When we try and lay out the broad timeline of the Old Testament it usually goes something like this:
Creation, Fall, Noah, Abraham, something something, Joseph, Egypt, Exodus, Desert, Law, Joshua and Conquest, Judges, Kings (Saul, David Solomon)…
And then we lose it. We tend to be pretty good on these first few books. We tend to get them a lot in Sunday School, VBS etc. They’re very narrative driven (story centered, as long as we skip the big chunks of law). But then it gets a bit fuzzy. There are so many cool stories about David. And Solomon was wise and built the temple. But after that we get lost. And there’s a reason for that.
The Old Testament suddenly goes all out of order. We go Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And that gets us from Creation to the death of Moses. Joshua and Judges tell us about conquering the promised land (Canaan/Israel) and then trying to live in it. 1 and 2 Samuel tell us of the life of the prophet, the people’s demand for a king (over God’s objections), the anointing of Saul and then his downfall and replacement by David. 1 and 2 Kings tells us the story of the Solomon and all the kings who followed after him (Chronicles hits all this over again from a different perspective).
And then everything is blown apart. What happened? We had this fairly neat straight line and then suddenly we have all of these prophets and a lot of what they have to say isn’t narrative at all but long blocks of verse and poetry and song. We have Ezra and Nehemiah first but they seem to be talking about things that are at the very of the OT story. And what is up with Jonah?
Well, there are two events that are only referenced in 2 Kings but might be as important for understanding the Old Testament as God giving the law at Mt. Sinai or Saul being anointed as King.
The first happens in 2 Kings 17. In the ancient world leading up to the 9th century BC Assyria (one of Israel’s ancient neighbors) had largely been everyone’s punching bag. They weren’t militarily, socially or economically strong. But then they discover how to work high-grade Iron weaponry. The rest of the world is using bronze weapons and shields and Assyria suddenly takes the field with this strange new gray metal that cuts through bronze like it wasn’t even there. Its like bringing a machine gun to the American Revolution or GPS and drone strikes to WWII. It’s a technological jump so big they might as well be from the future.
Assyria conquers everything in sight in no time at all. Including the northern kingdom of Israel. Back in those days one of the best ways to control a conquered people was to shuffle them up with other conquered people. So Assyria took a huge chunk of the population and sent them away to other lands they had conquered. Then they brought in large numbers of peoples from other lands. They forced them to intermingle with the local peoples. This meant there was no unifying culture to help shape resistance against them. Within a few generations these peoples were integrated into Israel, bringing their own foreign religious and cultural customs with them. The Northern Kingdom wasn’t just gone but there was no coming back. (This is where we end up with the Samaritans we see in the New Testament.)
The second event happens in 2 Kings 24-25. Once iron technology had started to spread to their neighbors Assyria quickly lost its dominant status. In their wake came a unified Babylonian empire. A series of Babylonian kings (you might recognize Necbuhadnezzar from Daniel) had united their people behind a religious and cultural revival and they were using that momentum to conquer their neighbors. With the Northern Kingdom mostly destroyed only Judah remained of the Jewish nation.
Babylon swept through them and laid siege to Jerusalem. The current King, Jehoiachin, ultimately surrendered. Babylon carried away the royal household, all the treasures of the palace and temple and many of the ruling and cultural elites of the city, taking them back to their own capital. When his successor, Zedekiah, tried to rebel against Babylon they came again and this time laid waste to the city. They destroyed the walls, desecrated the temples and burned or otherwise destroyed much of the city. Then they carried away another large part of the people into exile in Babylon.
Its hard to explain how huge this is. In Joshua the people trust in God and he gives the land over to them. It’s the promise to Abraham and to Moses. The land promised them by God. Saul and David and the judges before them and the kings after them were always able to defend it with God’s divine aid. But because of the grievous sins of kings like Manasseh and the idolatry and wickedness of the people God has finally withdrawn that protection. Jerusalem and its temple, the physical symbols of God’s presence on earth and with the people of Israel are wrecked. This is devastating, beyond devastating. They could never have imagined this happening. The only contemporary U.S. event that is even close would be September 11 but even this falls far short. It changes everything.
So why are these two events so important?
-They scatter Jews all over the world. Instead of just being concentrated in one tiny region they are scattered over dozens of countries. This group of displaced Jews is often called the diaspora (which is gk. for scattering).
-This scattering also means their faith needs to change. They had primarily understood God in terms of the land promised to them, the King watching over them and at the middle of it all, God’s temple where they worshiped and sacrificed and celebrated their faith and identity together. In the diaspora we start to see new institutions called synagogues and new leaders called Rabbi’s. Without the temple for celebrations and sacrifices Judaism refocused around the law. Its new leaders were masters of the law and its interpretation, teaching the people how to follow God’s commands and maintain their Jewish identity in a new place surrounded by gentiles.
-This also lead to the writing of what we call the Old Testament as a written document. Much of the law and stories of the OT had been largely oral tradition, stories told and retold and passed down from one generation to the next. But scattered, living with strange people with strange customs, they needed a more concrete means of recording and teaching their faith to the next generation. This period led these scattered sages and rabbis to choose a specific written canon and share and reproduce it for all Jews.
-This also left a gaping hole in their worldview. Why would God punish them so? How could they ever recover? The scriptures they had gave them some tools to comprehend this but they weren’t enough. The exile generated dozens of new texts and biblical stories. The lives, works and words of the major prophets came about during this time, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel who helped the people process what it meant that God was still with them in the midst of their suffering and offered them hope for the future. Lamentations is a book of pure grief, lifting the people’s pain and outrage to God. Other books saw additions and edits during this time period, like the writing of Genesis 1. Finally Ezra, Nehemiah Haggai and Zechariah were written after exile, relating the stories of the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
–It changed the way they thought about God. Before these events the Jewish people tended to think of God as mostly centered around Israel and its people, even specifically around the temple and Jerusalem. (This wasn’t uncommon, many ancient peoples thought of their gods as regional or tribal gods, powerful only in one area and concerned with only a small region or set of interests). When Jerusalem falls the people have to expand their understanding, they begin to understand God as God of the whole world, not just their people or land. God isn’t just concerned with Israel but is shaping the fate of the entire world. Isaiah in particular shows us a God who is suddenly universal, no longer contained by one nation and its concerns. This is hinted at in earlier books but it is the exile that makes it suddenly distinct and noticeable.
–Israel never really recovers from this, they would never again be an independent self-ruling people. Assyria conquered them. Then Babylon. Persia conquered Babylon and sent them home but still ruled over them. Alexander the Great and the Macedonians conquered Persia and ruled over Israel. When his empire fell apart one of his generals would found the Seleucid dynasty which would rule over them for several more centuries. For one brief shining moment a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees (found in the non-canonical books of Macabees and giving us the story of Chanukah) succeeded in establishing Jewish self-rule but they were soon conquered by the Romans who would hold Israel into Jesus’ life and for centuries beyond.
–This conquest leads to a new belief, based on promises in Isaiah, that God would send them a new deliverer, God would send a messiah. A warrior-king like David or a prophet like Moses who would free them again and restore them to past glory. (This should sound familiar)
These two events, the conquest by Assyria and the conquest by Babylon, radically changed the course of history for Israel and Judah. They also change the course of the Old Testament. Where the first half of the Old Testament is mostly one long story, the second half is broken into dozens of different voices offering a different perspective on events. These events generated more books of the bible than anything, nearly as many as the entire New Testament but generally much longer in content. We have to be aware of them to read the Old Testament in a way that makes any sense at all. Before our next entry we will take a short interlude to look at how this can help us read certain texts better than before and then we will take a look at the New Testament context and what the world of Jesus was like.