Chapter 1

Old Testament History

Old Testament History

The Bible contains the grand redemptive story of God. It is vitally interested in history—events that actually happened in space and time. The first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, begin the story with creation and carry it forward through the account of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. It then continues on with the Wilderness Wanderings and ends with the Israelites on the eastern shore of the Jordan River as they listen to a sermon by Moses preparing them for their entry into the Promised Land.

Theological History

History writers must be selective and interpretive in their account of the past. John 21:24–25 shows a clear awareness of this for the Gospel story. Some histories are interested primarily in politics and military or economic issues. While there are numerous kings and many battles in Joshua through Esther, the primary focus of these histories is on God’s mighty deeds and his relationship with his people. For this reason, we can call the history of the Old Testament theological history. And because the focus of the story is on God’s passionate desire to bring his sinful human creatures back into relationship with him, we can also call Joshua through Esther redemptive history. It is also possible to think of these books as covenantal history since God in his wisdom describes his relationship with his people by means of a succession of covenants.

Though the focus is on God and his relationship with his people, it is deeply rooted in a reliable presentation of actual events. Our faith is a historical faith. God enters history to redeem his people. If we deny the historical nature of our faith, then, our faith is in vain.

Rooted in the Torah

The story does not begin in Joshua but in the very first chapters of Genesis. We cannot understand Joshua through Esther without recalling the background of the story.

The Torah opens, as the name of the book of Genesis implies, at the very beginning, with creation itself (genesis 1–2). Genesis, after all, is the Greek term for “origin.” God created the cosmos and all its creatures, including humanity. At the beginning, humans were morally innocent, but then they rebelled against God (genesis 3), fracturing their relationship with their Creator and with each other. The stories that follow in Genesis 4–11 (Cain and Abel, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel) show that humans keep sinning against God. God punishes them, but he also stays involved and seeks to restore relationship with them. God’s interest in reconciliation leads eventually to the call of Abraham through whom he seeks to bring a blessing to “all peoples on earth” (genesis 12:3). This promise—often called God’s covenant with Abraham—continues through the generations from Isaac to Jacob and then on to Jacob’s twelve sons. At the end of the book of Genesis, the descendants of Jacob are in the land of Egypt escaping the ravages of a famine.

When the book of Exodus opens, the descendants of Abraham have “multiplied greatly” (exodus 1:7) but are now enslaved by an unnamed pharaoh. God hears the cries of his people, and the reluctant pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to leave, but not until Egypt experienced a series of devastating plagues. However, once Israel had departed under the leadership of Moses, Pharaoh changed his mind and overtook them as they camped on the shore of the Red Sea (also known as the Reed Sea). This was all part of God’s plan to demonstrate his glory against this prideful human ruler. God opened the sea and the Israelites escape, but he closed it on the pursuing Egyptians.

The rest of the Torah describes the wanderings in the wilderness. At the start, God gave the law to Israel on Mount Sinai (exodus 19–24) and instructed them to build the tabernacle (exodus 25–31 and 35–40). Far from being grateful, the Israelites continually complained and rebelled against God, as well as against Moses their divinely appointed leader. Eventually God condemned the Israelites whom he had saved from Egypt to spend forty years in the wilderness (numbers 13–14). Thus, as the second generation gathered on the Plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho, Moses preached to them and demanded that they not repeat the sins of their ancestors as they entered the land. We know this sermon as the book of Deuteronomy. The last chapter of the Torah narrates the death of Moses. A new era is about to start.

Questions

  • How might reading these books as theological or redemptive histories (rather than neutral historical accounts) affect how you approach these texts?
  • How does the notion of God’s active involvement in history clash with how we often conceive of history and science?
  • If you were to write your own story as a “theological history,” which details might you include or exclude?
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