I have good news. It’s not hard to basically understand the Old Testament. You do have to do some work in order to learn, but it’s not like learning advanced mathematics or abstract philosophy or some other “hard” subject from school. Learning to comprehend the Old Testament is more like understanding a story a friend is telling you. You have to actually listen and you may have to ask some questions, but it isn’t hard and almost anybody can do it. If you can read this, you can certainly understand the Old Testament.
If you think of the Old Testament as a friend telling you a long story, in order to understand your friend’s story you’ll need to learn a few key things. You need to know the basic story line. You need to clarify some of the new words or new ideas he uses, like what he means when he talks about “covenants.” You also need to understand the way he is talking, how to tell the difference between a story, a joke, an angry rant, a song or a command.
To start with, you should know the Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books written over a space of about one thousand years. They cover a period of history beginning with the creation of the world and stretching to about four hundred years before Jesus was born. It was written in this time period by Jewish people and all but a few chapters is written in Hebrew. The fact that it was written in Hebrew shouldn’t bother you, though. Since God speaks all languages, His truth translates into your language in a way that you can understand and which will accomplish what He wants in your heart and life. Most of the Old Testament relates to God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, but it’s really about God’s plan to bless the human race. This is because God had chosen Israel and was working through Israel so that He could use them to bless everyone else.
First, there are seventeen historical books. Not surprisingly, these tell history and mostly consist of stories. The next five are called the poetical books. They consist of the Psalms, which is Israel’s song and prayer book, and four books of wisdom. The Wisdom books, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, deal with questions about the meaning of life and practical issues of how to understand the world and live well in it. They are called poetical because they are mostly written in poetic form. The final seventeen are the prophetic books. These were written by men who spoke directly for God. You can think of them as the letters God wrote his people. They are a wonderful way to grow to understand God. Imagine that you have a grandfather you never knew and would like to know what he was like. It would be hard to imagine a better way than to find and read a collection of personal letters he had written to your grandmother over the years.
Song of Solomon
Many people have heard individual stories from the Old Testament, or at least have heard of characters from the Old Testament. However, when Noah, Moses, David, Jonah, and others lived in relation to each other is a big mystery and can be confusing. This makes it very hard to understand their significance. There are also many people who know nothing from the Old Testament at all. Both of these beginning points have their advantages and disadvantages. The first group has more information to start with, the second group doesn’t have to unlearn anything, so it doesn’t matter which of these two groups you fall into. If you read the Old Testament, you can understand it.
I am going to take you through the whole Old Testament twice in this lesson, with the second time being longer than the first to help you have a framework to understand the stories of the Old Testament. Think of it as building shelves in your mind so you have somewhere to put the information.
God made the world and the human race. He made the world a good place and he made humanity good. His intention was that the earth would be the place where we would meet Him and have a relationship with Him. He also gave us an assignment: to care for the earth in cooperation with Him as His representatives.
However, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, were tempted to disobey God. They believed that they knew what is good and what is evil better than God does, and they sinned. When this happened, they brought death into the world. Nevertheless, God did not reject the human race or his Creation. He was determined to bless us and the fact that we had rejected Him did not change this. Since we could not save ourselves, He would save us.
He chose one man, Abraham, to establish the nation salvation would come through. This was the nation of Israel. They became slaves in Egypt and so God saved them using Moses. He gave them his Law to obey and a land to live in. As a nation, they were supposed to guard his teachings and be an example to other nations of how much better it is to obey the Lord than to serve other gods. He eventually gave them kings. One of these kings, David, he chose to be the person through whom the Savior would eventually come. Before the Savior came, Israel was evil and disobeyed God, not at all doing the assignment He had for them. He sent many prophets to warn them, but they would not listen, so He expelled them from their land. After seventy years, He allowed them to return. The Old Testament ends with a small group of Israelites living near Jerusalem wondering how God would fulfill His promises. How would He undo the effects of our sin and bless us as He had always intended? We know that they would have to wait four hundred years to find out: that God would come as Jesus to save them Himself.
Now that you know roughly where the story goes, I’ll go over it again with more detail.
This is found in Genesis chapters 1-11. There we learn the starting point of the story of our human race. These establish the foundation for everything that follows by explaining why the world is the way that it is. They answer basic human questions such as why the world seems on the one hand so good and on the other so bad. It tells us the origin of many things that are familiar to all humans such as marriage, families and nations.
Creation – God made the world and he made it a good place. He designed it to be the place where mankind would meet Him and have a relationship with Him. He placed the first humans, Adam and Eve, in a wonderful Garden where they were supposed to enjoy working and being friends with God.
Rebellion – However, Adam and Eve were tempted by the Devil to disobey God. They believed that they knew what is good and what is evil better than God does, and they chose to trust the Devil and their own judgment instead of God. When this happened, they brought the curse of death, toil and suffering into the world. God kicked them out of the Garden for their own good, but also promised that one day someone would be born to a woman who would crush the Devil’s head. This was the first hint that death is not the end of the story.
Flood – Adam and Eve’s first child was Cain, and he became the first murderer when he killed his brother out of jealousy. From this we see that that when Adam and Eve went down the path of rebellion against God, all their descendants would do so as well. After this, humanity became so bad that the world was not a safe place for God to complete His plan to reverse the effects of our sin and truly bless us. So He started over, in a sense, by wiping the earth clean with a flood and saving only one man, Noah, and his family.
Languages – After the Flood, the human race was supposed to spread out across the land, but we wanted to stay together because we still think we know what is good for ourselves better than God does. He confused our languages to divide us into nations, limit the amount of mischief we could get into, and force us to spread out.
In Genesis chapters 12-50 we see God beginning a special work with one family.
God then chose one man, Abraham, through whom he would bless all humanity. Abraham had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob. God gave Jacob a new name: Israel. Jacob had twelve sons and their descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel. God promised Abraham and his family that they would one day possess the land of Canaan, modern Palestine. In the days of Jacob’s son Joseph, the family of Israel moved to Egypt to escape a famine. The story pauses here at the end of Genesis, with some of God’s promises being fulfilled, Abraham had many descendants, but some were not (they were just a large family, not a nation, and they did not possess the land they had been promised.)
Fulfillment and Failure
In Exodus – I Samuel we see God’s promises fulfilled, but also a lot of failure on the part of His people, Israel.
Exodus: Some generations after Abraham the Israelites had grown from a large family into a whole nation and were slaves in Egypt. God used Moses to save them and bring them out. Since the Egyptians wouldn’t let them go, God sent ten plagues against them until they would. Then he led Israel across the Red Sea out of Egypt into the Wilderness.
Law: God offered to take Israel as his special people, out of all the nations of the earth. He gave them laws and instructions on how to live, starting with the Ten Commandments. They agreed to this and God had them build the Tabernacle, a special tent where God would live among humans again, like He had in the Garden. God wanted them to build a society that would show other nations that it is best to worship the true and living God. They were supposed to be a light to draw other nations back to God. However, they failed over and over, doubting God, and rebelling against God. Finally, God said that the whole generation He had brought out of Egypt would die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. The story pauses here again at the end of Deuteronomy, again with some promises fulfilled, Israel was now a nation, and some not, they did not possess their land.
Conquest and Judges: After 40 years, when the whole generation was dead. Moses died and Joshua led Israel into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. They captured part of it, but quickly settled into a pattern of abandoning God, being oppressed by enemies, crying out for help, then God sending a judge to deliver them, only to start rebelling all over again after the judge died.
In I Samuel – I Kings we see Israel become a kingdom ruled by kings.
Israel was eventually ruled by kings. There were three kings who ruled over the whole nation. These were Saul, David and Solomon. God promised David that his descendant would rule forever. No doubt David thought this meant that his descendants would rule forever one after the other, but we now know that there is one of his descendants, Jesus, who rules and will rule as king forever. David’s son, Solomon built the Temple of God in Jerusalem to be the place where He was specially present on earth.
In I Kings – II Kings we see Israel split into two nations.
After Solomon, there was a rebellion and the nation split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. During this whole time, the nation was often unfaithful to God. They followed other gods and were not particularly concerned to do what God told them and so were not a light for the other nations. The Lord sent many prophets to warn them and turn them back from their evil lives, but Israel did not change.
Because Israel did not keep their agreements with God, He expelled them from their land.
Eventually, the Lord sent enemies against them and they were totally defeated. Their cities were destroyed, and they were taken away to live in exile in a foreign land. This happened first to the Northern kingdom and then the Southern. Very importantly, the Temple was destroyed, which indicated that the Lord was no longer living among the human race.
God brought His people back.
After seventy years in exile, God graciously allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their land and build a temple, but He did not give them a king. He sent them more prophets to guide them, but then became silent for about four hundred years until he came to them himself as Jesus. So the Old Testament ends on a note of waiting.
So what we have is: Foundations, Family, Fulfillment and Failure, King, Kingdoms, Kicked Out, and Came Back.
This is very important to remember so it will be included in every lesson.
|Famous stories and people
|Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
|Genesis 1 – 11
|Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
|Genesis 12 – 50
|286 years followed by about 280 in Egypt
|Fulfillment and Failure
|Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering, Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth
|Exodus – I Samuel 10, Ruth
|Saul, David, Solomon
|1 Samuel 11 – I Kings 11; 1 Chronicles 10 – 2 Chronicles 9
|Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
|1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 25, Jonah,
2 Chronicles 10 – 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 1 – 38
|Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
|2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 39 – 52, Daniel
|48 or 70, depending on where you start and end
|Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
|Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
Questions for Discussion
What are some basic barriers to Christians reading the OT? What is the biggest barrier for you?
Can you summarize the OT story?
Was anything surprising or new in this lesson? Is there a section of the OT that this lesson has made you curious about? Why?
Making children play separately is a technique parents sometimes use to keep children from getting into trouble. What kinds of trouble does it keep them from? Under what circumstances is this a good strategy? Does this give you any insight into why God divided human languages?
How confident do you feel that you can understand the OT?
This lesson emphasized that there were many times in the history of God’s people when some promises were fulfilled, but they had to wait for the fulfillment of some others. What promises of God have we seen fulfilled now, and what are we waiting for?