Have you ever opened the Old Testament and just wondered what in the world was going on? If so, you’re not alone. Context is extremely important in understanding the Old Testament. Although it takes years to master this formidable narrative with all of its diverse literature and intricacies, there are some basic facts that can vastly ease the difficulty of reading the Old Testament.
One of the most important aspects in gaining a better understanding of the OT is to acquire a basic understanding of the timeline. More specifically, where did the various books and characters fall in the period of history in which the OT was set? Following is a concise timeline illustrating important historical events related to the biblical narrative. It’s by no means exhaustive. To the contrary, it’s purposefully concise.
No, not prehistoric like a dinosaur, just pre recorded history.
GEN 1 – 11. These chapters include the creation story as well as the flood account, taking us to the beginning of the Abraham narrative.
Prominent figures: God, Adam, Eve, Satan, Cain, Abel, Noah.
2000 BC (approximately)
PATRIARCHAL NARRATIVES (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel)
The remainder of Genesis (chapter 12 onward) deals with Abraham and his descendants, culminating in their migration to Egypt.
Prominent figures: Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, Jacob (Israel), Joseph.
1400 BC (approximately)
God’s people migrating away from Egypt into the promised land. Israel received the law on Mt. Sinai while wandering in the wilderness.
Prominent figures: Moses, Pharoh, Aaron
BOOK OF RUTH
JUDGES – falls in between the Exodus and Samuel, who was considered the last Judge.
THE UNITED KINGDOM OF ISRAEL
The people of Israel demanded a king. Saul was the first, followed by David. NOTE: The Kingdom was only briefly united before the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Southern Kingdom of Judah split.
Prominent figures: Samual, Saul, David, Jonathan, Abigail, Bathsheba.
1 & 2 Kings (originally one book). Picks up where 1 & 2 Samuel left off, taking us through the golden age of Solomon to the fall of Judah (587 BC).
8th Century BC (7 – 800)
Jonah (8th century: dealt with the Assyrian Kingdom. God told him to go to Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria).
722 BC – The Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) conquered by the Assyrians.
Isaiah (8th-century Major prophet: Deals with impending judgment, also writes during the exile).
Amos (8th century: Sent with a message of judgment from Judah to Israel).
Hosea (The Northern Kingdom. Emphasized God’s love in the midst of judgment)
Micah (8th century)
7th Century BC (6 – 700)
612 BC – Babylon destroys Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria, becoming the dominant empire.
Nahum rejoices over the destruction of Ninevah (7th century).
Habakkuk struggles with the problem of evil (7th century).
Zephaniah (7th century).
Jeremiah (major prophet 7 – 6th century, about 100 years after Isaiah). Jeremiah warned the Southern Kingdom of Judah regarding their impending doom, which occurred shortly thereafter.
605 BC – Babylonian conquest continues/Babylonians decisively defeat the Egyptian army.
Jeremiah and Ezekial would have been active during this period of time.
6th Century BC (5 – 600)
587 BC – The Babylonians capture Jerusalem, ending the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Temple, located in Jerusalem, was destroyed and many inhabitants exiled.
(Jeremiah) (Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of the Temple).
539 BC – The Persians, under Cyrus the Great, decisively defeat the Babylonian Empire. Cyrus allowed the return of exiled peoples to their ancestral homes.
Ezra and Nehemiah cover roughly 100 years (538 – 433BC).
EXILES RETURN: Main party of exiles return with Zerubbabel in 538/7 BC; More exiles return with Ezra 80 years later in 458 BC; Nehemiah’s party returns in 445 BC.
Obadiah (prophecy against Edom for their harsh treatment of Judah when Jerusalem fell).
Ezekial (preached judgment and salvation after Jerusalem fell in 587).
Haggai (encouraged the people to rebuild the temple).
Zechariah (encouraged the people to rebuild the temple) (6th – 5th centuries).
Malachi (5th – 4th century).
333 BC – Alexander the Great of Macedonia defeats Persian Empire.
Prominent figures: None. This event occurred during the intertestamental period but is a good reference.
4 – 6 BC Christ is born.
Below is a list of the kingdoms mentioned with some geographic context and links to more info.
Egypt (the ancient Egyptians, who exerted control over the people of Israel prior to the exodus).
Assyrian Empire (modern northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the northwestern fringes of Iran).
Babylonian Empire (Modern Iraq).
Persian Empire (modern Iran).
Macedonian Empire/Alexander the Great (Thrace, Illyria, Greece, Asia Minor). Also, see Hellenization.
ROME (not mentioned in the OT. Were active during the period of the New Testament).