Chapter 7: A Book of Biblical Proportions. 4, Historical Books

Historical Books

The historical material (that is, Joshua through Esther) is a varied “landscape.” Two main historical periods are represented, the fulfillment of God’s promise of land to the Israelites, from Joshua to Solomon, and then the period of national sin and decline (and the rise of the prophets) from Solomon to the exile.

Joshua concerns the conquest of the land following the death of Moses.  The first twelve chapters concern the conquest of the land, and chapters 13 through 21 record the partition of the land.

Judges is an account of a succession of leaders (“judges,” or shofetim) with the Israelites’ history degenerating into civil war.

Ruth is a lovely, familiar story of two women, a Hebrew and a Moabite, devoted to one another in a terrible circumstance.

1 and 2 Samuel concern the beginning of the Israelite monarchy with a focus upon the rise and rulership of the greatest king, David.

1 and 2 Kings takes us through another long history, that of David’s successors. The stories of Solomon and the construction of the magnificent Temple provide a positive beginning to the history. But the Hebrews suffer a succession of unfaithful kings, the division of the kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom in about 722 BC, the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 BC, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, and the beginning of the Babylonian exile (586-536).

These books are called “the former prophets” in the Hebrew Bible and are listed along with the prophets Isaiah through Malachi. The Hebrew Bible places other historical books—Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther—in the final section called the Writings. The Christian Old Testament includes these books among the “former prophets,” so that, for instance, the story of Ruth—a Gentile ancestor of David and Jesus—provides a glimpse of hope amid the warfare and desolation of Judges and the stories of Samuel and the monarchy. Though beginning with Adam himself in long genealogies, 1 and 2 Chronicles cover similar ground as the books of Samuel and Kings, but “the Chronicler” reinterprets the history. Notice the difference between David’s farewell speech in 1 Kings (2:2-9) and in 1 Chronicles (28:1-29:20).  During a seminary class, I wrote in my old Bible: Unlike Samuel and Kings, the Chronicler assigned each generation with complete intimacy to God, losing the unity of Israel’s history.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record the period after the Hebrews return to the land following the Babylonian exile. The Temple is rebuilt, Jerusalem is rebuilt and repaired, and the covenant is reestablished. These books show how God’s people made the first transitions from their former existence as a kingdom to a new existence as a worshiping community.

Esther is a story of a Hebrew woman who becomes the Persian queen and, with her adoptive father Mordecai, saves the Hebrew people. The book gives another side of the post-exilic history: Jews who did not return to the land but remained among Gentiles.

The history of God’s people obviously does not end there. We have more of their story reflected in the book of Daniel (probably from the 100s BC), in apocryphal books like Maccabees, in the Mishnah and Talmud, and in all the history and witness of the Jews during the subsequent two millennia, as Second- and Post-Temple Judaism transformed into Rabbinic Judaism. The New Testament provides scriptural history of the messianic subgroup of Jews known as Christians, a faith that eventually became prominently Gentile.

I was a kid when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater. Recently I watched a documentary on the director Stanley Kubrick. One of the interviewees commented that part of the ongoing fascination with the film is that the sections of 2001 fit oddly together; for instance, we move from the deactivation of HAL to the arrival at Jupiter and the long Star Gate sequence and the cryptic ending. What does it all mean?

It occurs to me that the sections of the Bible are a little like that: you have to think about how they fit together. Following verse after verse of laws, statutes, and material for Hebrew worship, you’d expect to find historical accounts of these laws and cultic practices carried out. We do get some: Joshua refers to the law of Moses, 1:7ff, 8:30ff; the stories of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba also reflect concerns for cleansing rituals; and the sins of Solomon are also connected to the laws (Deut. 17:1-17 and 1 Kings 9:26-11:40).[1] Then, in Ezra and Nehemiah, we see the emergence of a more obviously religious community. This apparent omission of cultic practices within the historical accounts alerts us to a topic debated in scholarly circles: the development of the law and practices before and after the Exile, the impact of the rediscovery of at least part of the law during Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22:8 and following) and the uplifting of the law as a community standard during the post-exilic period (Ezra 3:2, Neh. 13).[2]

Scholars hypothesize a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of the material from the beginning of Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings.[3] Among the themes of this history is the keeping of the covenant: God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.

The historical books have several major themes.  One is the experience of the Land (ha-aretz)—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. As we saw in the Torah, God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua.  Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the campaigns and conquests of Joshua are far the end of the story.[4]

Connected to the Land is the history of the monarchy. Commentators like Anderson note that while the tribal confederacy of the Judges period had problems with faithfulness and idolatry, those problems were different from other nations in that they were defined by their covenant to the Lord. But once Israel had a king, an additional temptation was added: becoming a nation like any other nation. Certainly God’s power was operative, for instance, in the selection of Saul and David and the ongoing life of the people, especially in light of the Philistine threat. But, as Anderson notes, “the religious faith of the Confederacy [the Judges] survived its collapse and found new expression in Israel’s prophetic movement. Israel was not allowed to identify a human kingdom with the Kingdom of God, for Yahweh alone was king.”[5]  Unfortunately, that meant that Israel had eventually to collapse, too, in order that they become truly faithful to the covenant.

As you explore the stories of David and his successors, you see difficulties building. Although Israel became a renowned kingdom (occasioning the famous Queen of Sheba’s visit in 1 Kings 10:1-10), we also hear of the horror of the hanging of Saul’s seven sons (and the tragic figure of the concubine Rizpah: 2 Sam. 21:1-14), continued conflict with the Philistines (2 Sam. 21:15-22), terrible results of David’s census (2 Sam. 24), the rebellions and difficulties within David’s own family (2 Sam. 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2), and eventually the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death.[6] On the other hand, the possibilities of monarchy gave rise to the hope for a future king who would reunite the people and regain and surpass the possibilities of peace and prosperity, as we read in the famous messianic passages that we specially embrace during Advent and Christmas: Isaiah 7:10-17, 9:2-7, and 11:1-9.

Within these stories, David emerges as a kind of “typology” for God’s rule.[7]  The two mountains, Sinai and Zion, stand for the two covenants of God, and Nathan’s prophecy (2 Samuel 7) links David’s descendants to God’s Sinai covenant. Earlier ambivalence about a monarchy changes to a confidence in God’s rulership through David’s line. Since David is identified with Jerusalem (Zion) in his selection of that place as capital, Zion became identified with God’s own city (Ps. 46, 48, 76, and others).[8] The line of David, also celebrated in the psalms (2, 20, 31, 45, and others) connects to the later messianic hope that grows in Israel’s history and, for Christians, finds fulfillment in Jesus.

Another theme of these biblical books is the Jerusalem temple. The Temple, promised to David and constructed during Solomon’s reign, is connected to the history of the Tabernacle before it (Ex. 35-40) and, of course, to the Land itself. David’s hope for a great, permanent house in the Land for God is not fulfilled, but his son Solomon constructs the facility (2 Sam. 7, 1 Kings 5-8). Like the monarchy, the Temple did not survive the collapse of Judah and Jerusalem in 586 (1 Kings 25:8, 9, 13-17), but the Temple serves in Israelite memory through the exile in, for instance, the dynamic vision of a restored Temple in Ezekiel 40-48. Following the exile, the high priest Jeshua and the governor Zerubbabel, helped by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, supervise the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 3-6). After the Old Testament period, Herod the Great began work on a restored temple in 20-19 BC, a building effort still going on during Jesus’ time and beyond. Herod’s temple was finally completed, ironically, just a few years before the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.

I’ve been referring to the exile: the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile (2 Kings 24:18-25:30 and Jer. 52:1-34) are key events for the entire Bible.[9]  Even if you’re a regular Bible reader you may miss the tremendous significance of the exile; the whole Bible radiates before and after that catastrophe.[10] We know little about the forty years in the wilderness (passed over in silence between Numbers 17:13 and 20:1), and we have comparatively little history in the Bible about the exile itself, besides 2 Kings 25, Jeremiah 52, Lamentations, Psalms 79 and 137 and some other scriptures.[11]  But the whole biblical history beginning with God’s promises to Abraham comes to a catastrophic turning point at the exile; much of the prophetic writings in the Bible reflect issues before, during, and after the exile; and the promises of God to David for a future Davidic monarchy become a great hope of Israel following the exile.[12] That post-exilic hope is understood in the New Testament as being fulfilled in Christ.[13]

We find numerous connections within the historical books themselves.

  • The connection of Noah’s curse of Canaan (Gen. 9:25-26) with the Canaanites.[14]
  • The ongoing theme of the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16, Num. 13-14, Deut. 25:17, 19, Judges 3:13, 1 Sam. 15, et al.), connecting Joshua with Saul and later Hezekiah (1 Chr. 4:41-43).[15]
  • The ongoing theme of Bethel (Josh. 18:21-22, Judges 1:22-26, 20:18, 26-28, 1 Sam. 7:16, 1 Kings 12:26-32, 2 Kings 17:27-28, 2 Kings 23:15-23, Ezra 2:28, Neh. 7:32, 11:31).[16]
  • The connection of the places Gilgal (Josh. 4:19-5:12, 1 Sam. 11:15, 13:1-10) and Gibeon (Josh. 9:3-27, 2 Sam. 2:12-3:1. As one commentator puts it, “The story [of Gibeonites] signals radical Davidic centralization by highlighting Joshua’s fulfillment of Yahweh’s command.” But also these Joshua stories connect to the law of herem (Deut. 7:1-6, 20:16-18), wherein God requires the annihilation of the people and prohibits the taking of spoils.[17]

We also find interconnections with the New Testament, some mentioned already.

  • The great theme of Yahweh’s salvation.  The name “Joshua” is in Hebrew the same name as “Jesus,” meaning “Yahweh saves.”
  • The theme of the Land. The Land is not spiritualized in the Old Testament the way that it tends to be in the New. In the Old, we speak of the actual land and its possession. Deutero-Isaiah begins to move in a more spiritual direction (Isa. 44:24ff, 49:14ff), and in the New Testament, Jesus himself becomes the “place” where God dwells (John 1:14).[18]
  • The theme of the Kingdom of God.  The phrase is not used in the Old Testament, but the kingdom of God is the principle theme of Jesus’ preaching and connects with God’s sovereignty through Israel’s history. As Graeme Goldworthy puts it, “While the Old Testament is everywhere eloquent in describing the sovereignty of God in history to work out his purposes, Jesus declares that he is the goal of that sovereign working of God.”[19]
  • The theme of a new kind of monarchy under David’s descendant, Jesus.  In his person and work, Jesus brings themes like the Lamb of God, the sufferings of David, and the suffering servant of Isaiah into the theme of the king of Israel[20]: thus, when Jesus is killed, the charge against him is “king of the Jews.” But in his suffering and death is victory over sin and death, and the ambiguities of the Israelite monarchy are understood to be resolved.[21]
  • The theme of the Temple. The New Testament never explicitly mentions the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, an odd omission. Jesus quotes Jeremiah concerning the Temple, and he himself is understood to be the new temple (John 2:20-22). Paul, in turn, calls each of us “temples of the Holy Spirit” in that God’s presence dwells within us (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
  • The realities of post-exilic Judaism provide a more subtle connection. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees , as well as the Essenes and Zealots, formed in response to the needs of the people during the post-exilic time, as did institutions like synagogues, Sabbath requirements, and festivals to which Jews—many living in different parts of the world after the exile—came to Jerusalem (e.g., John 11:55 and also Acts 2:5-11, the hard-to-read passage that I quoted in a previous chapter).
  • Not only is the exile a decisive turning point for the whole Bible—a climax of a long drama but also a new beginning for Jews and later for Christians—scholars hypothesize that the compilations and editing of law codes and historical materials happened as during and after the exile, as Doorly discusses. Thus, the exile and the restoration necessitated the composition of the Bible itself![22]
  • Of course, the Jews who became the first Christians were post-exilic Jews who, like other Jews, looked to an even greater restoration of Israel’s fortunes. The Christians saw that restoration and monarchical fulfillment in the Jew Jesus, and they based that hope upon exilic texts like Isaiah 40-66.
  • It is worth noting that exilic language flavors many Christian hymns, especially those that refer to our heavenly home to which we live in hope. In childhood Vacation Bible School I learned that peppy song “Do Lord” with its evocation of “Glory Land.” I also learned “Bringing in the Sheaves,” based on the post-exilic Psalm 136 and the struggle of returning exiles to reestablish agriculture.

During my seminary years, I copied a chronology into my old Bible of the several biblical rulers, but since I don’t remember the original source, I’ll not recopy that chronology here. My Halley’s Bible Handbook and other resources give an approximate resume of the time period,[23] as do my various textbooks, for instance, Bernhard Anderson’s, a favorite supplemental text during my div school years.[24] Flipping through my new NRSV study Bible, I find a helpful two-page chart with all the rulers of Israel and Judah, from Rehoboam (reigned 930-913 BC: 1 Kings 12:1-24, 14:21-31) through Zedekiah (reigned 597-586: 2 Kings 24:18-25:26), and their location in 1 and 2 Kings.[25] Rather than list those several names here, I’ll simply refer you to one of these or other sources of biblical reference.  The monarchs of Israel and Judah form a depressing story—so few of them were good—but one integral to the overall biblical story.

Imagine a history that begins with King John and the Magna Carta, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, and the Fourth Crusade, and ends at the present time: that’s (very roughly) the length of time from the conquest of the land in Joshua, down to the post-exilic Nehemiah, at the end of biblical history. But the Bible extends back yet another 800 years, if we assume Abraham lived about 2000 BC. So from Abraham to Nehemiah we’ve a span similar to time of the decline of the (western) Roman Empire to today.

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[1]  Solomon’s sins vis-à-vis the Law are discussed in Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 122-123.

[2] Childs, Biblical Theology, 137.

[3]  The first of several books on this subject is Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).

[4]  An excellent study is Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

Gordon J. Wenham writes, “The [book of Genesis] begins with the triumphant account of God creating the world in six days and declaring it ‘very good’, and it ends with Joseph confidently looking forward to his burial in the promised land. Judges by contrast opens with the rather ineffective efforts of the Israelite tribes to conquer that land and closes after a most dreadful civil war with the gloomy reflection, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (21:25).” Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 45.

[5] Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 162-163.  Brevard S. Childs notes that the Old Testament has a presumed “pro-monarchial” source in 1 Sam. 8-12, specifically 9:1-10:16 and 11:1-5, compared with anti-monarchical sources (1 Sam. 8:1-22, 10:17-27, 12:1-25) that view a human king as an act of disobedience to God, the true monarch. Childs looks at the texts’ canonical shape and concludes that, although some of the biblical traditions were hostile to a monarchy, the final form of the text affirms God’s involvement in the monarchy, even though a monarchy was not part of God’s original plan (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986], 115). Furthermore, he continues, the career of the greatest monarch, David, becomes deeply significant for Israel’s ongoing hope in God’s redemption (Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:5ff, Ps. 45, 72, 110, and the way David’s speech in 2 Sam. 22 echoes Hanna’s song in 1 Sam. 2). In his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), Childs sees a similar tension regarding the book of Judges. The book itself connects the moral decline of the period to the lack of a king (18:1, 21:25), but in the anti-monarchical passages of 1 Samuel (e.g. 12:12ff), the office of judges rather than a monarch was God’s intention for Israel. Yet the future hope of Israel lay not in a judge but a Davidic king (150-151).

[6] Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 184. Under the kingship of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 12) the kingdom divides between the northern (Israel) and the southern (Judah). A succession of kings rule Israel for the subsequent two hundred years until the Assyrians conquer that land in about 722 BC (2 Kings 12).  The later Babylonians did not compel the resettlement of conquered areas but the Assyrians did. Consequently, the deportation of the tribes in the northern kingdom resulted not only in “the lost tribes of Israel” but also the beginning of the Samaritan (2 Kings 17:1-6, 24-41, 18:9, 1 Chr. 5:26). Later, those from the southern kingdom who returned from Babylonian exile came into conflict with Samaritans in the years following (Hag. 2:10ff, Ezra 10:2ff, Neh. 4:1ff). See Childs, Biblical Theology, 162.

[7]  A helpful book to me was Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972), on the freedom of David.

[8] Childs, Biblical Theology, 154-55.

[9] Ralph W. Klein, “Exile,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 367-370.

[10] As commentator Choo-Leong Seow notes, Judah was destroyed because of persistent disobedience. (2 Kings 17). The righteous Hezekiah forestalled this judgment (2 Kings 20), but his son Manasseh was the worst of all the kings, on par with the northern king Jeroboam. Even Josiah’s reforms could not reverse God’s judgment following Manasseh’s sins (2 Kings 22:1-23:30). Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume V (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 5, 6.

[11] See Childs, Biblical Theology, 161-163, for several aspects of the period from biblical sources.

[12]  A book I enjoyed in seminary is Peter R. Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought in the Sixth Century B.C. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968).

[13] Although Israel’s hope is understood to be fulfilled in Christ, themes of the exile still shape the Bible.  As Peter-Ben Smith points out, a key biblical theme, beginning with Eden, is that we are all in exile and long to be redeemed from exile. He points out that the Christian liturgical traditions are filled with the language of exile, and also the exile functions in theologies of liberation (the struggle for freedom amid oppression) and other contemporary theologies.  The biblical language about Jesus’ death and resurrection connects to Passover, which of course concerns the earlier exile of Egyptian slavery. Peter-Ben Smith, “Ecumenism in Exile,” World Council of Churches’ website, Accessed 2012.

[14] These and the following scripture references are from Robert B. Coote, “The Book of Joshua,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 559.

[15] Coote, “The Book of Joshua,” 561.

[16] Coote, “The Book of Joshua,” 562.

[17]  Coote, “The Book of Joshua,” 562, 566 (quotation on page 562)

[18]  Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, chapter 10.

[19]  Goldworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible, 52.  Goldworthy notes that the political kind of kingdom extended from the exodus (and holy war) through the historical books and through the conquest of David and eventually the nation’s destruction. “After that, the Holy War and divine deliverance notion is reinforced in the account of Esther and the Maccabees, historic events occurring against the background of prophetic and apocalyptic portrayals of the victories of the people of God and the glorious restoration of the nation, its land, temple, and kingly rule. In all this the Passover imagery of the slain lamb of God, the sufferings and rejection of the anointed David before his final vindication, and the suffering servant of the Lord seem to have been forgotten.” Thus the political nature of God’s kingdom has been there but not at the expense of the images that Jesus also brought into his announcement of the kingdom (53).

[20]  Goldworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible, 53.

[21] “King, Kingship,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 451.

[22]  See footnote 18.  

[23]  Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 283-284.

[24]  Anderson, pp. 603-605.

[25] NRSV Harper Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 558-559


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