The Old Testament is a collection of 39 books that come before the birth of Jesus. These books can be arranged into five groups:
Torah — 5 books
Historical Books — 12 books
Wisdom Books — 5 books
Major Prophets — 5 books
Minor Prophets — 12 books
The topics below are useful to understand or refer to during your journey.
Journey of the Israelites¶
After God created the world and humankind, he established his people through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose descendants became known as the Israelites. They were enslaved by the Egyptians, led to freedom by Moses, and given instructions by God on how to live. They travelled to the Promised Land, conquered it, and grew in strength under Joshua and other leaders.
God appointed kings, such as David and Solomon, but the Israelites repeatedly failed to obey God. A civil war started between the tribes of Israel, culminating in the Division of Israel into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. Both kingdoms strayed from God and were eventually conquered by foreign nations. God’s people were exiled — first the Kingdom of Israel (see Assyrian exile), then the Kingdom of Judah (see Babylonian exile).
But God didn’t forget the promises he made to bring his people back to the Promised Land. After almost two centuries in exile for Israel and fifty years for Judah, they began their return to Jerusalem, led by Ezra, Nehemiah and others.
The Promised Land is also referred to as Canaan or the Land of Milk and Honey.
This is the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants (in Genesis 15:18-21). The land is described as extending from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates river. The Israelites enter the Promised Land for the first time in the book of Joshua.
Twelve Tribes of Israel¶
One of the people God chose was a man called Jacob, whom God renamed Israel. He had twelve sons and these went on to form the twelve tribes of Israel:
Later, the twelve tribes are counted differently: the tribe of Levi is omitted, and the tribe of Joseph is replaced by Manasseh and Ephraim. This is because Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, were blessed by Jacob (in Genesis 48:5-6) and each became tribes in their own right. The tribe of Levi were called to serve as priests and their inheritance would be God himself, so they’re excluded when land is shared between the tribes.
Division of Israel¶
After the reign of King Solomon, only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were loyal to the house of David (ie, to Rehoboam, who was Solomon’s son and David’s grandson). The other tribes revolted. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the Kingdom of Judah, and the rest became the Kingdom of Israel except for the tribes of Levi and Simeon who weren’t described as being firmly part of either kingdom.
Kingdom of Israel¶
After the Division of Israel, nine tribes of Israel (Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Dan, Napthtali, Gad, and Asher) form the Kingdom of Israel. Their capital was Samaria.
The Kingdom of Israel is also referred to as The Northern Kingdom, Samaria, or Ephraim.
Kingdom of Judah¶
The Kingdom of Judah is also referred to as The Southern Kingdom.
In the mid-8th century BC, the Assyrian empire laid siege to Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. After three years, they captured Samaria and deported God’s people to Assyria.
It’s also referred to as The Fall of Israel, The Fall of Samaria, or The Assyrian Captivity.
(Covered in 2 Kings.)
At the turn of the 6th century BC, the Babylonian empire — led by King Nebuchadnezzar — began their assault on Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, took control, and installed Zedekiah as king. But Zedekiah eventually rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, who then laid siege to Jerusalem again and destroyed it along with the temple.
It’s also referred to as The Fall of Judah, The Fall of Jerusalem, or The Babylonian Captivity.
Zion is a name that is often used to refer to Jerusalem, which was an important city for the Israelites. Jerusalem is where King Solomon ruled from before the Division of Israel, and was the capital of the Kingdom of Judah after the division.
Zion is sometimes also used to refer to the Biblical land of Israel as a whole.
Return to Zion¶
Fortunately, God made a covenant to restore his people. At the end of 2 Chronicles, Cyrus, the king of Persia, wrote a decree that authorized the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. God’s people then began their return in four waves spread over the 6th and 5th century BC:
A small number, led by Sheshbazzar, though this is sometimes not counted.
Around 50,000, led by Zerubbabel and Joshua. They rebuilt the temple of the Lord.
Around 5,000, led by Ezra.
An unknown number, led by Nehemiah. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem.