HISTORICAL BACKGROUND for THE OLD TESTAMENT
While the Bible is not primarily a history book, a proper understanding of the Old Testament texts must include an understanding of the history of the day. The Bible does concern itself closely with historical events, though not with all of history. Rather, the biblical texts relate the history of God’s dealings with men and his provision and application of salvation for mankind. It is with this history-within-history that the Bible deals – with those particular events, happenings and individuals through which God acts to provide and to apply salvation, and to reveal himself. This history of salvation – this history of redemption – is referred to by theologians as ‘heilesgeschichte’, a German word which means simply ‘holy history’. The outline history below is a skeleton look at at least a part of this heilesgeschichte.
There are parts of history which are not covered by Biblical accounts. For example, between the second and the third major divisions of Old Testament history – between the time of Abraham and the 12 patriarchs and the time of the deliverance out of slavery in Egypt – there is a gap in the biblical account of 400 years, in which we learn almost nothing from the pages of Scripture. Does this mean that nothing of significance occurred in the world-at-large? In terms of Egyptian history many significant events occurred in these
centuries. During this time that, for example, at least two major Egyptian dynasties rose and fell, most of the pyramids were built, and there was a major religious upheaval that saw the attempt to make one
god – Ammon-Ra, the Egyptian sun god – the only god of Egypt. As far as Biblical history was concerned, however, nothing of heilesgeschichte importance happened, so the narrative skips quickly over the period.
We see this selective portrayal of history in the lives of individual biblical characters as well. Moses was 80 years old when he began his major work, yet we know almost nothing of his first 80 years because the biblical authors deemed they were of no significance in God’s holy history. Again, while we find in the New Testament records accounts of his birth, of one incident at age 2, and another at 12, we really learn little about Christ’s early years. With these exceptions, we know nothing of him until he reaches the age of 30.
From this point until his death at 33 we have a wealth of information, though it is apparent that even this is but a select account, and not a full biography. Indeed, fully one third of all we know about Jesus of Nazareth concerns only the last week of his life; hardly a balanced biography. The writers of the New Testament were recording those events which, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they determined to have holy-history significance.
The Bible then is concerned with this religious viewpoint. When we begin examining biblical records in the context of the history of the near east we going to find much missing that we’d like to have there; indeed, many have found this sufficient reason to allege historical inaccuracies. But we must keep in mind that the Bible is not concerned with giving us a complete socio-politico-economic history of the middle east. Vis-a-vis redemptive history, biblical accounts are completely accurate.
The Old Testament is the history of a people, and of its development into a nation. Whereas one normally studies history in order to understand who we are and how we got here, holy history is studied in order to understand who God is and what is our relationship to him. This holy history, then, has a unique function. Yet, most people have no idea of the historical framework around which the biblical events must be fitted. Thus, to facilitate this I will attempt to summarize the history of the Old Testament.
The biblical account opens with a period known as The Beginnings. This period, recounted in the Book of Genesis (or Beginnings), chapters 1 through 11. Here it is that we find the introduction of the theme of creation and the setting of the stage for the drama of redemption. And here we are told that all things came into being as a direct result of the power, the plan, and the activities of God. Man, as created, had a relationship with God, but then sin entered and the relationship was broken. Thus mankind became estranged from God because of his sin and God’s punishment for that sin. For indeed, God does punish sin. But he also, so we are told, rewards those who will repudiate sin to seek him. This period of beginnings ends with the birth of national groups. Here we have accounts of the flood, demonstrating God’s judgment on mankind’s sin, and of Noah, who demonstrates God’s willingness to deliver even in the midst of judgment. And we find an account of the development of nations, explaining something of the diversity of men.
ABRAHAM AND THE PATRIARCHS
As the nations developed, God worked to select one group through which he would work uniquely to provide knowledge of himself and of his salvation; one nation which would be the focus of his redemptive
history. He chose for himself a rather unlikely individual to begin: one Abram, who lived in Ur of the Chaldees.
The Chaldees was an ancient empire located in the southern portion of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, on the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Ur was its chief city, a major center of commerce and of civilization of the day. And there, God appeared and offered to one man a special covenant.
The concept of a covenant is extremely important throughout the scriptural writings. A covenant was an agreement between two parties, but a rather one-sided agreement, in which one party made all the
promises and established all the conditions for its fulfillment; the other party was free only to accept the covenant or to reject it; he could not change its conditions. Today we often use this concept in the execution of wills of inheritance. Frequently, inheritances are bestowed only upon the acceptance and fulfillment of certain requirements laid out by the deceased party. The inheritor may reject the terms of the inheritance if he desires, but if he does he will not receive the inheritance. To receive what is promised, he must first meet the conditions stipulated.
What, then, is the covenant which God offers to Abram? We find it in Genesis 12:2,3 where God says to Abram:
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
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
And what we have is the holy, all-powerful, righteous God, against whom man rebelled, who looks down and decides he wants to re-establish a relationship with at least a portion of that mankind which, through its own doing, had estranged itself from him. To this end God offers a framework within which he and mankind may get together again. This, then is the beginning of heilesgeschichte, and it begins with God.
But were Abram and his descendants to take this covenant for their own benefit only? God says, ‘Through you all the nations will be blessed.’ That is, through Abram and his descendants, through that nation which will, by God’s intervention, spring forth from Abram’s loins, salvation will be made available to all of mankind. In exchange, Abram is promised a special relationship to God, a family of importance, and a land to live in. Abram’s job was to respond to God’s covenant by faith.
By faith, then, Abram moved from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Palestine, trusting in God’s ability to fulfill the promises he had made. Not only did Abram move to Palestine but, it seems, as a further demonstration of his trust in God he began walking around acting as if he owned the place, despite opinions to the contrary from the various peoples who were already occupying the land. As a further
demonstration of his faith, Abram took for himself a new name – Abraham – to signify that he was to become the father of multitudes.
When he arrived in Palestine, Abraham built an altar to the Lord, and there he called upon his name. This statement becomes significant in light of passages such Joshua 24:2,14,15 in which we are told that prior to God’s appearing, Abram and his family were pagans, worshipping the gods of the Chaldeans. But, as a response to the vision, and to the promises made, Abraham literally switched gods, becoming thereby the progenitor of a nation destined to become the central fulcrum of God’s redemptive history.
Eventually, Abraham had eight children. But only one – Isaac – became the successor of Abraham to God’s covenant. Isaac in turn had two sons, but the older, Esau, sold his birthright to Jacob the younger, and with it his right to continue the covenant of the Lord. Jacob then became the father of 12 sons who became the twelve patriarchs of the tribes of Israel.
The end of this second period of Old Testament history finds this family of shepherds, to avoid famine, moving down to Egypt where one of its number – Joseph – has become a leader of some importance. The
family moves into the land of Goshen in Egypt, located along the northern banks of the Nile River, which was ideal for the shepherding it practiced. Following this move into Egypt comes a gap in the biblical records of 400 years in which this people grows and develops, but about which little is said.
BONDAGE AND DELIVERANCE
The third period of this history of Israel is probably the most important. This period is known as the period of bondage and deliverance, of the birth of that nation which God, now nearly 500 years earlier, had promised to Abraham. In modern Jewish, and some Christian, thought, this period is referred to simply as the Exodus. The term ‘Exodus’ may refer strictly to the leaving of Egypt, but it is frequently used to address the entire period of time between the leaving of Egypt and the nation’s arrival and settling in the land of
As this period opens, the descendants of Abraham have multiplied exceedingly. From a family of 70 shepherds in 400 years Abraham’s descendants come to number between 1.5 and 2 million. Now Egypt
begins to fear them, and they are forced into slavery.
Eventually, in response to Israel’s cries against its bondage, God raises up a man whom he has specially prepared to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt, to guide them across the wilderness and settle them in the land he promised to their ancestors. In the first stage of this journey, Moses does indeed lead them out of Egypt, but instead of leading them northwest along the Mediterranean coast – along that route which was later to be known as the Way of the Philistines – as one might expect one heading to Palestine to do, he
leads the Israelites south into the Sinai peninsula, where they camp at Mt. Sinai.
Why does Moses do this? We are told specifically that God did not allow him to follow the Way of the Philistines because he knew that the Israelites would probably become discouraged and turn back.
Remember that at this point in time the twelve tribes were nothing more than a ragtag mob of liberated slaves; the last thing they resembled was a nation. Therefore, before anything else, it fell to God to weld them into a nation experienced in depending on his provision. So as the Israelites journey into the wilderness they experience a number of events through which God teaches them absolute dependence on him.
At Mt. Sinai a number of events occurred, the most important of which is that God renewed the Abrahamic covenant. Here also the Hebrews are given the Mosaic Law, a system of rules and laws designed to govern the way they live together, worship, and conduct governmental affairs. Here at Sinai this ragtag mob begins to become a nation.
From Sinai the Israelites moved northward, where they came to rest at Kadesh-Barnea. From here God intended they move into the land to take possession, but the Hebrews balked, becoming discouraged at
reports of giant Canaanites and their mighty walled cities. Israel rebelled and refused to enter. As punishment, therefore, God made them wander in the desert for 40 years until all those who were 20
years of age or older had died. And in the end, because of lack of faith, even Moses was forbidden to enter the promised land. But even these apparent setbacks were to be a part of holy history.
And even in the midst of his punishment, God continued to provide the Hebrews’ needs. They received manna from heaven to eat, and God appeared to them as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night to
guide them in their wanderings. They even had continued opportunity for worship in the tabernacle which God commanded them to build. Thus, even here we see a principle of God’s dealings with man – he may
punish, but he never abandons.
Eventually, when their wanderings were completed, under Moses’ leadership the Hebrews moved up to the Jordan River where they camped opposite the city of Jericho. Now at last they were ready to move into Canaan. Here Moses died and was succeeded by Joshua. This ends the third period of Old Testament history.
THE CONQUEST AND DIVISION OF CANAAN
The death of Moses found the Hebrew tribes camped on the brink of the Jordan River under a new leader. Moses commanded the people to obey Joshua as they did him, and under Joshua they were finally ready
to take for themselves the land God had promised them.
Prior to its conquest by the Hebrews, the land of Canaan was politically divided into relatively weak city-states which had no unified means of defense against attack, and so Israel was free to move against various centers of power which were more or less independent of one another.
Joshua’s first target was Jericho, an ancient center of civilization which was protected by exceedingly high walls. The significance of Jericho lay in the fact that it was for fear of high-walled cities that Israel had refused to enter the land 40 years earlier. Now once again they found themselves face to face with city
walls, but this time they obeyed God and moved into the land. God prevailed and Jericho fell.
Following the conquest of Jericho, Joshua allied himself with the peoples of Gibeon and defeats the city of Ai, making it possible for the Hebrews to occupy the central portions of the land and thereby divide it for conquer. From his position in the center of the land Joshua first moved southward, conquering the southern cities, and then marched north. Through gradual conquest the Hebrews established themselves as the dominant force in Canaan, though many of the original Canaanite inhabitants remained in the land.
Next the land was divided, and each of the twelve tribes was given a ‘possession’ – a specific geographical area which was made the property of that tribe. In exchange for the exclusive right to inhabit that region, each tribe was to settle and develop it. Additionally, it became the responsibility of a tribe to drive out any
remaining Canaanites from its possession. This ends the fourth period of Old Testament history.
The fifth period is the time of the judges. By the close of the fourth period each tribe had settled in its own area, becoming virtually independent of the others. Though there were advantages to this independent arrangement, there were a number of disadvantages as well. Each tribe was bound to the others only by shared familial ties, and by the one central sanctuary at which all tribes worshipped. The tabernacle which Moses had constructed in the wilderness was set up in the middle of Canaan at a place called Shiloh, enabling all the tribes to able to come to worship.
During the period of the judges we find intense rivalry and conflict between the various tribes. Ephriam in particular was warlike, conducting many raids on the other tribes. And all the tribes together were under constant attack from other groups -Moabites and Ammonites in the east, Edomites from the south, Aramites to the north, and other marauding tribes of the day. The biblical texts were quick to place theological significance on these attacks, speaking of something of a cycle of sin which seemed to repeat itself continuously throughout Israel’s history. The cycle always began with the fall of the Hebrews into sin, which most frequently took the form of idolatry, as inspired by the pagan tribes which shared the land
with the Israelites. Incensed by this Israelite faithlessness, God would punish, usually by bringing in a marauding tribe from outside the land for a time of oppression and plunder. The Hebrews would then
repent, crying out to God for salvation, and in response God would raise up a judge who would unite the tribes and lead them to victory against the invaders. After the victory, the judge would remain and rule over the tribes.
The land of Canaan and the political organization of the tribes was of such great diversity that it seems there were times in which several judges were ruling simultaneously. There might, for example, have been a threat to some of the northern tribes from the Aramites to the north, while the Ammonites simultaneously threatened from the east. A judge might arise in the north to unify and lead the threatened northern tribes while a counterpart was doing the same in the east. With such a situation among the tribes it becomes extremely difficult to attach dates to the rules of the judges. In fact, even the length of this period is a subject of much controversy; some scholars estimate the rule of the judges all told lasted as little as 150 years, while others insist it was as long as 400. The main purpose of the scriptural accounts is to show something of the anarchy of the time, and God’s faithfulness during this time to deliver using
human agents as instruments of his deliverance.
THE UNITED KINGDOM
The sixth period of Old Testament history opens with the dawn of a new threat against the Israelites. Previously, threats had taken the form of marauding tribes – Moabites, Ammonites, et al – who were
concerned mainly with raiding and plundering, and had little interest in remaining in the land. But at the end of the fifth period came anew threat – the Philistines.
The route previously mentioned leading along the Mediterranean coast from Egypt up past Canaan through Tyre was called the Way of the Philistines. The Phillistines were seemingly a group of people who
had apparently lived in Crete, south of Greece. Apparently, some Cretians left Crete and moved southeastward, attempting to settle in Egypt. They were repulsed by the Egyptians and, being a sea-going
people, subsequently settled the coastal plains area between Egypt and Palestine. During the period of the judges in Israel they began to move northward along the coast, going probably as far north as Mt.
Carmel. From there they moved inward, but not, as other tribes had done, simply to raid and plunder but to capture territory to settle in. It was against these Philistines that Sampson, the last of the judges, fought most of his battles.
It became quickly apparent that they would have to unite to meet this new invasion. Under Samuel, then, they crowned as king one Saul, whose primary primary concern was to be the war against the Philistines. Though he did manage to win some preliminary battles, Saul soon ran into trouble, apparently for two reasons. First, he rebelled against God, who consequently removed his spirit from Saul. Second, he was unable to follow up his initial victories. Eventually, at a crucial battle at Mt. Gilboa, Saul was killed. The coastal plains area the Philistines were attempting to settle enters the valley of Jezreel at the hill of Megiddo. Gilboa is quite a ways to the east of the plains area, just on the edge of the Esdraelon valley. During later battles Saul allowed the Hebrews to move much further inland that they had ever been before. This incursion was significant, and here Saul lost his life.
Even before Saul’s death, however, Samuel had been called upon to anoint another king over the Hebrews: a young man named David. At first, David was an assistant of sorts to Saul, a musician in his courts and a soldier in his army. But as Saul’s fortune deserted him he grew increasingly suspicious of any threat to his throne, and David came under suspicion. Eventually, David was forced to flee to the wilderness where he became an outlaw leader of a roving band. To escape the pursuits of Saul, David made his headquarters in the wilderness of Judah, in the southern sector of the country. David had been born and raised in Bethlehem, a southern town, and therefore he knew the southlands very well. David moved a bit further south than Bethlehem and engaged in his pirate-like activities in the terrain he knew best.
After Saul’s death, the southern half of Israel crowned David as king, and David established his headquarters at Hebron, where he ruled for seven years. Eventually the northern tribes crowned him as well, and David found himself with a problem. If he were to move north and establish a northern city as his throne the southern tribes would feel deserted. If, on the other hand, he were to remain in the south and
establish his throne in a southern city, he would isolate the northern tribes, who perhaps already thought of David as something of a southerner. David shrewdly chose as his capital a city which lay on the boundary between the northern and southern halves of his kingdom, a city which had until that time not been occupied by the Hebrews – the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was highly defensible,
surrounded as it was on three sides by very deep valleys. David conquered the city and, in its southern portion, between the valleys of Hinon and Kidron and a hill later to be called the Mount of Olives to the east, David used the hill of Ophel to found his capital.
Thus did Jerusalem come to be known as the City of David. As it was for Saul before him, David’s primary task was to drive out the Philistines from the land. Unlike Saul, however, David was successful. After defeating the Philistines, David went on to establish the Hebrews as not only a kingdom but an empire – the major empire of the ancient world in David’s day, stretching from the Tigris River in the east down to Egypt in the south. Through a series of shrewd political and military alliances Israel became the superpower of the ancient world.
At his death, David was succeeded by his son Solomon. David was known as a man of war, but by the time of Solomon wars had ended. Solomon’s primary task, then, became the consolidation and protection
of the empire. He reorganized it and, most importantly, he extended the boundaries of the city of Jerusalem to encompass a hill which was sometimes known as Mt. Moriah on which he constructed a great temple to the Hebrew God.
Solomon also centralized power in Jerusalem, instituted a draft for military service, and charged high taxes. These became the three weaknesses of his empire, and the central issues of grievance for
which the northern tribes eventually rebelled and seceded from Solomon’s empire to establish their own government.
Solomon had sinned against God. To consolidate the empire he had entered into political alliances with other kings, alliances which were sealed in the then-customary way in which all alliances were sealed – by the marriage of Solomon to a daughter or a sister of the king. These wives of Solomon’s came to settle with him in Jerusalem, bringing with them, among other things, their pagan gods which they with great zeal then attempted to introduce into Israel. This angered Yahweh greatly, who promised to punish Solomon by tearing away the kingdom from him.
THE DIVIDED KINGDOM
Following the reign of Solomon, then, comes the establishment of the Divided Kingdom. Beginning at this time, the Hebrews were divided into two groups. One of these groups, consisting of 10 of the 12 tribes, occupied the northern part of the land, which was then called either Israel or Samaria (after its capital city of Samaria). None of this kingdom’s kings came from the line of David, and none followed the God of the Old Testament entirely. As a result, the northern 10 tribes have a history of doing evil in God’s sight. As a matter of fact, several of the northern kings are reckoned by secular history as having been quite credible rulers, and rather significant in their day. But they did not follow Yahweh, and thus found themselves
outside of God’s salvation history. The biblical judgment on these kings was that they were only evil continuously.
The other group of tribes, the two remaining tribes plus half of the tribe of Ephriam – whose land had been captured in a raid by the southern tribes against the northern in order to establish a buffer zone for the city of Jerusalem – formed the nation of Judah, retaining its capital in David’s City. All the kings of Judah – some twenty in all – came from the Davidic line; of these twenty, six were commended by God as good (actually, eight were considered good, but two of these turned bad in their latter years).
As a result of this division of the nation, the Hebrews were reduced from world power to two relatively weak nations which found themselves getting caught up in the power play of the international politics of the day. In addition to Egypt in the south and Syria to the north, they were hard-pressed pressed by Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites and assorted other wandering tribes. But the real major threat came during the eighth century BC as a people living in the northeastern portion of the Tigris- Euphrates River Valley began to grow in importance, sweeping into the ancient world to establish an empire. These people were called the Assyrians, and, though several cities served as their capital, their most important city was Ninevah. Under their king, Tiglath-Pileser, the Assyrians moved in and conquered. Making warfare as brutal as possible, they used the terror of their coming as a weapon, savaging their conquered enemies as
arguments to persuade others to surrender. Eventually, the Assyrians moved into Palestine and, after some years of struggle, in 722 BC the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the most part of its people taken into exile. They never returned.
The southern kingdom of Judah remained as a vassal state under Assyrian domination, even eventually gaining some measure of independence when Assyria began to decline. Even as Assyria waned, however, Babylonian power was growing in the east, and Judah quickly found itself a vassal state again, this time of the Babylonian empire. This was however, after their brief taste of freedom, little to the liking of the Hebrew people; but a series of rebellions managed only to exhaust Babylonian patience and, in 586 BC, Judah was overrun by Babylonian armies which destroyed Jerusalem, burned the temple and took the Hebrew people into captivity in Babylon. Thus ended the seventh period of Old Testament history.
THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY
The eighth period of this history is the period of the exile or captivity of Judah. Following the sack of Jerusalem, the Judaic leadership was relocated in the general vicinity of Babylon, where it lived in exile for seventy years. Then in 539 BC, the Meads and the Persians joined forces against Babylon, defeated it, and overthrew its empire. In an effort to placate subject peoples and engender feelings of good will toward this new empire, one of the first acts of the Medo-Persians was to declare all exiled peoples free to return to
their homelands, to rebuild their cities and live in peace as subjects of the Medo-Persian empire. Thus, Under the leadership of Ezrah, Nehemiah, Shish-bazar and others, the Hebrews began their return to
Judah to rebuild Jerusalem. In 516 BC the newly rebuilt temple was dedicated, officially closing the seventy years of captivity.
The final period of Old Testament history concerns the restoration, in which Jerusalem was rebuilt and the worship of Yahweh – from which the Jews never again wandered – re-established.
Before closing this brief history, a couple of notes must be made about leaders and leadership-types in the Old Testament.
During these periods of Hebrew history there were a number of different types of leaders as far as God was concerned. There was a class of special leaders – leaders such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the judges – which God raised up as need demanded. There was no necessary connection between them; their leadership was not passed on from father to son. There were, however, other regular leaders whose position was inherited. The two major groups of this type as far as the Old Testament accounts are concerned were the kings – particularly the kings of Judah – and the priests. The priests were the primary
religious leaders in the Hebrew nations, but when this hereditary leadership failed in its function it was necessary for God to raise up special religious leaders to fill the void. From the time of Moses on
these special religious leaders were called prophets. Abraham and Moses, along with some of the judges, were called prophets. These prophets were primarily God’s spokesmen to an errant nation, and have
traditionally fallen into two groups – the writing prophets and the nonwriting prophets.
Prophets were popping up at unexpected times throughout Israel’s history. But from the middle of the divided kingdom through the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian captivity we find more
prophets appearing than at any other time in history. Why? Well, this was a period in which evil and rebellion was on the rise, and thus Israel was in more need of God’s special messages and divine
guidance than at other times in her history. And thus the historical background for the books of the prophets which we find in the Old Testament are the periods of the Divided Kingdom, the Captivity and
the Restoration. The last three books of the Old Testament – Haggai, Zaccariah and Malachi – discuss the restoration period. The rest deal either with the divided kingdom, or the divided kingdom plus the exile.
Throughout this period of Old Testament history the people were worshipping God, thinking about philosophical questions of suffering, of the good life, of struggling with life, and so on. Some of these
thoughts they wrote down, and we find them today as part of the Old Testament – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon – the Wisdom Writings.
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