3 Getting Started

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

We have seen that it is very important to understand the message of the Old Testament if you want to know your Creator well. We have also seen that the God the Old Testament tells us about is generous and loving, not harsh and uncaring even though He appears to be so if we don’t read carefully. Now what do you have to do to read and understand the Old Testament.

Let’s Start

I have good news. It’s not hard to basically understand the Old Testament. You do have to do some work in order to learn, but it’s not like learning advanced mathematics or abstract philosophy or some other “hard” subject from school. Learning to comprehend the Old Testament is more like understanding a story a friend is telling you. You have to actually listen and you may have to ask some questions, but it isn’t hard and almost anybody can do it. If you can read this, you can certainly understand the Old Testament.

If you think of the Old Testament as a friend telling you a long story, in order to understand your friend’s story you’ll need to learn a few key things. You need to know the basic story line. You need to clarify some of the new words or new ideas he uses, like what he means when he talks about “covenants.” You also need to understand the way he is talking, how to tell the difference between a story, a joke, an angry rant, a song or a command.

To start with, you should know the Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books written over a space of about one thousand years. They cover a period of history beginning with the creation of the world and stretching to about four hundred years before Jesus was born. It was written in this time period by Jewish people and all but a few chapters is written in Hebrew. The fact that it was written in Hebrew shouldn’t bother you, though. Since God speaks, all languages, His truth translates into your language in a way that you can understand and which will accomplish what He wants in your heart and life. Most of the Old Testament relates to God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, but it’s really about God’s plan to bless the human race. This is because God had chosen Israel and was working through Israel so that He could use them to bless everyone else.

First, there are seventeen historical books. Not surprisingly, these tell history and mostly consist of stories. The next five are called the poetical books. They consist of the Psalms, which is Israel’s song and prayer book, and four books of wisdom. The Wisdom books, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, deal with questions about the meaning of life and practical issues of how to understand the world and live well in it. They are called poetical because they are mostly written in poetic form. The final seventeen are the prophetic books. These were written by men who spoke directly for God. You can think of them as the letters God wrote his people. They are a wonderful way to grow to understand God. Imagine that you have a grandfather you never knew and would like to know what he was like. It would be hard to imagine a better way than to find and read a collection of personal letters he had written to your grandmother over the years.

Historical Poetic Prophetic
Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

Joshua

Judges

Ruth

1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles

Ezra

Nehemiah

Esther

Job

Psalms

Proverbs

Ecclesiastes

Song of Solomon

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Lamentations

Ezekiel

Daniel

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Jonah

Micah

Nahum

Habakkuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi

Many people have heard individual stories from the Old Testament, or at least have heard of characters from the Old Testament. However, when Noah, Moses, David, Jonah, and others lived in relation to each other is a big mystery and can be confusing. This makes it very hard to understand their significance. There are also many people who know nothing from the Old Testament at all. Both of these beginning points have their advantages and disadvantages. The first group has more information to start with, the second group doesn’t have to unlearn anything, so it doesn’t matter which of these two groups you fall into. If you read the Old Testament, you can understand it.

I am going to take you through the whole Old Testament twice in this lesson, with the second time being longer than the first to help you have a framework to understand the stories of the Old Testament. Think of it as building shelves in your mind so you have somewhere to put the information.

Very Short Overview

God made the world and the human race. He made the world a good place and he made humanity good. His intention was that the earth would be the place where we would meet Him and have a relationship with Him.

However, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, were tempted to disobey God. They believed that they knew what is good and what is evil better than God does, and they sinned. When this happened, they brought death into the world. Nevertheless, God did not reject the human race or his Creation. He was determined to bless us and the fact that we had rejected Him did not change this. Since we could not save ourselves, He would save us.

He chose one man, Abraham, to establish the nation salvation would come through. This was the nation of Israel. They became slaves in Egypt and so God saved them using Moses. He gave them his Law to obey and a land to live in. He eventually gave them kings. One of these kings, David, he chose to be the person through whom the Savior would eventually come. Before the Savior came, Israel was evil and disobeyed God. He sent many prophets to warn them, but they would not listen, so He expelled them from their land. After seventy years, He allowed them to return. The Old Testament ends with a small group of Israelites living near Jerusalem wondering how God would fulfill His promises. We know that they would have to wait four hundred year to find out: that God would come as Jesus to save them Himself.

Now that you know roughly where the story goes, I’ll go over it again with more detail.

Longer Overview

Foundations

This is found in Genesis chapters 1-11. There we learn the starting point of our story and many things that are familiar to us such as marriage, families and nations.

Creation – God made the world and he made it a good place. He designed it to be the place where mankind would meet Him and have a relationship with Him. He placed the first humans, Adam and Eve, in a wonderful Garden where they were supposed to enjoy working and being friends with God.

Rebellion – However, Adam and Eve were tempted by the Devil to disobey God. They believed that they knew what is good and what is evil better than God does, and they chose to trust the Devil and their own judgment instead of God. When this happened, they brought the curse of death, toil and suffering into the world. God kicked them out of the Garden for their own good, but also promised that one day someone would be born to a woman who would crush the Devil’s head. This was the first hint that death is not the end of the story.

Flood – After Adam, humanity became so bad that God started over, in a sense, by wiping the earth clean with a flood and saving only one man, Noah, and his family.

Languages – After the Flood, the human race was supposed to spread out across the land, but we wanted to stay together because we still think we know what is good for ourselves better than God does. He confused our languages to divide us into nations, limit the amount of mischief we could get into, and force us to spread out.

Family

In Genesis chapters 12-50 we see God beginning a special work with one family.

God then chose one man, Abraham, through whom he would bless all humanity. Abraham had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob. God gave Jacob a new name: Israel. Jacob had twelve sons and their descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel. God promised Abraham and his family that they would one day possess the land of Canaan. In the days of Jacob’s son Joseph, the family of Israel moved to Egypt to escape a famine.

Fulfillment and Failure

In Exodus – I Samuel we see God’s promises fulfilled, but also a lot of failure on the part of His people, Israel.

Exodus: Some generations after Abraham the Israelites had grown from a large family into a whole nation and were slaves in Egypt. God used Moses to save them and bring them out. Since the Egyptians wouldn’t let them go, God sent ten plagues against them. Then he led Israel across the Red Sea out of Egypt into the Wilderness.

Law: God offered to take Israel as his special people, out of all the nations of the earth. He gave them laws and instructions on how to live, starting with the Ten Commandments. They agreed to this. God wanted them to build a society that would show other nations that it is best to worship the true and living God. They were supposed to be a light to draw other nations back to God. However, they failed over and over, doubting God, and rebelling against God. Finally, God said that the whole generation He had brought out of Egypt would die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land.

Conquest and Judges: After 40 years, when the whole generation was dead. Moses died and Joshua led Israel into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. They captured part of it, but quickly settled into a pattern of abandoning God, being oppressed by enemies, crying out for help, then God sending a judge to deliver them, only to start rebelling all over again after the judge died.

King

In I Samuel – I Kings we see Israel become a kingdom ruled by kings.

Israel was eventually ruled by kings. There were three kings who ruled over the whole nation. These were Saul, David and Solomon. God promised David that his descendant would rule forever. No doubt David thought this meant that his descendants would rule forever one after the other, but we now know that there is one of his descendants, Jesus, who rules and will rule as king forever. David’s son, Solomon built the Temple of God in Jerusalem.

Kingdoms

In I Kings – II Kings we see Israel split into two nations.

After Solomon, there was a rebellion and the nation split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. During this whole time, the nation was often unfaithful to God. They followed other gods and were not particularly concerned to do what God told them and so were not a light for the other nations. The Lord sent many prophets to warn them and turn them back from their evil lives, but Israel did not change.

Kicked Out

Because Israel did not keep their agreements with God, He expelled them from their land.

Eventually, the Lord sent enemies against them and they were totally defeated. Their cities were destroyed, and they were taken away to live in exile in a foreign land. This happened first to the Northern kingdom and then the Southern.

Came Back

God brought His people back.

After seventy years in exile, God graciously allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their land and build a temple, but He did not give them a king. He sent them more prophets to guide them, but then became silent for about four hundred years until he came to them himself as Jesus. So the Old Testament ends on a note of waiting.

So what we have is: Foundations, Family, Fulfillment and Failure, King, Kingdoms, Kicked Out, and Came Back.

This is very important to remember so it will be included in every lesson.

Name Famous stories and people Where found How long
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood Genesis 1 – 11 Unknown
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph Genesis 12 – 50 286 years followed by about 280 in Egypt
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth

Exodus – I Samuel 10, Ruth c. 400
Kings Saul, David, Solomon 1 Samuel 11 – I Kings 11; 1 Chronicles 10 – 2 Chronicles 9 c. 112
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah 1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 25, Jonah,

2 Chronicles 10 – 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 1 – 38

345
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace 2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 39 – 52, Daniel 48 or 70, depending on where you start and end
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther c. 100

We will return to this overview again next time, but for now I will answer an important question and explain a little about the social world of the Old Testament.

How much background information do you need in order to understand the Bible?

Do you have to understand ancient politics, religious beliefs and economics in order to understand what is taught in the Old Testament? This simple question does not have a simple answer. Every reader approaches what they are reading with their own preconceived ideas and will naturally read it from their own perspective unless they try to step out of it and read as if they were an ancient Israelite. The greater the difference between the reader’s world and the world of the original audience, the greater the chance of misunderstanding. However, our fear of these misunderstandings can be exaggerated. Remember that the Bible is not just an ordinary book. It is God’s primary tool for human beings to come to know Him and so He is present whenever someone reads it seeking Him. As a consequence, the Bible is infallible, meaning it will not fail you. It will not mislead you if you read it sensibly, normally and in faith, reading to be taught by it by the Bible, not to judge it. This doesn’t mean you will always get everything right, far from it. But if you are reading humbly and sensibly, don’t worry about this point.

Because the Bible is God’s Word for the whole human race, it contains in itself all you need to understand its central messages. Most of what it talks about are basic human experiences. Family relationships, marriage, people in authority, people under authority, poverty, wealth, war and peace are all universal human experiences that transcend our cultures. The main point of a story in the Old Testament can be understood by anyone, even if there are aspects that you will miss because you don’t have all the knowledge of the original readers and don’t share their culture.

Old Testament Society

However, I am going to give you a little background information about the way society was organized during the time of the Old Testament, even though you could figure this out on your own if you put in the time. Here a little help can go a long way.

Patriarchs and Obligations

The social structures of the ancient world were very different from the one we see today in movies and television from the Western world. In Europe and most of the English-speaking world, the basic unit of society is the individual and then the nuclear family (parents and their children). Culturally, the focus is on the rights that individuals have, what other people owe you. In the Old Testament, society was organized around extended families, and there was little thought of individual rights. Instead of rights, there were obligations. Instead of your rights being given to you as something you expect, the people around you had an obligation to treat you in a certain way. So we don’t read that wives have a right to be well-fed and cared for. We read that a man must provide for his wife. Even if he doesn’t love her, he must still provide for her (Ex. 21:10-11). It focuses on the obligation, not the right. Maybe you who are reading this are from such a society yourself. If not, don’t think that it’s just a dead idea from the past. More people today live in these types of societies than individualistic ones.

At the top of each family was the patriarch, who ruled the family and was to ensure that the whole family was taken care of. Traditionally, he had the power of life and death over those under him. The patriarch was usually the oldest son of the previous patriarch. Westerners would say that because the patriarch had more power, he had more rights than other people. This thinking is foreign to the world of the Old Testament. A patriarch had more power because he had far more obligations to meet. Don’t get me wrong, patriarchs did enjoy more power and prestige than others. To be the patriarch was a position people wanted to have, but the position wasn’t at all the same thing as a position of wealth and power today in the Western world. Since the West focuses on rights rather than obligations, there isn’t much that drives the powerful to care for others. Rising in power and money mostly brings benefits to yourself, because if I have money and ignore the needs of some particular person, I am not violating their rights. That needy person does not have a right to the help of some particular wealthy person. Though there are wealthy people who help needy people, this is not the same thing as an obligation. Individualistic societies tend to isolate wealth from need. In the time of the Old Testament, people didn’t evaluate a patriarch only based on how much wealth he had, but how well-off were those under his care.

Because the patriarch had more obligations, he normally received double the inheritance of his brothers. He needed more property (whether herds or land) because they are the source of the food that families depended on for survival. This is the “birthright” which features prominently in the story of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:27-34). This is why the Law of Moses is focused on land ownership and why there are laws saying that when a man dies and leaves a widow but no son, one of the other men of the family must marry her and provide a son for the childless widow. Since women didn’t own property, without a male heir to inherit the property that belonged to her dead husband, she was without means of support. She had married into the family with the expectation that she would be supported from the produce of her husband’s property and the family was obligated to make sure that happened. In societies where women can own property, these regulations are redundant, but they reflect God’s concern to care for the needs of the powerless in whatever society they live.

Marriage

The case of the childless widow leads to another way ancient societies differ from Western society. People did not have the expectation that they would marry someone because they are in love. For one thing, these societies were very small and people not very mobile, so a young man or women would only know a handful of possible mates. The chances that one of these would be the “perfect other” was pretty low. Also, people had a lot of close social connections. They lived in small communities and were strongly connected to others because they saw and worked with their family members and friends every day. As a result, they had a lot of daily emotional support from close friends and relatives. There was not nearly as much pressure on the marriage relationship to be the primary source of emotional support and friendship that it is in many societies today, so couples didn’t have to be as naturally compatible to make a successful marriage. Some couples didn’t even know each other when they married. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents, though sometimes the man would negotiate on his own. This does not usually mean that the woman had no choice. She did have to consent in order to be married. This consent was usually an expression of her trust in and obedience to her parents and the standards of her community. The fact that people did not marry for love doesn’t mean that marriages weren’t loving. The idea was that romance grows from commitment, not commitment from romance. We have abandoned this idea in the modern world and have seen the collapse of marriage at the same time. This is another case where most people through history, and even in the world today, can better identify with the customs of the ancient world than our Western individualism.

It was also the custom among Israelites and the nations around them that the groom’s family gave a bride price to the family of the bride. This is still a common custom around the world today, but it can be misunderstood by people from individualistic cultures. To an American or European it can look like the husband is buying the wife from her father, as if she is property. Certainly, since humans have sinful hearts, there have been many cases where a father uses his daughter as a way to get more wealth for himself. However, this is an abuse of the system. What is really happening is that the groom is showing that he is financially capable of caring for a wife and is committed to this relationship. The bride’s father was supposed to keep the bride-price in case the husband divorced the wife or he died and his family was unable to care for her. This is why in the story of Jacob, when he asked his two wives (who were sisters) what they thought of his plan to move far away from their father, they responded, “What does it matter to us? He’s already spent our bride-price.” (Gen. 31:14-16) Their father had broken faith with them by spending the wealth he should have been saving to ensure their security. Since he has spent it, he was not a source of financial security to his daughters and so it cost them nothing financially to move away.

The Redeemer

The fact that ancient societies were organized around extended families who were mutually obligated to each other resulted in the position of the “redeemer.” When some major event damaged the family, when something happened which made the family no longer whole, the family needed to fix the problem and set things right. The one who set it right was the redeemer. Examples of the kind of damage a redeemer would fix was when a poor family member fell into debt and had to sell his land, another family member would buy it back, or redeem it. Sometimes debt forced a person into slavery (since most slavery in Israel was a temporary condition a person was in while they paid back a debt), when this happened, often a wealthier family member would redeem him. In the case I mentioned above, the man who married the widow of his relative in order to care for her was a redeemer. When someone killed a family member one of the victim’s relatives would pursue the killer and ensure that justice was done for him. All of these actions were redemption. They rescued those in need and restored wholeness to the family. The Old Testament often describes God as the redeemer of His people, both as a group (Is. 47:4) and as individuals (Ps. 19:14). So when Jesus came and accomplished redemption, this was not a new or even surprising idea. The New Testament idea of redeemer and redemption are taken entirely from the Old Testament.

This also shows us that when God deals with the people of a particular culture He does not break their culture and force them to rebuild it into some ideal society. What He does with cultures is like what He does with individuals. Just as He enters the life of everyone who comes to Him and slowly transforms them to be like He is without erasing their personality, so when He enters a society, His truth slowly transforms that culture into a unique expression of godliness. The culture is still recognizable as itself, but justice and goodness can flourish there as it could not before God intervened.

 

Remember:

FoundationsFamilyFulfillment and Failure

King Kingdoms

Kicked OutCame Back

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