony in the midst of the ruin. The First Book of Kings details the reign of Solomon and the history of the kings of Israel, along with the ministries of Elijah and then Elisha. Elijah was taken up to heaven see 2 Kings 2:11 and the death of Elisha is recorded in 2 Kings 13:20. These two were prophets to Israel, not to Judah. In 2 Kings 17:6, there is the final carrying away of Israel into Assyria by King Shalmaneser in 721 B.C. This put an end to that kingdom and those ten tribes were scattered, and will remain so until gathered by the angels at the time of Christ’s appearing in Matthew 24:31. The well known prophets to Israel were Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Hosea and Amos. It should be noted that the references to the kings of Judah up until Israel was carried to Assyria are only those that are in connection with Israel. After that there are brief references to the kings of Judah up until the carrying away of that people to Babylon.
The Books of the Chronicles were written after the 70 year Babylonian captivity and give the above history from a different viewpoint. They trace the history of God’s people as He loved to remember it, referring only to those faults that are needed to be recorded to magnify His grace. Very simply, Chronicles puts the best picture possible on the events and lives of the persons and kings that are mentioned. It deals especially with the house of David, the kings of Judah. The genealogy begins with Adam and comes down to all the tribes of Israel. The Holy Spirit seems to be intent on getting to King David and the kingdom. Saul’s history is dealt with in one chapter (10). The period of the kings of Israel and Judah, after Solomon up until the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, was 370 years.
God patiently continued with Judah until moral conditions and idolatry became so bad that he raised up an enemy, Nebuchadnezzar, whose armies carried away many from Jerusalem to Babylon in 606 B.C. This was the beginning of “the times of the Gentiles” and the start of the Babylonish captivity of 70 years duration. In 588 B.C. he completely destroyed Jerusalem, city and temple. The well known prophets of Judah: Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Joel, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Obadiah - in chronological order up to the captivity. God had promised that the whole nation of Israel would be the head, and the nations the tail if they obeyed him (Deuteronomy 28:13), and the reverse if they disobeyed (Deut. 28:44). Therefore God made Nebuchadnezzar the head. The times of the Gentiles still run their course; the critical part of Jerusalem is still under Arab control. The period of the kings of Israel and Judah, from the start of Saul’s reign until the start of the Babylonian captivity was 490 years.
The Babylonian captivity lasted for 70 years as prophesied by Jeremiah. He prophesied prior to, and during the early stage, of that captivity. Some Jews would not go to Babylon and insisted on escaping to Egypt in defiance of God’s command via the prophet. Ezekiel prophesied to the captives in their place of exile. Daniel the prophet was one of captives in Babylon. In 536 B.C. in the first year of his reign, Cyrus the Persian king who had conquered Babylon, decreed that a party of the captives of Judah should return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Zerubbabel (also known as Sheshbazzar), a “prince of Judah” of the line of David, was appointed governor. The Book of Ezra describes the return of almost 50,000 persons and the rebuilding of the temple. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied and helped them at this time (Ezra 5:1-2). Then in 468 B.C. Ezra (himself a priest and a scribe) led a group of 1,772 males - as many as wanted to go - from Babylon to Jerusalem, with gifts and resources from king Artaxerxes. "And they furthered the people and the house of God”. (Ezra 8:36). Next came Nehemiah, the cup-bearer of king Artaxerxes. He gained permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and gates of the city. This was in 455 B.C. The prophet Malachi was a contemporary.
It is noteworthy that “the broom of Babylon” – the time of captivity – had swept idolatry from Judah. When Christ came he was able to say that “the house was empty, swept and adorned”.
The Book of Esther was set about 485 B.C. or later, in the reign of Ahaseurus (Xerxes) the father of the king (Artaxerxes) who gave Ezra permission to go to Jerusalem. The centre of power of the Persian Empire seemed to have shifted from Babylon to Shushan, the capital of the province of Elam. Shushan was the scene of the action in Esther; Nehemiah served in that palace or fortress. The Book of Esther deals with the Jews who had not returned to Jerusalem and were still scattered among the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire.
Scripture records no further prophetic dealings with Israel after Malachi until John the Baptist.
This still leaves the placement of Job and the Psalms. Job is a book that fits into any period of God’s dealings. There are no references to the law of Moses, so it is likely that it came earlier. Job may have lived in Abraham’s period. The respect that age was given, and that of a father in his sphere of influence, is akin to Abraham’s period. In those patriarchal days, the laws of God were not published, but divine principles were understood.
The Psalms were written over a long period by different persons. No doubt David wrote the largest proportion of them but some were by Asaph, some by the sons of Korah, one each by Moses, Etham and Heman, and others are unnamed. Some Psalms stand alone, some are grouped in sets. The set titled “Songs of degrees” (Psalms 121-134) are believed to have been sung by the returning captives going up from Babylon to Jerusalem. In the original, the word “degrees” carries the thought of “going up”. They were not all composed at that time but have an order in them. In fact there is more order in the Psalms than might first appear. They are arranged in five books and although speaking of writers’ past experiences, there is a strong prophetic theme. The language is prophetic - that of the faithful Jewish remnant going through the tribulation to come. Hence it will be righteous for them to call for vengeance upon their enemies. Each of the five books represents a further step in their trials, burdens, repentance, expectation of Messiah reigning, then the final anticipation of the kingdom involving praise and a review of their past.
Finally, it should be mentioned that after the ten tribes (Israel as distinct from Judah) were taken away by Assyria, Judah is often referred to as “Israel”. God often credits the whole body or nation with the faithfulness of those remaining. When the Lord Jesus came into Judea, he was speaking to those of Judah, but he calls them Israel as they were the visible remains of that nation. As mentioned earlier, the little tribe of Benjamin is included when Judah is spoken of. The meaning can be determined from the context.
MM August 2007