Overview of the Old Testament


Introduction to the content and themes of the Old Testament.


Overview of the Old Testament

I. Overview of the Old Testament

A. Essential Reading for the New Testament Believer

B. The Plan of God

1. Creation

2. The Fall

a. We are mortal

b. Gap between moral and intellectual skill

3. Redemption

4. Consummation

II. Genesis 1 - Exodus 19

A. Overview of Human History

B. The Story of God's People


Course: Essentials of the Old Testament

Lecture: Overview of the Old Testament

I. This is an introduction to the Old Testament that takes just a very few hours.

A. It is a precis of what we do in the longer course that is a very substantial recording of twenty-some hours, and in this first brief section we are going to look at some general overview issues of the Old Testament and then look at Genesis and the first half of Exodus. So that is our first component part that we address as we start out.

B. There is also going to be a second part that will deal with the law; how the Pentateuch and the law contained in it work.

C. And then we are going to talk about the historical books of the Old Testament.

D. And then the prophetical books.

E. And then finally the poetical books of the Old Testament.

That is our plan, to have introduction and Genesis and part of Exodus as one facet; then law, then history, then prophecy, then poetry. Those are the kinds of divisions that we think will make sense for you and help you have a basic structure on which to hang your understanding of the Old Testament as it is developing.

II. The Old Testament is three-quarters of the Bible.

A. Essential Reading for the New Testament Believer

1. It is actually a little over seventy-six percent of the Bible. God did not make a mistake in producing that kind of ratio. He was not mixed up and said after the fact, “My goodness, look at all that time I put into those Old Testament books when the real action is in the New Testament.”

2. No, in fact, it was always His plan to have a very heavy amount of material in the Old Testament that does lead up to the key figure of human history, and that is Christ, and that does provide background for the New Testament, and that is really essential reading if you want to be a New Testament Christian. You cannot say, “I find the Old Testament curious or interesting, maybe arcane, but the New Testament is all I need.” God did not design it that way. God, in effect said instead, “I’ll give them everything they need to know in the Old Testament so that when I introduce Christ to them in His fullness, and when they see His purpose on earth they will be prepared for it.”

3. So if we are to appreciate Christ, His work, His purpose, His message, the things He was talking about, the language He was using, many of the terms and certainly the concepts that He was bring to us as He spoke and taught. And as the other apostles taught, including Paul but not just limited to him, we realize that the Old Testament is the background that we need. There are twenty-seven New Testament books, it turns out that there are over two thousand, seven hundred allusions to the Old Testament or quotations from it in the New Testament books. In other words, an average of a hundred allusions or quotations from the Old Testament per New Testament book. When one realizes that there are some pretty short New Testament books like Jude or 3 John, one realizes that in some cases the number of allusions and citations will be far above the average of a hundred. And that is true. And it is everywhere. It is not just in a book like Hebrews that is comparing Christ to great features and figures of the Old Testament. And it is not just in the Gospels where Jesus Himself quotes the Old Testament so very often. It is everywhere. Many people have noted, for example, that the Book of Revelation is in some ways the most Old Testament book in the New Testament. It has all kinds of wordings, images, concepts, whole statements, references; implicit and explicit, to the Old Testament that make it almost not understandable without an appreciation of what is going on in the Old Testament books that it seeks to bring to a conclusion namely Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, parts of Isaiah and so on. We will look at this course from the point of view of not just some interesting material that might give a little bit of knowledge now and again but from the point of view that the Old Testament really is essential reading for the New Testament believer.

B. Among the things that we can say about the Old Testament would include the following: The plan of God in its broad overview is revealed there. That plan can be considered to be made up of four parts. Now this is a generalization of the material. This is a categorization of all that we find in the Old Testament, and indeed, you can say all that we find in the New Testament as well. There are four big features to the plan of God. One of them is creation and the Old Testament, of course, talks about that. But not just in the ways that we might easily remember. I will come back to that. In addition to creation there is also the fall. How it is that human beings and all of creation is now subject to futility as the New Testament tells us. Then as well there is the story of redemption. How God sets out to bring back to Himself His people. To get them back to where they can be once again His favorite people and enjoy His promised life now and the endless promised life in heaven. Finally there is consummation. That is where everything that gets accomplished in the story of creation and fall and redemption now is delivered over to the people of God so that one sees in scripture desire on God’s part to have not merely a people that belong to Him but a people He can have enjoy the same kinds of rich blessings that He Himself enjoys in His very person. God, in other words, is a generous God who wants people not merely to live forever but to live forever with an abundant life that really is delightful, endlessly full of joys. So the pattern is creation, fall, redemption, consummation.

1. Let’s talk about creation for just a moment. In the larger course, we will say much more about this but in this introductory format we want to be sure that you understand that the creation that is described in the Book of Genesis in a couple of different ways, two facets of the same creation, is not the whole story. Rather, the Bible is speaking of ongoing creation throughout.

a. So there is the original creation that simply puts the earth in shape and makes it habitable and provides people and animals on it to live within its limitations.

b. But there is also the ongoing creation that involves God creating a people for Himself. So we have, for example, in Exodus 15, the reference to “The people you have created going into the Promised Land.” God is a Creator in establishing Israel as His people. He is a Creator in bringing about an entire nation. He is a Creator in leading them into a covenant relationship with Himself.

c. Then there is also the promised new creation. So it is not nearly the initial creation that gets the physical world and universe in place. It is not merely the creation of Israel that is part of the ongoing creation but there is the further, more ultimate, creation that is described in the Book of Isaiah as the new creation. It is no surprise that Paul, for example, should pick up on this and say, “If anybody is in Christ it is a new creation.” Some of the translations say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.” But the far more likely translation of what Paul writes is, “If anybody is in Christ it is the new creation.” It is an example of the new creation that the Book of Isaiah and other places in the Old Testament speak of. The Book of Revelation picks this up; so the Bible ends with many emphases upon the greatness of God’s new creation. So from Genesis to Revelation creation themes abound. God is always renewing things; he is always making things new. And our understanding of who we are as people inhabiting this planet, is not simply that we are people who have been created but we should understand ourselves participating in an ongoing creation which culminates in an ultimate new creation, something that has started but has not yet been fully consummated and we may expect to enjoy for eternity an entirely new kind of body what the Scripture calls a spiritual body. So the first creation has Adam and Eve occupying the kinds of bodies that we know only too well but the new creation described for us in the New Testament and in particularly in the Book of Revelation looks forward to an existence in a kind of a body that cannot die, cannot grow old, cannot fall again, etc. Well that is just an overview with many things left out but at least a teaser for you of the idea of creation.

2. How about the fall? The fall is very important because of two great human dilemmas come into play.

a. God says to Adam and Eve with regard to the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that He had placed there as a test for them, “The day you eat thereof, you will surely die.” Now, they did not die in the sense of keeling over the minute they took a bite. It was not like a poison that simply destroyed the ability of their body to survive but they did die in the sense of becoming mortal. One of the great features of the human dilemma is that we are born knowing that our bodies are going to get old and die; that it is only a matter of decades until we cannot keep living physically anymore. This affects human behavior in a great many ways. For some people it produces hedonism; do whatever you can to feel as good as you can as long as you can because it will not last. For other people it produces a kind of discouragement and escapism, it is inevitable, “I’ve got to die so to the extent that I can do something meaningful or get away from it all or not think much about it, I will do that.” The thoughtful person however says, “Is this all there is, must I indeed just live to die eventually or is there something else in God’s plan?” What God is inviting throughout the Old Testament and indeed into the New, quite obviously, is that we should say what is there more than just physical life. Is there a way to become spiritually alive? Is there a way to be somebody other than just “flesh”, that is, a physical being? Is there a way to have the limitation imposed by the fact that my body will grow old and die taken away; can there be some other way to live on forever? That is, of course, where resurrection comes in. The Bible speaks not merely of immortality as if the soul were immortal, which it is, in fact, is not. The Bible says the soul is not immortal innately. The Bible speaks of the death of the body and then the resurrection of the body into a transformed state. So what the Bible offers as an antidote to the affect of the fall, which is mortality, is the hope of resurrection. You can see how important the New Testament story of Christ’s resurrection is. That is the answer. If He, occupying a true human body, can have that true human body resurrected and transformed into a spiritual body with which He can then live on forever, so it is proof of the answer to the question what do we do about the fact that our bodies get old and die. So the Old Testament poses that question, lays before every person, every thoughtful person, the desire to seek an answer which is provided for in Christ. That is just one way that the story of the fall anticipates the work of Christ on our behalf.

b. In addition, it is also important to appreciate the fact that the tree that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from is called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. One might reasonably ask, “Why not eat precisely from that tree?” Why did not God say to them “I want you to know good and evil? Of course I want you to know the difference between good and evil so that is the very tree to eat of.” The answer is, “good and evil” is what is called a merism. It is an expression of totality via polarity. What God wanted Adam and Eve to understand is that He had a desire that they should be limited from having too much knowledge. It was really the tree of all knowledge and He was testing them. Could they trust Him to retain knowledge that they could not handle or could they personally have to get all knowledge? Well, we know what they chose to do. They were tempted to get all that knowledge and “become like the gods” as Satan tempted them. They did get a huge amount of knowledge. It would be an exaggeration to say they knew everything that is to be known, but it is not at all an exaggeration to say that part of the human dilemma, part of the fall, is that human beings have more knowledge than they can responsibly handle. Our intellectual knowledge outruns our moral ability to handle it. So, we know how to make explosives and these can do some good things in mining and so on, but unfortunately, we know how to kill people from explosives. We know how to take atomic energy and create electricity with it; we also know how to make terribly destructive bombs with it. We know how to do any number of things that are good but we can also use those very same things for bad. We know how to speak encouragingly; we also know how to hurt people to their very quick by speaking cruelly to them. In other words, human beings, as opposed to other life forms on this planet, have much more knowledge than they have moral ability to use correctly. So the fall brings a human dilemma. We are mortal, we have to die, our bodies cannot live forever. Secondly, we have a terrible, huge gap between our moral skill and our intellectual skill. Again, the answer for this gap between the moral and intellectual is to place faith in Christ and to have God’s spirit as a result dwell in us and give us guidance so that we do not have to try with a limited moral skill to keep God’s law and to obey him we can instead respond to His spirit within us and enjoy the benefits of His guiding our lives.

3. Well, that is something about creation, something about fall. What about redemption? One can argue that the story of the Bible is the story of redemption. If somebody said to you, “What is the Bible all about?” You can say to them, “It is God’s story about redeeming us, us human beings and providing an opportunity for us to be His people and to enjoy Him and His blessings forever.” It is the story of redemption.

a. So one sees immediately upon the fall from innocence of Adam and Eve God’s provisions starting. He makes them clothes. He provides for them protections of various kinds. He makes promises to them. He tells them even that Satan has done the kinds of things that he has done and has tricked them into a terrible situation of distance from God that there will come a time when Satan will be crushed, which is a theme that the New Testament picks up on and is found again in the Book of Revelation. So many things in Revelation are also found in Genesis and vise versa. Throughout the Old Testament God is calling His people in various ways to recognize the opportunity of redemption that He has provided for them.

b. He allows them a sacrificial system which has as its basic point that for you to live something must die in your place. A lot of that is common sense; we cannot eat without something dying, a plant or an animal or something dies so that we may eat. But it is more than that. it is not just keeping our bodies alive, it is a matter of having the forgiveness that God wants to give us take place by means of a transfer of guilt from a human to an animal, and that animal then is sacrificed instead of a human. Again and again this comes up. It is a big part of the teaching of the Old Testament law when one sees it being practiced routinely; there is comments about sacrifices in the Prophets and in the Poetical books, and so on. All of it teaching a principle that you cannot live unless something dies for you and thus inviting us to think in terms of Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. He died for us perfectly. Not just an animal dying for a human but a human dying for a human. So He is the precise substitute for us. The precise person to transfer our guilt to. One might object and say, “Wait a minute, Christ is only one person and we’re many. How can he die for all of us?” The answer is that He was not merely human but He was also divine and by being divine He was also infinite in all kinds of ways including His ability to receive an infinite number of sins upon Himself on our behalf. So as God, He could die for all of us because there is no limitation to the applicability of His saving grace and as a true human He could die as a perfect substitute for us. So that is the ultimate of the plan of redemption.

4. Then consummation. The Israelites have a tuff time of it. Most of the history of Israel is related to oppressions and wars and famines, hardships, difficulties. The Israelites are finally are eliminated as a people in 586 BC with the Babylonian destruction of Judah, the capturing of thousands upon thousands of people, their exile by the Babylonians into Babylon where they are kept for decades and decades. It is a tragic story. It is not a “comedy” in the old classical sense of a story with a happy ending. It is a “tragedy,” a story with a sad ending. Israel’s history is one where God starts out providing blessings for them, gathers them as a people when they were in bondage in Egypt, brings them to Himself, initiates His covenant with them at Mount Sinai, teaches them how to live, blesses their lives, takes care of them. Then as they depart from Him there is a degeneration of their fortunes, they go into exile, the curses of the covenant that are given at Mount Sinai that we will talk about in the next section come upon them, and they eventually end their history as a subjugated people. First to the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans.

III. Now a little bit about Genesis and the first part of Exodus.

A. There is a brief overview of world history and creation up to about Genesis 11. It is very quick, it goes through how human beings got started and human life got started, and some of the basic institutions of our world and so on. Then the story slows down. There are more chapters devoted just to the life of one man, Abraham whose story starts in Genesis 11, than there are devoted to the entire history of the universe prior to Abraham.

B. So it is quite obvious that God gives a quick overview and then wants to start the story of His people with one man, Abraham. And this man Abraham is a key person in God’s plan. He simply calls him, there is no special reason why He should call him as opposed to anybody else but it is God at work calling Abraham and inviting him to have faith in Him, to trust Him to make a new life and to be the father of a nation that will come. This does occur.

1. And through Abraham

2. and then Isaac

3. and then Jacob

4. and then Jacob’s sons including his most impressive son, as it turns out, Joseph.

5. The story of God’s people is brought from one person, Abraham, who trusts God and believes a promise, to a family of twelve sons, at the end of the Book of Genesis, each of whom has children

6. so that there are seventy in all as the first group of Israelites who go into Egypt.

C. That is where Exodus chapter 1 picks up with the mention of those seventy and they come into Egypt, settle there and begin to grow. The Egyptians are nervous for many reasons including prior wars against Asiatics, that is people from Asia, to have this group of Canaanites in their midst because Canaan, from which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the sons had come into Egypt, was part of Asia and Egypt is, of course, part of Africa. As the Israelites grew the Egyptians got more and more nervous that should there be war against Asia once again, they have all these Asiatics in their midst that would naturally side with Asia over against Africa in the war.

D. A strategy develops, “Let’s oppress them. Let’s make them work so hard as our slaves that they won’t have a minute to organize. They’ll never have time to study warfare. They’ll never be able to develop as an independent people. They’ll have no interest or skill in diplomacy to make connection with foreign powers and turn against us. Besides, we’ll get some good work out of them.” So this strategy unfolds and yet as the Israelites are oppressed, they grow. That is God’s blessing. Finally, strategies of actual genocide are tried; kill some of the children. If you see a boy, throw him in the Nile. It does not work either.

E. But, Moses, one key figure, escapes by his mother’s ingenuity that planned punishment using the Nile itself to preserve him and he gets discovered by an Egyptian princess and gets raised as a princling in Egypt. He gets in some trouble, has to run, but is able to come back years later, when he is 80 years old, connect with his brother and connect with his people and lead them out of Egypt as God produces ten dramatic plagues that intensify progressively to the tenth in which God actually brings about the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians as a super-penalty for the super-oppression that they had put the Israelites under for 430 years. with Genesis and then Exodus up to Exodus 19 we find the whole story, creation, the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and his brothers and the Israelites leaving Egypt under the great demonstration of God’s power culminating in the arrival as it is described for us in Exodus 18 and 19 of the Israelites at Mount Sinai ready to listen to God tell them how to be His people. That is where we bring to a conclusion that first block of this five-block overview.