The Books of History
The Pentateuch provides an historical account from creation to the emergence of the young nation of Israel through the wilderness years, ending at the edge of the Promised Land. The next collection of books in the bible highlight the history of the nation of Israel from their entrance into the land under the leadership of Joshua to the chaotic days of the Judges, the establishing of the monarchy, the division of the nation, Israel in the North and Judah in the South, the exile of both nations, and the return of Judah to a portion of the land. That is to say, the Pentateuch covers the period from creation to about 1400-1250BC*; the historical books pick up the narrative and trace the history of Israel to about 400BC and the close of the Old Testament canon.
* Scholars and historians argue over the dates of the Exodus based on different interpretations of Egyptian history.
The historical books of the Old Testament concern the following time periods:
In order to understand these books rightly, they should be viewed theologically as well as historically. That is to say, the historical books show Israel’s response to God’s covenant law and how that response impacted their life in the land God had given them.
The book of Joshua records the obedient faith of the Israelites as they entered and claimed the land that God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, and the blessing of God on that obedient faith. Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel is delivered from its enemies and given rest in the promised homeland. However impossible it may have seemed, God’s covenant promise is fulfilled. He is a sovereign and a faithful God. He keeps his covenants and blesses his faithful people.
Judges records the disobedience and consequent failure that marked the early life of Israel in that land before they had a king. During these morally and politically chaotic days that lacked a centralised government, Israel would find itself in subjection to various foreign powers. This was a humiliation and suffering imposed upon the people by God for their continued unfaithfulness and disobedience to his law. However, in response to their repentance and pleas for help God would raise up Judges to bring temporary deliverance. However, throughout this period Israel: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 17:6 and 21:25), and sank again and again into oppression. They believed they needed a king like their opposing nations, failing to recognise that God was their king.
Ruth provides a brief but important snapshot of the life of one faithful family during the unfaithful days of the Judges. God sees to it that genuine faith is preserved in Israel even amid large-scale apostasy and in so doing also preserves the Messianic line. Ruth, a Moabitess and not an Israelite, is revealed to be in the direct ancestral line of King David and therefore of the promised Messiah.
The books of Samuel, originally a single book, record the earliest days of the monarchy — first Saul, the choice of God’s rebellious people, and then David, God’s chosen one. Sovereignly and graciously God establishes David as king and in covenant promises him a never-ending dynasty.
Kings and Chronicles record the final days of the united monarchy, David, Solomon, then Rehoboam, and then trace out the life of the divided kingdom. David’s throne continues as Solomon is established as king who constructs the magnificent Temple, thus replacing the tabernacle with a permanent construction. However, in the next generation the kingdom splits in two, the ten tribes of Israel in the north and Judah with Benjamin in the south; and from there this period of history is largely a sad story of Israel’s covenant failure and spiritual decline.
God’s covenant people have their kings! But the kings do not lead the nation to follow God. God sends prophets to warn of the nation’s covenant responsibilities. But Kings and people alike forsake those obligations and as a result are brought under their covenantal curse. Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians in 722BC. Judah survived until 586BC when it fell to the Babylonians. God had brought his chosen people to their land and had given them a king. Most kings and many of the people alike were unfaithful, and the Jewish nation was brought down as a result; in exile God’s covenant people had lost her land and the enjoyment of God’s presence. Israel needs a faithful king!
Just as God had warned of and brought about exile, he also promised a return to the land. God, always sovereign over history, is faithful to his promise. Ezra and Nehemiah, probably originally one book, were among those who returned to the land from Babylonian exile, and they came with great zeal to lead, sometimes forcibly, in the spiritual and political restoration of the remnant of the covenant nation. The covenant is renewed, God’s word is honoured, and Israel is restored to loyalty.
Esther records an event in the life of those Jews who did not return to the land after the exile. Living still in Persia, the people of God are threatened with extinction. Although God is silent, he is not absent. He is faithful still and works sovereignly to spare his people from the impending disaster.
The historical books do not relay history merely but interpretive history. That is, their first concern is theological. They have a point to be made, and that point is about God: who he is, how he relates to people, how they may know and please him, and so on. History is linear. That is, it begins, proceeds and ends with God, always according to his purpose. History itself is an important part of God’s self-revelation. And so as the historical books are read, the reader should look for more than heroes and zeros, good and bad role models and the like. The reader should look to see what God is saying and how his purpose is being accomplished.
In the historical books Israel’s response to God’s law and how it impacted Israel’s life nationally is revealed. Within this context the themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and the consequences of obedience and sin are prominent. Israel was given its land as God had promised. But the people did not remain faithful to its covenant obligations, and in judgement this privilege was eventually taken away. Judah finally fell to the Babylonians and was carried away into captivity. Still, God in grace honoured his promise and brought his people home to their land. The people were restored to their land, the temple was rebuilt, and, most importantly, the Messianic hope was preserved.