This is the second entry in the “Year 1, Quarter 4 material”. We are going to discuss the books of history in the Old Testament. Check out the other topics in this quarter’s material:
What is sin?
Overview Books of History
Conquering of Canaan
The Story of the Bible
Major Character: Joshua
Memory Verse: Joshua 1:7-9
These posts are created to slowly work through with your kids. They are focussed on more challenging topics that will engage young people who are beginning to adopt God’s story as their own.
What are the books of history about?
The books of history continue the story from the first five books of the Bible. In many ways, the division between the torah and the books of History is more traditional than as a result of a subject, content, or genre change.
The Bible is a collection of books that tell the story of God and what he’s done for us. The authors of the ‘books of history’ used the genre of narrative almost exclusively in their writings.
We summarize the subject of the books of history as discussing:
Israel in the promised land.
This gives us a very broad overview of what all goes on after the book of Deuteronomy. In the first five books of the Bible, we are introduced to the God of the Bible, Yahweh, who has undertaken a rescue mission of sorts. He has called out a single family, whose patriarch is Abraham, and has established a covenant with them to be his people. He has reaffirmed this covenant with one of Abraham’s descendants, Moses. And in the Torah we also see him restate and renew his covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation of Israel.
The books of history then guide us through the goings-on in this partition of land that God had promised to Abraham several hundred years before. We finally get to see Israel’s invasion of Canaan and then trace their national history for centuries as they try to live as faithful partners in God’s covenant.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go very well.
With a few prominent exceptions, Israel’s national history in Canaan is a long, sad story of failure and misery. And even more strangely, these books end with us wondering if this whole endeavor undertaken by God was a failure of national proportions.
In what ways are the books of history similar to the books found in the Torah? In what ways are they different?
Based on what we know about the human project that God has undertaken thus far, what should we expect to see once Israel enters the promised land?
Because these books are organized into different ‘sections,’ we sometimes view them as wholly different from the books that come before them. But like the Star Wars series, it would be strange to insist that the most recent episodes (VII and VIII) are completely unrelated to the originals.
Even though the movies are directed, organized, written and (mostly) cast with different characters, it is clear that the movies are meant to be understood as a continuation of the previous trilogy.
Another way to think about this collection of books is to look at the ‘side-movies’ that are being produced (Rogue One and Solo). The books of Ruth, Esther, and even Ezra-Nehemiah seem to fit into this kind of genre; narratives with important things to say about God’s character, but aren’t more ‘official’ and ‘standard’ fare like their neighboring books.
What are these books actually about?
We are going to do a very high-level overview of each book and also provide a bunch of resources to look at each in more depth.
Quick side note. You might notice that we clumped together First and Second Samuel into “Samuel”, First and Second Kings into “Kings”, First and Second Chronicles into “Chronicles” and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah into “Ezra-Nehemiah.” If you are interested into the history of these different works and how they have been organized and sorted through the ages, check out this resource here.
This book picks up where the book of Deuteronomy leaves off. Moses has just died and Joshua is called to take Israel into the promised land. The book is about the conquering and dividing of the promised land.
The first half of the book deals with Israel’s conquering of Canaan. It begins by signaling that God will powerfully support Joshua in the same way he did Moses. The Israelites cross a body of water in the same miraculous way they did when leaving Egypt. Once they enter the land, they consecrate themselves and celebrate their first Passover in the land. The manna ceases to fall from heaven and the people now rely on the resources of Canaan to eat.
The subsequent war probably takes about seven years and likely involved dozens if not hundreds of different battles and skirmishes. We only get to read about three of them, though:
Battle of Jericho - God fights for Israel when they are faithful (ch 5)
Battle of Ai - God will not allow Israel to succeed in disobedience
Battle on behalf of the Gibeonites - God wants to fight on behalf of all people if they reach out to him
The author chooses these three battles to help us understand God’s character and why he is bringing the Israelites into Canaan. After this final battle, we get very generic descriptions of the remaining conflict and then a verbal map of how the territories are laid out in Canaan and distributed to the various tribes. The second half of the book can be challenging for even the most committed Bible scholars to read through. We are working on a companion resource to help readers visualize these concepts to better understand why this subject is included in Joshua.
After Joshua dies, there is no Moses-like leader to shepherd Israel. The book of Judges is a study into what happens as a result of this leaderless nation.
Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t go well.
Twelve judges (or “chieftains”) are empowered by God to rule over Israel, but they usually only arise after Israel first abandons God and then suffers oppression from another people-group. Judges 2:11-3:6 summarizes a cycle sometimes called the “Cycle of Apostacy.” This cycle is repeated multiple times throughout the book. Twelve judges are named in the work and we get to read detailed accounts of six of them.
Additionally, the book goes from mediocre judges (Gideon/Deborah) to absolutely terrible human beings (Samson). The book ends with a series of stories showing the absolute depravity of Israel and concludes with the statement:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
This book helps us understand what leads to the next set of books, which describe how Israel comes to have kings. If you’ve never read through Judges before, be sure that your kids are ready for some hyper-violent and brutal stories of failure. These are tough stories to digest, but excellent material to understand what happens to people when they no longer recognize God or his character.
In four short chapters, this book gives a beautiful picture of what faithfulness looks like. It is a much-needed pick-me-up after our journey through the book of judges. It also helps restore some of our faith in the people of Israel and reminds us that not all people turned away from God during the time of the judges.
The book is set near the end of the period of Judges and tells the story of a woman named Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. Ruth is the hero and main character of this story and shows devotion and love for her widowed mother even though Ruth is not even an Israelite! Ruth ends up marrying a man who redeems her late husband’s land and inheritance. Through this wonderful tale, we find out that God has chosen this special line of faithful people to eventually birth God’s chosen king, David.
This work is not primarily about Samuel. Samuel is a priest and prophet who becomes the “kingmaker” of Israel; anointing the kings that God asks him to. The story is primarily about the rise and fall of two kings of Israel. Saul is the first of these kings. After the catastrophe of judges, we have high hopes for Saul, but with a careful reading of first Samuel, we can see that Saul is chosen as king for all the wrong reasons by the people.
After a lot of chaos, misdirected hatred, and ineptitude, Saul dies and David ascends to the throne. David is not Saul’s heir but is the next king who has been anointed by Samuel. David is about as opposite as one can be from Saul in character, appearance, and actions. At the end of First Samuel, we see David’s chance to reign. We also find out that David is promised a descendant who will bring about God’s promise to Abraham (2 Samuel 7). Maybe David and his progeny will be different kinds of Kings?
Not so much. Second Samuel is a tale of David making tragic decisions that lead to the destruction of his family and that ultimately destroys and divides Israel. God does not give up on this human project, though. In spite of all the failure, God seems to be patiently working to bring about a kingdom he desires.
David’s son Solomon is commissioned by David and God to build a temple. No longer will Israel worship their God in a tent, but they will now build a permanent house of worship. We end the book of Second Samuel hoping that Solomon can turn things around, but pretty sure that he will fail just like his predecessors.
The work of Kings traces the Kingdom of Israel from end of David’s reign to the time of exile for the entire kingdom. Exile is not a good thing, and as you may have guessed it, this work is another disappointing look into the failure of the Israelites to live up to God’s standard for his people.
After King Solomon dies, the kingdom splits into two:
Northern Kingdom (Israel)
Southern Kingdom (Judah)
The author then traces 20 kings from the north and 20 kings from the south, showing how the vast majority did not act like Kings were supposed to act:
This work also reintroduces us to an important type of character called a Prophet. The last influential prophet on the scene was Samuel. Now Kings gives us two key figures in Elijah and Elisha. The prophetic role in Israel is not primarily about telling the future or making predictions, but about being a mouthpiece for God. Prophets take on a role of speaking truth to power and confronting kings with the words of God.
The book ends by recounting how Assyria destroys the Northern Kingdom and takes them into captivity, followed by Judah falling to the armies of Babylon and being taken into captivity.
If you have ever undertaken a ‘read the Bible in a year’ type reading plan, then you have undoubtedly read through the books of Samuel and Kings, and then started into the books of Chronicles to find out that you are re-reading a lot of the same material! What’s up with that? Well, the books definitely share a lot of their source material but offer key differences. The differences reveal the hope for a future king to fulfill the Messianic promise given to David and a hope for a temple restoration in Jerusalem.
This work was most likely compiled, edited, and completed after Israel’s return from Exile in Babylon and in Jewish tradition it is the last book of the Old Testament because it summarizes the entire story of the Jews, from creation to the return from exile. In our tradition of ordering, it is placed before Ezra because the two works seem to have been edited and made to be a two-volume set (II Chronicles ends exactly where Ezra picks up).
Chronicles begins with genealogies to outline and recall the stories of the promised Messiah as well as the priesthood up to post-exile Judah. These genealogies are followed by the ‘good stories’ about David, portraying him as an ‘ideal king’ who will be a type of the coming Messianic King. This portion of Chronicles is followed in second Chronicles by a series of what seem to be kingly character studies which show blessing to Israel when kings act rightly and curses when they fail. The book ends strangely with an unfinished sentence as King Cyrus decrees that Israel can return from exile.
Just like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah is a single work that has been broken into two books in our Bibles. The book has three main characters, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Each one of these characters follows the same pattern; first, they are sent home to Jerusalem by the King of Persia, then they encounter resistance in their task, then their effort ends without a strong resolution.
Zerubbabel leads the first wave of Israelites back to rebuild the temple. They are successful in rebuilding the temple, but the presence of God never descends upon the temple.
The next leader is Ezra who returns to Jerusalem to teach Torah and lead a spiritual renewal. There is a conflict with some exiles who had married non-exilic and (some) non-Israeli people from around Jerusalem. Ezra and Israel’s leaders then command these men to divorce these women, but this command is only partially carried out and the book leads us to understand that this is probably not the wisest of commands anyway.
Lastly, we encounter Nehemiah, who returns to Jerusalem a few years after Ezra to rebuild the wall of the city of Jerusalem. This task meets resistance and Nehemiah provokes the anger of the surrounding people as he builds a wall to keep them out and they end up having to use an armed guard to finish the construction.
The narrative concludes with a celebration of the work, but also a tragic overview of the incomplete nature of all the work in Jerusalem. Ezra-Nehemiah helps draw out that the Israelites will need to continue to look to the future for the prophetic fulfillment of God’s promises… cause it ain’t happened yet!
Similar to the book of Ruth, Esther is a stand-alone narrative that shows God at work behind the scenes and in all things. The book centers around four main characters. There is Esther, who is a beautiful young Israelite woman living in exile in Persia with her older, Jewish cousin Mordecai, as well as the King of Persia, Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes), and the king’s chief advisor, Haman.
The book’s plot centers around Haman trying to destroy the Mordecai and the Jewish people, but God foiling his plans through Esther’s bold actions. God ends up humbling the proud and exalting the downtrodden Jews.
The book introduces the Feast of Purim, which is a celebration of the Jew’s deliverance from the King’s decree to kill them.
How can God’s story shape us if we remain unfamiliar with it?
Why does God use so much narrative storytelling in his scripture? What does that tell us about our own storytelling?
If someone took your favorite movie trilogy or book series and boiled it down to a few ‘rules to live by’ based on the author’s intended outcome, would you endorse that summary?
Would there still be a point in reading the books if someone revealed key ideas in the stories?