Bible "Cliff Notes": The Old Testament

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The Old Testament

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MP3 Audio (5.6 MB)


Bible "Cliff Notes": The Old Testament

MP3 Audio (5.6 MB)

Have you ever attempted to read the Bible cover to cover, but felt lost in the genealogies, chronology or customs of ancient biblical times? The Bible can be intimidating, but hopefully I can help you understand your Bible in its grander context so that you can feel confident in choosing a book of the Bible to dive into. Together we will explore the basic timeline of the Old and New Testament, as well as the time between the two testaments and how the Scripture came to be.

The Bible as we see it today must first be understood as a canon of books which are not arranged in chronological order. This is because the Bible is a collection of books which were written by many authors over thousands of years under the divine inspiration of God (1 Timothy 3:16). When compiled together, these ancient books have been arranged and rearranged many times over the centuries. Some of these ancient books are meant to be read alongside other historical accounts in the Bible, and others are simply meant to be read on their own. In this study, it may be useful to follow along using the index of your Bible.

To begin, let’s examine the Old Testament books, which have been broken down into three main sections: the Torah or Law (meaning “teaching”), the Prophets and the Writings. The first section comprises the first five books of the Bible (also known as the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These accounts tell of the world’s creation and origins of man, the covenants (agreements) that God made with men, and the story of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. From these patriarchs came the Israelite nation. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, had 12 sons, and their tribes became known as the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 49). Israel was enslaved by Egypt, but delivered by God by the infamous plagues and parting of the Red Sea. After their deliverance, Israel journeyed towards the land of Canaan, which God had promised to give them. Along the way God gave His commandments to the people of Israel and established a group of priests to mediate Israel’s relationship with God.

The second section of the Old Testament is the Prophets. The prophetic books are broken down into two subdivisions: the “Former” Prophets and the “Latter” Prophets. The Former Prophets include the books of Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings. This collection records the Israelite nation conquering and settling the land of Canaan, then rejecting God’s administration over their lives. At first the Israelites had judges and priests established by God to lead the people. But in the books of Samuel the people demanded that God govern Israel through kings like the surrounding nations (1 Samuel 8).

These kings eventually led the Israelites to their demise. There were good kings such as David, Hezekiah and Josiah, but there were also bad kings such as Saul, Jeroboam and Ahab. The Israelite people divided into two nations when King Rehoboam taxed the people of God to an excruciating level (1 Kings 12). The 10 northern tribes followed a new king, Jeroboam, and the tribe of Judah (and parts of the tribes of Levi and Benjamin), remained with King Rehoboam, forming a new nation in the south, called Judah. This nation of Judah is where the Jews of our day originate. Though Jeroboam did not raise taxes, he likewise rebelled against God and instituted pagan worship (1 Kings 12).

The second subdivision of the Prophets, the “Latter” Prophets, includes the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the 12 Minor Prophets (books Hosea through Malachi in the traditional canon). These books explain the grievous fall of the Israelite kingdoms during the time of the kings. Both of these nations—the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah—were conquered because of their rebellious nature and rejection of God’s government. First the nation of Israel was conquered and scattered by the empire of Assyria (2 Kings 15). Then came the nation of Judah, which was conquered and deported by the empire of Babylon some 130 years later (2 Kings 24). Thus the people of God longed for their prophesied eternal King, the Messiah, who would restore their nation.

First and Second Chronicles, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah are not included in the Prophets section. However, they take place during the time leading up to and during Judah’s Babylonian captivity, including the destruction and restoration of their capital and temple in Jerusalem. In the time leading up to Judah’s captivity, Chronicles quotes directly from Samuel and Kings and is separate from the Former Prophets because it focuses on the roles of priests instead of the prophets. Next, Daniel’s story takes place during Judah’s captivity, and records the conquest of Babylon by the Persian Empire. Ezra and Nehemiah give the account of Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in Jerusalem, where they rebuilt the city walls and the temple (Ezra 1).

The third major sections of the Old Testament is the Writings. This section includes the poetic books of Psalms, Proverbs and Job, as well as five additional books: Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon), Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. These books are placed throughout the books of the Prophets. For example, the Psalms were mostly written during the life and reign of King David. Most of Proverbs was written by Solomon, along with Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah when the nations of Israel and Judah were destroyed. Ruth was also written during the period of the Judges, while Esther was written during the reign of the Persian Empire. Some scholars believe that the book of Job took place around the time the patriarch Abraham lived, however it is not mentioned specifically in the book.

These three sections of the Old Testament—the Law, Prophets and Writings—are vital in understanding the Bible in its greater framework. The Old Testament explains the background of God’s people, Israel, but it was also the text that Jesus Christ and his followers used in the New Testament. Next in this series, we will explore how the manuscripts of the Bible came to be, and what happened to the Israelite people between the Old and New Testament. Following this, we will address the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and the beginnings of Christianity in the New Testament.


  • hniccum

    I look forward to reading the next one. This is a great over view aid, thank you!

  • Amanda Boyer

    Hi Helen, Im glad you enjoyed this piece. The last two arts of this series have been posted!


  • rockygirl

    Thank you Amanda! I am eagerly awaiting the continuation of this series. I have printed out this article and it is by my bedside where I do most of my reading. I will use it as a guideline for my studies.

  • Amanda Boyer

    Awesome! Hope that you find the rest of the series is just as helpful!

  • sduckert

    This is a very informative article Amanda and I'm looking forward to the next in the series! Thank you!

  • Amanda Boyer

    Thanks! I appreciate that very much!

  • DanielSnedden

    Thank you for this overview Amanda. I know that most members know this by heart. Unfortunately new members have missed out on the information imparted in the past to the church members. I look forward to the rest of the series. Thanks again!

  • Amanda Boyer

    Thanks Daniel! For many years I was also in that boat, not knowing the basic historical outline of the Bible. And I still feel that there is so much more to learn! Much of the Old Testament after the Pentateuch, especially the Major and Minor prophets were hard for me to comprehend in the grand scheme of things! So I hope this helps anyone who finds Bible history intimidating like me!

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