“Thoughts to Keep in Mind: The Historical Books in the Old Testament,” Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: Old Testament 2022 (2021)
“Thoughts to Keep in Mind: The Historical Books in the Old Testament,” Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: 2022
Thoughts to Keep in Mind
The Historical Books in the Old Testament
The books of Joshua through Esther are traditionally known as the “historical books” of the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean that other books in the Old Testament don’t have historical value. Rather, the historical books are called that because the main objective of their writers was to show God’s hand in the history of the people of Israel. The purpose was not to outline the law of Moses, as Leviticus and Deuteronomy do. It was not to express praise or lament in poetic form, as the Psalms and Lamentations do. And it was not to record the words of prophets, as the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel do. Instead, the historical books tell a story.
A Matter of Perspective
Naturally, that story is told from a certain point of view—really, certain points of view. Just as it’s impossible to look at a flower, rock, or tree from more than one angle at a time, it’s inevitable that a historical account will reflect the perspective of the person or group of people writing it. This perspective includes the writers’ national or ethnic ties and their cultural norms and beliefs. Knowing this can help us understand that the writers and compilers of the historical books focused on certain details while leaving out others.1 They made certain assumptions that others might not have made. And they came to conclusions based on those details and assumptions. We can even see different perspectives across the books of the Bible (and sometimes within the same book).2 The more we’re aware of these perspectives, the better we can understand the historical books.
One perspective common to all the Old Testament historical books is the perspective of the children of Israel, God’s covenant people. Their faith in the Lord helped them see His hand in their lives and His intervention in the affairs of their nation. While secular history books don’t tend to see things this way, this spiritual perspective is part of what makes the Old Testament historical books so valuable to those who are seeking to build their own faith in God.
Context for the Rest of the Old Testament
The historical books begin where the book of Deuteronomy leaves off, with the Israelites’ years of wandering in the wilderness about to end. The book of Joshua shows the children of Israel ready to enter Canaan, their promised land, and describes how they took it over. The books that follow, Judges through 2 Chronicles, depict Israel’s experience in the promised land, from the time they settled it until the time they were conquered by Assyria and Babylon. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return of several groups of Israelites to their capital, Jerusalem, decades later. Finally, the book of Esther relates a story of Israelites living in exile under Persian rule.
And that’s where the chronology of the Old Testament ends. Some first-time Bible readers are surprised to find that they’ve actually finished reading the story of the Old Testament before they’ve read much more than half its pages. After Esther, we don’t get much information about the history of the Israelites. Instead, the books that follow—especially the books of the prophets—fit within the timeline that the historical books presented.3 The ministry of the prophet Jeremiah, for example, took place during the events recorded in 2 Kings 22–25 (and the parallel account in 2 Chronicles 34–36). Knowing this can influence the way you read both the historical narratives and the prophetic books.
When Something Doesn’t Fit
When reading the Old Testament, as with any history, you’re likely to read about people doing or saying things that, to modern eyes, seem strange or even troubling. We should expect this—Old Testament writers saw the world from a perspective that was, in some ways, quite different from ours. Violence, ethnic relations, and the roles of women are just some of the issues that ancient writers might have seen differently than we do today.
So what should we do when we come across passages in the scriptures that seem troubling? First, it might help to consider each passage in a broader context. How does it fit in God’s plan of salvation? How does it fit with what you know about the nature of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? How does it fit with revealed truths in other scriptures or with the teachings of living prophets? And how does it fit with the whisperings of the Spirit to your own heart and mind?
In some cases, the passage may not seem to fit well with any of these. Sometimes the passage may be like a puzzle piece that doesn’t look like it has a place among the other pieces you’ve already assembled. Trying to force the piece to fit isn’t the best approach. But neither is giving up on the entire puzzle. Instead, you may need to set the piece aside for now. As you learn more and put together more of the puzzle, you may be able to better see how the pieces fit together.
It can also help to remember that in addition to being limited to a particular perspective, scriptural histories are subject to human error (see Articles of Faith 1:8). For example, over the centuries “many plain and precious things [were] taken away from the [Bible],” including important truths about doctrine and ordinances (1 Nephi 13:28; see also verses 29, 40). At the same time, we should be willing to admit that our own perspectives are also limited: there will always be things we don’t fully understand and questions we can’t yet answer.
Finding the Gems
But in the meantime, unanswered questions need not keep us from the precious gems of eternal truth that are found in the Old Testament—even if those gems are sometimes hidden in the rocky ground of troubling experiences and poor choices made by imperfect people. Perhaps the most precious of these gems are the stories and passages that testify of God’s love—especially those that point our minds toward the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Viewed from any angle, gems like these shine just as brightly today as they did back then. And because these accounts tell of the covenant people of God—men and women who had human weaknesses and yet loved and served the Lord—gems of truth abound in the historical books of the Old Testament.