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Overview of the Old Testament

The Old Testament begins with God creating a very good world. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31a, NIV).

Yet something happened after He created His highest creation: humans. God is good, and He created only good things. Yet He gave humans something good that we misused. It is our “free will.” The misuse of our freedom was called “sin.”

Sin starts when we stop trusting in God. Satan has known this for some time, and we humans might as well catch on. Satan had been an angel who also decided to misuse the capabilities God had given him. It was Satan’s strategy in the Garden of Eden—and it continues to be his strategy today—to get humans to stop trusting in God. To plant the idea that what’s best for God isn’t what’s best for us.

“Did God really say?” smiles the serpent. He coaxes the humans to go ahead and eat from the fruit God had forbidden.

So, Adam and Eve traded God for fruit, and their descendants (we) continue to make similarly empty-headed exchanges. Carving a statue and calling it one’s “god” (Exodus 32:4). Worshiping creature over the Creator (Romans 1:25). Trading paths of righteousness for cycles of depravity (Romans 1:28-32).


Overview of the Old Testament: “So, Adam and Eve traded God for fruit, and their descendants (we) continue to make similarly empty-headed exchanges.”


Upon Adam and Eve sealing their rebellion with a bite, four things happened. Adam and Eve began to feel

  • embarrassed about themselves (Genesis 3:7)
  • threatened by God (Genesis 3:8)
  • attacked by each other (Genesis 3:12)
  • frustrated by nature (Genesis 3:16-19)

Today, we too can feel embarrassed about ourselves. That’s why we hide so much about ourselves from each other. I might even hide unwanted truth about myself from myself!

Today, we too feel threatened by God. This is why death and the afterlife seem so much more threatening than our first choice of just living on this planet forever.

Today, we too feel attacked by each other. We shift the blame around, and, where there is all blame and no repentance, the problem never goes away.

Today, we too feel frustrated by nature. This is not only the case during our lifetime (e.g., “the thorns and thistles” we experience—Genesis 3:18) but is most noticeably the case as life ends. Our stories end in frustrated, half-finished plots, with the curtain called early by an interrupter called “death.”


“Our stories end in frustrated, half-finished plots, with the curtain called early by an interrupter called ‘death.'”


Interestingly, the Old Testament will also end in frustration, after narrating centuries of God rescuing His people only to have them feel threatened by Him.

But as of yet, we’re only three chapters into the Old Testament in our overview. One more thing worth mentioning before we proceed: as early as the day our ancestors first sinned, God was already giving a clue as to His plan to redeem what was lost. Speaking to the serpent, God said,

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

What follows is a step-by-step overview of the Old Testament, and I hope you find it helpful.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

By Genesis 12, God had chosen a particular family through whom He would eventually save the world. The man who was to be the father of this family was named Abraham. The problem is, Abraham didn’t have any kids, and he was old! But eventually God gave Abraham and his wife Sarah a child in their old age, called Isaac. Isaac grew up, and he and Rebekah had Jacob (whose name God changed to “Israel”). Jacob/Israel grew up and had 12 sons, who became known as the “12 tribes of Israel.”

Because of jealousy, ten of the brothers sold another brother—his father’s favorite—into slavery in Egypt. The hated brother’s name was Joseph. In Egypt, Joseph was able to climb the ranks and help the Pharaoh prepare for an upcoming famine. During the famine, Joseph’s family came down to Egypt to buy food, not knowing if Joseph was still alive. Joseph forgave his brothers and persuaded his family to come down to Egypt and wait out the famine. The Jews ended up staying in Egypt for over 200 years.


Overview of the Old Testament: “By Genesis 12, God had chosen a particular family through whom He would eventually save the world.”


Exodus

Throughout their centuries in Egypt, the Jewish family continued to expand. Eventually, the Egyptian government felt threatened by the rising force and decided to enslave the Israelites. They even stooped to infanticide of Jewish boys.

During this time, God called a Jewish man named Moses to lead the rebellion against Pharaoh. God backed up Moses’ command to “Let my people go,” with miraculous plague after plague, which crippled Egypt. Once out of Egypt, Moses began to lead the people to the land God had promised Abraham so many years earlier.

Before they made it to the Promised Land, they stopped at a mountain called Sinai, where Moses received from God the 10 Commandments, as well as instructions on how to build a house of worship called the “Tabernacle.”

When they did arrive at the Promised Land, they were too afraid of entering since the Canaanite inhabitants appeared well-fortified. Thus, God gave them their wish. That generation wandered around the desert, until the next generation was ready to enter the Promised Land.


Overview of the Old Testament: “God gave them their wish.”


Judges

The Jewish leader who finally led the Israelites into the Promised Land was Moses’ second-in-command named Joshua. As centuries-in-coming punishment for grievous sins (including child sacrifice), Joshua’s army drove out many of the inhabitants from the land (Leviticus 18:21-25). The 12 tribes settled in regions God allotted to them.

However, these generations of Israelites were not solidly committed to God, and they often experimented with worship of the idols native to the area. When this would happen, God would back off and let them be subdued by a neighboring people. Once they cried out to God for help, God would send them a judge to overthrow the oppressor and restore peace.

The Book of Judges tells of many such cycles. Israel’s judges included Gideon with his 300-man army and the strongman Samson. The period of the judges came to an end when the Israelites asked the final judge (Samuel) for a king.

Kings

After the Israelites asked Samuel for a king, God had Samuel anoint King Saul. Despite his many kingly qualities, King Saul let his jealousy of a charismatic rising star turn himself paranoid. Although a loyal follower of King Saul, this young man was nonetheless made king after Saul died in battle. The new king’s name? King David.

A warrior, psalmist, and king, David represented the ideal king of God’s chosen nation. This didn’t mean that King David was without his own costly faults, and his son and successor, King Solomon, could be profoundly foolish even for all his wisdom. Solomon’s son King Rehoboam lacked the virtues of both father and grandfather, and the nation soon split under his arrogant leadership.


“A warrior, psalmist, and king, David represented the ideal king of God’s chosen nation.”


Empires

Israel was now the “Divided Kingdom,” with the North succumbing to idolatry early and getting overtaken by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century B.C. The South took longer to fall, as it wavered between God and idols. Although prophets such as Jeremiah warned the South through tears, southern kings finally swayed irrecoverably away from God, and the South fell to the Babylonian Empire in the 6th century B.C. The Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and carried the Israelites into exile.

Still, God wasn’t through with His chosen people. Prophets such as Daniel and Ezekiel went into exile with their people, encouraging them to trust in God. Under the next empire, the Persian/Mede Empire, the Israelites were allowed to return and rebuild their temple and homes. This is where the Old Testament ends.

Prophecies

The next empire to annex the Jewish homeland was Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire. After Alexander’s death, his empire fragmented into 4 parts, 2 of which took turns controlling the Promised Land. Remarkably, the Jews won their independence thanks to a family of warriors called the Maccabees, in what is now celebrated as Hanukkah.

However, independence was short-lived, for Rome was on the march, conquering everything in its path and crucifying its victims.

Yet it was all part of the plan. Even back in Babylon, the prophet Daniel had interpreted the emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s strange dream of a 4-tiered statue demolished by a divine rock:

“Your Majesty . . . you are that head of gold. After you, another kingdom will arise, inferior to yours. Next, a third kingdom, one of bronze, will rule over the whole earth. Finally, there will be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron. . . . In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.” (Daniel 2:37-45, NIV)


“In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.”


The prophet Isaiah had predicted a coming king as well:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7, NIV)

So had the prophet Micah:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, NIV)

And He was on His way.

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