What is the Old Testament?

The Old Testament, or the Hebrew scriptures, are 39 books inspired by God that make up 75% of the Bible. These books covers the history of humanity from creation up until about 400 BC. It’s the record of mankind’s origin, how God created the world, how we came to be, what our purpose was, humanity’s subsequent rejection of God, and God’s activity to reclaim and redeem that world. 

Reasons people don’t study it

One excuse is the idea the Old Testament is out of date and has been replaced by the New Testament. It’s no longer applicable to us. Some contend that we are a New Testament church and now live under grace and not law. There’s this idea that the old covenant in the Old Testament has been set aside, and because of that it’s been made inconsequential.

For many, the Old Testament is just too confusing. All of the laws, the sacrifices, the list of names, the genealogies. All of the locations, town or place names, or people groups that are unfamiliar. The poetry doesn’t seem like poetry and the writing is just strange. We get lost in the prophets. It just doesn’t make sense and is too hard. this doesn’t make sense. 

Some might say that the Old Testament is irrelevant because it’s an ancient book. It doesn’t relate to modern life today. Society has advanced so much beyond past where the Old Testament world is and we know more and are more sophisticated, more and more advanced. And therefore, there’s really no reason to go back and read it and pay attention to it. 

So why should we study the Old Testament?

Since the beginning, the Church has never been willing to get rid of the Old Testament. These books were the authoritative Scriptures for Jesus and the disciples, the Old Testament was authoritative scripture. When Jesus would talked about or quoted Scripture, he was quoting the Old Testament. To abandon the Old Testament would be to do something Jesus himself wasn’t even willing to do. 

The Old Testament is the foundation of our faith. This is where God’s story begins, and consequently it’s where our own story today begins faithful followers of God. Furthermore, the New Testament writers assumed — in their letters and their accounts of Jesus — that their followers and their audience all had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament. They took for granted that it was the foundation.

The major doctrines for Christian theology and the life of the Church such as holiness, mercy, love; the ideas of covenant, atonement, justification, salvation: these are all introduced and explained in the Old Testament, and then they’re brought forward into the New Testament to make them complete. 

We need both the Old and New

The Old Testament asks questions that it doesn’t answer. And the Old Testament presents problems for which it doesn’t give the solutions. The ultimate question the Old Testament asks, how can sinful people live in fellowship with the Holy God? Is it even possible to live holy as God is holy? That’s the question that the Old Testament asked but doesn’t answer. It’s the cross in the New Testament that offers the resounding yes to that very question. But if we don’t have the Old Testament, then we don’t understand the questions and we don’t understand the problem and the answer of the cross and the solution of the cross in the resurrection, the incarnation, the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, the church, and indeed the second coming itself makes very little sense to us. 

Time Period

In terms of the timeline and structure, the Old Testament covers the period of time from the beginning of creation up until 400 BC with the book of Malachi. In the first 11 chapters of Genesis, we’re not given any specific markers to help us be accurate as to where exactly in the historical timeline these first few chapters take place. So from Adam to Abraham, the time period here is not concretely defined and there are debates as to what that timeframe looks like. The three basic views are: 

  • Old Earth – evolutionary timeline, millions of years
  • Young Earth – less than 8,000 years, 6000 is common
  • Middle Earth – not evolutionary, but 10s to ~100,000 years

In Genesis 12, we can place Abraham somewhere around the year 2200 BC in the ancient city of Ur, in the Sumerian civilization, in what is today southern Iraq. The bulk of the Old Testament takes place in about an 1800-year span of time from 2200 BC up to 400 BC. In terms of history, this puts us into the Bronze and the Iron Ages.            

Historical Periods in Israel

Chronologically in the Old Testament, there are some key historical eras in the history of Israel. The first of those is the period of the Patriarchs. This is the Book of Genesis, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then the time in Egypt under Joseph. This is followed by the events of the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan. That’s the second historical era, which involves the books of Exodus through Joshua. 

The third historical period is the time of the Judges. This is about a 200-year period here with the figures such as Gideon, Samson, and the prophet Samuel. Beginning in 1000 BC, the period of the United Monarchy follows for about 70 years under Kings Saul, King David, and Solomon. This is Israel at its greatest period, the Golden Age of Israel. 

The Divided Monarchy follows after Solomon’s death in 930 BC when the kingdom splits into the two separate nations of Judah and Israel, each led by their own line of kings. In 722 BC, the northern Kingdom of Israel falls to the Assyrians. In 586 BC, about 140 years later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians. This is the period of Exile

The final period is the Restoration or the Return that begins in 539, when the Persian king Cyrus allows a small number to return from Babylon back to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the city walls, and, later the temple. This had all been destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.


The Old Testament has three basic kinds or genres of writings: 1) historical narrative, or “writings”; (2) wisdom or poetry (such as Psalms and Proverbs); and, (3) the Prophets. Prophetic writings are divided into two groups: major prophets and minor prophets. Now, major and minor here simply refer to the length of writings of the book, not their significance of the message or their historical context.

For more in-depth content on this topic, including a deeper dive into the idea that the Old Testament is foundational to Christian faith, the historical timeline, and the structure and arrangement of the Old Testament books, listen to Journey Through the Old Testament Episode 1 on the podcast. Episodes are available here on the website, on our Facebook page (mobile device only), or through most podcast platforms.

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