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In our first lesson, we learned how the books of the Bible have been organized by the Church. We also learned that they are not in chronological order, and that is a real problem when it comes to trying to follow the Bible’s plot line. The Bible is describing events that happened in a specific sequence, but those events are presented in a scrambled way. It’s like a puzzle that’s been dropped on the floor: some of the pieces are still connected, but many have fallen out of place. To get a clear picture of what’s happening in the Bible and to understand why God acts the way He does in various passages, we need to collect all of the puzzle pieces and put things into some kind of order in our minds. Even though when we open our Bibles, we find that the books aren’t in time order, we can create our own mental system of major time periods.
It’s important to note that the Bible is a very ethnic focused book. It spends most of its time focused on one particular nation of people: Israel. This is not because Israel is the only nation that matters to God, nor is it because He loves Jews more than other people. Suppose there is a stranger in my neighborhood who I want to learn more about. I don’t know this man at all, yet I want to learn about his character, his priorities, and his personality without him knowing that I’m watching him. How can I do it? Well, one way would be to start spying on him and his wife. Just by watching how the two of them interact with each other, I can learn a lot about the man I want to study. Of course eavesdropping on a single lunch wouldn’t be very useful. If I really want to know the man, I need to follow him around, hide microphones in his house, and really get a chance to watch him over a long period of time. I want to catch him in every kind of situation: calm and stressful, happy and sad. I particularly want to see how he handles friction between him and his wife. The more they fight, the more I will learn, for nothing reveals someone’s sensitivities faster than a heated debate.
Now I have limited time and resources, so I have to spend my energy where it will be the most productive. I don’t have the time to study every relationship in the man’s life or learn about all of his friends and coworkers. And I can only afford to plant microphones in one place. Should I choose the man’s home or his workplace? His home is better, for at home he will be his most natural, unguarded self. Plus, at home, he will interact with his wife—a woman he fell in love with and voluntarily chose to marry. At work, people don’t get to pick who their coworkers and bosses will be. I want to see how the man interacts with someone who he has chosen to involve himself with, for in that relationship I know he is personally invested.
Now suppose I carry on my study for a few years. I gather all kinds of information about the man. By eavesdropping on his conversations with his wife, I learn quite a bit about how he thinks, what is important to him, and what his goals are. I even learn a little about the man’s friends and enemies, because sometimes he talks about those people to his wife. But the relationship I learn most about is his marriage—I only get a sketchy view of the other relationships in his life because I’m not able to observe the man when he’s out with his other friends and relations. Because my study is limited, my knowledge of the man is limited, but I’ve still gotten to know him far better than I would if I had never started spying on him.
This is the kind of revelation of God that we get by reading the Bible. The Bible does not come anywhere close to giving us a complete picture of God. Instead, it zooms the camera in on God’s relationship with one particular nation: Israel. Now Israel is a special nation in that Yahweh (God the Father) selected her out to be His chosen people—His metaphorical bride. And because He does this, we know that God is very invested in that relationship going well. But it doesn’t go well. It goes terribly. Israel and God spend the entire Bible fighting. This is very sad for God, but it turns out to be a great blessing for us, for we learn so much about Him by studying how He handles such a stressful, heartbreaking, disappointing relationship. And what we learn about God blows us away. He is incredibly loving and gracious, and yet He is not a doormat. When Israel insists on warring against Him, He proves Himself to be unconquerable. When she tries His patience past its limits, we get a glimpse of God’s terrifying wrath. And yet when He has every reason to wipe His faithless bride off the face of the earth, we find Him displaying unfathomable grace and mercy.
The Bible is like a collection of reports that many spies have turned in over a long period of time. Some focus on Israel’s terrible treatment of God. Others focus on God’s heart towards Israel. Sometimes the reports are written from the viewpoint of a distant observer. Other times, we get to read transcripts of God speaking directly to people, as if someone is holding a microphone to His lips and recording an interview. With so many different angles and viewpoints offered, the Bible gives us a fascinating education about who God is and how He interacts with human beings. But it isn’t nearly enough. The Bible doesn’t satisfy us—it only whets our appetite for more. It gives us glimpses of God that fill our souls with questions and ponderings which we then take directly to the Holy Spirit in prayer.
The Bible is supposed to increase our direct communication with God, not replace or reduce it. When the Holy Spirit is in the mood to talk to us through the Bible, we will find words leaping off the page at us, piercing through our souls and sparking new flames of inspiration in our minds. When the Holy Spirit isn’t in the mood to talk to us through it, we will find it dull, boring, and dry.
Though Christians call the Bible the Living Word, it’s important to understand that the Book itself has no life at all. God is our Teacher, and the Bible is just one of many teaching tools which He uses in our lives. God is not a book, and He finds it extremely insulting when we talk as if the Bible is an extension of God Himself. Is your cell phone a part of you? Would you like it if your friends took your phone and said, “We can learn everything there is to know about you just by studying the apps you use, and reading through your texts and emails. We no longer need to hang out with you. This phone is more than enough.” In the Church today, the Bible has been turned into an idol which many Christians are worshiping in place of God Himself. Not only do we act like the Bible is some kind of deity, we even go so far as to say the Bible is a higher authority than God Himself. When Christians say things like “God can’t ever go against His own Word,” they mean that God is somehow bound and limited by the Bible. This is an absolute lie and such talk really makes God angry. So we need to keep a grip on the fact that the Bible is just a book, and the book is not a god. As we said in our last lesson, we study the Bible in order to get to know God better. The Bible should not be viewed as a replacement for God or as a tool by which we can manipulate or confine Him.
Now then, what makes the Bible both confusing and so valuable is that it covers such a large time span. In just 66 books, we fly through thousands of years of human history. Obviously a lot of details are being left out. But like every story, there are certain events that happen in the Bible which are especially significant. As we go through this study course, we’ll learn more about those events. Repetition is a good clue here. When we find the same names or events being referred to multiple times over hundreds of years, we know that those were particularly important events from God’s point of view. Remember that our reason for studying the Bible is to mature in our personal relationships with God, not to become experts on Israel or drown in historical data. Yet because the Bible is so focused on God’s relationship with one particular nation, we do need to have some understanding of what that nation was about in order to fully grasp the lessons being shared.
If you read a book by a Chinese author, you’ll understand it better if you have some understanding of Chinese culture. In the same way, to get the most out of the Bible, we have to try and read it through Jewish eyes. Not a modern Jew—but an ancient one. This is easier than it sounds, and in this study, we’ll help you understand ancient customs as they come up. There’s no need to spend hours researching ancient cultures. You just need a basic overview, and that’s what we’ll give you in this series.
It was Yahweh who created the nation of Israel. He gathered the people together, declared them to be a country, and then made up a bunch of laws that He wanted them to abide by. The Bible tells us the story of Israel’s progression as a nation—how she first came into being and how she slowly fell apart. That progression can easily be broken up into a few key periods. We can then determine which period each of the books of the Bible fit into. Once we do that, we start getting a much clearer understanding of what order things happened in.
If we learn to think in terms of time periods, then when we open up a certain book, we can quickly identify if we’re reading towards the beginning, middle, or end of the Bible’s overall plot line. For the purpose of this series, we’ve divided the 66 books of the Bible into eight time periods. Each time period focuses on a main historical theme. Let’s now discuss each one in turn.
1. BEFORE ISRAEL
In this time period, we learn about events that took place before Israel became an official nation. Genesis is a historical book—meaning it gives us factual accounts of events in a clear chronological order. Genesis takes us from the creation of man, through the great Flood, and then it narrows in on the genetic line that would eventually become the Jewish people. In this book, we learn about the lives of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. Jacob is the man who God later renames Israel. Jacob has twelve sons (born to him by four different women), and their descendants become the twelve tribes of Israel.
The book of Job also belongs to this time period. Instead of trying to explain general history to us, Job tells the story of a man whose faithfulness was tested by God. It’s one of three novellas in the Bible, along with Esther and Ruth.
2. EARLY ISRAEL: THE WILDERNESS PERIOD
This second time period begins with the Jews living as slaves in Egypt. Hundreds of years have passed since the end of Genesis. This period starts with an introduction to Moses—that baby who was hidden in a basket and sent floating down the Nile River only to end up in the arms of Egyptian royalty. From Exodus to Deuteronomy, Moses is our steady character and we follow him from birth to death. We learn how God miraculously brought the enslaved Jews out of Egypt and gathered them together in a barren wilderness where He declared them to be His chosen people. These four books are critical for understanding the rest of the Bible, for it is here that God presents the Jews with His Laws and establishes a formal Covenant with them. A covenant is a very serious promise. Whoever makes the covenant decides what kinds of conditions it will have. When God established His Covenant with the nation of Israel, He gave very detailed explanations of what He expected from her, and how He would respond to her actions. If Israel obeyed God by following His Laws, He promised to richly bless her in every way. But if she disobeyed, He promised to punish her with increasing severity and He reserved the right to disown her completely.
The terms of God’s Covenant with Israel applied not just to ethnic Jews, but to anyone who wanted to align themselves with Yahweh. It is in this period that God the Father chooses the personal Name of Yahweh for His people to use. It is also during this period that we learn about the reality of God’s wrath. The great Flood in Genesis was certainly memorable, but it’s in Exodus–the first book of Period 2–that the famous plagues on Egypt begin. It is in the books belonging to Period 2 that you’ll find stories of God raining fire down on people, and striking them with various diseases and torments. The dramatic displays of Yahweh’s anger in this period are what cause many to think the God of the Old Testament is mean and scary while Jesus in the New Testament is sweet and gentle. But of course this is a complete lie which is based on ignorance. When we read through the books of Period 2, we don’t just find Yahweh lashing out in anger. We also find Him providing for His people in miraculous ways: raining manna down from the sky, pouring water out of rocks, and doing other lifesaving miracles.
Period 2 is a most difficult period for God. While He approaches Israel with great enthusiasm and extends His gracious offer to love and protect her forever, the Jews simply don’t find Him all that interesting. They pretend to be interested at first because Yahweh impresses and scares them with His great power. They also like the idea of being supernaturally blessed and shielded from their enemies. But in their hearts, most Jews are already committed to other gods which they worshiped back in Egypt. Of course these aren’t real gods—only fictitious beings invented by people who were listening to demons. But the Jews are fiercely devoted to these delusions and refuse to ever seriously pursue Yahweh. So begins the heartache, and through the rest of the Bible, God will often refer back to events that happened during this key period with great bitterness and grief.
This period ends when the wandering nation of Israel reaches the border of the land that Yahweh has chosen for them to settle down in as a nation—the Promised Land.
3. ISRAEL BEFORE KINGS
Eventually, Israel will elect to have a king rule over her and maintain order in the land. But before that time comes, she goes through a long period of anarchy and lawlessness. In Period 3, we learn about Israel’s first years in the Promised Land. In the book of Joshua, we learn how the Jews successfully invaded the land under the guidance of Moses’ successor, Joshua. But Joshua dies before all of the current inhabitants of the Promised Land have been cleared out. God was most adamant that the Jews were to completely exterminate all natives from the land so that they would be the only people living in it. But war is work, and the Jews got lazy. Each tribe settled into the territory assigned to them and began to intermingle with their pagan neighbors.
In the book of Judges, we learn how rapidly Israel succumbs to the evil influences of the people groups around her. Remember that the Jews were already worshiping idols—so it’s not like they were models of righteousness. But as they mingled with new people groups, they were introduced to new gods and new satanic rituals. Soon they were doing every despicable thing humans can do, and the author of Judges paints us a sordid picture of just how low Israel sank in her rapid moral decline.
Ruth is a novella that also fits into this period. It’s a welcome break after the grim book of Judges and tells the story of a non-Jewish woman who becomes a Yahweh follower and ends up marrying a nice Jewish man. It shows that even in the midst of evil times, good people still exist and Yahweh is there to encourage them.
4. THE UNITED KINGDOM
In this fourth period, we learn about how Israel became a monarchy. We also learn about her first two kings. King Saul was God’s first choice, and he turned out to be a lemon. He turned away from God so God rejected him and chose a young man named David to be king instead. King David was the best king Israel would ever know, and a clear favorite of God’s. This period has many famous stories in it—like David and Goliath. It follows the long struggle of David as he went from being Saul’s friend to being his hated enemy. It contrasts the characters of these two men and demonstrates how gracious Yahweh is towards individuals who sincerely care about pleasing Him.
Now in the Bible, there are two groups of historical books which cover the kings of Israel. One series has four books in it: 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. The second series has only two books: 1 & 2 Chronicles. There is a lot of repetition between these two series because they are both covering the same period of history. They function rather like the four Gospel books in the New Testament—with the same events being told from two different perspectives. We are going to take the first books from each of these series to create Period 4:
5. THE DIVIDED KINGDOM
David’s son Solomon succeeded him, but even though he built a glorious Temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem, Solomon turned out to be a rebellious idol worshiper. Solomon’s defiance made God so angry that He decided to ignite civil war in Israel and break the nation into two warring kingdoms: north and south. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel and included ten tribes. The southern kingdom was named Judah after the largest of its two tribes.
In Period 5, we fly through biographical notes on Israel’s many kings: those in the north, and those in the south. The author of the Samuel-Kings series of historical books jumps back and forth between the northern and the southern kingdoms and he introduces us to all of the kings who ruled in both kingdoms in chronological order.
But the author of the Chronicles series focuses only on the kings who ruled in the southern kingdom of Judah, and this author only mentions northern kings when they get personally involved in southern affairs.
While Jewish kings came and went, Yahweh continued to deliver His guidance and warnings to both Israel and Judah through prophets. We learn in Period 4 that Yahweh did not want Israel to have a human king. Instead, she was supposed to consider Yahweh her King and rely on the guidance of His prophets and priests to explain His will to the people. Even though the Jews rejected this idea, the prophets continued to play a critical role in communicating God’s will to Israel.
The prophets Elijah and Elisha are very significant figures in Period 5. Instead of getting their own books, their actions and prophecies are woven into the historical accounts of the Samuel-Kings series. Elijah is covered in 1 Kings, while his successor Elisha is covered in 2 Kings.
Many other major and minor prophets also spoke during this period. Some prophets are easy to place, because in their own books they tell us which kings reigned during the time they prophesied. Other prophets are difficult to place because we’re not sure which kings to pair them with.
Because of great sin and rebellion in both kingdoms, God ends up destroying the entire nation of Israel. First He destroys the north. Many decades later, He destroys the south, sacking the city of Jerusalem and burning down His own Temple. In both cases, the Jews are hauled off as exiles to foreign lands.
6. THE POST-EXILE PERIOD
After the fall of Jerusalem, the focus of the Bible zooms in on the Jews who were exiled from the south—specifically, their return to Israel after decades of being gone. We don’t hear about the Jews in the north returning. It is southern Israel (which was also called the kingdom of Judah) that gets the majority of attention in the Bible, largely due to the fact that that it is where the great city of Jerusalem and God’s Temple were located.
In Period 6, we have two historical accounts of how the returning Jews rebuilt their homeland. The book of Ezra describes the rebuilding of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. The book of Nehemiah describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s protective wall—a critical thing to have if she is to survive any military attack.
Also in this period we have the novella Esther. This story doesn’t take place in Israel, for Esther is living in exile. In this dramatic story, we learn how God uses a Jewish girl to save her people from genocide.
Esther isn’t the only victorious story of a Jew living in exile. The prophetic book of Daniel combines history with prophecy and describes how Daniel went from being a lowly prisoner to a leader in a foreign land. The prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi also provide critical guidance during this period.
Now we reach the New Testament. Centuries have passed between our two testaments, and when we pick up in Matthew, Israel is a under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. In this period, we have the four Gospel books which cover Jesus’ brief time on earth from four different viewpoints.
8. THE EARLY CHURCH
In Period 8, we learn how the early Church was established in the historical book of Acts. Then we get a feel for how many problems it had by reading through the New Testament epistles. We finally end with one prophetic book—Revelation—in which God provides some much needed encouragement for His distressed people.
Now that we’ve got an overview of the major time periods of the Bible, it’s time to start going through each period in more detail. In our next lesson, we’ll start with Period 1, and learn about key events that happened before Israel became a nation.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 3: Before Israel
Click here for all the lessons in this series.