Getting a Handle on the Old Testament Story (Part 1): Merry Christmas–I’m Giving You the Gift of Old Testament Understanding!

The Old Testament is a collection of 39 books, written roughly over a span of 1,000 years, and it covers the entire history of ancient Israel. It contains narratives (stories), laws, poetry, prophecies, proverbs, as well as many other genres. And, truth be told, most people, aside from knowing a few random Old Testament stories from Sunday School, really have no idea what to do with the Old Testament. Let’s admit it: for most people, the Old Testament is daunting, and thus, most people avoid it.

Well, during my eight years teaching the Old Testament to 9th graders at my old high school, I like to think I became quite good at making the Old Testament understandable. And so, for the next two posts, I want to share a short Old Testament Introduction I wrote to give my students a bare-bones outline of the Old Testament. Think of this as sort of the scaffolding to that has to be erected first, before the rest of the house is built.

The reason why it is so important to be familiar with the Old Testament story is because it defines who the people of Israel are, what they believe, and how they view the world around them. And all that is crucial if one is going to understand Jesus and the New Testament. It’s like I always told my students: you cannot truly understand the New Testament unless you first understand the Old Testament.

The Old Testament in a Nutshell
If we were to put together an “American Testament” that told the story of America, we would probably include historical accounts of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. We would include personal stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and other presidents. We would include important documents like the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address. We would include major cultural figures like Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King, and we would include culturally defining plays, movies, and music. All of these things together help define what America is, what its values are, and how it views the world.

The same is true of the Old Testament: it is the story of Israel, and therefore it is a collection of the ancient laws, historical stories, literature, and yes songs (at least the “song lyrics” of the Psalms) of ancient Israel. And so, if you want to understand ancient Israel, the Old Testament is your window to that world.

In a nutshell, the Jews believed themselves to be chosen people of YHWH, the creator God who was the only true God. They believed that He had entered into a covenant relationship with them, and that somehow, through them YHWH was going to put the world to rights and redeem His fallen creation. Therefore, the over-arching meta-narrative that runs throughout the Old Testament is the story of how YHWH is slowly but surely bringing about His salvation of the world through the nation of Israel, a flawed and sinful people. Despite their sinfulness, and despite the fact they continually break YHWH’s covenant, YHWH nevertheless stays faithful to His covenant in order to bring about the salvation of the world and the renewal of His creation. The place where this all starts is in Genesis 12, with YHWH’s covenant with Abraham.


Genesis 1-11 acts as the prologue to the entire Old Testament. It tells the stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, and the Tower of Babel. By the end of chapter 11, the situation is this: God’s creation is lost, fallen, and sinful, scattered throughout the earth. The main question at this point is simple: How is the creator God, YHWH (the God of Israel), going to fix His good, but fallen, creation? Simply put, how is YHWH going to redeem His creation? The answer begins with Abraham in Genesis 12-25. The key passages we need to be familiar with are Genesis 12:1-3, and 17:1-22. It is God’s relationship with Abraham that really begins the Old Testament story of the Jews, the people of God. In Genesis 12:1-3 we find three fundamental components to God’s covenant-promise with Abraham:

  1. God promises to make Abraham’s name great
  2. God promises to make Abraham into a great nation
  3. God promises that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

Then, in Genesis 17:1-14, God promises a few additional things:

  1. Abraham will not simply be the father of one nation, but of many nations
  2. The land of Canaan will be the Promised Land for Abraham’s descendants.

As a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, God orders that Abraham and every male in his household be circumcised. This is why Abraham’s descendants, the Jews, have always gotten circumcised—circumcision is the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and a sign of God’s promises in the covenant.

Moses and the Exodus
The rest of Genesis (26-50) tells the stories of the Patriarchs—Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and ends with Jacob, now named Israel, bringing his family to Egypt to be with Joseph. The next major figure and event crucial to Jewish identity can be seen in Moses and the Exodus. The accounts surrounding Moses and the Exodus can be found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Most of us know the basic story: Moses, though a Hebrew, grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but had to flee when he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew. Forty years later, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and told Moses to go back to Egypt and lead Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, out of slavery from Egypt. It was there that God revealed to Moses His name, YHWH. When Moses returned to Egypt and demanded that Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, Pharaoh refused.

Therefore, YHWH sent ten plagues upon Egypt, the tenth being the Passover, when the angel of YHWH passed over every house in Egypt and killed the firstborn in every house that did not have blood on the doorposts. That night Pharaoh let the Hebrews go, but later he changed his mind tried to capture them again. It was there on the shores of the Red Sea when YHWH parted the waters to let the Hebrews pass through to the other side safely. YHWH led the Hebrews with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; YHWH’s presence was among the Hebrews in the desert—they all lived in tents, and right in the middle of them was the Tabernacle: the tent where YHWH’s presence dwelt.

Later on, they came to Mount Sinai, where YHWH made a covenant with the Hebrews and gave Moses the Ten Commandments: the Torah. It was also there where the Hebrews made the golden calf and worshipped it and were punished. It was there the Ark of the Covenant was made. In fact, all through the Exodus, the Hebrews continually rebelled against Moses and continually displayed a lack of faith in YHWH. At the end of the Exodus though, in Deuteronomy, we find Moses with the Hebrews, right outside of the Promised Land, ready to conquer it. Moses led them to the Promised Land, but it would be Joshua who would lead them in conquering it.

Nevertheless, it was during the Exodus where a number of key things crucial to Jewish identity happened:

  1. Passover:   This is celebrated every year; a celebration of freedom from slavery
  2. The Red Sea:  The crossing of the Red Sea became a major symbol for YHWH’s salvation and the freedom of His people
  3. Tabernacle:  The visible proof that YHWH’s presence was among His people
  4. Torah: The Ten Commandments; the “covenant charter” between YHWH and His people
  5. The Ark: The Ark of the Covenant was where the Ten Commandments were kept
  6. Promised Land: The land that represented YHWH’s salvation; the land that was promised to Abraham’s descendants

When all these things are seen together, one is able to get a clearer understanding on the Jewish worldview: it was all about salvation, YHWH’s presence, the Torah, and the Land.

  • Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea signaled YHWH’s salvation of His people, the descendants of Abraham, out of slavery into freedom
  • The existence of the Tabernacle in the desert, along with the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, signaled YHWH’s presence among His people
  • The giving of the Torah and the making of the Ark of the Covenant defined YHWH’s covenant with His people
  • And the Promised Land summed up YHWH’s inheritance for His people—it was their salvation, it was where YHWH would dwell with them, it was where all the promises of the covenant would be fulfilled.

In addition to these things, we need to relate this back to God’s covenant with Abraham. The Hebrews held to the practice of circumcision. And so, in the Exodus, we find that Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, were indeed being made into a great nation, and were on the verge of entering into the Promised Land. But exactly how they would “be a blessing to the nations” is still to be seen.

The Taking of Jericho

The books of Joshua and Judges tells us about the partial taking of the Promised Land, and thus, the partial fulfilment of God’s promise to give the Israelites the Land. Yet, when one reads Joshua and Judges, one sees war, immorality, idol worship, and slaughter—no “blessing” seems anywhere near. The reason why, we are told in these books, is because the Hebrews fail to be faithful to YHWH’s covenant. They don’t fully conquer the land, they fall into worshipping other gods, and they oppress the poor and needy among them. The book of Judges shows a cycle of behavior among the Hebrews:

  1. They fall away from YHWH
  2. YHWH allows them to be oppressed by foreign nations
  3. They repent and return to YHWH
  4. YHWH raises up a judge (a leader) who defeats the foreign nation and frees the Hebrews from foreign oppression. Then it all starts again.

***In the next post, we’ll look at the story from King David to the return from the Babylonian Exile.


  1. Nice summary. As you say, an understanding of the OT is crucial to an understanding of the NT. Otherwise, it’s like going to a play and only watching the second act. Christianity thus isn’t a different religion from Judaism, but in Jesus, as Messiah, Judaism sees its conclusion, its fulfillment. Jesus is the star of the second act, indeed, is the character whose entrance onstage the whole play has been building towards. Jesus fulfilled Israel’s vocation to be the the light to the nations.

    NT Wright describes the OT narrative of Israel as one of exile and return, exile from Canaan and via the Exodus the return to Canaan, which Wright argues, pictures in microcosm the original macrocosmic exile from and return to Eden by all of mankind. I like that.

    Often I think we often get so bogged down in the details (was there a *literal* 6 day creation?; was there a *literal* worldwide flood?; did Methuselah *really* live to be 969 years old? Where did Cain’s wife come from? Which of the two creation narratives in Genesis is older therefore primary?) that we miss the grand sweep of the narrative. I’m reminded of a statement the noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth once made to a question. A lady once asked Pastor Barth if he really believed a snake could talk, and Barth replied that it wasn’t as important whether a snake could really talk as it was *what the snake said.*

    And then there’s the tendency of many well-meaning Evangelical Christians to parse the OT and import OT rules/regulations into the modern Church, as if the Torah, or parts thereof, were applicable to everyone and not just OT Jews. Many skeptics, and unfortunately also not a few believers, seem to read texts such as the Canaanite conquest as if they were somehow literal commands written to the modern-day Church to do as the Israelites did, rather than specific narratives of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, written by Jewish authors to a Jewish audience. We should rather be asking ourselves, what are the principles these texts are trying to show us? rather than automatically trying to figure out which ones are applicable to us.

    Hopefully that last part makes sense.

    Pax vobiscum.


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