Old Testament – Overview

Biblical historical background and cultures form the most significant part of Bible Study as it is in the light of such cultures / influences / background and times, we need to understand the scriptures. The same also provides a wholistic view in comprehending the Word of God. I completely fathom that many of us aspiring to learn the Word of God may not consider this topic interesting or noteworthy, sometimes the same may also be very daunting and confusing, hence, I shall trod on this topic very slowly and shall endeavour to provide it to the learners in a structured and easy way.

Israelite History

The history of Israel is approx. 4000 years old (from Abraham till present). The Modern Nation of Independent Israel was established in the year 1948 by mandate of United Nations after the Second World War. The land in the Bible known as Canaan, Israel and/ or Palestine was continuously under foreign dominion and ruled by six major Empires, i) Egypt, ii) Assyria, iii) Babylon, iv) Persia, v) Greece, vi) Rome.

Israel enjoyed only 2 relatively short periods of independence in between times during the rule of the super Empires prior to 1948.

1st Period : BC 1030 – 930

This was the Golden Age of the Israelite period under the Monarchy of King Saul, King David and King Solomon. Israel triumphed, progressed, prospered. It was also a period when the might of the Egyptian nation was on a decline but the nation of Assyria was rising in leap and bounds. King David was the best leader that Israel ever had and his star also forms a part of the Israelite current flagship.

2nd Period : BC 164 – 63

This was the period of restoration of Jewish independence under the Maccabean dynasty (the Books of Maccabees). It was also a period when the might of the Greek nation was on a decline but the nation of Rome was rising in leap and bounds.

Further, 2 major events rocked the people of Israel and changed the course of Israelite history. The same also had an impact on the Bible.

1st Event : BC 587

The Babylonian Empire completely rampaged the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Jerusalem temple (First Temple built by King Solomon) commencing the Babylonian rule which ended in BC 539

2nd Period : AD 70

The Roman Empire completely rampaged the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Jerusalem temple (Second Temple built by King Herod) causing the Jews to lose the Holy Land, which ended in AD 1948. It was during this time, after AD 70 that Matthew and Luke penned their Gospels.

The third heart breaking event that traumatized the Israelites was the recent Holocaust era under the Nazi regime headed by Hitler, during the Second World War.

The Old Testament History

The Old Testament History can be summarized under 6 major heads:

  • The Pre Historical Era
  • The Time of patriarchs
  • The Time of Exodus (From Egypt to the Promised land)
  • The Time of Judges
  • The Time of Monarchy
  • The Time of Prophets

The Old Testament History in a nut shell

The Israelite History or the Old Testament commences from the call of Abraham.

The 12 Sons of his grandson Jacob (Abraham – father of Issac, Isaac – father of Jacob), constitute the 12 tribes of Israel (see Genesis Ch 49, esp vs 28).

The 12 tribes settle in Egypt due to famine and are oppressed under the Egyptians for 400 years. The greatest escape/ exodus under the Leadership of Moses marks the defining moment of Israelite History. The Covenant at Mount Sinai makes Israel a covenant nation.

The Confederation of the 12 tribes enter the Promised Land and are led by Joshua and then Judges (See the Book of Judges).

The 12 tribes are later united under the monarchy of King Saul. King David succeeds King Saul, consolidates his rule and expands his kingdom. The Golden rule of Israel begins and continues with King Solomon, who majestically builds the first Jerusalem temple and centralizes worship in Jerusalem. The death of King Solomon in BC 930 commences the succession struggles and Israel is divided into 2 kingdoms in BC 922 , i) The Northern Kingdom & ii) The Southern Kingdom

The Northern Kingdom is led by corrupt and disobedient Kings, its reign is short lived : BC 922 to 721. Assyria attacks the Northern Kingdom of Israel in BC 721 and its Capital Samaria resulting in diaspora of the Israelite people, the Northern Kingdom is now invaded and habitated by foreigners & mixed marriages result in a rift between the Southern & Northern Kingdom of Israel

The Southern Kingdom or the Kingdom of Judah is led by good / corrupt and disobedient Kings, however, its reign is too short lived : BC 922 to 587. Babylon attacks the Southern Kingdom of Israel and its Capital Jerusalem in BC 587, resulting in deportation of upper class Jews viz, Priest, artisans, officials to Babylon, the others flee to Egypt.

The New Testament History

The New Testament History can be summarized under 2 major heads:

  • The Time of Jesus and
  • The time of the Church

The Old Testament History

Important Historical dates – Major events that impacted the Bible are indicated in red

1800 – 1700 : Genesis Ch 12 – 50

  • Call of Abraham, promise of the promised land,
  • The first four generations of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Twelve Sons of Jacob

1700 – 1300 : Genesis Ch 46 – 50, Exodus Ch 1 & 2

  • Israelites in Egypt, 400 years of slavery

1270 : Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy

  • The 10 Plagues
  • Passover
  • Exodus from Egypt (possibly during the reign of Pharoah Rameses II, 1279-1213)
  • Torah/Covenant on Mount Sinai;
  • Wandering in the Desert for 40 years

1200 – 1030 : Joshua, Judges, Ruth

  • The conquest of Promised Land led by Joshua
  • Confederation of the tribes of Israel
  • Period of “Judges,” (Military/political leaders) – Othniel, Ehud, Shagmar, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Yair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson (refer the Book of Judges)
  • Finally, Eli (priest) and Samuel (prophet).

1030 – 922 : 1 & 2 Samuel & 1 Kings

  • The United Kingdom of Israel
  • The Golden age of monarchy, Egyptian power on a decline, rise of Assyrian empire
  • The unison of the 12 tribes of Israel under monarchy, Saul being the first anointed King, continuous warfare with Philistines. (BC 1030 Refer 1 Samuel)
  • King David conquers the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and makes Jerusalem the capital of all Israel; David consolidates his rule and expands the kingdom; God promises that the House of David (his descendants) will rule over Israel forever (BC 1000 Refer 1 & 2 Samuel)
  • King Solomon builds the 1st Jerusalem Temple, all worship is centralized in Jerusalem, king Solomon further expands the land of Israel and influence (BC 970 Refer 1 Kings Ch 1 – 11)
  • King Solomon dies in BC 930, struggles for the throne succession for several years
  • In BC 922, the United Kingdom of Israel is divided into 2 parts, The Northern Kingdom (called the Kingdom of Israel) & the Southern Kingdom (called the Kingdom of Judah) [Refer 1 & 2 Kings & 1 & 2 Chronicles]

922 – 721 : The Northern Kingdom of Israel (Refer 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles)

  • The Kingdom is ruled by several disobedient & corrupt kings, much political intrigue and challenges by prophets, e.g. Elijah & Elisha
  • In BC 722 / 721, Assyria conquers the Northern Kingdom and its capital city Samaria resulting in deportation of most Israelites to places unknown; importation of foreigners into the territories of Northern Israel resulting in conflict / rift between the Jews & the Samaritans

922 – 587 : The Southern Kingdom of Israel (Refer 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles)

  • The Kingdom is ruled by descendants of King David, some obedient and some disobedient to the Lord.
  • In BC 720, King Hezekiah implemented religious reforms; built the Hezekiah’s tunnel & successfully resisted Assyrian takeover
  • In BC 620 – King Josiah (reign 640 – 609) implemented religious reforms after discovering the book of Deuteronomy
  • In BC 605,  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated the Egyptians in the Battle of Carchemish; territory of Judah became a part of the Babylonian Empire
  • King Jehoiakim of Judah led the first unsuccessful revolt against Babylon in BC 597 resulting in ruling elite of Judah being exiled to Babylon & puppet king being installed
  • King Zedekiah of Judah led the second unsuccessful revolt against Babylon in BC 587 resulting in total destruction of the City and Temple of Jerusalem by Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar; many more Jews exiled

587 – 539 : The Babylonian exile

  • Most upper-class Jews (officials, priests, artisans) deported to Babylon; others flee to Egypt, etc
  • Hebrew Bible written, significantly major prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah & Ezekiel;
  • Final compilation of the Torah/ Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) & the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua to 2 Kings) by Judean scribes living in exile.

539 – 332 : The Persian Era

  • The rise of the Persian empire and the downslide of the Babylonian empire
  • King Cyrus of Persia conquers the Babylonian empire in BC 539 and all deported Jews are allowed to return to their homelands;
  • The Jews are encouraged to rebuild the city and temple of Jerusalem
  • The Second Temple in Jerusalem is re-built under Zerubbabel during BC 520 – 515 (but not as nice or large as Solomon’s Temple), people are dejected
  • During BC 458 – 445, more exiles return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra & Nehemiah; religious and political reforms commence (Refer Books of Ezra & Nehemiah)
  • Other Jews remain living in various parts of the Middle East, sometimes encountering conflict with others (Refer Book of Esther)

332 – 141 : The Greek / Hellenistic Era

  • Conquest of the entire Persian Empire by a Macedonian general, Alexander the Great
  • Establishment of Greek language, Hellenistic culture, religion, and government throughout the East; founding and/or reconstruction of many new Greek-style cities (e.g. Alexandria, Antioch)
  • In BC 323, Alexander dies at a very young age; entire empire divided among four of his generals, who fight against each other for control in the “Wars of the Diadochi”; eventually two dynasties control most of the East: the Ptolemies & the Seleucids
  • 323-198 – Ptolemaic dynasty rulers in Egypt control Palestine (Judea, Samaria, etc.) – few historical records;
  • BC 250 – Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek
  • 198-141 – Seleucid dynasty from Syria rules over Palestine; growing pressure on Jews to assimilate & accept Greek culture

167 – 63 : The Maccabean Era

  • In BC 167, Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrates the Jewish temple, i.e. statues of Greek gods are set up in the Jewish temple sparking a revolt by pious rural Jews led by Mattathias (an old priest) and successfully carried on after his death by his sons, especially Judas “Maccabeus” (167-61) – eldest son, nicknamed “the hammer”
  • In BC 164, Maccabean revolt is successful: most of Jerusalem regained
  • “Rededication” of the Jerusalem Temple (still celebrated by Jews in the Feast of Hanukkah!)
  • In BC 161-142 – Jonathan (another son of Mattathias), led the continued fight against the Seleucids to gain control gradually over more of Israel
  • 141-63 BCE – Maccabean Era/ Hasmonean Dynasty – another short period of Jewish independence under various Maccabean/ Hasmonean rulers

63 – 4 : The Roman Era

  • In BC 63, Roman army under General Pompey takes over much of Middle East, including Israel
  • In BC 40, the Roman Senate names Herod the Great as King over Judea, Idumea, Perea, Samaria and Galilee
  • During BC 40-37, Herod fights to gain sole control over Israel; defeats & executes Antigonus II (who was high priest 40-37)
  • During BC 37-7, Herod consolidates his power, executes scores of enemies and begins massive building/ rebuilding projects, (cites with Roman temples, huge artificial harbour, fortresses).
  • Most significantly, Herod undertakes the project of rebuilding & expanding the Jerusalem Temple [the project was completed in 46 years (John 2:20) and stood tall in all majesty and glory]
  • During BC 7-4, near the end of his reign, Herod is paranoid about losing power, so has several sons and wives executed
  • BC 4, Death of Herod the Great

It was during the reign of Herod the Great that JESUS CHRIST was born. Some Biblical scholars believe the year of birth to be BC 6, but church documents state the year of birth to be BC 4.

Kindly keep me in your prayers.

In Christ,

Steven Pais