Old Testament history covers the books of Genesis through Esther as well as portions of Jonah and Daniel, or about the first third of our Bible.
In order to help you better understand what in the world is going on in some of these Old Testament stories, we’re going to go over some general guidelines to keep in mind as you read and study.
Remember, some of these people lived 3,000 – 4,000 years ago in a world extremely different than ours politically, socially, economically and morally.
The first thing we’ll discuss is Biblical archeology. There is a book that I highly recommend: Bible Archeology by Alfred Hoerth and John McRay. The authors present an amazing account of how archeology confirms and supports the Biblical record as it’s given to us in the Old and New Testaments.
Now, it’s important to understand the geography of the Old Testament with Egypt, Assyria and Babylon forming a triangle with Israel in the middle along the Mediterranean trade routes. Israel was situated in a perfect place to interact with the Middle Eastern powers of its day.
Next the politics of the Old Testament era played an important role in the lives of the People of Israel. Early on in the Old Testament, Egypt was the dominant power of the Middle East. We see this in Genesis, with the stories involving the Egyptian Pharaohs.
Later, the Assyrians dominated. We see the Assyrian people playing a key role in the story of Jonah. The city of Nineveh – where God called Jonah to go and prophesy to – was in Assyria. The people there were fierce warriors known for torturing their victims like no one ever had, including burying their victims with just their heads above ground near anthills or scorpions; or piercing their victims through the nose or lips and attaching chains through these piercings so as to parade them like enslaved cattle.
No wonder Jonah’s first instinct was fear.
Later on in the Old Testament, in the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, world power in the Middle East shifted to the city of Babylon. This is the era ruled by Nebuchadnezzar and other kings of the Babylonian Empire.
Another key factor to better understand the context of the Old Testament is their economics. Israel in the Old Testament was a completely agrarian society. They produced grapes, figs, dates, wheat, barley and raised cattle, sheep and goats – and none of this to the quantities that we associate with modern day farming. This is why, while there were some gold and silver amongst the people, bartering of livestock and plants made up most of their economic system.
Old Testament military and war is another aspect of ancient Israeli life that is very different than today. As opposed to the technology and tactical strategies that most countries fight with today, in the Old Testament, battles were waged by individuals fighting hand to hand. Periodically, chariots were employed, but the rest of military technology was so simple compared to today, that a single chariot would be seen and feared as a modern day tank would respectively. So, when the book of Joshua and Judges mention an enemy with 900 chariots, you can imagine the fear and trembling that could come along with facing such a well-armed foe.
Lastly, the concepts of “Honor” and “Shame” were pivotal in Old Testament life and decision-making.
There were, contextually, three different types of people within the Middle Eastern social construct: people above you on the social ladder, people below you, and people equal to your social status. And anytime something or someone worked to alter this paradigm, tension always ensued.
We see an example of this when the eleventh born son of Jacob was honored above his brothers with an elaborate coat. The shame that the older brothers felt drove them to beat and sell their brother Joseph into slavery, unknowingly setting a course of history for all their descendants for generations to come.
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