Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
What about the “boring” sections?
One of the problems you might have when reading the Old Testament is what to do with the boring sections. Calling them boring doesn’t demean them. It does not mean that they are not inspired by God or valuable. It is really a comment on us readers. It is true that some sections are much harder for us to read with interest than others. The most obvious ones are sections that are mostly information intended for someone other than ourselves. These include genealogies, instructions for ceremonies, geographical descriptions of borders, or the details of constructing certain buildings. I think that many people who try to read the Old Testament quit because there are three genealogies in the first 11 chapters. I want to give you some advice here on how to deal with genealogies, and detailed ceremonial or building instructions. Here is my advice for you as you begin to read the Old Testament: Skip the boring sections. Please skip them. Even though they are valuable and useful, for you they will only be a hindrance at this point. Later, you can go back and read them, but for now, just skim past them. Remember, reading the Bible does not make God love you more. You are not penalized if you do not “do it right.” You do not get bonus points for reading the whole thing. The reason we read the Bible is not to master its contents, but to know the God who speaks through it, so if part of it hinders this, leave it for now. Reading it in order to know more is actually harmful and results in Christians who know their Bible far better than they know their God.
How much background information do you need in order to understand the Bible?
Do you have to understand ancient politics, religious beliefs and economics in order to understand what is taught in the Old Testament? This simple question does not have a simple answer. Every reader approaches what they are reading with their own preconceived ideas and will naturally read it from their own perspective unless they try to step out of it and read as if they were an ancient Israelite. The greater the difference between the reader’s world and the world of the original audience, the greater the chance of misunderstanding. However, our fear of these misunderstandings can be exaggerated. Remember that the Bible is not just an ordinary book. It is God’s primary tool for human beings to come to know Him and so He is present whenever someone reads it seeking Him. As a consequence, the Bible is infallible, meaning it will not fail you. It will not mislead you if you read it sensibly, normally and in faith, reading to be taught by the Bible, not to judge it. This doesn’t mean you will always get everything right, far from it. But if you are reading humbly and sensibly, don’t worry about this point.
Because the Bible is God’s Word for the whole human race, it contains in itself all you need to understand its central messages. Most of what it talks about are basic human experiences. Family relationships, marriage, people in authority, people under authority, poverty, wealth, war and peace are all universal human experiences that transcend our cultures. The main point of a story in the Old Testament can be understood by anyone, even if there are aspects that you will miss because you don’t have all the knowledge of the original readers and don’t share their culture.
Old Testament Society
However, I am going to give you a little background information about the way society was organized during the time of the Old Testament, even though you could figure this out on your own if you put in the time. Here a little help can go a long way.
Patriarchs and Obligations
The social structures of the ancient world were very different from the one we see today in movies and television from the Western world. In Europe and most of the English-speaking world, the basic unit of society is the individual and then the nuclear family (parents and their children). Culturally, the focus is on the rights that individuals have, what other people owe you. In the Old Testament, society was organized around extended families, and there was little thought of individual rights. Instead of rights, there were obligations. Instead of your rights being given to you as something you expect, the people around you had an obligation to treat you in a certain way. So we don’t read that wives have a right to be well-fed and cared for. We read that a man must provide for his wife. Even if he doesn’t love her, he must still provide for her (Ex. 21:10-11). It focuses on the obligation, not the right. Maybe you who are reading this are from such a society yourself. If not, don’t think that it’s just a dead idea from the past. More people today live in these types of societies than individualistic ones.
At the top of each family was the patriarch, who ruled the family and was to ensure that the whole family was taken care of. Traditionally, he had the power of life and death over those under him. The patriarch was usually the oldest son of the previous patriarch. Westerners would say that because the patriarch had more power, he had more rights than other people. This thinking is foreign to the world of the Old Testament. A patriarch had more power because he had far more obligations to meet. Don’t get me wrong, patriarchs did enjoy more power and prestige than others. To be the patriarch was a position people wanted to have, but the position wasn’t at all the same thing as a position of wealth and power today in the Western world. Since the West focuses on rights rather than obligations, there isn’t much that drives the powerful to care for others. Rising in power and money mostly brings benefits to yourself, because if I have money and ignore the needs of some particular person, I am not violating their rights. That needy person does not have a right to the help of some particular wealthy person. Though there are wealthy people who help needy people, this is not the same thing as an obligation. Individualistic societies tend to isolate wealth from need. In the time of the Old Testament, people didn’t evaluate a patriarch only based on how much wealth he had, but how well-off were those under his care.
Because the patriarch had more obligations, he normally received double the inheritance of his brothers. He needed more property (whether herds or land) because they are the source of the food that families depended on for survival. This is the “birthright” which features prominently in the story of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:27-34). This is why the Law of Moses is focused on land ownership and why there are laws saying that when a man dies and leaves a widow but no son, one of the other men of the family must marry her and provide a son for the childless widow. Since women didn’t own property, without a male heir to inherit the property that belonged to her dead husband, she was without means of support. She had married into the family with the expectation that she would be supported from the produce of her husband’s property and the family was obligated to make sure that happened. In societies where women can own property, these regulations are redundant, but they reflect God’s concern to care for the needs of the powerless in whatever society they live.
The case of the childless widow leads to another way ancient societies differ from Western society. People did not have the expectation that they would marry someone because they are in love. For one thing, these societies were very small and people not very mobile, so a young man or women would only know a handful of possible mates. The chances that one of these would be the “perfect other” was pretty low. Also, people had a lot of close social connections. They lived in small communities and were strongly connected to others because they saw and worked with their family members and friends every day. As a result, they had a lot of daily emotional support from close friends and relatives. There was not nearly as much pressure on the marriage relationship to be the primary source of emotional support and friendship that it is in many societies today, so couples didn’t have to be as naturally compatible to make a successful marriage. Some couples didn’t even know each other when they married. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents, though sometimes the man would negotiate on his own. This does not usually mean that the woman had no choice. She did have to consent in order to be married. This consent was usually an expression of her trust in and obedience to her parents and the standards of her community. The fact that people did not marry for love doesn’t mean that marriages weren’t loving. The idea was that romance grows from commitment, not commitment from romance. We have abandoned this idea in the modern world and have seen the collapse of marriage at the same time. This is another case where most people through history, and even in the world today, can better identify with the customs of the ancient world than our Western individualism.
It was also the custom among Israelites and the nations around them that the groom’s family gave a bride price to the family of the bride. This is still a common custom around the world today, but it can be misunderstood by people from individualistic cultures. To an American or European it can look like the husband is buying the wife from her father, as if she is property. Certainly, since humans have sinful hearts, there have been many cases where a father uses his daughter as a way to get more wealth for himself. However, this is an abuse of the system. What is really happening is that the groom is showing that he is financially capable of caring for a wife and is committed to this relationship. The bride’s father was supposed to keep the bride-price in case the husband divorced the wife or he died and his family was unable to care for her. This is why in the story of Jacob, when he asked his two wives (who were sisters) what they thought of his plan to move far away from their father, they responded, “What does it matter to us? He’s already spent our bride-price.” (Gen. 31:14-16) Their father had broken faith with them by spending the wealth he should have been saving to ensure their security. Since he has spent it, he was not a source of financial security to his daughters and so it cost them nothing financially to move away.
The fact that ancient societies were organized around extended families who were mutually obligated to each other resulted in the position of the “redeemer.” When some major event damaged the family, when something happened which made the family no longer whole, the family needed to fix the problem and set things right. The one who set it right was the redeemer. Examples of the kind of damage a redeemer would fix was when a poor family member fell into debt and had to sell his land, another family member would buy it back, or redeem it. Sometimes debt forced a person into slavery (since most slavery in Israel was a temporary condition a person was in while they paid back a debt), when this happened, often a wealthier family member would redeem him. In the case I mentioned above, the man who married the widow of his relative in order to care for her was a redeemer. When someone killed a family member one of the victim’s relatives would pursue the killer and ensure that justice was done. All of these actions were redemption. They rescued those in need and restored wholeness to the family. The Old Testament often describes God as the redeemer of His people, both as a group (Is. 47:4) and as individuals (Ps. 19:14). So when Jesus came and accomplished redemption, this was not a new or even surprising idea. The New Testament idea of redeemer and redemption are taken entirely from the Old Testament.
This also shows us that when God deals with the people of a particular culture He does not break their culture and force them to rebuild it into some ideal society. What He does with cultures is like what He does with individuals. Just as He enters the life of everyone who comes to Him and slowly transforms them to be like He is without erasing their personality, so when He enters a society, His truth slowly transforms that culture into a unique expression of godliness. The culture is still recognizable as itself, but justice and goodness can flourish there as it could not before God intervened.
Now that you have some framework for understanding I will tell you the story of the Old Testament a third time. This time I will focus more on communicating to you the chronology and geography of the stories. Being able to visualize where things are happening is helpful to understand and remember a story. Before I go into that, I want to give you some advice.
One thing that makes the Bible stand out from many other religious books is that it is about real events that really happened at a particular place and a particular time. Jesus was a real man who lived in Palestine in the first century who actually died and rose from the dead. We can visit the place he died and see the empty tomb. The Old Testament is also about real events that really happened in the real world. It isn’t a bunch of ideas that exist in the spiritual realm.
Because the Old Testament is about real events it often mentions geographical places where these events occurred. So having some understanding of the geography of these events will help you make sense of what you are reading. A lot of detailed information is available. However, most of this you don’t have to know in order to understand what is going on. In fact, when I was a child of, say, ten, I read and basically understood these stories even though I had no idea where hardly any of these locations were. I knew where Egypt was, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea (which wasn’t that helpful, since it isn’t mentioned very often), and a few other places. But to know where the Hill Country of Ephraim was or Bethel, or Beersheeba, I had no idea. I could still follow what was happening. When I learned the geography it did sometimes help me understand what was going on better, but it didn’t change the point of the story.
Because geography is important, but not very important, I won’t give you very much of it, just enough to get you oriented.
Most of what happened in the Old Testament happened in the land of Canaan, or, as it was later called, Palestine. This is where the nation of Israel lived. Here is a map that shows where it is in relation to other nations. I have labeled this land “Israel.”
The most important things to know on this map are where Israel is in relation to Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Egypt was Israel’s rich and powerful neighbor to the south. Assyria and Babylon are important because Abraham was living in this part of the world when God called him. This is where Israel was taken into exile. Although Assyria and Babylonia was mostly east of Palestine, the land directly between them was desert, so to get there you had to travel north. That is why the Bible will sometimes talk about the Assyrians or Babylonians as being in or from the north. The region I have labeled Babylonia is where the Tower of Babel was built. It is also where Abraham was when God called him and where the Israelite exiles were taken into captivity after Jerusalem was destroyed.
Here is a map of Palestine showing its physical characteristics.
You see that starting from the Mediterranean Sea, first there is a coastal plain, then foothills, then much more rugged hills and valleys. The hill country was where Israel settled when they first entered the Land under Joshua and it remained the heart and most important part of their territory. Most of the stories that take place within the Promised Land take place in the hill country.
If you want to picture the land back then by looking at photographs of Palestine today, you should know that Palestine went through two periods of significant deforestation after the days of Joshua, so the hill country was greener in the time of the Old Testament than it is today.
I have divided the hill country into that of Judah and that of Ephraim. This is because sometimes a story will use these terms to specify where in the hill country something takes place. Knowing exactly where these regions are is not vital to understanding the story, but it is good to know that Judah is in the south.
The Jezreel Valley was the most fertile part of the land, but was not controlled by Israel until they had had several generations of powerful kings. Many of the later stories that take place in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (in 1 and 2 Kings) take place here.
The Negev was desert during the dry season (May – September), but green during the rainy season (October – April). Because of this, people couldn’t live there year-round unless they lived near a well. The Negev was important, though, because shepherds such as Abraham, would take their flocks to the nearer portions every year when there was grass, and return to the settled areas during the dry season to graze their flocks on the stubble of farmers’ fields.
Here is the Promised Land with a few basic locations.
Besides the Mediterranean Sea to the west (or Great Sea, as they called it), the most obvious feature of the Promised Land was the Jordan River which runs from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. Typically, civilizations spread along rivers, but since the Jordan river moves too fast for boats and is too dirty for good drinking water, as far as we can tell, no city has ever been on its banks. The area around the river was actually more wild than the rest of the land. Because the Jordan is so wild and unfriendly and the Israelites were not a sea-faring people, these bodies of water only serve as borders and barriers in the Old Testament.
The Jordan River is the most important border because it divides the Promised Land into an eastern and western side. Stories will mention crossing it or use it as a way to explain where locations are by saying it is “across the Jordan.” This phrase always refers to the land on the east side of the Jordan river, even though from the point of view of someone living on that side, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other places are “across the Jordan.” In the Old Testament, the point of view is always centered in the land of Palestine between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.
Another way the Old Testament writers explained something to be on the east side of the Jordan, they referred to that place as Gilead. This was a large region on the east side of the river. So whenever a place has the word “Gilead” in the name, it is on the east side.
I have put some important places on the map for you to see. You can see that they are all in the hill country except for Beersheba which is in the Negev. Beersheba is important because it was perceived as the southernmost city in Israel. Dan (off the map to the north) was the northernmost city, so the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba” means, “the whole land.”
Here is a map to show you where Israel’s most important immediate neighbors lived.
Ammon, Moab and Edom were small kingdoms that were present in the land before Israel came to the Promised Land. God told Israel that He had given the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites the land they each lived on and so Israel must not take it from them.
These peoples were related to Israel: Ammon and Moab were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot and Edom from Jacob’s brother, Esau.
Aram: The Arameans were an ethnic and cultural group that lived in powerful city-states in modern-day Syria. Damascus was the most prominent. They are important in the books of 1 and 2 Kings.
Philistines: A confederation of city-states. For three to four generations the Philistines struggled with Israel over control of the foothills between Israel’s highlands and their own territory on the coastal plain. Because the Old Testament contains a lot of stories from this time (Samson, Samuel, Saul and David), it gives the impression that the Philistines were Israel’s arch-enemies. This was only true for that period if time. Overall, the Philistines seem to have caused less trouble for Israel than most of their other neighbors. The region is today called “Palestine” after the Philistines.
Tyre and Sidon: Wealthy cities of sea-faring Canaanites (today we call them Phoenicians). They always wanted to have good relations with whatever nations controlled the roads that merchants used to travel to Tyre and Sidon and buy the goods their ships brought from across the sea. So when Israel was a powerful kingdom and controlled the trade that came from the south, these cities were friendly. When Israel was weak, Tyre and Sidon ignored it.
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
|Name||Famous stories and people|
|Foundations||Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood|
|Family||Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph|
|Fulfillment and Failure||Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth|
|Kings||Saul, David, Solomon|
|Kingdoms||Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah|
|Kicked Out||Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace|
|Came Back||Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther|
Questions for Discussion
- Have you encountered parts of the Bible that are boring? Why is it okay to skip them?
- What is the result when someone knows the Bible well, but does not really know God well?
- The author says that anyone, no matter their cultural background, can understand the central message of the Bible. Can you explain why this is so?
- Ancient Near Eastern societies were community-focused, not individualistic. How is this similar or different from your society? What do you think about that?
- Would you rather live in a society where power is unevenly distributed, and you have less individual choice, but people are mostly good, or one where power is evenly distributed, but most individuals are selfish and not good? How would life be different in these two societies?
- Since women did not own property in ancient Near Eastern societies, God showed particular concern that they be cared for. He also showed particular concern for landless laborers, foreigners and the poor. What kinds of people does He want us to care for today?
- Ancient societies were a reality that God worked within, with some features being good and others not-so-good. What are some features in your society that are good? What are not-so-good?
- How could the message of Jesus transform your society so that it is better, but still recognizable?
- Let’s say you have a friend who follows a religion that is based entirely intellectual and spiritual ideas and insights, such as New Age. Could you explain to him or her why it is important that Christianity is not just an idea, but is based on real events that really happened in places we can visit today?
- God said that He had given the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites their land and so Israel was not to take it from them. He even says that He led the Philistines and Arameans to their lands the same as he brought Israel to theirs (Amos 9:7). Can we learn anything about God from this and how He relates to people? Does God only love His own people? What does it tell us about His love and concern for people?