The Story of Israel
Introduction to the Study of Old Testament History
At the beginning of this study, there are many valid questions one could ask, such as, “What is the value of studying the Old Testament?” There are some, even among Christians, who suggest such a study is not very important. After all, there is limited material concerning Jesus Christ, and they claim the Old Testament lacks relevance in today’s world. Both of these observations are incorrect. Much of the content of the New Testament assumes one has studied and understands the Old Testament. The Old Testament, after all, was considered “the Bible” of the early church before the New Testament was written. When Paul in 2 Timothy says that all scripture is inspired by God, he was talking about the Old Testament, as the New was in the process of being written.
The story of the Bible is not complete without both testaments. It is the great story of God the creator and His revelation of Himself to His creatures. The Bible is an over-arching story, containing many stories, but all having a common theme and a common objective. The Bible is a universal story for the purpose of bringing all humanity into a saved relationship with God. As we begin this study, it is important that we understand the purpose of the great Bible narrative.
History is important for Christians to understand. Both Judaism and Christianity are religions which are based on historical events. God’s past actions are important, because they tell us of His purposes and plans. History has a purpose. There is a beginning and there will be an end, all governed by God.
God created humankind because of His great love and His desire to be in relationship with us. The beauty of God’s creation shouts to us of His extravagant love. He lovingly places man and woman in a beautiful garden, and clearly states His purpose for us. We are created in His image and in His likeness. Humanity was created for the purpose of manifesting God’s image and character in creation.
However, Satan entered the picture with the intent to defeat God’s purposes. He convinced men that there was another reason to live that is even more fulfilling than God’s purposes – to live for self, according to our desires. Satan convinced and continues to convince us to be our own gods rather than to serve God. At this point, the theme of the rest of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments was set – God inviting humanity back into right relationship with Him, which is the essence of abundant and meaningful life.
The story is still being told. We are a part of the continuing story of God interacting and reaching out to His creatures, calling us to be reconciled with Him, to live according to His purposes. We believe this is done in a special way through the life, teachings, and work of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the story of God’s people and His purposes for them begins not with the church, but with creation. This is our story, it gives us a strong sense of who we are and why we live.
Studying the Old Testament should not focus on memorizing the order of the books or the chronology of the events. These may be important in helping us access and understand the books. But the real purpose of a survey of the Old Testament is to give us a sense of God’s purposes for creation. As different as the world might have been in Israel’s time, it has more to tell us about ourselves than you might imagine.
What did it mean to be God’s particular people in that particular context? How was their identity to be formed? What would shape the identity of these people of God? Would these people be primarily influenced by the immediate context of their world, or by the greater story of God’s purposes for them?
These are the questions we are attempting to answer in our lives today. We are a people in a complex, multi-ethnic world. Are we living as God’s people, or are we being shaped by the world around us? The Scriptures clearly teach that we are to be unique people, living as aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:9-12). We are warned against being formed by this world instead of God’s story for us (Romans 12:1,2).
Seen in this light, the Old Testament presents a compelling story, a story of which we are a part. God continues to reach out to us, calling us to be His people. We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters of old. Too many times, we find it easy to condemn their failures, only at closer look to find that we, too, have failed God in similar ways.
What do you hope to gain from this course? You can treat it as a necessary evil, and do as little as possible to pass the course. However, I want to challenge you to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more than you have ever known about Hebrew history. It is a fascinating and worthwhile study. I pray that you will take the time to read, to question, to learn.
Six reasons to study the Old Testament
(adapted from www.ministryserver.com/dsmtext/ottext01.htm)
- No one can understand the New Testament apart from the Old. Christian scriptures constantly refer to Old Testament ideas, people, and events. Just one example would be the message in Hebrews which compares the benefits of what Christ offers with the heroes of the Old Testament. Jesus’ superiority is stressed in relationship to Jewish prophets, Moses, Joshua and the Levitical priesthood.
- It is an important part of Western culture. The Western systems of law and social justice are rooted in Old Testament teachings. Western art and literature often allude to Old Testament stories and images.
- The Old Testament provides the background for three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims revere characters such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses as prophets leading up to their prophet Mohammed.
- The Old Testament makes an important contribution to the historical record. Written during significant times in the Middle East between 2000 and 200 B.C., the Old Testament amplifies our understanding of events in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. Contemporary issues in the Middle East such as the Arab-Israeli conflict have historical origins which can be traced to biblical times.
- The Old Testament has great value in its devotional material. The Psalms are some of the most widely read sections of the Bible, sometimes described as the prayer book of Jews and Christians.
- The Old Testament is one of the great sources of theological ideas. The doctrines of creation, the fall, and the nature of God and humanity have been greatly influenced by Old Testament scriptures.
Jesus and the Old Testament
In Matt. 5:17-18 Jesus says he came not to abolish but to fulfill the law, which would not pass away.
Some Christians claim that the OT is no longer important for us today other than as a book of stories we tell our children about Noah’s ark or Daniel and the lion’s den. Some argue that if Jesus didn’t say anything about a topic found in the OT, then it’s not relevant. But Jesus respected the authority of the OT and upheld its teachings even when he didn’t repeat everything written there.
Certainly some things have changed from the OT times. Paul clearly states that some of the laws pertaining specifically to Jews do not apply to Gentiles, such as food restrictions or circumcision. We no longer sacrifice animals at a temple because Jesus was the supreme and final sacrifice for sin (see Hebrews 10). Christians worship on Sunday rather than Saturday (by the way, the Bible never calls Sunday the Christian “Sabbath” or explains the reason for this change).
But we should not ignore the moral teachings of the OT and claim that they are no longer relevant in the Christian era. Jesus continued to teach from the OT scriptures as did Paul and the other NT writers. If we want to know the will of God, we cannot ignore the OT.
GENESIS AND THE OLD TESTAMENT WORLD
Old Testament Geography
Three regions dominated the ancient near east, making up what is called the Fertile Crescent. The land of Canaan lay along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the east.
Before the people of Israel entered the land (sometime between 1400-1200 BC), Canaan was inhabited by several nations which we will discuss later in our study. Notice that the Jordan river runs through the land, with the Sea of Galilee to the north and the Dead Sea to the south.
Egypt has a long and illustrious history. The Old Kingdom dates from 2700–2200 BC. During this time the great pyramids of Giza (near modern Cairo) were built as tombs for the pharaohs. The Middle Kingdom dates from 2000–1700 BC, and the New Kingdom from 1550–1100 BC. The Egypt described in the Bible mostly falls within the period of the New Kingdom.
Mesopotamia is Greek for “between the rivers” referring to the main rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. Today the countries of Iraq and Iran occupy most of this territory. In the ancient world several great civilizations ruled this region. The earliest were the Sumerians who invented writing called cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped, around 3000 BC. Symbols were pressed into clay using a stylus. At first the symbols were crude pictures of objects or ideas. Over time, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract. Abraham originally lived in the land of Sumer.
Centuries later three major empires arose in Mesopotamia which would impact the history of Israel, Assyria with its capital Nineveh in the north, Babylon in the south, and Persia to the east. We will read about them when we study the books of the Kings.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament consists of 39 books, written mostly in Hebrew over a period of one thousand years by many different authors, most of whom are unidentified. Jews and Christians consider these books to be inspired by God. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel from its beginnings, but more importantly, it serves as God’s revelation of Himself. We would not know about God, who exists beyond the physical world, unless He chose to reveal Himself to us. Throughout the Old Testament, we learn of God’s character by reading about His actions within human history.
The first five books are called the Pentateuch which means five scrolls. They are referred to as the books of Moses, although he probably did not write them in their entirety (for instance, Deuteronomy describes Moses’ death). More than likely, they were written by many inspired individuals and later collected to form a whole. Today the Jews refer to these books as the Torah, or law.
Genesis is a book of beginnings, giving an account of the creation of the world, the first man and woman, the first sin, the flood, and the birth of the nation of Israel starting with the journey to the promised land by the patriarch Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. The story concludes with the sons of Jacob living in Egypt.
Exodus records the salvation of God’s people from the land of Egypt and their return to the land of Canaan, their original home.
Leviticus describes the rules for holy living and worship as directed by the priesthood. The book is named after the tribe of Levi.
Numbers tells of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, often losing faith in God to provide.
Deuteronomy, which means “second law,” records Moses’ final speeches, giving instruction to the people before they enter the promised land.
Biblical art work: