2.2.2 An outline of biblical history
Back to 2.2.1
In Unit 1, the page entitled ‘Christian faith: God is love’ (1.2.1), began in this way:
Christian faith is in God.
The central claim of Christian faith is that God is love and that God has freely chosen to reveal his love in the world. God has done this in a special way, namely in a particular history.
It then summarized this ‘special way’ in three bullet points. The first of them was this:
- God’s revelation is first to a particular people, Israel, about which we learn through the writings that form the Jewish Bible, which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament. These writings include narratives of the early history of Israel…
We now come to an outline of this biblical history. Some knowledge of the major events in it is really important if we are going to understand what the Bible has to say about the topics of this module.
Below is a straightforward chronology, from the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (roughly 1300 BCE) to the end of the first century after Christ (100 CE). The main thing to do in order to learn from this screen is just to look through the chronology two or three times, focusing on the main turning points in the story.
As you know, the biblical history starts before the exodus. The book of Genesis, from chapter 12 onwards, tells of events through which God will bless the whole world. They begin with God’s call of and covenant with Abraham. (A covenant is a bond or agreement.) Together these are of fundamental importance in the biblical history.
The story then focuses on Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, especially the youngest, Joseph. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are known as the Patriarchs of Israel.
In these texts, God is named by a Hebrew word with no vowels, which is (in transliteration) JHWH. It is impossible for us to know now how this was pronounced. In English, the current custom is to write this word as Jahweh. Out of reverence, the Israelites were extremely reticent actually to use God’s name, and, reflecting this continuing tradition in Judaism, both the NAB and the NRSV translations of the Bible represent this name of God using capitals: ‘the LORD’.1
It is extremely difficult for historians to place dates on what is related in Genesis. For this reason, I haven’t included them in the chronology below. But here, first, is a brief summary of what we find in Genesis 12-50.
- Gen. 12 begins with God’s call of Abram, who is an elderly man living in Mesopotamia (which is in modern Iraq). Abram’s name is later changed to Abraham.
The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you. (Gen. 12:1-3, NAB)
- God calls Abram to go to Canaan (modern Israel/Palestine) and promises this land to his descendants, who will be as numerous as the stars (15:5). He will be the ancestor of “a multitude of nations” (17:5). God makes these promises in “an everlasting covenant” (17:7) with Abram, whom God now renames Abraham. God freely chooses to enter a covenant with Abraham and his descendants – a bond that will never end and through which all the world will be blessed. Abraham’s response to God’s call and promise is belief (15:6) and obedience (17:9-14, 23-27).
- The story of how Abraham’s descendants came to settle Canaan is long and tortuous. To start with, Abram and his wife Sarai (whose name is later changed to Sarah) find they can’t have children. But he has one son by Hagar, his concubine (Gen. 16), and, eventually, a son with Sarai. This is Isaac (Gen. 21).
- Abraham’s obedience is then tested by God: he is asked by God to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham accepts God’s word and prepares to do that. But at the last moment God commands Abraham not to do so. This is one of the strangest, yet most powerful, stories in the Bible. (Gen. 22)
- Isaac and his son Jacob and their families live as nomadic farmers, and they get into and out of various scrapes. Jacob, who is renamed ‘Israel’ and from whom the Israelites take their name, has twelve sons. He and his sons live in Canaan. (Gen. 24–36)
- But a terrible famine means they cannot survive and Jacob’s sons go to Egypt to seek assistance. In a very unexpected twist in the story, Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, whom Jacob believed was dead, has become a high official in the Egyptian Pharaoh’s household. He recognizes his family and is able to save them. (Gen. 37-50)
So the Book of Genesis ends with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Egypt, not Canaan. According to the next book, Exodus, they remain there for more than 400 years (Exod. 12:40-41) and become enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians.
As you now read the chronology of events from the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, have a Bible to hand, if you can. You would find what follows much more meaningful – and learn more from it – if you have time to leaf through the biblical books mentioned as you read it.
Chronology of ancient Israel’s history from the exodus to 70 CE
The most significant political events in the story are in bold.
Biblical books and chapters in which events are related are shown in italics.2
c.1300 BCE Exodus/liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses. Academic historians debate all aspects of the exodus story, including its date, with different theories giving dates between c.1550 and c.1250, and whether the biblical texts are the only evidence for it. In Judaism it is traditionally dated at 1313 BCE.3
1200s? The people live in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsular for forty years, according to Exodus 16.35. Near the end of this period, God renews his covenant with the people, through Moses, who receives the Torah (the Law) at Mount Sinai.
c.1240-1200? Israel conquers and settles the ‘promised land’ of Canaan.
c.1200?-1050 Israel is ruled by ‘judges’.
1 and 2 Judges, 1 Samuel 1-7
c.1050 The Monarchy is established; Saul becomes the first king
1 Samuel 8 – 31
Note: from about 1050, there is consensus among historians on the accuracy of dates, at least within two or three years.
c.1010 David becomes king and captures Jerusalem (c.1003).
c.970 Solomon becomes king. He builds the First Temple.
1 Kings 1-11
c.930 After Solomon’s death, his kingdom is divided into two. The northern kingdom is known as ‘Israel’, and the southern kingdom, which includes Jerusalem, is ‘Judah’ or (later) ‘Judea’.
1 Kings 12
c.930-c.720 The northern kingdom, Israel, is ruled by a series of kings. In c.720, the northern kingdom falls to the Assyrian Empire. (The Assyrian Empire was centred in northern Mesopotamia, now in the north of Iraq.)
1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 17
Prophets in the northern kingdom include: Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea.
c.930-587 The southern kingdom, Judah, is ruled by a series of kings.
1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 23
Prophets in the southern kingdom include: Isaiah of Jerusalem (whose writing is in Isaiah 1-40), Micah, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah.
588-87 Jerusalem and the southern kingdom, Judah, fall to the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar; the First Temple is destroyed and the people are taken into exile in Babylon (the capital of the Empire, in central Mesopotamia, now Iraq).
2 Kings 24-25,
580s-510s Israelite Exile in Babylon.
Prophets of the period of Exile: Ezekiel, ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ (writer of Isaiah 40-55).
539 Babylon falls to the Persian Empire ruled by Cyrus. From c.538, exiled Israelites begin to return to Jerusalem and the Second Temple is built (by about 515).
2 Chronicles 36:22-33, Ezra
c539-331 The land of Israel is controlled by the Persian Empire. (Persia is modern Iran.)
331 The Greeks under Alexander the Great defeat the Persians in 331. The Israelites are then under Greek control until the 160s.4
1 Maccabees 1:1-9
c.167-160 Judas Maccabee establishes his family, the Hasmoneans, as rulers in Judea – the first Jewish rulers in the land since 587.
1 Maccabees 1:9-9:22, 2 Maccabees 8-15
c.160-63 Under the Hasmonean dynasty, the Jews in Judea have c.100 years of relative political independence. But the Hasmoneans do not maintain Jewish religion traditions.
63 BCE The Romans under Pompey defeat the Hasmonean rulers and take Jerusalem. The Romans rule the whole land of Israel, directly or indirectly, for the next c.500 years.
40 BCE The Romans install a nominally Jewish strongman from outside Judea, Herod, as king of the Jews. He becomes known as Herod the Great and rules until 4 BCE.
4 BCE-39 CE One of the sons of Herod the Great, called Herod Antipas, rules Galilee (in northern Israel) for 43 years, including throughout the adult life of Jesus.
Late-20s CE A Jewish teacher called Jesus of Nazareth becomes prominent in Galilee. He proclaims that God’s kingship is coming. In some ways his teaching is reminiscent of Moses, but in other more obvious ways he is more like one of the prophets.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
c.30 CE Jesus is crucified by the Roman Governor, Pilate.5
70 CE Roman armies sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple.
Do take the time to look through this chronology more than once, giving attention to what strike you as the most pivotal events. This will assist you later on. The next few screens assume basic knowledge of this history.
End of 2.2.2
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Here is the background of this. Often in Hebrew religious writings, the holy name of God, JHWH, was not used. Instead the word Adonai was used, meaning ‘my lord’. ↩
The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles largely narrate the same events as 1 and 2 Kings, but generally I have not included references to Chronicles. This is in order not to give too much information. ↩
For that range of dates, see Michael D. Coogan, ‘The Exodus’, in Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds, The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues in the Bible (Oxford University Press, 2001), 149. In traditional Jewish dating, 1313 BCE is 2448 Anno Mundi (AM). ↩
This simplifies deliberately. ‘Greek control’ refers both to that part of Alexander the Great’s empire that came to be ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty from Alexandria (which controlled Judaea from c.320 to 198) and the part ruled by the Seleucid dynasty from Syria (which controlled Judaea from 198 to 163). ↩
Most biblical historians agree that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was between 30 and 33 CE. ↩