A Thousand Years of Jewish History


I suspect that there are many who, like me, find daunting the twelve books that stretch from Joshua to Esther, between the Pentateuch and the Wisdom books.  And no wonder:  They cover more or less sequentially a thousand years of Jewish history, from about 1400 B.C. to about 400 B.C.  So perhaps an overview of this dozen, which also breaks them into smaller increments — mostly pairs — will be helpful.

Joshua and Judges cover the pre-monarchial period between Moses and Saul.  Joshua succeeds Moses as the Jewish leader and leads his people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land.  The subsequent leaders are known as “judges.”  These two books cover the period from about 1400 B.C. to 1100 B.C.

The six monarchical books are I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles.  Thus, they cover the period from the first king, Saul, to the defeat of the last Jewish king and the Babylonian captivity.  The greatest king was the second, David, and more is written about him than any of the others.  He and his predecessor Saul and his son and successor Solomon are the most consequential of the kings.  Saul became king in 1050 B.C. and the reign of the last Jewish king ends in 586 B.C.

Ezra and Nehemiah are post-monarchical and cover the return of the Jews (in three waves) to Jerusalem after their exile to Babylon.  These two books are closely bound together, both chronologically and thematically, and cover around a hundred years, from about 540 B.C. to about 440 B.C.

But wait, you say — that’s only ten books.  True enough, smart aleck, and the remaining two are Ruth and Esther, each of which is a stand-alone story about a particular woman rather than a general history, one coming near the beginning of the thousand years and the other coming at the end.  Ruth is a woman of more humble station, very close to poverty, while Esther becomes a queen; the latter’s story has more historical import.

There’s a pretty cool symmetry with these twelve books, by the way:  You have the six monarchical books in the middle (I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles); with three books in front of them, the third being a stand-alone book about a woman, Ruth; and three books after them, the third being another stand-alone book about a woman, this time Esther.

And there is also a cool symmetry in the rise and fall of the kingdom of Israel.  Consider these dates, all taken from a timeline in my NIV study Bible:  In 1406 B.C. “Hebrews enter Canaan” and in 586 B.C. “Judah (southern kingdom) falls to Babylon” (the northern kingdom had already fallen).  So that’s a period of 820 years from beginning to end.  The midpoint would be 996 B.C., which is right in the middle of David’s reign (he became king in 1010 B.C. and Solomon succeeded him in 970 B.C.) — which in turn might reasonably be considered the kingdom’s apex.

More Detail on the Six Monarchical Books

To get a sense of how the six monarchical books fit together, it helps to know in broad terms what happens, so here goes:  The Jews want a king, and God finally gives them one, Saul; Saul is succeeded by David, who is in turn succeeded by his son Solomon; the kingdom then splits in two (a northern kingdom, Israel; and a southern kingdom, Judah), each with its own series of kings, most of whom are, uh, problematic; and ultimately the northern kingdom is conquered by Assyria and, considerably later, the southern kingdom by Babylon.

The periods covered by each of the six books (hat tip to my NIV study Bible) are:

  • I Samuel (Eli and Samuel, the last two judges; Samuel and Saul, Saul and David — up to Saul’s defeat and death)
  • II Samuel (all David’s reign)
  • I Kings  (first part starts with Solomon becoming king and ends with his death; second part is “Revolt of the northern tribes”; “Kings of Israel and Judah”; “Elijah’s ministry”; and “Kings of Israel and Judah” — again)
  • II Kings  (first part is “The Divided Kingdom” — Elisha’s ministry, kings of Israel and Judah, and Israel is exiled to Assyria; and second part is “The Surviving Kingdom” — kings of Judah, and Judah is exiled to Babylon)
  • I Chronicles (first part is “Genealogies of Israel” — ancestry of the nation, the tribes of Israel, and returnees from exile in Babylon; second part is “The Reign of David”)
  • II Chronicles (first part is the reign of Solomon; and second part is the kingdom of Judah (“The northern kingdom, Israel, is virtually ignored in this history”))

Here’s the converse way to show how I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles fit together:

  • Pre-King David/King Saul:  I Samuel (Eli, Samuel, and Saul to his death); and I Chronicles (chapters 1-9 is a genealogy from Adam on, and chapter 10 is about the death of King Saul)
  • Reign of King David:  II Samuel (by the end of it, King David is getting older); and I Chronicles (chapters 10-29, from his becoming king to his arranging for Solomon to build the temple)
  • Reign of King Solomon:  I Kings (chapters 2-11; David dies after chapter 1); and II Chronicles (chapters 1-9, from the beginning of his reign to his death)
  • History of the divided kingdom:  I Kings (chapters 12-22) and II Kings (both the northern and southern kingdoms); and II Chronicles (chapters 10-36, really just the northern kingdom).

Because of the amount of material, and because of the fact that the books overlap, rather than attempt to summarize or analyze each book in the Samuel-Kings-Chronicles sequence, I’m instead going to offer four posts that cover the material this way:  (1) Saul and the run-up to his kingship; (2) David’s life and reign; (3) King Solomon; and (4) the divided kingdom.

Some Other Thoughts

  • When you think about it, the period from around 1500-500 B.C. was an interesting time in human history.  You need a civilization before God can work in the way He wants to work, namely by showing a community how to live, and it helps also if there is a written language.  And, in terms of geography in choosing a stage, where better than the crossroads that is the Promised Land?  So, in terms of God’s choice, the “when” and “where” make sense.
  • As to the “who” of God’s choice, let me make here a general remark on this history:  It is often — mostly? — unflattering to the Jews.  It is certainly a complex portrait, and one that is frequently counterintuitive.  It does not, in other words, read like manufactured fiction written to glorify a particular people.  Instead it sounds like someone trying to relate truth.
  • Here’s a handy timeline:  2000 B.C. was the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), 1500 B.C. was Moses, 1000 B.C. was David, and by 500 B.C. the temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt by the Jews returning from the Babylon captivity.  And of course 500 years after that is the birth of our Savior.