HISTORICAL BACKGROUND for THE OLD TESTAMENT
Written by: Culver, Calvin Posted on: 05/07/2003
Category: Bible Studies
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
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 a
new 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
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 w
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