The books of the Old Testament from Judges to Nehemiah trace the history of Israel from the time of the completion of the colonisation of Canaan through the time of the Judges, the establishment of the kingdom, the division into northern and southern kingdoms, the exile and the restoration. These books cover an enormous span of history from about 1200 BC to around 320 BC.
Unlike the first six books (Genesis to Joshua) it is possible to relate many of the events recorded in these books to historical events in the region. Much of it is datable and some of it verifiable from archaeological evidence. Clearly, covering such a vast period means that the books do not comprise a complete history as we would understand it – and the writers would not have thought of themselves as producing such a history. The purpose of these books is as much recording God’s dealings with his people as it with chronicling the events of their history.
The book of Judges traces the period from 1200-1025 BC. During this time the people of Israel could not be thought of as a nation in any sense that we understand it. They were rather twelve tribes, each responsible for its own affairs but bound together by a common ancestry (they were all descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons, and by a shared God and the experience of the Exodus. It is clear that the destruction of the former inhabitants of Canaan was not as complete as the book of Joshua might lead us to suppose. In Judges 2.20-3.6 we are given an explanation of how and why the original peoples were able to remain in the land. During this period, during times of political tension and wars the tribes would unite to defend themselves, or to extend their own influence in the region, under the leadership of judges. These were military leaders but are also given a religious significance in the book. The actions of most of the judges merit only a paragraph or two but a few are significant enough to have more recorded of them.
The prophetess Deborah, with Barak her general, defeat the army of Jabin, king of Canaan, led by his general Sisera (Jud. 4-5). Gideon delivers Israel from the oppression of the Midianites. His story is presented as a victory over the Baals, the gods of the Midianites (Jud. 6-8). Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, although his victory causes tension with the Ephraimites (Jud. 10.6-12.7). The most well known stories in the book of Judges are those about Samson. His battles are with the Philistines and he is finally undone by Delilah who betrays him to the Philistines (Jud. 13-16).
The stories in Judges are also stories about the purity of the religion of the people of Israel. Many of the accounts of the Judges begin with the words, the Israelites did what is evil in the Lord’s eyes. As a consequence of their sin they are oppressed by other nations, and by their gods, and so God raises up a leader to deliver them.
The book of Ruth is a prelude to the story of David and establishes his line of descent from Judah, the son of Jacob. Ruth’s husband, Boaz, is the key to the genealogy of David. The story is a parable about the rewards of faithfulness which might have very early origins.
The books of Samuel record the events leading to the establishment of the kingdom up to the time just before the death of David. The account begins with the birth of Samuel, a man chosen especially by God as the story of his birth and call show (1 Sam. 1.1-4.1). His sons are the last of the judges and, against his better judgement Samuel anoints Saul as king of Israel (1 Sam. 9-10). The unity of the twelve tribes is now much closer than in the time of the judges and the people wish to become a nation like those around them (1 Sam. 8.5). Samuel sees this a betrayal of the Lord and initially tries to dissuade the people from this course (1 Sam. 8.10-22). Saul is chosen and David, after leading a coup, replaces him. The story paints David as the hero and Saul as the villain so David is described as a reluctant usurper.
David is the key character in this whole history. The books before he appears are about how David comes to be the king of Israel. The books after David look back to his reign as a golden age. Although he is a fallible human being he is ultimately beyond reproach and becomes the model for the perfect king over God’s people. His story begins in 1 Samuel 16 and continues to his death in 1 Kings 2. He establishes Jerusalem as his capital and as the religious centre although he does not build the temple in Jerusalem (1 Sam. 5-8).
Solomon, his son, succeeds him and it is he who builds the temple (1 Kings 5.1-9.25). He also is revealed as an able and astute monarch, making treaties with the surrounding nations and building the wealth and power of the monarchy (1 Kings 9.26-10.29). Solomon’s story is told in 1 Kings 2.12-11.43.
His death though marks the end of a golden age for Israel’s monarchy. Rehoboam claims the kingship, supported by the southern tribes of Judah, while Jeroboam claims it with the support of the northern tribes of Israel. The war fought between them is inconclusive and two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – are established. Two centres of worship are also established – Jerusalem, in the south, and Bethel in the north (1 Kings 12-13). This religious divide in particular is a cause of tension between the two kingdoms. The books of Kings tell the story of the kingdoms as far as the siege of Jerusalem and the exile of the King of Judah.
The books of Chronicles cover the same period but from a distinctively religious perspective. These two books are written much later than the books of Kings or the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The focus is on the temple and its establishment and also upon the kings and how faithful they are to God.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah relate the account of the restoration of Jerusalem and, most particularly, the rediscovery of the law and the restoration of the temple worship.
The book of Esther, difficult to categorize, concludes the histories. It is not strictly a history book – the story related in it has no basis in historical events. It tells the story of Esther, a young Jewish girl who becomes Queen of Persia. She saves her uncle, Mordecai, from execution, an act of persecution of the Jews. It is a parable of deliverance from persecution which, uniquely in the Bible, makes no mention of God.
From this time on Judah and Israel are in effect vassal states of the great empires – Persia, Greece and Rome.
Through all of these books the authors consider the driver of history to be not so much world events as how faithful or otherwise the people were to God and to the Law of Moses. When they are faithful they prosper, when they are not they suffer the consequences.