Bible is perhaps the most read book in the world; and ironically Old Testament (OT) is the least read portion of the Bible. Most of the times people just ignore Old Testament thinking that
- it’s too complex and confusing to understand
- Old Testament is irrelevant as it’s “old”
Once I had a chance to look at the OT holistically and understood (of course, only partially) the context of each book in it. That helped me to counter the first point above. So I thought of just sharing my learnings with you. This may not be of any interest to a religious reader of the Bible. My target audience is the bible students. My point is that, understanding the context of each book and the period of history associated with that will give us a better understanding of the OT. The Old Testament is in fact the story of Israel. Let me try to explain that story in a nutshell.
History of Israel
Abraham is the fist major character we see in the OT. Son of Terah, he is the eleventh in descent from Noah. Christians believe that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and Muslims believe that Muhammad was also descendant of Abraham through Ishmael. He lived around 2000 BC. He had two brothers- Nahor and Haran. Haran died in his early age, leaving behind his son Lot. Terah, Abraham, his wife Sarah and Lot set for Canan (present day Israel) from Ur (present day Iraq).
On the way they had a temporary halt at Haran (present day Turkey) where Terah passed away. Abraham and family reached Canan when he was 75 years old. When there was a great famine, he moved to Egypt. Later he returned to the land of Canan and settled there with great wealth and livestock brought from Egypt.
After some time, workers of Abraham and Lot engaged in some quarrel over the pastures, and this lead Abraham to decide on the division of properties between him and Lot. Lot opted for the land of Sodom and Abraham remained in Canan. Ismael was born to Abraham at the age of 80, in the maid Hagar. When Abraham was 99, God made a covenant with him assuring that the land he dwells would be a perpetual inheritance to his descendants. God appointed the practice of circumcision to Abraham and all his male descendants as a seal of the covenant.
The town of Sodom (where Lot lived) was destructed by God because the people there were sinners (the English word Sodomy has its origins in Sodom). God allowed Lot and family to escape from there, but the defiant wife of Lot turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters flew to a mountain and stayed in a cave there.
Next year Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. Isaac was married to Rebecca who is the daughter of Bethuel, son of Nahor (Nahor was the brother of Abraham who stayed back in Ur when rest of the family travelled to Canan). They had 2 sons – Esau and Jacob. Jacob became the heir of Isaac as he deceived his brother Esau and gabbed his rights of the first-born. Esau (also known as Edom) became the father of Edomites. God renames Jacob as Israel. Jacob had 12 sons who became the founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. 11 of his sons conspired against their brother Joseph and sold him as a slave to Egypt. But Joseph became a powerful minister there second only to Pharaoh. When the land of Canan was hit by a great famine, the brothers of Joseph had to go to Egypt where they met with him and the family re-united. Joseph had all his family migrate to Egypt. This happened around 1700 BC. After Joseph’s lifetime, the new rulers were not in favour of the migrant Israelites, and forced them into slavery. This continued for 450 years till 1250 BC when God appointed Moses as the leader to his people. The great Exodus started in 1250 BC and by 1210 BC they entered into the land of Canan. After death of Moses, Joshua assumed the leadership of Israelites. Out of the people started from Egypt, only 2 were able to reach Canan- Joshua and Caleb; all others were born during the journey. They conquered Canaan by fighting with the natives and destroying them. Out of the 12 tribes, Reuben, Gad and half of the Manasseh requested Moses for the allotment of the trans-jordan area and was granted.
For the rest, Joshua did the allotment. When the land of Israel was apportioned among the tribes in the days of Joshua, the Tribe of Levi, being chosen as priests, did not receive land. However, the tribe of Levi were given 48 cities. Thus the Israelites started occupying the land of Canaan after a long gap started when Jacob and his sons migrated to Egypt.
United Kingdom of Israel
Following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel, the Israelite Tribes formed a loose confederation. No central government existed in this confederation and in times of crisis, the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as judges. These “judges” were more of military leaders than legal judges. Probably Samson is the one who is most famous among them. Samuel was the last of the judges and first of the major prophets who began prophesy inside the Land of Israel. He was thus at the cusp between two eras.
With mounting pressure from enemies, the tribes of Israel joined together to form the Kingdom of Israel around 1020 BC. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king. Gibeah was his capital. After Saul’s death, his son Ish-bosheth assumed the throne, but the tribe of Judah seceded from the rule of the House of Saul by proclaiming David as its king. After two years of war, Ish-bosheth was killed by his own military captains. and David became the soul king. By 1000 BC, David was successful in creating a strong unified Israelite monarchy. Hebron was his capital initially. Later he established Jerusalem as the capital.
David succeeded in truly unifying the Israelite tribes, and set up a monarchical government. He embarked on successful military campaigns against Israel’s enemies, and defeated nearby regional entities such as the Philistines, thus creating secure borders for Israel. Under David, Israel grew into a regional power.David’s son Solomon is one of the most famous biblical characteres.Under King Solomon, the United Monarchy experienced a period of peace and prosperity, and cultural development. Much public building took place, including the First Temple in Jerusalem.
The Divided Israel
Following Solomon’s death, tensions between the northern part of Israel containing the ten northern tribes, and the southern section dominated by Jerusalem and the southern tribes reached boiling point. When Solomon’s successor Rehoboam (932 BC – 915 BC) dealt tactlessly with economic complaints of the northern tribes, in about 930 BC the united Kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms: the northern Kingdom of Israel, which included the cities of Shechem and Samaria, and the southern Kingdom of Judah, which contained Jerusalem; with most of the non-Israelite provinces achieving independence. Kingdom of Judah had Jerusalem as its capital. Tribes of Judah and Benjamin were part of this kingdom. Northern Kingdom of Israel had Samaria as its capital with 10 tribes.
The Kingdom of Israel (or Northern Kingdom) had 19 kings thereafter. They were Jeroboam I, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab (and Jezebel), Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea. It existed as an independent state until 722 BC when it was conquered by the Assyrian Emperor Shalmaneser V. The people were deported to Assyria. It’s believed that the entire population of northern kingdom are deported and thereafter no information about them.
The Kingdom of Judah (or Southern Kingdom) had 20 kings. They were Rehoboam, Abijam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, (Queen) Athaliah, Jehoash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah and Zedekiah.
Kingdom of Judah existed as an independent state until 586 BC when it was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar II, the Babylonian Emperor. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and walls of the city. He moved most of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon, leaving behind only the poor. The official appointed by the Babylonians to rule the people remaining in Jerusalem was assassinated, as were other Babylonian representatives. In fear of retaliation, the remaining poor of Judah, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt. The Babylonian captivity had a number of consequences on Judaism and Jewish culture, including changes to the Hebrew alphabet and calendar and changes in the fundamental practices and customs of the Jewish religion.
In 539 BC, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and Judah (or Yehud medinata, the “province of Yehud”) became an administrative division within the Persian empire. Cyrus allowed the Jews in exile to return to their land. A group returned under Zerubbabel and Joshua the Priest, and the construction of the Second Temple started. The new temple was consecrated in 516 BC.
Artaxerxes, king of Persia, sent Ezra to Jerusalem in 457 BC to teach the laws of God to any who did not know them. Ezra led a large body of exiles back to Jerusalem, where he discovered that Jewish men had been marrying non-Jewish women. He worked hard to enforce the Torah. Some years later Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah, a Jewish noble in his personal service, to Jerusalem as governor with the task of rebuilding the city walls. Once this task was completed, Nehemiah had Ezra read the Torah to the assembled Jews, and the people and priests entered into a covenant to keep the law and separate themselves from all other peoples. The narrations in the Old Testament concludes around this point.
Judah remained under Persian empire for two centuries in peace. The Persian era, and especially the period 538–400, laid the foundations of later Jewish and Christian religion and the beginnings of a scriptural canon. Other important landmarks include the replacement of Hebrew by Aramaic as the everyday language of Judah (although it continued to be used for religious and literary purposes).
After Old Testament
The intertestamental period is a term used to refer to a period of time between the writings of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament texts. Traditionally, it is considered to be a roughly four hundred year period, spanning the ministry of Malachi (c. 420 BC), the last of the Old Testament prophets, and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early 1st century AD
Around 333 BC, the Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, defeated Persian armies in Macedonia. This marks the fall of the Medo-Persian Empire and the rise of the Grecian Empire.
On the death of Alexander the Great (322) his generals divided the empire between them. Ptolemy I, the ruler of Egypt, seized Palestine, but his successors lost it to the Seleucids of Syria in 198 BC. At first, relations between the Seleucids and the Jews were cordial, but the attempt of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163) to impose Hellenic culture sparked a national rebellion,
Antiochus’ activity led to the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC in which the priest Matthias and his sons defeated the Syrians in a series of battles, which secured the independence of the providence of Judea. This was the foundation of the Hasmonean dynasty lead by Judas Maccabee, son of Matthias, which reigned from 166 – 63 BC. The Hasmonean kingdom was a conscious attempt to revive the Judah described in the Bible: a Jewish monarchy ruled from Jerusalem and stretching over all the territories once ruled by David and Solomon. In order to carry out this project the Hasmoneans forcibly converted to Judaism the one-time Moabites, Edomites and Ammonites, as well as the lost kingdom of Israel.
In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client of Rome. In 40 BC, Herod the Great was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. Herod was an Edomite converted to Judaism. The New Testament narrations begins at this point of time. When Jesus was born, Herod the Great was the ruler of Judea. After Herod’s demise in 4 BC, Roman emperor Augustus Caesar divided his kingdom among his sons- Herod’s son Archelaus made ruler of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (biblical Edom) from 4 BC to 6 AD, other son Herod Antipas was made tetrarch of Galilee from 4 BC – 39 AD, and another son Philip was made the tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis. Archelaus was judged incompetent by Augustus who then annexed the Iudaea Province under direct Roman administration. Roman emperors started appointing an official titled “prefect” to rule the province. Pontius Pilate was one such prefect (26 AD- 36 AD).