Many overviews of the Old Testament are lengthy and detailed. Here however is a short synopsis (lacking many details) of the narrative of the Old Testament. Much is missing, but for the sake of brevity I have attempted to paint the broad strokes so that you might be able to take in the grandness of the Old Testament in under ten minutes for the average reader. Why not take ten minutes now and refresh your love for God as we overview the incredible story of the Old Testament.
The Creation of a People
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
In the beginning of the Old Testament God creates. His creation is incomplete until both man and woman have their being as a people created to glorify God. However Adam and Eve quickly lost sight of their created purpose and sought instead to attain God-likeness in eating from the forbidden tree at the cunning deceit of the serpent. Adam and Eve collided with sin and the creation has been subject to the aftermath ever since. They were kicked out of the garden, out from an in person communion with God. But God did not annihilate them; instead we see from the beginning chapters of Genesis a God who will pursue his people to the utmost, to the point of death on a cross.
Through the lineage of Adam and Eve comes the great family of Abraham, one whom God makes a covenant with and one who exemplifies faith. God declares he will make him a great nation through his offspring and bless him by giving him the gift of land, the Promised Land (Genesis 12). But how can God do this with a man whose wife is beyond childbearing age? The answer is profoundly simple: God is God, He has unlimited creating and redeeming power. And so Isaac is born in their old age. Through Isaac will eventually come Jacob. These are the patriarchs of our faith. Through Jacob will come Joseph who is sold into slavery in Egypt where he eventually rises to prominence and where the family of Abraham grows by leaps and bounds, making the people of God a vast nation. The creator God has created a people for Himself, a people fallen in deep need of reconciliation to their God.
A few hundred years pass as Israel flourishes in Egypt. A new Pharaoh arises and is afraid that Israel has become “too many and too mighty” (Exodus 1:9b) and enslaves them to his service. They have yet to inhabit freedom in the land promised by God to Abraham. In fulfillment of God’s promise, he raises up Moses to set His people free and declare the word of God to the oppressive Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s hardened heart prevents his release of the Israelites which God uses as a means to display his power and glory through ten different plagues. Pharaoh finally capitulates to the mighty hand of God over his people Israel, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said” (Exodus 12:31).
The rebellion of Pharaoh and subsequent plagues on the people, culminating in the obliteration of Pharaoh and his army, show the end behind God’s actions—his own glory: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:4). In their exodus, the Israelites led by God, part the Red Sea and cross into the wilderness. As the Egyptians pursue, God unleashes the walls of water that have allowed the Israelites to cross on dry land and drowns them. The Israelites are now free but have yet to inhabit the land promised.
The Law, the Wilderness, and the Promised Land
In the wilderness we see two mighty traits emphasized, the holiness of God and the sinful rebellion of mankind. God leads the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to Mt. Sinai. It is here that God reveals to Moses the Law—the revelation of God’s holiness and the Israelites subsequent call to live in accord with the honor that is due for God’s people.
However while Moses is receiving the incredible revelation from God on Mt. Sinai, the people rebel. They create for themselves a golden calf under the leadership of Aaron, Moses’ brother. They turn their worship from one who has so miraculously freed them to a golden image, a god of their own creation. The fall echoes everywhere in the lives of mankind.
The Israelites set out from Mt. Sinai towards Canaan, the promised land. As they move they seek to be faithful in their worship of God. They institute the priesthood and the tabernacle of the Lord from camp to camp. The tabernacle exists as a command from God as a dwelling place for the Lord and a place of sacrifice for the sins of the people by the priests.
As the Israelites move towards Canaan, they become discontent and exhibit a rebellious spirit towards God. The providence of God, the physical sustenance of manna and his continual leading, was not good enough. God instead leads them through the wilderness for 40 years, until the generation that left Egypt had passed away and a new generation had been born. With a new generation being called back to faithfulness, Moses retells the law and desires of God for His people (Deuteronomy). At this point Israel crosses into the Promised Land, Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. The covenant with Abraham is fulfilled as the Israelites conquer the nations in Canaan and grow to be a mighty people of God.
The Rise and Fall of the Monarchy
One would think that the Israelites in knowing their God, one who has displayed Himself as utterly loving and caring, would faithfully serve and worship Him alone. The history of Israel however is quite the opposite unfortunately. In the Promised Land the Israelites rebel against God, “They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13). The Lord institutes judges to lead the people towards holiness but even then they did not “listen to the judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:17). Sin is an infection of the heart which turns all humanity away from God.
The judges were not good enough for the Israelites. They wanted to be like the other nations. They wanted a king, an evil thing in the sight of the Lord because He was their King. God institutes a monarchy for the purpose of turning them back to Himself, which fails to happen initially, but from whose lineage will come one who will redeem and reconcile God’s people to Himself, the Messiah.
Saul is anointed and installed as the first human king of Israel. The people rejoice and return to the Lord. However Saul soon turns in rebellion and hardness of heart. God raises up a young man David whose celebrity becomes renowned thereby enraging the king’s jealousy. Saul intends to put David to death and pursues him eventually coming to ruin by the hands of the Philistines.
David becomes the second king of Israel. He leads the Israelites as an exemplary king to worship their God. While he may be the greatest king of Israel, he still shows the depths of sin in the human heart through things such as his adultery with Bathsheba and cover-up murder of her husband. Nonetheless God enters into an incredible covenant with David: “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house…I will raise up your offspring after you…I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:11-14). In spite of all of Israel’s rebellion, God is eternally a God in relationship with them. He will not shake them off like dust from his feet. They are His people and He is their God. Here is a promise greater than any promise of heritage and land, here is the promise of a coming King, one who rules with holiness and grace, one who can blot out transgression and impute righteousness. But this King is far off.
The history of the remaining kings of Israel is a dismal chapter in history. Things begin well with Solomon who builds the temple of the Lord in all its splendor but quickly spirals out of control in sin and rebellion. From one king to another they turn more and more wicked in their worship of other gods, returning here and there to a king who tries to lead in faithfulness. The kingdom splits over desire for power, the north becoming the kingdom of Israel and the south becoming the kingdom of Judah. This period of Israel’s history is covenant disloyalty at its worst.
Exile and Return
As a consequence of this faithlessness, God hands over his people to foreign nations and foreign lands. Their freedom and Promised Land is lost. The northern kingdom Israel is exiled in 722 B.C. after their capture by the Assyrians. In 587 B.C. the southern kingdom Judah is taken captive and led away by the Babylonians who destroy God’s temple. At this point things seem like God is done with His people, maybe He has had enough with their wanton rebellion and contempt for His mercy towards them. But even in the midst of sin God does not give up on His people. We cannot read the Old Testament and see a God of wrath only; He is a God of grace and mercy that pursues His people relentlessly.
In 538 B.C. the southern kingdom of Judah that was exiled to Babylon began to return to the Promised Land. The Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus, conquer Babylon. Cyrus permits with a public edict the return of God’s people and the rebuilding of His temple. The northern kingdom Israel remains in exile. The return of God’s people to Jerusalem culminates in the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of the city. It is here in postexilic Jerusalem that the Psalms take a prominent role as the hymnbook of God’s people.
The Old Testament is a continual witness to the mercy of God in creating and sustaining a people for Himself. The events that transpire are a continual declaration of who God is and who He calls His people to be, a faithful people restored in relationship. But yet there is much left wanting. There is an unfinished covenant made with king David, there is a promise of a coming Messiah through the prophet Isaiah that God’s people long for. God’s holiness and mankind’s sin are ever on display in these 39 books. The reader cannot help but see their own heart’s rebellion and need for forgiveness. The Old Testament points towards a need for restoration, it points towards the total sinfulness and rebellion of mankind, it points to a God who will not let us wallow in sin, it points to Jesus.
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JT Holderman is Assistant Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.