When I was a kid I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater. In a documentary about director Stanley Kubrick, one of the interviewees commented that part of the ongoing fascination with the film is that the sections of 2001 fit oddly together; for instance, we move from the deactivation of HAL to the arrival at Jupiter and the long Star Gate sequence and the cryptic ending. What does it all mean?
It occurs to me that the Bible is a little like that. The Bible is, after all, a collection of writings (some incorporating and editing earlier writings and traditions) from different authors, in different time periods, with contrasting purposes and, in some cases, with different theological viewpoints. Thus, you have to think about how the Bible books fit together.
This is true, for instance, as we move from the Torah to the next section, the historical books of Joshua through Esther. Following verse after verse of laws, statutes, and material for Hebrew life and worship, you’d expect to find historical accounts of these laws and cultic practices carried out. Not so much! Instead we get military campaigns, times of spiritual and moral decline, the adventures of Israelite rulers of varying quality, and so on.
We do find a few references: Joshua refers to the law of Moses, 1:7ff, 8:31ff; the stories of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba also reflect concerns for cleansing rituals; and the sins of Solomon are also connected to the laws: Deut. 17:1-17 and 1 Kings 9:26-11:40). (1) Then, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we see the emergence of a more obviously religious community as delineated in the Torah.
The apparent dearth of cultic practices (as well as agricultural statutes, civil and criminal laws, and other mitzvot) within the historical accounts alerts us to a topic debated in scholarly circles: the development of the law and practices before and after the Exile, the impact of the rediscovery of at least part of the law during Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:3ff) and the uplifting of the law as a community standard during the post-exilic period (1 Chr. 15:15, 2 Chr. 25:4, Ezra 3:2, Neh. 13:11f).(2) But several themes of the Torah continue in these books, as I’ll discuss below. (There may be an ancient textual connection between the Torah and the historical material; scholars have hypothesized a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of the material from the beginning of Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings.) (3)
These books following Deuteronomy form is a varied “landscape.” Two main historical periods are represented, the fulfillment of God’s promise of land to the Israelites, from Joshua to Solomon, and then the period of national sin and decline (and the rise of the prophets) from Solomon to the exile.
Joshua concerns the conquest of the land following the death of Moses. The first twelve chapters concern the conquest of the land, and chapters 13 through 21 record the partition of the land.
Judges is an account of a succession of leaders (“judges,” or shofetim) with the Israelites’ history degenerating into civil war.
Ruth is a lovely, familiar story of two women, a Hebrew and a Moabite, devoted to one another in a terrible circumstance.
1 and 2 Samuel concern the beginning of the Israelite monarchy with a focus upon the rise and reign of the greatest king, David.
1 and 2 Kings takes us through another long history, that of David’s successors.
The stories of Solomon and the construction of the magnificent Temple provide a positive beginning to the post-David history. But the Hebrews suffer a succession of unfaithful kings, the division of the kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom in about 722 BC, the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 BC, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and the beginning of the Babylonian exile (586-536).These books are called “the former prophets” in the Hebrew Bible and are listed along with the prophets Isaiah through Malachi.
The Hebrew Bible places some of the historical books—Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther—in the final section called the Writings. The Christian Old Testament includes these books among the “former prophets,” so that, for instance, the story of Ruth—a Gentile ancestor of David and Jesus—provides a glimpse of hope amid the warfare and desolation of Judges and the stories of Samuel and the monarchy.
1 and 2 Chronicles cover much the same ground as the books of Samuel and Kings but theologically reinterpret the history. Notice the difference between David’s farewell speech in 1 Kings (2:2-9) and in 1 Chronicles (28:1-29:20) Unlike [the Deuteronomistic history], the Chronicler assigned each generation with complete intimacy to God, losing the unity of Israel’s history, so I wrote in my old Bible during a seminary class.The fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile (2 Kings 24:18-25:30 and Jeremiah 52:1-34) are key events for the entire Bible. Not only did it mark the virtual end of the Davidic monarchy, it was a second experience of wilderness, perhaps more profound than the forty years of Moses’ leadership. We know little about thosee forty years (passed over in silence between Numbers 19 and 20), and we also have comparatively little history in the Bible about the Exile )besides 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 52, Lamentations, Psalms 79 and 137 and some other scriptures). (4) But Ezra and Nehemiah record the period after the Hebrews return to the land following the Babylonian exile. The Temple is rebuilt, Jerusalem is rebuilt and repaired, and the covenant is reestablished. Although comparatively minor books in the Bible, these books show how God’s people made the first transitions from their former existence as a kingdom to a new existence as a worshiping community.
Esther is a story of a Hebrew woman who becomes the Persian queen and, with her adoptive father Mordecai, saves her people. The book gives another side of the post-exilic history: Jews who did not return to the land but remained among Gentiles.
The history of God’s people obviously does not end there. We have more of their story reflected in the book of Daniel (probably from the 100s BC), in apocryphal books like Maccabees, and in the history and witness of the Jews during the subsequent two millennia. And, of course, the New Testament provides scriptural history of the messianic subgroup of Jews (with a growing number of Gentile converts) who became known as Christians.
The historical books have several major themes. One is certainly the covenant: God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.
Connected to the theme of covenant is the theme and experience of the Land (ha-aretz)—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. As we saw in the Torah, God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua. Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the seemingly victorious efforts of Joshua are far the end of the story.(5)
Connected to the Land and covenant is the history of the monarchy. Commentators like Anderson note that while the tribal confederacy of the Judges period had problems with faithfulness and idolatry, those problems were different from other nations in that they were defined by their covenant to the Lord. But once Israel had a king, an additional temptation was added: becoming a nation like any other nation. Certainly God’s power was operative, for instance, in the selection of Saul and David and the ongoing life of the people, especially in light of the Philistine threat. But, as Anderson notes, “the religious faith of the Confederacy [of the Judges] survived its collapse and found new expression in Israel’s prophetic movement. Israel was not allowed to identify a human kingdom with the Kingdom of God, for Yahweh alone was king.” (6) Unfortunately, that meant that Israel had eventually to collapse, too, in order that they become truly faithful to the covenant.
As you explore the stories of David and his successors, you see difficulties building. Although Israel became a renowned kingdom (occasioning the famous Queen of Sheba’s visit in 1 Kings 10:1-10), we also hear of resentment about David’s census (2 Sam. 20:24 and 24), the rebellions and difficulties within David’s own family (2 Sam. 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2), and eventually the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death.(7) On the other hand, the possibilities of monarchy gave rise to the hope for a future king who would reunite the people and regain and surpass the possibilities of peace and prosperity, as we read in the well known messianic passages of Isaiah 9 and 11.
Within these stories, David emerges as a kind of “typology” for God’s rule.(8) The two mountains, Sinai and Zion, stand for the two covenants of God, and Nathan’s prophency (2 Samuel 7) links David’s descendants to God’s Sinai covenant. Earlier ambivalence about a monarchy changes to a confidence in God’s rulership through David’s line. Since David is identified with Jerusalem (Zion) in his selection of that place as capital, Zion became identified with God’s own city (Ps. 46, 48, 76, and others).(9) The line of David, also celebrated in the psalms (2, 20, 31, 45, and others) connects to the later messianic hope that grows in Israel’s history and, for Christians, finds fulfillment in Jesus.
Another theme of these biblical books is the Jerusalem temple. The Temple, promised to David and constructed during Solomon’s reign, is connected to the history of the Tabernacle before it (Ex. 35-40) and, of course, to the Land itself. David’s hope for a great, permanent house in the Land for God is not fulfilled, but his son Solomon constructs the facility (2 Sam. 7, 1 Kings 5-8). Like the monarchy, the temple did not survive the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem in 586 (1 Kings 25:8, 9, 13-17), but the Temple serves in Israelite memory through the exile in, for instance, the dynamic vision of a restored Temple in Ezekiel 40-48. Following the exile, the high priest Jeshua and the governor Zerubbabel, helped by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, supervise the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3-6). After the Old Testament period, Herod the Great began work on a restored temple in 20-19 BC, a building effort still going on during Jesus’ time and beyond. Herod’s temple was finally completed, ironically, just a few years before the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.
We find other connections within the historical books.
* The connection of the Canaanites with Noah’s curse (Gen. 9:25-26) as the Israelites take possession of the Land during these centuries.
* The ongoing theme of the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16, Numbers 13-14, Deut. 25:17, 19, Judges 3;13, 1 Sam. 15, et al.), connecting Joshua with Saul and later Hezekiah (1 Chr. 4:41-43).
* The ongoing theme of Bethel (Josh. 18:21-22, Judges 1:22-26, 20:18, 26-28, 1 Sam. 7;16, 1 Kings 12:26-32, 2 Kings 17:27-28, 2 Kings 23, 15-23, Ezra 2:28, Neh. 7:32, 11:31)
* The connection of the places Gilgal (Josh. 4:19-5:12, 1 Sam. 11:15, 13:1-10) and Gibeon (Josh. 9:3-27, 2 Sam. 2:12-3:1. As one commentator puts it, “The story [of Gibeonites] signals radical Davidic centralization by highlighting Joshua’s fulfillment of Yahweh’s command.” But these Joshua stories also connect to the law of herem (Deut. 7: 20:16-18), wherein God requires the annihilation of the people and prohibits the taking of spoils.(10)
We also find connections with the New Testament, some mentioned already.
* The great theme of Yahweh’s salvation. The name “Joshua” is in Hebrew the same name as “Jesus,” meaning “Yahweh saves.”
* The theme of the Land. The Land is not spiritualized in the Old Testament the way that it tends to be in the New. In the Old, we speak of the actual land and its possession. Deutero-Isaiah begins to move in a more spiritual direction (Is. 44:24ff, 49:14ff), and in the New Testament, Jesus himself becomes the “place” where God dwells (John 1:14).(11)
* The theme of the Kingdom of God. The phrase is not used in the Old Testament, but the kingdom of God is the principle theme of Jesus’ preaching and connects with God’s sovereignty through Israel’s history. As Graeme Goldworthy puts it, “While the Old Testament is everywhere eloquent in describing the sovereignty of God in history to work out his purposes, Jesus declares that he is the goal of that sovereign working of God.”(12)
* The theme of a new kind of monarchy under David’s descendant, Jesus. In his person and work, Jesus brings themes like the Lamb of God, the sufferings of David, and the suffering servant of Isaiah into the theme of the king of Israel (13): thus, when Jesus is killed, the charge against him is “king of the Jews.” But in his suffering and death is victory over sin and death, and the ambiguities of the Israelite monarchy are resolved.(14)
* The theme of the Temple. The New Testament never explicitly mentions the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, an odd omission since portions of the New Testament are presumed to date from the late first century. Jesus quotes Jeremiah concerning the Temple, and he himself is the new temple (John 2:20-22). Paul, in turn, calls each of us “temples of the Holy Spirit” in that God’s presence dwells within us now in a special way (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
* The realities of post-exilic Judaism provide a more subtle connection. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees formed in response to the spiritual needs of the people during the post-exilic time, as did institutions like synagogues, Sabbath requirements, and festivals to which Jews—many living in different parts of the world after the exile—came to Jerusalem (e.g., John 11:55 and also Acts 2:5-11).
During my seminary years, I copied a chronology into my old Bible of the several biblical rulers, but since I don’t remember the original source, I’ll not recopy that chronology here. My Halley’s Bible Handbook gives an approximate resume of the time period,(15) as does my textbook by Bernhard Anderson, a favorite supplemental text during my seminary years. Other than the judges, the list and dates below come from Anderson.(16)
The judges of Israel were: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson are listed in the book of Judges, and also Eli in 1 Samuel. Samuel himself served both as the last judge and also as priest and prophet.(17)
The kings following Samuel were Saul, David, and Solomon. Then the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) divided about 922. The kings from the division of the kingdom to the exile are listed, sans these approximate dates, in 1 Kings 12:1-22:53, 2 Kings, and 2 Chr. 10:1-2:23.
Jeroboam, c. 922-901 Rehoboam, c. 922-915
Nadab, c. 901-900 Abijah, c. 915-913
Baasha, c. 900-877 Asa, c. 913-873
The empire of Assyria rose in power during this time.
Elah, c. 877-876
Zimi, c. 876
Omri, c. 876-869
Ahab, c. 869-850, Jehoshaphat, c. 873-842
Ahaziah, c. 850-849, Jehoram, c. 849-842
Jehoram, c. 849-842, Ahaziah, c. 842
Jehu, c. 842-815, Athaliah, c. 842-837
The prophets during this period were Elijah and Elisha.
Joahaz, c. 815-801, Joash, c. 837-800
Joash, c. 801-786, Amaziah, c. 800-783
Jeroboam II, c. 786-746, Uzziah, c. 783-742
Zechariah, c. 746-745, Jothan, c. 750-742
Shallum, c. 745
Menahem, c. 745-738
Pekahiah, c. 738-737
Pekah, c. 737-732, Ahaz, c. 735-715
Hoshea, c. 732-724, Hezekiah, c. 715-687
The prophets during this time were: Amos, c. 750, Hosea, c. 745, Isaiah, c. 742-700, and Micah, before 722 to c. 701.
Also during this time, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in about 722-721. Subsequent kings of Judah were:
The prophets during this time were Zephaniah, c. 628-622, Nahum, Jeremiah, c. 626-587, and Habakkuk, c. 605). Also during this time, Assyria falls and Babylon rises in power.
Jehoiachin, c. 598-597
Zedekiah, c. 597-587
The prophets were Obadiah, and Ezekiel, c. 593-573.
The first deportation of God’s people to Babylonia occurs in about 597. The fall of Jerusalem and second deportation occur in about 587.
After the fall of Babylon and the rise of Persia, many of the exiles return. As recorded in Ezra, Jeshua and Zerubbabel led the exiles newly re-settled in Canaan, in addition to Ezra himself and Nehemia; the prophets of that period were Haggai and Zechariah. (Scholars date the prophets Joel and Jonah as probably post-exilic, though the writings contain few clues as to their time period.) During the post-exilic era, the temple is rebuilt and Jerusalem is restored.
The final prophet is Malachi, c. 500-450.
Imagine a history that begins at around 1200 AD–the time of King John and the Magna Carta, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and the Fourth Crusade–and ends at the present time. The period from Joshua to Nehemiah and the post-exilic period is about 800 years. But Bible history extends backward yet another 800 years, if we assume Abraham lived about 2000 BC. So from Abraham to Nehemiah we’ve a span similar to time of the decline of the (western) Roman Empire to today.
1. Solomon’s sins vis-à-vis the Law are discussed in How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 122-123.
2. Childs, Biblical Theology, page 137.
3. The first of several books on this subject is The Deuteronomistic History by Martin Noth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).
4. See Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 161-163, for several aspects of the period from biblical sources.
5. One classic study is The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann (Second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). Gordon J. Wenham writes, “The [book of Genesis] begins with the triumphant account of God creating the world in six days and declaring it ‘very good’, and it ends with Joseph confidently looking forward to his burial in the promised land. Judges by contrast opens with the rather ineffective efforts of the Israelite tribes to conquer that land and closes after a most dreadful civil war with the gloomy reflection, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (21:25).” Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), page 45.
6. Anderson, pages 162-163.
7. Anderson, page 184.
8. A helpful book to me was In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972), on the freedom of David.
9. Childs, Biblical Theology, pages 154-55
10. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 562, 566.
11. Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, chapter 10.
12. Goldworthy, page 52. Goldworthy notes that the political kind of kingdom extended from the exodus (and holy war) through the historical books and through the conquest of David and eventually the nation’s destruction. “After that, the Holy War and divine deliverance notion is reinforced in the account of Esther and the Maccabees, historic events occurring against the background of prophetic and apocalyptic portrayals of the victories of the people of God and the glorious restoration of the nation, its land, temple, and kingly rule. In all this the Passover imagery of the slain lamb of God, the sufferings and rejection of the anointed David before his final vindication, and the suffering servant of the Lord seem to have been forgotten.” Thus the political nature of God’s kingdom has been there but not at the expense of the images that Jesus also brought into his announcement of the kingdom (page 53).
13. Goldworthy, page 53.
14. “King, Kingship,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. By Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), page 451.
15. Halley’s Bible Handbook, by Henry H. Halley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pages 283-284.
16. Anderson, pp. 603-605.
17. Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 283.