A banquet, not a buffet: an outline of biblical historyWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
The 66 books of the Bible trace a single story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration – God’s grand narrative that underlies all of history. Like the courses of food at a fine banquet, each part of that story has its perfect place, building on what comes before and anticipating what comes after.
Too often, however, readers approach the Scriptures like a buffet rather than a banquet. They swoop in and pick out a story here, a promise there, a moral teaching somewhere else, perhaps unaware of how that piece fits into the whole.
But as with any body of literature, context is king when reading the Bible. This includes historical as well as literary context. When and where did a particular episode happen? Why was it written down? What role does it play in the overall story of Scripture? Armed with these questions, readers can better appreciate the scope of the central narrative, as well as the mind of its divine Author.
Toward that end, here’s a brief general outline of biblical history, touching on its main themes and events, and the books in which they’re recorded.
Primordial history: Creation, Fall and Flood
The first 11 chapters of Genesis record the creation of the world, the fall of humanity, the flood of Noah’s day, and the beginnings of cities, languages and cultures as the human race spread across the globe. This primordial history covers a longer span of time than the rest of the Bible combined. The precise length of that time frame, however, remains a matter of debate among believers of good conscience.
The record is in the form of a historical narrative, providing a prologue and foundation for everything else that follows in Scripture. It cannot be dismissed as myth or metaphor without rendering the rest of scriptural history meaningless. But like all good historiography, it was written according to the literary conventions of its own time, in order to impress its message on its original audience.
These chapters don’t contain an exhaustive compendium of historical or scientific data, but a series of genealogies and events, curated and arranged to make their theological points. A sovereign God, and not a pantheon of warring gods and goddesses, created the universe by speaking it into existence. This God then made men and women in his own image, but they fell into sin and brought death and misery into the world. Yet even in the midst of judgment, God didn’t forget his grace, setting in motion events through which a promised descendant of that first woman would defeat evil and redeem creation.
Call and covenant: Abraham and the Patriarchs
Genesis 12-50; Job
With the twelfth chapter of Genesis, the focus shifts from the epic and cosmic to the personal and familial. God calls Abraham to leave his Mesopotamian home and travel to a new land that God will give to him and his descendants. The Lord also promises to make Abraham a great nation and to bless the world through a redeemer born from his line, sealing the promise via an ancient covenant ceremony. The remainder of Genesis follows the outworking of that promise through Abraham’s son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, and his 12 great-grandsons who become progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Unlike the primordial history, this period, commonly known as the Patriarchal Age, can be dated with a fair degree of confidence to around 2000 BC. While “patriarch” may be a loaded term for modern readers, the men in these accounts aren’t in any sense perfect, privileged heroes, but rather flawed individuals, often stumbling along in their faith.
Remarkable for the era, the women in the account also have agency and affect the unfolding narrative. Sarah gives her Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham to “help the promise along.” Hagar gives God a new name, el roi, “The God Who Sees Me.” Rebekah orchestrates which of her sons will receive the patriarchal blessing. Leah and Rachel, together with their handmaids, vie for Jacob’s affection and produce 12 sons between them. Tamar sleeps with her father-in-law Judah and becomes an ancestor of Jesus. Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest of the sun god Ra, marries Joseph and becomes mother to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
The story of Job, roughly contemporary with Abraham, also belongs to this archaic period. Job and his friends aren’t Israelites but come from Uz, likely in the ancient country of Edom, modern-day Jordan. Job is a God-fearing gentile who learns about the Lord’s wisdom and power through suffering. After God restores his fortunes, his three daughters are notably mentioned by name, while his sons aren’t. Even at this stage, it’s clear that women and men of every nation are made in God’s image and subjects of his grace.
Redemption from Egypt: Moses and the Exodus
Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy
Between Genesis and Exodus, the narrative jumps ahead by about four centuries. The family of Israel has settled in Egypt, grown into a populous nation, and become slaves to the Egyptians. God sees their suffering, remembers his covenant with Abraham, and raises up Moses to lead them out of Egypt and back into the promised land of Canaan. The Lord delivers Israel through a series of 10 plagues that leave Egypt devastated. As the central event of Old Testament history, the Exodus foreshadows the redemption to be wrought by Jesus on the Cross.
The second major event after the Exodus is the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. This too takes the form of a covenant between God and Israel, its details and implications spelled out over the rest of the Torah, the five books of Moses. God also gives Moses the design for the tabernacle where he’d meet with his people, as well as instructions for the sacrificial system and priestly worship, all of which prefigure the Messiah to come.
The narrative portions of the account focus on Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. The people continue to grumble and rebel against God until he finally swears that no one over the age of 20, except for Joshua and Caleb, would enter the land, but only their children. At the end of Deuteronomy and 40 years of wanderings, Joshua has succeeded Moses, and the new generation is poised on the borders of Canaan, ready to enter the Promised Land.
Dark ages: Conquest of Canaan and the Judges
Joshua; Judges; Ruth; 1 Samuel
For 21st-century readers, few portions of biblical history are as troubling as the conquest of Canaan. To modern ears, God’s commands to wipe out all the men, women, children and livestock in certain Canaanite cities sound a lot like genocide or ethnic cleansing.
The accounts are indeed disturbing and shouldn’t be glossed over. But having said that, the divine commands also reflect a degree of hyperbole in keeping with the military language of the time. Not every living thing was put to death, and the process involved as much gradual assimilation as open warfare. Moreover, Canaanite culture as a whole was steeped in violence and idolatry. There was nuance to the judgment or mercy they were shown, case by case. After all, Rahab and her family were spared because she aligned herself with the God of Israel. And in the end, it must be remembered that God is sovereign over the lives of every person and nation. He gives the land to whomever he wants for as long as he wants.
The conquest of Canaan ushered in a dark age that lasted for about 350 years, from around 1400 to 1050 BC. The tribes of Israel, with a foothold in the land, adopted the evil practices of their neighbours, engaging in a downward spiral of brutality and idol worship. As a result, God would hand them over to a foreign oppressor, they’d cry out, he’d send a Judge to deliver them, and the cycle would repeat.
And yet, in the midst of this chaotic era comes the beautiful story of Ruth, one of the most appealing characters in all of Scripture. With unflagging zeal, the young Moabite widow embraces the God of Israel, cares for her mother-in-law, marries the kindly Boaz and becomes an ancestor of Jesus. The dark age ends with light on the horizon, with the coming of Samuel who would anoint David as king, from whose line the Messiah would be born.
A golden age: The united monarchy
1 & 2 Samuel; 1 Kings; 1 & 2 Chronicles; Psalms; Proverbs; Ecclesiastes; Song of Songs
Before the son of Jesse came to the throne, however, there was to be a false start in the form of Saul, the first king of Israel. Unstable, paranoid and disobedient, he was soon succeeded by David, a man after God’s own heart who ruled for 40 years, from 1011 to 971 BC. Not that David was perfect, of course, and the Scriptures are forthright about his successes as well as his failures. But the tenor of his life was of love and devotion to God, repenting of sin when confronted with it, and pursuing the beauty and glory of the Lord.
Not only is David a forerunner of Christ, he’s also the ideal king of Israel. Courageous and sensitive, a man of action as well as strong feeling, a charismatic military leader and a gifted poet and musician who wrote the lion’s share of the Psalms, he’s the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of a renaissance man.
If David was the ideal king, then his son Solomon ruled the ideal kingdom. His 40-year reign, from 971 to 931 BC, was the high point of Israel’s history, a golden age marked by peace, prosperity and cultural excellence. God gave Solomon wisdom, wealth and success in every endeavour. He built the temple and much of Jerusalem, fostered international trade and technological innovation, wrote poems and treatises on the natural world, as well as the biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. Yet for all that, in later life Solomon turned from the Lord and embraced the idolatry of his many wives, marking the start of a national decline that would end in destruction and exile.
Decline and fall: The divided monarchy
1 & 2 Kings; 2 Chronicles; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Hosea; Joel; Amos; Obadiah; Jonah; Micah; Nahum; Habakkuk; Zephaniah
After the death of Solomon, the kingdom was torn in two. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin stayed loyal to the house of David, while the 10 northern tribes seceded with the rebel Jeroboam as their king. Jeroboam set up his own religion centred on the worship of golden calves at Dan and Bethel, at the two boundaries of his territory.
The history of this northern kingdom, known as Israel, was plagued by a rash of dynastic coups, with all of its monarchs following in the footsteps of Jeroboam and leading their people further into idolatry. The kingdom lasted for about two centuries before being destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Its population was deported and largely replaced with various people groups who created a religion combining the worship of God with their own pagan deities. These became the ancestors of the Samaritans from Jesus’ day.
The situation was marginally better in the southern kingdom of Judah. God remained faithful to his covenant with David, ensuring that one of his descendants was always on the throne. But only a handful of these kings followed the righteous example of David, Hezekiah and Josiah most notable among them. The rest went down the path of the northern kings, embracing idol worship and social injustice and encouraging their people to do the same. Judah lasted about 150 years longer than Israel before being swept away under God’s judgment at the hands of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Jerusalem was burned, the temple destroyed, and the people driven into exile for 70 years.
Even so, God never stopped pursuing his people or speaking to them. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and nine of the 12 Minor Prophets all ministered during these centuries, either in Israel or Judah, urging the people to repent and return to God, to pursue justice and kindness and enjoy a renewed relationship with him. And God also stayed true to his promise to preserve the Davidic royal line. The last surviving king of Judah, Jehoiachin, found favour with the new Babylonian monarch, who released him from prison and took care of his needs for the rest of his life.
The Exile: Life in Babylon and Persia
Lamentations; Ezekiel; Daniel; Esther
The destruction of Jerusalem was the most traumatic event in Israel’s history, and Lamentations is an intense, poetic outpouring of grief in response to it. However, life in the Exile would go on. The prophet Ezekiel, living in the Babylonian hinterland by the Chebar canal, received a series of imaginative visions that have puzzled Jewish and Christian readers through the centuries. The gist of these visions was to urge the Jewish exiles, as well as those still in Judah, to turn from their sin and stay faithful to God, trusting his promise to return them to their land and restore their fortunes.
In contrast to Ezekiel, Daniel was a young exile living in the capital city and moving among the social elite. He rose through the ranks and became an adviser to several kings over a long career, from Nebuchadnezzar to Cyrus the Persian, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Through it all, Daniel remained true to God and received dreams and visions about God’s broader plans for the nations of the ancient world, culminating in the everlasting Messianic kingdom. As with Ezekiel, these visions are highly symbolic and difficult to interpret, calling for a fair degree of humility on the part of the reader.
The story of Esther takes place several decades after the Persian conquest of Babylon, around 480-465 BC, during the reign of Xerxes I, called Ahasuerus in the Bible. This was at the height of the Persian Empire, and Esther was part of a Jewish community that had stayed behind in the capital city of Susa rather than returning from the Exile. Through a remarkable series of events orchestrated by God behind the scenes, Esther becomes queen and saves her people from the genocidal plans of a royal adviser, thereby ensuring that God’s promised redeemer would come into the world.
Return from the Exile: Rebuilding the temple
Ezra; Nehemiah; Haggai; Zechariah; Malachi
After Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BC, he gave an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, with full support for rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. This return did not go smoothly or quickly, however, but in sporadic waves over the better part of a century, with only a minority of the Jewish diaspora ultimately returning to the land. The rest, like Esther’s community at Susa, remained scattered over the vast territories of the Persian (and later Greek and Roman) Empire.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, originally a single document in the Jewish Bible, trace these waves of return from exile and the difficulties encountered, both external and internal. The first wave was under the governor Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic line, between 538 and 520 BC; the second under Ezra, over 60 years later in 458 BC; and the third under Nehemiah in 445 BC.
Two of the later prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, wrote during the time of the first return under Zerubbabel. They exhorted the people to press on with the work of rebuilding the temple, pointing to the good plans God still had in store for them. Still, the work was slow, distractions and obstacles were many, and the post-exilic community was a mere shadow of Solomon’s golden age, their second temple a far cry from the magnificence of the first. The final prophet, Malachi, who wrote shortly after the governorship of Nehemiah, has the last word in the Old Testament. He rebukes the people for their sin and complacency and looks forward to the coming Messiah.
Between the Testaments: 400 years of silence
Between the final words of Malachi and the angel Gabriel’s announcement of the birth of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke, there’s a yawning gap of prophetic silence that lasted over four centuries. That’s not to say there was nothing of biblical significance happening during that time, however.
Beginning in 333 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Persia and created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to Egypt in the south to the frontiers of India in the east. As a result, Greek culture and language spread across the ancient world, including among the majority of Jews scattered across the various lands of the empire. In the third century BC, a group of Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, translated the Old Testament into Greek, because most Jews could no longer read or understand Hebrew. This translation, known as the Septuagint, was the version used and quoted by the authors of the New Testament. Moreover, the adoption of Greek as the common language paved the way for the spread of the Gospel among Jews and gentiles alike.
Upon Alexander’s early death in 323 BC, his vast empire was divided among four of his generals into smaller, regional dynasties. Two of these dynasties, the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of the Middle East, vied for control over Judea, with the Seleucids emerging as eventual victors. Judea even enjoyed a brief period of independence between 110 and 63 BC under the Hasmonean dynasty of the Maccabees, before being absorbed by the new growing power of Rome.
Messianic expectation among the Jews grew to a fever pitch during this era, as they looked for a deliverer who’d free them from the succession of imperial powers that had held sway in their land, almost uninterrupted, for over half a millennium.
The Gospels: Life, death and resurrection of Jesus
Matthew; Mark; Luke; John
That expectation was met in the coming of Jesus, but not the way the Jewish people had anticipated. In addition to being a descendant of David, Jesus was also God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity in human form. He hadn’t come to destroy Rome and set up a new political kingdom, but to save his people, Jew and gentile alike, from their sins. He did this by living a perfect life and dying a sacrificial death on their behalf, and rising again to prove that the work was done and accepted by God. It was a new and everlasting covenant, sealed with the blood of God’s own Son.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the central event of all history and in all Scripture. Everything before anticipates it, and everything after grows out of it. It’s no surprise, then, that God saw fit to record it in four complementary Gospel accounts, each with its own particular emphases. Matthew the tax collector wrote with Jewish readers in mind; Luke the gentile physician wrote for Hellenistic Greeks as well as Jews; and Mark, an associate of Peter, wrote a short, direct account that would appeal to a Roman audience. All three of these synoptic Gospels were written between about 50 and 70 AD, within two or three decades of the events they record.
John, the beloved disciple, wrote a Gospel account that was markedly different from the other three. At the same time cosmic in scope yet personal in detail, it was designed to appeal to a universal audience. It was also written somewhat later than the other Gospels, around 85 AD, with John, the last living apostle, recalling the events of his youth in order to show his readers that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
Acts and letters: Birth and growth of the church
Acts; Romans; 1 &2 Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians; Philippians; Colossians; 1 & 2 Thessalonians; 1 & 2 Timothy; Titus; Philemon; Hebrews; James; 1 & 2 Peter; Jude
A consummate historian as well as an educated Greek doctor, Luke wrote Acts as a sequel to his Gospel, tracing the birth and development of the early church after the Ascension of Jesus. From internal and external evidence, this work can be dated to about 62 AD, in effect covering the first three decades of church history. Acts follows the spread of the Gospel from Judean to Hellenistic Jews and ultimately to the gentiles of the Greco-Roman world.
The letters of Paul the Apostle, a close friend and travelling companion of Luke, were written over a roughly 15-year period between 50 and 65 AD. These were all occasioned correspondences, written to specific communities of believers to address specific issues. However, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they also teased out the full extent and implications of the Gospel, providing the capstone to the teaching Jesus had begun while he was still on earth.
Unlike the Pauline epistles, the small collection of letters by other authors near the end of the New Testament was written with general audiences in view, to be cycled among broader groups of believers. Most of them fall within the same time span as Paul’s letters, and offer their own complementary details that contribute to a full appreciation of the Gospel.
Final words: Writings of the Apostle John
Gospel of John; 1, 2, 3 John; Revelation
As the last living apostle, John was given the privilege by God of writing the final documents within the canon of the Bible. He wrote his Gospel around 85 AD, about 15 or 20 years later than anything by any other New Testament author. His three brief letters, written 10 years later in about 95 AD, are among the last words recorded in Scripture.
More substantial, of course, is his Revelation, which he wrote at approximately the same time as the three short letters. The work echoes the veiled apocalyptic language found in various Old Testament books, notably Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. Notoriously difficult to interpret, it has been the source of heated debate among believers over the centuries. What do its symbols mean? Are they about events past, present, future, or all of the above? At the very least, the book calls for a cautious approach in drawing conclusions, as well as a gracious spirit toward those who may draw different ones.
The bottom line of Revelation, with which most interpreters can agree, is that it was written to encourage believers to remain faithful in the midst of persecution. It does this via a series of vivid, colourful images, culminating in a beautiful widescreen view of the new heaven and new earth, the redeemed creation in which God will be united with his people in intimate, loving relationship for all eternity.
From Genesis to Revelation, from the garden to the eternal city, the Scriptures present a unified story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. There can be no more fitting coda at the end of that story than the final words of the aged Apostle: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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