The following has been adapted from the Lutheran Bible Companion.
To understand the Books of History, it is imperative to understand what came before them. The Books of the Law and the Books of Moses (the Torah) gave instruction to God’s people. The Law established the terms of the covenant God would be in with His people. Simply put, God would provide and protect for His people, and they would obey His statutes and be His chosen people. The future of Israel was understood through this relationship between God and His people.
Be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses My servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:7–8)
With these words, the Lord sets before Joshua His plan for Israel’s future and the two ways that the writers of the Books of History would judge Israel’s leaders and events. These historians would distinguish (1) Israel’s failure to keep God’s Word revealed to Moses and (2) Israel’s faithfulness to God’s Word.
The Books of History record the consequences of condemnation under God’s Law and the blessings that flow from God’s gracious promises. In these two
ways, God’s Word through Moses anticipated Israel’s life and future, the failure or prosperity that would come with sin or with faith.
Overview of Joshua
When reading Joshua, it is crucial to remember that the Old Testament does not purport to be world history (not even the history of Israel in the strict sense of the word) but a theological history. It is therefore highly selective in its choice of the material used to tell how salvation came to earth. Gauged by this standard, a conquering campaign by a world empire may be a mere trifle in comparison with the piling up of a few stones to form an altar at Shechem. Therefore, scholars cannot always fit this covenant history into the framework of parallel circumstances in secular history. Some questions must remain unanswered.
Purpose of Joshua
The covenant with the patriarchs and with Israel at Sinai is the central, controlling factor of everything recorded in Joshua, which emphasizes that the covenant includes “terms”—requirements on the part of God as well as of Israel. Through Israel God would fulfill His part of the covenant, His promise to carry out His plan of salvation for all the nations of the earth. Israel must be faithful as the covenant nation; its history depends on it. The Book of Joshua makes crystal clear that Israel succeeds or fails in the measure that it remains God’s instrument. In every age God blesses those whom He chooses, and He curses those who defy Him. This simple formula solves the great question of history that otherwise remains despite every explanation of human cause and effect.
Overview of Judges
The opening chapters of Judges (1:1–3:6) set the stage for this dismal picture in Israel’s history. To connect it with the previous period, the state of affairs at Joshua’s death are once more mentioned (2:1–10), and the section elaborates on the covenant cause-and-effect theme. God had given success to the first phase of capturing Canaan; now Israel was assigned the task of dispossessing the inhabitants and fully occupying the land.
But the people did not obey the Lord. “They went after other gods; . . . And they provoked the LORD to anger” (2:12). Thus they created for themselves a situation that led to their undoing. The Lord warned them, “Their gods shall be a snare to you” (2:3). Israel’s lack of faith was the reason that it did not accomplish what God promised to do for and through the nation.
Purpose of Judges
As the introduction above indicates, the Book of Judges describes examples of unfaithfulness to the covenant and their consequences, reminding readers of the need to walk in the way of the Lord continually. The book may also support the need for a king who could offer a common defense for the nation and unify the tribes.
Overview of Ruth
The Book of Ruth supplements Judges in several ways. It records a bit of delightful history of that period and supplies further evidence of God’s faithfulness to His promises. The scope of the story is not national or tribal as is Judges. It is limited to individuals, and the plot is laid within the confines of family life. What happens to this little family in its domestic struggles concerns God as much as the big issues of national survival.
The story of Ruth also portrays the exception to the general picture of anarchy and lawlessness during the time of the judges. Then, as always, a faithful remnant lived in Israel—wholesome, decent, magnanimous people. Home ties were close; marriage was sacred; purity and restraint of passions had not vanished. If family life was sound, albeit by exception, Israel could hope for national healing and health.
Purpose of Ruth
The author intended to relate an episode of premonarchical history, and there is not much to suggest that his purposes extended far beyond that. The concluding genealogy must indicate that there was some interest to relate the genealogy of David. (The very fact that David’s ancestress is described as
a Moabitess is a major argument for the book’s historicity, as is often pointed out since that fact would be so easily used against the family.) To attribute any profound further “purposes” to the author requires reading between the
lines of his straightforward narrative.
It is plausible to assume that a subsidiary purpose may have been to counteract one-sidedly dark portraits of the quality of life in the period of the judges (as in Jgs 19–21) and then also to suggest examples of right living under the covenant, of piety and fidelity, of home life and family solidarity for all times. It was all the more significant to see those ideal qualities exemplified in a family that welcomed a foreigner, and indirectly, at least, the point is surely made that the covenant was not limited by national, political, or racial boundaries. These various purposes probably overlap and are all to be related to the book’s theological stance.
1 and 2 Samuel
Overview of 1 and 2 Samuel
High ridges and domed hills line the routes through Ephraim, at the heart of Israel. Along these routes ran Ephraim’s troops. They followed their tribesman,
Joshua, as well as judges such as Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, and Tola. But they fled from Jephthah, when arrogance led to civil war (Jgs 3, 4, 7, 10, 12). Ephraim
was a leading tribe of Israel; their territory was a crossroad—the home of the tabernacle at Shiloh, but also a home to unconquered Canaanites and a point
of entry for foreign armies. As the Book of Samuel begins, the latest invaders on the coastal plain, the Philistines, sharpen their iron weapons.
God had chosen Israel “to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth,” to be “a people holy to the LORD your God” and “a kingdom of priests” (Dt 14:2; 26:19; Ex 19:6). Its holiness, which made it different from the other nations, was to be above all its spiritual relationship with God through faith.
Purpose of 1 and 2 Samuel
The writer is intent on tracing history and evaluating individuals and events according to their contribution to or hindrance of God’s ultimate goal for history. A strict chronological arrangement of events is of only secondary consideration. This disregard of chronology surfaces particularly in the stories of David. His victories over the surrounding nations and those of his administrative personnel, for example, are given brief summaries in 2Sm 8. Then one of those victories (over the Ammonites and Syrians, 8:3–12) is given in more detail in ch 10 and in 12:26–31. The closing chapters (2Sm
21–24) also supplement the previous biographical accounts of David. For
example, ch 21 evidently occurred before 2Sm 16:8 (in which David is
cursed for the action in 21:1–14).
1 and 2 Kings
Overview of 1 and 2 Kings
The Book of Kings opens with a people divided. Although Solomon efficiently and gloriously united Israel during his reign, more political and cultural divisions emerged shortly after his death and plagued Israel throughout its history. Although the people united to build the temple of the Lord and vowed to abide by His word, they divided to follow different gods and kings. They wandered like the fresh waters of Jerusalem down the Kidron Valley toward the tepid Dead Sea. The Book of Kings tells this complex story over 400 years until the fall of Jerusalem and the apparent end of David’s dynasty.
Purpose of 1 and 2 Kings
The book’s major concern is about the sole legitimacy of the worship in Jerusalem, but even more basically the sole deity of Yahweh (vs. any and all
idolatry). No doubt, this was the chief doctrine of the writer’s subject. For
example, the kings of Judah who champion true Yahwism at Jerusalem, but
tolerate worship at high places (outlying shrines, some of which were probably at times relatively Yahwistic themselves), are only slightly censured. Those who openly encourage or patronize paganism receive no commendations whatsoever. Of all the kings of Judah, only Hezekiah and Josiah receive unconditional praise, and five others receive conditional approbation.
1 and 2 Chronicles
Overview of 1 and 2 Chronicles
Surprisingly, the two books of Chronicles traverse the same millennia as Genesis to Kings. The story begins again with Adam and ends at a point only a quarter-century after the last event in 2 Kings: the liberation of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, from a Babylonian prison in 562 BC (2Ki 25:29). Second Chronicles 36:22–23 adds that when the Persian king Cyrus became the new world ruler in 538 BC, he issued a decree of general amnesty, permitting the exiles to return to their homeland.
Purpose of 1 and 2 Chronicles
Chronicles’ review of past events is neither simply a condensation of history from Genesis to Kings nor even a balanced summary of Israel’s past. Although some accounts here have a counterpart in Samuel and Kings, Chronicles is not designed to repeat the contents of those books.
Chronicles was written with special interest. Note the large number of pages allotted to some phases of history in comparison with others. Of its 65 chapters, almost one-third (19) are taken up with the account of one person, David (1Ch 11–29). By contrast, the eons preceding his reign are compressed into introductory genealogical lists comprising only nine chapters (1Ch 1–9). A similar large space is devoted to the activities of another individual, David’s son Solomon (2Ch 1–9). The 400 years of the divided kingdom are covered in just 27 chapters (2Ch 10–36).
Ezra and Nehemiah
Overview of Ezra and Nehemiah
There are two phases in the story of Israel’s rehabilitation after Babylon. Though reported in separate books, each stage consists of a construction program in wood and stone followed by a reestablishment of moral and spiritual foundations. Ezra records the building of the temple (Ezr 1–6); Nehemiah the erection of Jerusalem’s walls (Ne 1–7). Ezra the priest alone initiates the first spiritual reform (Ezr 7–10); in the second he has the support and collaboration of Nehemiah (Ne 8:1–13:3), a layman who also takes action independently (13:4–31).
Purpose of Ezra and Nehemiah
It appears that, except for Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s strict measures, there would
have been nothing left of Old Testament religion. Even if the community had survived the Persians, they would scarcely have been prepared for the onslaughts of Hellenism soon to come in Alexander’s wake, not to speak of
persecutions of the Maccabean era. Ezra and Nehemiah plainly were convinced that the prophets were right: pagan influences had to be ruthlessly expunged; compromise would be fatal. It was a time of necessary retrenchment, of withdrawal to the center for survival. Not only within subsequent Judaism but also often in Church history (our own age certainly being no exception), there are times when sheer survival is a maximal achievement.
Overview of Esther
Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah complement one another most strikingly by their respective portrayals of divine providence. In the latter books, all that happens is ascribed directly to God’s action. He “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” (Ezr 1:1); His “good hand” was on Nehemiah (Ne 2:8). Ezra’s review of history mentions no part played by the great men in Israel’s past; they were but channels through whom God governed the universe (Ne 9:6–37).
Esther seems to go to the other extreme with only one vague reference to divine providence. God goes unmentioned throughout the book except for this veiled allusion (4:14: “Deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place”). In this scheme of things, people do not express their dependence on Him. Esther provides no prayer for help when disaster threatens; there is no song of thanksgiving when deliverance comes; there is only action—as if everything depended on human courage and resourcefulness.
Purpose of Esther
By any reckoning, one of the purposes of the Book of Esther is to explain the origin and background of the Festival of Purim. It is often opined that the main concern was to sanction a festival that was not commanded in the Torah, but the apparent ease with which Hanukkah and the Ninth of Ab were accepted belies that explanation.
It is quite possible that the Jewish commemoration of Purim more or less coincided with some Persian festival, some of whose popular observances came to be mingled with it. Many parallels to that kind of thing can be adduced in both Judaism and Christianity (e.g., Santa Claus or Easter eggs). In later times, certainly, the rather “Halloween” type of popular Jewish observance of Purim was encouraged by the fact that it tended to coincide, at least in Europe, with pre-Lenten “carnival” and Mardi Gras merriment. (Cf rabbinical statements that “On Purim anything is allowed,” or that drinking could continue until it was no longer possible to distinguish “Cursed be Haman” and “Cursed be Mordecai”!)
Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1 © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
To learn more about the Old Testament, read Lutheran Bible Companion.