Grasping the Old Testament – Introduction

For a long time I kind of knew the Old Testament but in a disjointed way, it was mostly stories of the saints, the history of Israel, the Psalms and Proverbs, and the Prophets.  Recently some keys have opened up and the Old Testament as a whole has come together and become more relevant.  One of these keys is a grasp on the larger structure of the Old Testament.

This is not the work of an Old Testament scholar but one who read through it a few times and has been a reader in it for several decades.  It’s been said that the New Testament is like black and white and the Old Testament is like color.  As Christian the New Testament is our primary source for doctrine and interpretation.  Therefore, Romans 15:4 is an important verse for Old Testament understanding

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.

Some may consider many Old Testament verses out of context when applied to the Church, but if “it was written for our learning”, then is any of it totally out of context?

First is the understanding that the Old Testament is made up of 5 central stories that takes up a large majority of the book.  Each of these central stories is about Israel; it’s fathers, its founding, its rise and golden age, its decline and fall and finally its rebuilding and restoration.  This is summarized in Matthew 1:17

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.

God often moves at a slower pace then expected.  This is seen in each of these stories.  God often takes three successive generations to establish His desires.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the best know, but each of these periods of Israel’s history covers about 3 generations.  Once established a long gap follows as generations live in the society established by these key generations.

The book of Genesis has at a minimum 2300 years of history, but 39 of its 50 chapters cover the key generations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons.    Chapters 1 – 11 begins at creation and takes us to Abrams father, with most generations getting a verse or two except Adam and Noah.  Abraham get 14 chapters (12-25), Isaac mostly shares 15 chapters with his father and sons (21-35), and Jacob’s life takes up the last half of Genesis (25-50).  When he passes away a paragraph is given to the rest of Joseph’s life and the first gap begins.

Between Genesis and Exodus there is a 400-year gap, which is briefly summarized in Exodus 1.  By the third chapter Moses is 80 years old.  The rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua are about the next 55 years.  Exodus is the story of leaving Egypt and receiving the law, Leviticus establishes the priesthood, Numbers is about the people and becoming a nation, Deuteronomy are the words Moses spoke to those about to enter the land, and Joshua is the 15 year conquest of the promise land.  The three generational stages are those in bondage, those who died in the wilderness, and those who entered the promise land.

The book of Judges takes us through a gap with some detail. The twenty-one chapters span almost 300 years and is a series of short stories as Israel repeatedly sins, is oppressed, cries out, is delivered and has peace until it falls back into sin again.  There is no major shift in the culture during this era, instead the book ends with everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.

Following Judges the next three generations have largest section of the Old Testament.  1 & 2 Samuel, part of 1 Kings, 1 Chronicles, part of 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon were all written during the lives of Samuel, David and Solomon about 150 years.  These are the generations of great change. Samuel is the last judge and anoints of the first two kings of Israel.  David defeats all enemies, establishes Jerusalem and makes preparation for Solomon to build the temple and usher in the golden era of Israel and Judah. More on this period can be read – Here

The final period is a little longer and more spread out.  Between Solomon and writings of most of the prophets was about 150 years.  Only Elijah, Elisha, Joel and Obadiah ministered during this time. But then in the years leading up to judgment first on Israel and then on Judah is when the prophetic voices were raised.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Hosea, Amos, and Zephaniah were written.  The captivity and the return of the remnant is well covered in Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.  The three generational stages are those before the judgment fell, those who were taken captive and lived their lives in a foreign land, and finally the remnant who returned to rebuild and restore. The prophets speak to three groups – My people, the daughter of My people, and not My people.

So the whole Old Testament can be summed up as the story of God promising Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a future great nation.  God establishes the nation with Moses and Joshua leading, and then raising it up to greatness through Samuel, David and Solomon. The nation slides to the point it must be destroyed, its people taken captive and then restored to the land and the temple rebuilt followed by another gap of 400 years until, in the fullness of time, a Son is given.

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8 thoughts on “Grasping the Old Testament – Introduction

    • Sure, I just cleaned up your link a bit. Here’s a relevant quote from that N.T. Wright link. “When we read the Bible in its own terms, as an overarching story, we soon discover that this metanarrative challenges and subverts several other world views.”

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