Essentials of the Old Testament - Lesson 3

Historical Books

The story of how the Israelites conquer the promised land and begin to live there. God gives the Israelites victory and prosperity, they forget God and disobey His law, God punishes them, they repent, and God raises up a "judge" to deliver them, and they become prosperous. The cycle is repeated.

Douglas Stuart
Essentials of the Old Testament
Lesson 3
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Historical Books

The Historical Books


I. Joshua

A. Two Parts

B. Holy War


II. Judges

A. God raises up leaders

B. Deuteronomic Cycle

C. Anarchy


III. Ruth


IV. 1 Samuel


V. 2 Samuel


VI. 1 and 2 Kings

A. Solomon builds the temple

B. Division of Israel

C. Elijah and Elisha

D. Exile


VII. 1 & 2 Chronicles


VIII. Ezra and Nehemiah

A. Return and Rebuilding

B. Intermarriage

C. Attractions of Idolatry


IX. Esther

  • Introduction to the content and themes of the Old Testament.

  • Description of the structure and teachings of the Old Testament Law.

  • The story of how the Israelites conquer the promised land and begin to live there. God gives the Israelites victory and prosperity, they forget God and disobey His law, God punishes them, they repent, and God raises up a "judge" to deliver them, and they become prosperous. The cycle is repeated.

  • Historical setting of each of the prophets, and analysis of the content and literary style of their messages.

  • Wisdom is the ability to make right choices in life. Different types of poetry in these books have a central theme that wisdom comes from God.

This class contains five summary lectures of the full course, Old Testament Survey. These lectures are an overview of the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi.

Recommended Books

Essentials of the Old Testament - Student Guide

Essentials of the Old Testament - Student Guide

This guide is intended to be used with the BiblicalTraining.org class, Essentials of the Old Testament , by Dr. Douglas Stuart. It begins with an introduction to the content...

Essentials of the Old Testament - Student Guide


We now turn to the historical books of the Old Testament. These books are many in number. They go all the way from Joshua to Esther. Some of them are compound, like 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles. And their purpose is to give the feel to the reader, among many other things, of God’s plan of redemption underway. One thing that we can all get from reading them is to realize how patiently and how over the long-term God relates to His people. He does not necessarily accomplish things according to their time table especially when they are not behaving according to His covenant stipulations. One sees the Israelites going generation after generation sometimes getting themselves into worse and worse trouble; not always obeying Him, usually disobeying Him, normally not taking seriously the stipulations of His covenant, often running in the opposite direction right into the arms of idolatry. Yet, God is constantly at work. He is bringing about His purposes to redeem a people for Himself. He is teaching His people the important taturnal values and He is always providing for them exceptions to the general pattern so that even if things are generally going badly for His people that does not keep Him from providing wonderful blessings and working with those individuals who are willing to be faithful even if they are a tiny minority.

1. The first historical book is Joshua. Joshua is the successor to Moses; God picked him for that purpose. 

A. He had been Moses’ aide; he had been the leader of the military contingent of Israelites under Moses’ leadership.

1. The Book of Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land though it was only a partial conquest. It was not a strong, complete, full kind of total control over the land of Canaan.

2. Then it describes the division of the land.

B. In many cases the division of the land was more theoretical than actual because the Israelites did fail to carry out God’s provisions for holy war. They sadly violated His commands in that regard and as a result did not gain full control over the land of Canaan as had been promised them. There is the theme of holy war in the Book of Joshua that one needs to appreciate. Holy war had quite a number of characteristics to it that made it different from modern warfare. It is easy to assume that what went on in bible times is just analogous to modern times but that is not so.

1. The war that the Israelites were allowed to fight was a war that was ordered by God; no human could order that war.

2. It was a war only for the taking and holding of the Promised Land. They could not go to battle for any other purpose and when they did they failed.

3. It was a war that required the soldiers all to be volunteers; no professionals, no pay for the soldiers, no compensation.

4. It could come only at the announcement of a prophet who spoke for God. A priest could not announce holy war; a king could not call for it.

5. And the consequence of holy war was that if you did not participate or if you violated the standards of holy war, you yourself became like the enemy. There is a story in Joshua 7 of this happening. A man named Achan takes some of the plunder from the Battle of Jericho and as a result the Israelites get into real trouble. That is probably a sample story. In other words, the writer of Joshua, whether it was Joshua or someone else we cannot tell, but the writer expects us to understand that what Achan did, many others did as well. They were not really serious about fighting the holy war on God’s behalf and as a result that allowed them to have a partial conquest of the holy land. By the end of the Book of Joshua we see him gathering the people together and saying to them, “Will you in fact follow the Lord?” Challenging them, “Are you sure you can do it?” Even challenging them rhetorically, “You can’t do it.” And they saying, “Oh yes we can, we’ll do it, yes we’ll follow the Lord.” And then Joshua says, “Okay then, put away your idols.” The Israelites were so attracted to idolatry it was very, very hard for them ever to get away from that attraction. We will talk a little bit about that attraction in a few minutes.

II. Upon Joshua’s death, the period of the judges began. It was a period of several hundred years. 

A. During that time things were not going well for the people of Israel, politically, militarily, economically, and certainly spiritually. Increasingly their enemies had greater success militarily than the Israelites did.

B. In fact, the story of the judges is the story of God raising up leaders to drive out or drive away enemies that had, in fact, subjugated the Israelites. There are many of these. The most constant and powerful enemy is the Philistines. They wanted the same territory that the Israelites were occupying; the Philistines had their own designs on the so-called Promised Land. And thus we see them becoming increasingly powerful to the point whereby the time of the last judge described in the book, Sampson, he is fighting all alone against various Philistine groups. He does not even have people he can rally to join with him as Gideon did or Jephthah did or Deborah did.

C. There are a dozen judges. Six of them are described in considerable detail and six barely mentioned. So we think that this is a way of conveniently sampling how God worked through judges. There may have been, in other words, other judges than just exactly those twelve and the fact that only half of the twelve are even described in detail gives us some sense that the book represents a purposeful sampling of what was going on in those days.

D. One of the things that you learn from it though is charismatic leadership. What do we mean by that? The meaning basically of the word “charismatic” is “produced by God’s spirit”. And the leadership in ancient Israel that existed in those days, as the Book of Judges reminds us, was not a monarchy. There was not a king leading the people of Israel, but rather, there were individuals that God’s spirit raised up, that God’s spirit produced to give leadership for a period of time. After that judge would die giving leadership for a period of time, usually in a region not the entire nation, then often enemies would come back in and oppress the Israelites once again.

E. In fact, something called the Deuteronomic Cycle is visible in the Book of Judges. It is called this because the whole history of the so-called former prophets from Joshua to 2 Kings so reflects the Book of Deuteronomy that the Book Judges is regarded as kind of setting the pattern for this Deuteronomic pattern throughout history, or Deuteronomic Cycle.

1. The Israelites would be in good shape, free and serving God,

2. And then they would degenerate and go into idolatry.

3. God would, of course, enforce His covenant stipulations, the sanctions, and would says to the people, “Since you are not willing to be obedient to Me and since you violate the most basic terms of My covenant which says don’t make yourself idols and don’t worship them, I am going to allow you to be captured by your enemies.” So they would be captured by their enemies. There would be various forms of oppression.

4. The people would eventually learn their lesson; cry out to God for deliverance.

5. Always a merciful God, He would respond and provide for them a deliverer in the form of a judge whose life, God’s spirit, would affect in a way that would make that judge a far better leader and deliverer that he could ever have been or she could ever have been on his or her own. That pattern repeats itself right through the Book of Judges.

F. At the very, very end of the book there is a fascinating story about the degeneracy that characterized Israel in those days. The Danites, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, gets themselves fully into idolatry. The even get a Levite to serve as their idol priest. The quality of life degenerates. In chapter 19 there is the story of a terrible crime against a man’s wife; she is raped and murdered. The tribes of Israel cannot get their act together to enforce the law and to punish the wrongdoers, and, in general, the book ends with Israel in a real mess. And the reminder sentence is given, there was no king in Israel, everybody did what was right in his own eyes. So there was almost an anarchy from the point of view of political stability. Now, anarchy can mean “rioting in the streets” but that was not necessarily the case but anarchy used technically to mean “no particularly stable form of government” was indeed the situation at the close of the Book of Judges. But there are exceptions as we have said.

III. The story of Ruth is the story of an exception. She lives during the days of the judges.

A. She is a Moabite; she converts to the faith of Israel. She says in chapter 1 verse 16 to her mother-in-law, “Your God will be my God.”

B. As a result she is accepted into Israel and is made the wife of one of the prominent people in Bethlehem.

C. And as the book ends it becomes obvious from the genealogy printed there that she is the ancestress of King David himself. So he has Moabite blood in him. And, of course if you think about it, since he is an ancestor of Christ, Jesus had Moabite blood in Him.

D. It is all part of the way that the Bible reminds us that being a true Israelite has very little to do with anything genetic or ethnic and everything to do with faith. That is the argument that Paul makes in the Book of Romans and as well in Galatians—that a true Israelite is an Israelite by faith, not by birth—a great New Covenant concept.

IV. 1 Samuel is the book that introduces to us 

A. The kingship in Israel. The people really feel they need a king. Their own sin keeps them from being able to govern themselves and rely upon God adequately. Graciously He does give them a king. It is a king they deserve, that is Saul. So even though Saul has great skills he also has an aberrant behavior and even some heterodox practices such as engagement in the occult and some idolatry. So Saul’s story is ultimately a sad one but he is replaced by David.

B. The story of 1 Samuel is in considerable degree the story of the decline of Saul and

C. The rise of David. When 1 Samuel comes to an end and 2 Samuel begins Saul dies, David assumes the throne of Israel, in the south at first—that is Judah—and then after a time is invited to become king of all Israel, both north and south.

V. 2 Samuel contains a description of 

A. The Davidic Covenant in chapter 7. David wants to build a “house” for God that is a temple. God says, “No, I won’t have you do that but I will build a “house” for you meaning “family”; a family lineage. The promises made of an eternal reign of the lineage of David. This was never fulfilled in regular human kings but it certainly was fulfilled in the great king, the one who is sometimes called “David’s greater Son”—that is Christ.

B. Another theme in 2 Samuel is that of the city of Jerusalem. David makes his headquarters there, captures it, makes it a kind of special combination of divine and monarchical property. It is a little bit like the District of Columbia, Washington D.C in our country; it is not really part of any state, it is its own special district. That is what Jerusalem was under David.

VI. 1 and 2 Kings

A. Eventually Solomon built the temple there which is something described in 1 Kings

B. and that temple became the central place of worship that fulfilled the expectations of Deuteronomy 12 for a single location in which all of God’s people could come together and worship Him together. Solomon was the builder of the temple and it is an admirable accomplishment. Sadly, despite all his wisdom, he was also the introducer of idolatry officially into Israel. So we read both in chapter 3 of 1 Kings and chapter 11 of how Solomon married foreign wives and gave credence to their gods and, in fact, provided shrines for the various pagan gods and goddesses on the all the hills right around Jerusalem.

C. So his life degenerated spiritually and at the end of his life God gave a punishment which was to rip apart the nation of Israel politically. He actually separated out north from south. Ten tribes in the north gathered together and became one political entity taking the Israel and one merged tribe in the south, Judah with Simeon merged into it, became the southern tribe and took the name Judah. So thereafter until the very end of Israel as any kind of political entity there was division, north and south. That division is reflected in the remainder of the books of Kings and Chronicles. It is also reflected quite often in the Prophets who regularly speak of the sadness of that division and how wonderful it will be when God’s people can be reunited.

D. There is an exception to the story in 1 and 2 Kings that comes in the persons of Elijah and Elisha. Here are prophets who are not necessarily terribly popular and who are small potatoes compared to the hundreds of pagan prophets that were around in those days but who were faithful to God, who preach His word, who live for Him, and who help keep some people righteous, pure, orthodox during those days when increasingly the kings of Israel became enamored of everything other than orthodox worship. It finally got so bad that by the time of King Josiah who is described for us in 1 Kings 22 and 23. the temple in Jerusalem was being used for every kind of pagan idolatress activity including even temple prostitution. Josiah was, however, the last good king with his death in 609 B.C. described for us in 2 Kings 23. The nation simply went on to a series of ungodly kings and to its ultimate demise at the hands of the Babylonians.

E. The Babylonians exiled the people of Israel in its remainder state Judah. Took them by the thousands and all the capable people, all the leadership, all the original royal officials and so on, moved hundreds of miles away so that they would be unable to do anything by way of resistance locally to Babylonian rule and only the “people of the land” were left. And so as Jeremiah the prophet had predicted, there were seventy years, a lifetime, of exile for God’s people.

VII. 1 and 2 Chronicles

A. Chronicles describes the same events and speaks of all of the events that one finds spoken of in Samuel and Kings,

B. Except that it concentrates

1. on the south, Judah,

2. it concentrates on the Davidic lineage, and

3. it concentrates on the temple,

4. and the city of Jerusalem. That is because Chronicles is taking all of the history from the days of the kings and saying what was really good, what things were positive. Even when there was a bad Judean king, did he do some good things; let’s talk about those.

C. As a way of encouraging the rebuilding of God’s people as a faithful people to Him, the rebuilding of a temple, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of a nation that would honor God.

VIII. Ezra and Nehemiah reflect that interest in both

A. Return and rebuilding. The exile lasted from 586 B.C. to 516 B.C. if you want to think of it in the seventy-year-period from the time that the original temple built by Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians, 586, to the date of its completion in rebuilding; that is an entirely new temple built on the place of the original temple which occurred in 516 B.C. so the time from end of first temple to beginning of second temple is, in fact, seventy years just as Jeremiah in three different places had predicted. That seventy-year-theme becomes important even for a book like Daniel which has some things to say about it. Ezra was a priest who had the experience of growing up in exile long after the Babylonians had conquered Judah and brought people into exile. Ezra was born in Babylon and had a burden from God to go back to Judah and Jerusalem, a place that he had never seen, and to help bring about the return of God’s people to that location. So in 458 B.C. he, a priest skilled in the Scriptures as the Bible tells us, returned in order to bring about some rebuilding. He did not have a huge amount to do with physical rebuilding. The temple was built and they were offering sacrifices in which was otherwise still a ruined Jerusalem. But he did have a great deal to do with the rebuilding of the faith of the nation. Fourteen years after he arrived in Jerusalem another person of key importance arrived and that was Nehemiah. So Ezra returns from Babylon in 458 B.C and Nehemiah in 444 B.C. We see them working together in Nehemiah 8 where we find Nehemiah arranging for a great covenant renewal ceremony to get everybody back obedient to the Law of Moses again. Knowing the stipulations, hearing the preamble and prologue, taking the sanctions seriously, wanting to appreciate the fact that all of creation was watching to see whether or not they would do what they were supposed to and reading the Word of God as the documentation clause provides. So we see Ezra and Nehemiah together, cooperating on rebuilding the orthodoxy of the nation. In order to help that to come about Nehemiah does also rebuild the walls of Jerusalem but that is really secondary to his purposes. His primary purpose is to see the people of Judah to become God’s people again. So Ezra and Nehemiah cover a sweep of time from the opportunities first to return in the 6th Century B.C. to the actual return of a lot of people in the 5th Century B.C. including Ezra and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of orthodoxy.

B. One topic that both Ezra and Nehemiah faced together was the challenge of intermarriage. Now the Bible never forbids or is concerned about ethnic intermarriage. The Bible is concerned about religious intermarriage. God’s people take an enormous risk when they marry nonbelievers and pagans. In bible times those nonbelievers and pagans would all be idolaters. They would all, because the whole world was idolatrous, get into that. So Ezra and Nehemiah worked very, very hard to try to purify Israelites from that tendency to marry foreigners because foreigners were automatically idolatrous. A couple of words about the attractions of idolatry. The Prophets preached against idolatry. It is a very big concern in the historical books because it comes up so often.

C. Why did the Israelites get into idolatry every chance they had? Why did most generations become idolatrous? What was the factor or what were the factors? There were several.

1. One thing that people liked about idolatry was the fact that it gave them a sense of the presence of a god. People believed that an idol brought a god right into your presence. Even though it was a crude statue, did not matter, that statue partook of the essence of the god and the god inhabited that statue in some way. So you had the presence of a god.

2. They also felt it was logical because everybody was doing it, everybody. There were no other religions in the whole ancient world that were not idolatrous. So when the Israelites were told not to worship idols they were having to go it alone religiously, that was unique.

3. It was also very nice in idolatry to think that you had a certain kind of hold over the gods. Ancient people believed that the gods could do anything but one thing, and the one thing no god could do was feed himself. They believed that is why humans were on the planet—to grow food to feed the gods. So the worshipper could bring food, offer it before an idol statue, that is a god’s idol, and the god would, by reason of inhabiting that idol obviously see that the worshipper had brought that food and would receive it from the worshipper, in theory at least, and so the worshipper would have fed the god. Now meant that the god owed the worshipper something. The more you worship the more you were owed. What could the god do? The god could cause the crops to be good. The god could cause your farm to really be prosperous. The god could cause your cattle and your flocks to be very fertile. The god could cause all kinds of benefits to come your way. The god could heal you from diseases or whatever, but the god could not feed himself. So, in turn for your generously feeding a god, then you could get really a lot of benefits. That is what people thought. Of course the true God of Israel did not speak that way. He did not say, “Bribe me with food and I’ll be good to you.” So they were very attracted to this sort of quid pro quo bribery system.

4. There were other benefits as well, but one of them was that in idolatry temple prostitution was not merely allowed but encouraged. The theory was that if a man went to a temple prostitute who represented one of the gods or goddesses and had sex with that person, then the gods in heaven would be stimulated by what we might call sympathetic magic themselves to be fertile, and to cause fertility throughout creation. So there was this notion that somehow visiting a prostitute was actually a religious action. All of these things made idolatry really attractive and made it a hard job for God’s orthodox people to resist it.

IX. The final book in the list of the historical books is Esther.

A. Many times Esther is misunderstood because her actions are thought, all of them, to be exemplary.

B. But, in fact, there is an add mixture of exemplary and not so exemplary actions there because Esther is an accommodationist.

C. The story of the Book of Esther represents an answer to the question—what about the Jews who did not return to Judah and Jerusalem; what about those Jews who stayed in Babylonian captivity and eventually when the Persian period came and the Persians took over the empire from the Babylonians; what happened to all of those thousands and thousands who did not go, for example with Ezra and Nehemiah, back to Judah and become part of God’s covenant people again? Esther is one of those. She is very happy to marry into a Persian family by marrying a Persian king. Indeed, she is so eager to get to be a member of the king’s harem that she asks all kinds of questions to see if she might succeed in that goal. The word god is not even mentioned in the book. It is not that God is not blessing His people and protecting them. Even the ones who were “accommodationist”.

D. It is not that God is not good to Esther and uses her Uncle Mordecai, who eventually becomes a powerful administrator under the king whom Esther was eventually married to and uses some of that power to protect the Jews.  It is that they are largely paganized Jews, they are not really keeping covenant with God, they are not honoring the drive for orthodoxy that was so important and that needed to happen if God’s people were to be able fully to serve Him. So even with the end of the historical books in the form of the Book of Esther, one sees the tragedy, one sees the way that a minority takes seriously God’s covenant and a majority do not.

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