A collection of divinely inspired books written between 1450 B.C. and 430 B.C., the Old Testament is a historical record of God's people, laws, sayings and promises that function as a model for moral living and conduct.
There are 39 books in the Old Testament.
As its name implies, Genesis is about beginnings. Genesis tells us that God created everything that exists. It shows that God is both the Creator and the Ruler of all creation. But it also tells of humanity's tragic fall into sin and death, and of God's unfolding plan of redemption through his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Genesis includes some of the most memorable stories in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve (chs. 1-4), continuing through Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ending with the life of Joseph (chs. 37-50), who died before 1600 b.c. Traditionally, Jews and Christians have recognized Moses as the author, writing after the Exodus from Egypt, commonly dated around 1440 b.c. though many prefer a date around 1260 b.c.
Exodus tells of God fulfilling his promise to Abraham by multiplying Abraham's descendants into a great nation, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, leading them to the Promised Land, and then binding them to himself with a covenant at Mount Sinai. Moses, under the direct command of God and as leader of Israel, received the Ten Commandments from God, along with other laws governing Israel's life and worship. He also led the nation in the building of the tabernacle, a place where God's presence dwelled among his people and where they made sacrifices for sin. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing sometime after the Exodus from Egypt.
Leviticus begins with the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai. The glory of the Lord had just filled the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38
) and God now tells Moses to instruct the Levitical priests and the people of Israel concerning sacrifices, worship, the priesthood, ceremonial cleanness, the Day of Atonement, feasts and holy days, and the Year of Jubilee. The central message is that God is holy and he requires his people to be holy. The book also shows that God graciously provides atonement for sin through the shedding of blood. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing sometime after the giving of the Law.
The English title "Numbers" comes from the two censuses that are central features of this book. However the Hebrew title, "In the Wilderness," is more descriptive of the book. Numbers tells how God's people traveled from Mount Sinai to the border of the Promised Land. But when they refused to take possession of the Land, God made them wander in the wilderness for nearly forty years. Throughout the book, God is seen as a holy God who cannot ignore rebellion or unbelief, but also as the one who faithfully keeps his covenant and patiently provides for the needs of his people. Numbers ends with a new generation preparing for the conquest of Canaan. Traditionally, Jews and Christians recognize Moses as the author, writing during the final year of his life.
Deuteronomy, which means "second law," is a retelling by Moses of the teachings and events of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It includes an extended review of the Ten Commandments (4:44-5:33) and Moses' farewell address to a new generation of Israelites as they stand ready to take possession of the Promised Land. Moses reminds them of God's faithfulness and love, but also of God's wrath on the previous generation of Israelites because of their rebellion. Repeatedly he charges Israel to keep the Law. Deuteronomy is a solemn call to love and obey the one true God. There are blessings for faithfulness and curses for unfaithfulness. The book closes with the selection of Joshua as Israel's new leader and the death of Moses.
The five books of Moses anticipated the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham regarding the Promised Land. Now (either about 1400 or 1220 b.c.), through a string of military victories under Joshua, Israel conquered the land and divided it among the twelve tribes. In these battles it became evident that God fights for his people when they are "strong and courageous" (1:6, 7, 9, 18; 10:25) and put their full trust in him. At the close of the book, Joshua charged the people to remain faithful to God and to obey his commands, and the people agreed to do so. "As for me and my house," said Joshua, "we will serve the Lord" (24:15). Although anonymous, the book appears to contain eyewitness testimony, some of which may have been written by Joshua himself.
Judges is named after an interesting collection of individuals who led Israel after Joshua's death until the rise of the monarchy under Samuel (up to about 1050 b.c.). In this time of national decline, despite their promise to keep the covenant (Josh. 24:16-18
) the people turned from the Lord and began to worship other gods. "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6; 21:25). A pattern repeats throughout the book: 1) the people abandoned the Lord; 2) God punished them by raising up a foreign power to oppress them; 3) the people cried out to God for deliverance; and 4) God raised up a deliverer, or judge, for them. The author of the book is unknown, although some Jewish tradition ascribes it to Samuel.
The book of Ruth tells of a young Moabite widow who, out of love for her widowed Israelite mother-in-law, abandoned her own culture, declaring, "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (1:16). Though she was destitute and needing to rely on the kindness of others, Ruth's disposition and character captured the attention of Boaz, a close relative of her deceased husband. Boaz fulfilled the role of kinsman-redeemer and took Ruth as his wife. Ruth serves as a wonderful example of God's providential care of his people, and of his willingness to accept Gentiles who seek him. Ruth was an ancestor of Christ. The author is unknown, but the genealogy at the end suggests that it was written during or after the time of David.
First Samuel records the establishment of Israel's monarchy, about 1050 b.c. Samuel led Israel for many years in the combined roles of prophet, priest, and judge. After the people demanded a king like those of the other nations (ch. 8), God directed Samuel to anoint Saul as Israel's first king. When Saul turned from God, David was anointed by Samuel to succeed him. After David killed the giant Goliath, he was brought to Saul's court, eventually becoming the leader of Saul's armies. Saul's subsequent violent jealousy forced David to flee. The book closes with Saul's death in battle, and looks forward to David's reign. First Samuel's author is unknown, but Samuel himself may have written portions of the book (see 1 Chron. 29:29
Second Samuel recounts David's reign as king of Israel (about 1010-970 b.c.). As promised to Abraham, during David's reign Israel's borders were extended roughly from Egypt to the Euphrates. While David had many successes, after his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah (ch. 11) both his kingdom and his own family fell into chaos. His son Absalom led a bloody rebellion against him. Nevertheless David, author of many of the Psalms, was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22
), a model of deep, heartfelt prayer and repentance. The Davidic Covenant of chapter 7 establishes the eternal rule of David's line, with its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ. The author of 2 Samuel is unknown.
First Kings begins with the death of King David (about 970 b.c.) and the reign of his son, Solomon, who "excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom" (10:23). Solomon's unfaithfulness later in life set the stage for general apostasy among the people. The harsh policies of his son Rehoboam led to the revolt of the northern tribes and the division of Israel. The northern tribes would subsequently be called Israel, while the southern tribes would be called Judah. First Kings describes the construction of the temple in Jerusalem and shows the importance of proper worship. God's faithfulness to his people is shown as he sent prophets, most notably Elijah, to warn them not to serve other gods. The author of 1 Kings is unknown.
Second Kings continues the saga of disobedience begun in 1 Kings, opening about 850 b.c. with the conclusion of Elijah's prophetic ministry in Israel and the beginning of the work of his successor, Elisha. Israel spiraled downward in faithlessness, ultimately being defeated and dispersed by the Assyrians in 722. Judah, the southern kingdom, had several kings who trusted God and attempted reforms. But after many years of God's warnings through Isaiah and other prophets, Judah's sins were punished by Babylonian conquest starting in 605 and ultimately in the fall of Jerusalem in 586. The people were exiled to Babylon for seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 29:10
). God remained faithful to his covenant despite his people's faithlessness. The author of 2 Kings is unknown.
First and Second Chronicles, originally one book, was written sometime after Judah began to return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c. (1 Chron. 9:1-2
; 2 Chron. 36:23
). It focuses primarily on the history of Judah, the southern kingdom of divided Israel. First Chronicles begins with several genealogies, with special emphasis on David and Solomon. The "chronicler" moves next to the history of the kingdom under David, stressing David's deep interest in worship and his detailed plans for the construction of the temple-which would be built by his son Solomon. First Chronicles was probably written to reassure the returned exiles of God's faithfulness toward his people. Its author is unknown, although many have thought that Ezra was the principal writer.
Second Chronicles, which extends 1 Chronicles' history of Judah, was written sometime after the people began to return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c. (36:23). The "chronicler," perhaps trying to encourage the returned exiles, recalls the greatness of Solomon's reign. Most of the book, however, focuses on Judah's fall into sin which had led to the exile. Judah had several godly kings, especially Hezekiah and Josiah, but it still declined into sin. Still, God remained faithful to his covenant people, and as the book closes it jumps ahead several years, recording the decree of Cyrus that allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their Promised Land. The author is unknown, although many have thought that Ezra was the principal writer.
The book of Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends. As prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 44:28
), the Persian King Cyrus had sent exiles led by Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem in 538 b.c. (Persia had defeated Babylon in 539.) Despite opposition from the non-Jewish inhabitants of Judea, and after encouragement by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the temple was rebuilt (515). Then in 458, Ezra led the second of three waves of returning exiles. By the time Ezra arrived, the people had again fallen into sin. Ezra preached God's word and the people repented (10:9-17). Ezra succeeded because God's hand was upon him (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31). This book, perhaps written by Ezra, shows God's power in covenant faithfulness, moving even pagan kings to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
In 445 b.c. the Persian King Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah, an Israelite who was a trusted official, to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. With Nehemiah went the third wave of returning Jewish exiles. There was intense opposition from the other peoples in the land and disunity within Jerusalem. Despite this opposition, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls. He overcame these threats by taking wise defensive measures, by personal example, and by his obvious courage. Nehemiah did what God had put into his heart (2:12; 7:5) and found that the joy of the Lord was his strength (8:10). When the people began once again to fall into sin, Nehemiah had Ezra read to them from the Law. Nehemiah served twice as governor. The author is unknown, although parts come from Nehemiah's own writings.
The book of Esther never mentions God's name, yet God clearly orchestrated all of its events. Esther, a Jew living among the exiles in Persia, became queen of the empire in about 480 b.c. Haman, a Persian official, sought to eradicate the Jewish minority, but God had prepared Esther "for such a time as this" (4:14) to save his covenant people. The book was written some decades later to document the origins of the Jewish observance of Purim, which celebrates Israel's survival and God's faithfulness. The author is unknown, but some believe it could have been Esther's cousin Mordecai, who is a key person in the book. Throughout the book we see God's sovereign hand preserving his people, showing that everything is under his control.
Considered both a theological and a literary masterpiece, the book of Job is an honest portrayal of God allowing a good man to suffer. The test of Job's faith, allowed by God in response to a challenge from Satan, revealed God's loving sovereignty and the supremacy of divine wisdom over human wisdom (personified by Job's friends). Believing that God is good despite the apparent evidence to the contrary, Job rested in faith alone. In the depths of agony he could still proclaim, "I know that my Redeemer lives" (19:25). In the end God silenced all discussion with the truth that he alone is wise (chs. 38-41). Yet he vindicated Job's trust in him (ch. 42), proving that genuine faith cannot be destroyed. The unknown author was probably an Israelite writing sometime between 1500 and 500 b.c.
The book of Psalms is filled with the songs and prayers offered to God by the nation of Israel. Their expressions of praise, faith, sorrow, and frustration cover the range of human emotions. Some of the Psalms dwell on the treasure of wisdom and God's Word. Others reveal the troubled heart of a mourner. Still others explode with praise to God and invite others to join in song. This diversity is unified by one element: they are centered upon the one and only living God. This Creator God is King of all the earth and a refuge to all who trust in him. Many of the Psalms are attributed to King David. The writing and collection of the Psalms into their present form spans the fifteenth to the third centuries b.c.
Practical wisdom for living is the central concern of the book of Proverbs. We are told that the beginning and essence of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (1:7; 9:10). Proverbs often contrasts the benefits of seeking wisdom and the pitfalls of living a fool's life. While the wicked stumble in "deep darkness" (4:19), "the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day" (v. 18). Proverbs is a collection of Israelite wisdom literature, including an introductory section (chs. 1-9) that gives readers a framework for understanding the rest of the book. The book includes the work of various authors, but much of it is attributed to King Solomon. It dates from between the tenth and sixth centuries b.c.
Ecclesiastes contains reflections of an old man, the "Preacher," as he considered the question of meaning in life. He looked back and saw the futility ("vanity") of chasing after even the good things this life can offer, including wisdom, work, pleasure, and wealth. Even if such things are satisfying for a time, death is certain to end this satisfaction. In fact, God's judgment on Adam for his sin (Gen. 3:17-19
) echoes throughout the book (especially 12:7). Yet the person who lives in the fear of the Lord can enjoy God's good gifts. Young people, especially, should remember their Creator while they still have their whole lives before them (12:1). Traditionally interpreters of Ecclesiastes have identified the "Preacher," who is also called "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1), as Solomon (tenth century b.c.).
According to the most common interpretation, the Song of Solomon is a collection of love poems between a man and a woman, celebrating the sexual relationship God intended for marriage. God established marriage, including the physical union of a husband and wife (Gen. 2:18-25
), and Israelite wisdom literature treasures this aspect of marriage as the appropriate expression of human sexuality (Prov. 5:15-20
). The Song of Solomon has also been understood as an illustration of the mutual love of Christ and his church. It is possible that Solomon (tenth century b.c.) is the author (1:1). However, this verse could mean that the Song was dedicated to Solomon or was written about him, and therefore many scholars regard the book as anonymous.
Isaiah lived during the decline of Israel in the shadow of Assyria. He spoke the word of God to a people who were "deaf and blind" (see 6:10), who refused to listen to his warnings of looming disaster. He warned that the sin of the people of Judah would bring God's judgment, yet he also declared that God is sovereign and would use Cyrus the Persian to return them from exile. The book speaks of a "servant," a "man of sorrows," who would be "wounded for our transgressions," accomplishing God's purposes of salvation (52:13-53:12). The final chapters give a beautiful description of a new creation in which God will rule as King, judging the wicked and establishing eternal peace. Isaiah prophesied about 740-700 b.c. (possibly till the 680s).
Jeremiah, often called the "weeping prophet" because of his sorrow over the persistent message of God's judgment, prophesied to the nation of Judah from the reign of King Josiah in 627 b.c. until sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586. He dictated his prophecies to a scribe named Baruch (36:4, 32). Jeremiah's task as a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God. However, throughout the book we also see God's concern for repentance and righteousness in individuals as well as nations. This dual focus is seen in God's instructions to Jeremiah: he was "to pluck up and to break down" but also "to build and to plant" (1:10). Jeremiah sees a future day when God will write his law on human hearts, and "they shall all know me," and "I will remember their sin no more" (31:33-34).
The book of Lamentations is made up of five poems, each an expression of grief over the fall of Jerusalem. Like a eulogy at a funeral, these laments are intended to mourn a loss-in this case, the loss of a nation. The latter half of chapter 3 implies that the purpose behind the book's graphic depictions of sorrow and suffering was to produce hope in the God whose compassion is "new every morning" (v. 23) and whose faithfulness is great even to a people who have been condemned for their own unfaithfulness. The author, while not identified in the book itself, may have been the prophet Jeremiah, who was said to have "uttered a lament for Josiah" (2 Chron. 35:25
). Lamentations was probably written shortly after Jerusalem's fall in 586 b.c.
Ezekiel, a prophet and priest, was exiled to Babylon in 597 b.c. His ministry extended over at least twenty-three years. The book opens with his first dramatic vision of the "likeness" of the Lord himself. Ezekiel was keenly aware of God's presence and power in human affairs. He addressed both the exiles and the people left in Judah with messages of warning and judgment, predicting the fall of Jerusalem. After Jerusalem's fall (in 586), Ezekiel prophesied hope and reassurance for the people of Judah, who had then lost the focus of God's covenant, the temple in Jerusalem. His vision of the valley of dry bones (ch. 37) is a classic picture of God's ability to renew his people.
Exiled to Babylon in 605 b.c., Daniel was one of several young men chosen to serve in Nebuchadnezzar's court. When Persia conquered Babylon in 539, Daniel was again given a position of power. He remained faithful to God in both of these hostile environments. From the interpretation of dreams, to the familiar stories of the fiery furnace, the lions' den, and the handwriting on the wall, to the prophetic visions, the recurrent theme is God's sovereignty over human affairs. In the historical sections (chs. 1-6) God supernaturally rescued Daniel and his friends. The rest of the book consists of visions of future judgment and deliverance by the Messiah. Some of Daniel's prophetic themes are echoed in the New Testament, especially in Revelation.
Hosea has been called the "death-bed prophet of Israel" because he was the last to prophesy before the northern kingdom fell to Assyria (about 722 b.c.). His ministry followed a golden age in the northern kingdom, with a peace and prosperity not seen since the days of Solomon. Unfortunately, with this prosperity came moral decay, and Israel forsook God to worship idols. So God instructed Hosea to marry a "wife of whoredom" (1:2), whose unfaithfulness to her husband would serve as an example of Israel's unfaithfulness to God. Hosea then explained God's complaint against Israel and warned of the punishment that would come unless the people returned to the Lord and remained faithful to him. The book shows the depth of God's love for his people, a love that tolerates no rivals.
Little is known about the prophet Joel, although his concern for Judah and Jerusalem suggests that he ministered in Judah. Joel told of a locust plague that had struck Israel and which, he said, foreshadowed the "day of the Lord." The day of the Lord was a time greatly anticipated by the Israelites because they believed that God would then judge the nations and restore Israel to her former glory. Yet, said Joel, God would punish not only the nations but unfaithful Israel as well. Joel urged everyone to repent, and told of a day when God would "pour out [his] Spirit on all flesh" (2:28). That day arrived on the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:17
). While the date of the book is uncertain (ninth to sixth century b.c.), its message is valid for all time.
Amos, possibly the first of the writing prophets, was a shepherd and farmer called to prophesy during the reigns of Uzziah (792-740 b.c.) in the southern kingdom and Jeroboam II (793-753) in the north. During this time both kingdoms enjoyed political stability, which in turn brought prosperity. It was also a time of idolatry, extravagance, and corruption. The rich and powerful were oppressing the poor. Amos denounced the people of Israel for their apostasy and social injustice and warned them that disaster would fall upon them for breaking the covenant. He urged them to leave the hypocrisy of their "solemn assemblies" (5:21) and instead to "let justice roll down like waters" (v. 24). Nevertheless, said Amos, God would remember his covenant with Israel and would restore a faithful remnant.
Obadiah wrote this shortest book of the Old Testament probably soon after the armies of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem (586 b.c.). During this conquest, the people of Edom helped capture fleeing Israelites and turn them over to the Babylonians. They even took up residence in some Judean villages. This angered the Lord, for the Edomites, as descendants of Esau, were related to the Israelites (Gen. 25:21-26
) and therefore should have helped them. Obadiah prophesied that Edom would be repaid for mistreating God's people. Obadiah also asserted that God is sovereign over the nations and that the house of Jacob would be restored because of God's covenant love for his people.
Because it tells of a fish swallowing a man, many have dismissed the book of Jonah as fiction. But 2 Kings 14:25
mentions Jonah as living during the time of Jeroboam II (about 793-753 b.c.), and Jesus referred to Jonah as a historical person (Matt. 12:39-41
). Unlike other prophetic books, Jonah focuses on the prophet himself rather than on his message. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh he rebelled, was swallowed by a fish, repented, and fulfilled his mission after all. When Nineveh repented, the reason for Jonah's rebellion became clear: he had feared that God would forgive the Ninevites; and when God did forgive them, Jonah resented it (4:1-3). The book lists no author, but only Jonah himself could have known all the facts it records.
Micah prophesied in Judah during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (about 750-700 b.c.), at about the same time as Isaiah. It was a time of prosperity, and Micah denounced the wealthy, who were oppressing the poor, and warned of impending judgment. The northern kingdom actually fell during Micah's ministry, in 722, and Judah almost fell in 701 (2 Kings 18-20
). The book contains three sections, which alternate between words of warning and messages of hope. Micah told of a day when there would be peace among all nations, who would then be able to "beat their swords into plowshares" (4:3), and of a royal deliverer who would save God's people from all her enemies. This deliverer would be born in Bethlehem (5:2).
When Jonah preached repentance on the streets of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the people responded and were spared. A century later, sometime between 663 and 612 b.c., Nahum preached in a time when Nineveh would not repent. Nineveh, which had destroyed Israel's northern kingdom in 722, itself fell to Babylon in 612-just a few years after Nahum's warning. The Assyrians were notorious for the brutality of their treatment of other nations. Nahum declared, however, that God is sovereign: he punishes whom he will, and they are powerless to stop him. Much of Nahum's prophecy was directed to the people of Judah, who could rejoice at the good news (1:15) of Nineveh's impending fall.
Habakkuk was probably written about 640-615 b.c., just before the fall of Assyria and the rise of Babylon (Chaldea). God used Assyria to punish Israel (722); now he would use Babylon to punish Assyria and Judah. This prophecy would be fulfilled several decades after Habakkuk, in 586. The "theme question" of Habakkuk is, how can God use a wicked nation such as Babylon for his divine purpose? God judges all nations, said Habakkuk, and even Babylon would eventually be judged (Babylon fell to Persia in 539). Though God's ways are sometimes mysterious, "the righteous shall live by his faith" (2:4) while awaiting salvation. These words are quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17
; Gal. 3:11
; Heb. 10:38
Zephaniah prophesied during the reforms of King Josiah (640-609 b.c.), who brought spiritual revival to Judah after the long and disastrous reign of Manasseh. Zephaniah pronounced God's judgment on corruption and wickedness but also his plan to restore Judah. He spoke of the coming "day of the Lord," when sin would be punished, justice would prevail, and a "remnant" of the faithful would be saved. The term "day of the Lord" occurs throughout the Bible referring both to impending historical judgments from God and to his final judgment at the end of time. Though Zephaniah does not give details about this day, he speaks of its fearsome consequences (1:18) and calls people to seek the Lord (2:3).
When the first wave of Jewish exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 b.c., they began to rebuild the temple but soon gave up. Inspired by the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah, they finally completed the task in 516. Haggai rebuked the people for living in "paneled houses" while the house of God remained in ruins (1:4). He warned that, despite their best efforts, their wealth would never suffice, because the Lord was not pleased with their neglect of his temple (see Lev. 26:2-20
). He called them to repent and renew their covenant with the God of their fathers. He assured them that God would achieve his purposes for his people and for all other nations. The rebuilding of the temple symbolized God's restored presence among his people.
As Haggai encouraged the returned Jewish exiles to rebuild the temple, Zechariah encouraged them to repent and renew their covenant with God. Such spiritual renewal would be necessary for the people to be ready to worship God once the temple was rebuilt (about 516 b.c.). He accused them of doing the very things their ancestors had done before the exile. He was concerned about social justice for widows, orphans, and foreigners. But as the people endured opposition from the non-Jewish inhabitants of Judea, Zechariah reassured them of God's abiding comfort and care. God would continue his covenant with Israel. Messianic hope was rekindled during Zechariah's ministry, and the book ends with the promise that the Lord would establish his rule over all the earth (14:9).
Although the urging of Haggai and Zechariah had brought the completion of the temple (516 b.c.), this had not produced the messianic age many expected. The warm response to Zechariah's call to repentance had grown cold, because God apparently had not restored the covenant blessings. Malachi, writing a short time later, called the people to repentance with respect to: the priesthood, which had become corrupt; worship, which had become routine; divorce, which was widespread; social justice, which was being ignored; and tithing, which was neglected. "Will man rob God?" the Lord asked through Malachi (3:8), and he promised to "open the windows of heaven" (v. 10) for those who pay their full tithe. Malachi predicted the coming of both John the Baptist and Jesus, referring to each as a "messenger" of God (3:1).