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The Chronology of the Old Testament

Updated: Nov 1, 2023


DW | Old Testament

1.3 - The Chronology


The first great historical period of the Old Testament was that of the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers. The time was within the Middle Bronze Age (about 2000 to 1500 B.C.), when most men relied on tools and weapons of copper and bronze. Iron was known, but rare. The secret of the smelting process was carefully hidden by the peoples (like the Hittites) who knew it. The great cities and civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were already old, but the Hebrews, like many wandering groups, lived only on their fringes.

These first Hebrews were sturdy, tent-dwelling, and unused to the cities. They were most likely illiterate, as were most people of that time. Their lives centered around their immediate families of tribes, rather than a city or nation. Their everyday work was mostly with the flocks of sheep they owned and tended as these were their main wealth and source of food, fuel, and cloth for garments and tents. These people were monotheistic, worshiping Yahweh exclusively, their relationship to him expressed in a covenant or agreement. This covenant guaranteed Yahweh's protection and guidance in return for obedience and exclusive loyalty. According to the Book of Genesis, it was during this time that God first promised the Hebrews a land of their own.


In time, the tribes of Israel became slaves to the Egyptians. Around the thirteenth century B.C., Moses became a prophet of God and rescued them through the details in the Book of Exodus, thus establishing the Passover. With that great escape, they traveled through the desert until they reached Mount Sinai where God provided Moses with the Commandments and laws in which to mold the tribes into a confederation dedicated to their religion.

The next period of the Old Testament (from about 1200 to 1020 B.C.) observed the conquest and settlement of the promised land of Canaan under Joshua and the Judges. This was the times of the heroes who, the Bible says, were chosen by God to save Israel from the many enemies that surrounded it. After the conquest of Canaan's Central Hills by Joshua, the seminomadic Hebrews learned to grow crops and settle in towns. They also faced the challenge and temptation of foreign gods.

The period of Joshua witnessed battles and massacres in the name of Yahweh. To the Israelites, this bloodshed was justified by a belief in divine purpose and righteousness, even though Israel recognized evil within itself. The loose confederation of tribes that formed Israel eventually proved inadequate to defend itself against the powerful Philistines and the people were soon asking for a king. It was the great prophet and judge Samuel who anointed Israel's first king, Saul.

The age of kings (from about 1020 to 922 B.C.) is probably the best known part of the Old Testament. This was when the nation of Israel reached the zenith of its ancient splendor through the kings Saul, David, and Solomon. This was the time in which later Israelites looked back upon as the 'Golden Age'.

Under Saul, Israel finally began to defend itself effectively against the Philistines and other enemies, but it was under David that Israel became a true kingdom. Aided by the decline of Egyptian and Mesopotamian power, David expanded Israel's land by conquest and treaty until it reached from Syria to Egypt. During his reign, the Philistine monopoly of iron smelting and smithing was broken, and the city of Jerusalem was captured from the Canaanites and made the capital of Israel. David's personality and brilliant leadership made him Israel's greatest king.

Solomon, David's son, was the first hereditary king of Israel. Under his rule Israel became the most prosperous kingdom in the Near East. Not a warrior like his father, Solomon was a businessman and diplomat. He strengthened his entire empire through marriages and treaties . He constructed the First Temple in Jerusalem which became the spiritual center of Israel. But Solomon would not be as popular or as successful as his father. The country could not support his lavish expenditures nor his large court. There was popular resentment of the taxes he levied and conservative religious anger at his tolerance of foreign religious cults in Jerusalem. This strain and discontent, together with the long-standing rivalry between the tribes of northern and southern Israel, brought about the division of Solomon's kingdom after his death.

For the next 300 years (from 922-587 B.C.), the two Hebrew kingdoms – Judah in the south and Israel in the north – fought to maintain their independence against the reviving might of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. A series of great prophets – Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah – warned the Israelites that these enemies would punish them for their lack of faith and attraction to foreign gods. Their warnings were in vain, for first Israel and then Judah fell to the foreign invaders. Jerusalem itself was left a desolate ruin, the First Temple destroyed.

It was during their exile in Babylonia (during the sixth century B.C.) that the Jews learned to preserve their faith by studying the scriptures and discussing them in local meetings called 'synagogues'. The prophet Ezekiel was instrumental in this development. By his writings and actions, he vividly reminded his fellow exiles of their religious heritage and instilled in them a hope for a future return to the Promised Land. This return was actually made possible by the enlightened policy of the Persians, who had succeeded the Assyrians and Babylonians as the Israelites' captors. The Persians were the first great nation known to have granted religious freedom and considerable self-government to subject peoples. Men like Ezra and Nehemiah were sent back to Judah where they furnished exceptional leadership in critical times. The Temple was rebuilt and a new Jewish nation began to rise on the ruins of the old one.

The Babylonian exile influenced the Jews deeply. Many became absorbed in life while in Babylon and chose to remain away from Israel. These first Jews of the Dispersion became the founders of the worldwide colonies that have flourished ever since. Worshiping God in their foreign towns and cities, they nevertheless continued to look to Jerusalem as the center of their own faith. But soon began the first waves of religious persecutions that were to plague the Jews throughout their existence. The story of Esther - set in Persia – is a popular account of a rescue from that kind of persecution.

By the time of the great Judas Maccabeus (around 160 B.C.), the Hellenistic civilization (brought to the Near East by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.), threatened to absorb and extinguish Jewish religious culture. The heroism and leadership of Judas, his father and brothers, succeeded in freeing Israel from foreign rule. The Maccabees themselves then established a dynasty of priest-kings who ruled from Jerusalem until the Romans conquered Palestine in 63 B.C.

Though the history of the Old Testament ends with the Maccabees, the world of the Old Testament really died in 70 A.D., when the Roman army under Titus sacked Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and killed or dispersed its Jewish citizens. Titus celebrated the event by erecting a triumphal arch in Rome; a relief sculpture on the arch shows Roman soldiers carrying away the sacred candelabrum of the Temple as a prize of war. He also issued a commemorative coin which bore the words 'Iudaea capta' - Judea Captured. The coin shows the figures of a standing man and weeping woman beneath a palm tree.

Today the arch and coin are all that remain of Emperor Titus' triumph. The faith of the city he destroyed continues through the many millions of followers throughout the world. The history of that faith and the people who lived it is the story of the Old Testament.


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