The Old Testament is the story of how God has related to the human race beginning with creation up to about 400 years before our present era. Its first section consists of 5 extended writings by Moses, who was the first leader of the Hebrew nation. It starts with God’s creation of the universe and tells of his creation of the first human beings. They were created to enjoy perfect harmony with God, with themselves (they experienced no shame), with each other, and with the world. They took care of it and it produced food and met all their physical needs. But they disobeyed God and because of that they lost their four original harmonies. We all have followed in their footsteps and often disobey God just like they did. The rest of the Bible is all about how God is working to bring us back to the original harmonies that he created us to enjoy.
The world quickly became violent and corrupt. At one point things became so bad that God had to destroy all of humanity except for one man, named Noah, and his family. This shows that God is the final judge of the world and will not tolerate evil forever.
The main story continues with Abraham, the father of Isaac and Ishmael. Through Isaac the Hebrew people that descended through his son, Jacob, who was later renamed, Israel. That also became the name of the nation that descended from him. The Arab nations descended through Ishmael. God’s plan was to begin by bringing Israel into an especially close relationship with him. They would then be his instruments to bring the whole world back into a harmonious relationship with him.
God called Abraham to leave his comfortable home in what is now Iraq and move into a land on the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This land didn’t have many people in it so it was an ideal place of a new nation to emerge. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel lived there as nomads. However, a famine brought Jacob into Egypt, where he and his clan settled. Although they began to multiply, there they also got enslaved for about 400 years.
Moses and the Covenant
Eventually, God raised up a powerful leader named Moses. He had some dramatic confrontations with the Egyptian Pharaoh who eventually was forced to allow the Hebrew slaves to escape. Their miraculous deliverance convinced them that God was truly on their side. To this day the Jewish people still consider this the greatest deliverance they have ever experienced. They had now grown to twelve tribes, each of which descended from one of Jacob’s twelve sons.
Now God’s relationship with his chosen people began in earnest by his making a covenant with them. Such covenants were well-known in Moses’ time. What it meant is that God would become Israel’s supreme leader. He and his people would be united by a life-long devotion and loyalty to one another. God would protect them and provide for them. They, in turn, would be committed to love him and obey his laws. These laws were part of the covenant and covered every aspect of life—their health, their economics, their social relationships, and their spiritual lives as well. If these laws were obeyed, God promised that they would be so greatly blessed that other nations in the world would notice and become interested in the God who gave them. This is the way other people would be brought to God.
A covenant in that culture was the most serious relationship that people ever entered. If it would be kept there would be benefits to both sides. But if either party was unfaithful to it, they agreed that a serious curse would come on them which would lead to great suffering and disaster.
Covenant is still a very important principle. It is the only way God relates to his people. In fact, it is so important that the two divisions of the Bible should really be called, The Old and New Covenants. The word, Testament, is just an old English word for covenant. As we will see, God later moved on to a new covenant, brought about through Jesus. But the basic idea of a covenant relationship with God continues to this day, still including the possibility of great blessing, but also still carrying the possibility of disaster if it is not kept faithfully.
God promised Israel that they would inherit the land in which their forefather, Abraham, lived. It was that land on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, as far east as the Jordan River.
After 40 years in the Sinai desert Moses’ successor, Joshua, led them into their “promised land” where they lived for the next 400 years as a group of loosely-organized tribes. The records of the fortunes, good and bad, of the Hebrew people constitute the next section of the Old Testament called Old Testament History.
Then they became a united kingdom under three successive kings, Saul, David, and Solomon. The best of these was the second, David, who established his capital in Jerusalem. Under Solomon, his son, the kingdom enjoyed its greatest power and prosperity. It was during this time that Hebrew literature developed. David, Solomon, and others produced a drama (Job), a book of songs, called the Psalms, a book of wisdom (Proverbs), a book of philosophy (Ecclesiastes), and a love poem (Song of Solomon). These 5 writings are in a section called Literature.
However, after these kings the kingdom split in two. Ten tribes formed the kingdom of Israel to the north and the other two became Judah to the south. Sadly, both kingdoms gradually slid away from faithfulness to the covenant. They began to worship idols and fell into all kinds of sin, both personal and social. Their rich and powerful people oppressed the poor and needy. This displeased God greatly. Only a few remained loyal to God. There were several important revivals in the southern kingdom of Judah during which its people repented of their sins and turned back to God. That never happened in the north and therefore that was the first of the two nations to experience the covenantal curse.
There were always prophets that God sent to both kingdoms. Although they made many predictions that came to pass, their main focus was to call people back to God and faithfulness to their covenant. At first they merely spoke their messages. Later they also began to write them down. These writings are in two sections, called the Longer Prophets and the Shorter Prophets. Each of the longer ones was originally written on a single scroll. The shorter ones were all written together on one additional scroll.
The height of written prophecy came during the eighth century before the beginning of the Christian era. The prophets first called people to repentance. When they saw that this was not happening they then predicted that God would punish them, cause them to be defeated in battle, and taken captive to countries far away. This eventually happened just as predicted. Both kingdoms were defeated and their people were killed or taken captive, the northern kingdom, Israel, by the Assyrians and later on, the southern kingdom, Judah, by Babylon.
On the other hand, their prophets also predicted that God would eventually restore Judah through the work of a promised deliverer who would also become their king. He was called the “Messiah,” or “Anointed One.” One of the Old Testament prophets named Jeremiah predicted that God would have to make a “new covenant” with his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The problem with the old covenant was that for many Israelites it was only an external thing—a collection of rules and regulations to be obeyed. It did not change their hearts and therefore did not prevent them from eventually turning away from their God to worship other gods. Jeremiah predicted that there would come a time when God would change his covenant with his people. This time it would be written on their hearts. In other words, he would change them inwardly, so that they would follow him from the heart.
While in captivity the people from the northern kingdom intermarried and lost their identity. Some people in this mixed group eventually became the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. The people of Judah, who became known as Jews, kept their identity even though they were exiled to Babylon. They were eventually allowed to return to their homeland through the graciousness of a Persian king named Cyrus. But their return from captivity was not what they hoped for. Except for a brief period they never became the independent, prosperous, and blessed nation that their prophets had predicted. Thus the Old Testament ends on a note of disappointment but with the hope for something better in the future.
 This is not exactly true. One of the tribes, the Levites, became the priestly tribe and was not counted among the twelve. The descendants of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, were split into two tribes named after his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
 In the ancient world, kings were put into power by being “anointed” with sweet-smelling oil. This was poured over their heads and flowed down on to their clothes. This was supposed to signify God’s Holy Spirit coming into the life of this king to enable him to rule wisely and fairly. Of course, not every king took this seriously. Many were rebellious against God and his ways.