Introduction to the Historical Books

Introduction to the Historical Books

Introduction to the Historical Books


The arrangement of the English Bible is based on the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). In this arrangement, Joshua through Esther are counted as historical books. For the most part, these historical books divide into two groups.

  • 1. The Deuteronomic History: Joshua through Kings (excluding Ruth)
  • 2. The Chronistic History: Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah
This arrangement differs from that of the Hebrew Bible, which counts the Deuteronomic History under the heading Former Prophets and includes Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles in "the other books" of The Writings. Ruth and Esther stand apart from these two edited histories both in modern scholarly discussions and in the Hebrew Bible, where they are included in the five Rolls. Because they are best studied separately from the other historical books, they will not be introduced here (see their introductions).

The Deuteronomic History is so called because Deuteronomy introduces the collection. Although the various works of this history were originally authored at different times (see the introductions to each of the books), the collection appears to have been edited as a unit shortly after 562 B.C., which is the latest date in Kings. This editorial work addressed a crisis of faith among the exiled Judeans who were living in servitude under king Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon at the time. To them it seemed as though God had forgotten his promises of an eternal land to Israel and an everlasting throne to David and his descendants.

The later collection, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, was edited as a unit for the Judeans who had been restored to the Promised Land after the Babylonian exile. Although they were back in the land and the line of David had survived, Judah was now but one of many provinces in the Persian Empire. These books gave hope and practical guidance to this dispirited community of returnees.

Both collections contain true history written by inspired authors that was subsequently finalized by inspired editors. Neither the writers nor the editors fabricated events. They cite their sources (Josh. 10:13; 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Kings 16:19; 1 Chron. 4:22; 5:17; 2 Chron. 9:29; Ezra 6:1-2) and followed a relentless chronological order. At the same time, it is apparent that each book and collection was written and edited for theological purposes, not simply to preserve a historical record.

The Deuteronomic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings).

Literary unity. The coupling of Joshua with Deuteronomy is especially convincing. For example, the Lord's promises and exhortations that introduce Joshua 1:1-9 consist entirely of expressions from Moses' speeches in Deuteronomy. Joshua 1:2 corresponds to Deuteronomy 10:11; Joshua 1:3-5 is a virtual quotation of Deuteronomy 11:23-25; Joshua 1:5-7, 9 largely repeats Deuteronomy 31:6-8, 23; Joshua 1:7-8 is reminiscent of a series of texts in Deuteronomy that identify that book as the "Book of the Law" and stress the importance of meditation and obedience (Deut. 5:32-33; 17:18-19; 30:10).

Likewise, Judges is linked with Joshua. After the introduction to Judges (Judges 1:2-2:5), its main body of material (Judges 2:6-16:31) is introduced by referring back to Joshua (Judges 2:6-10). In Judges, each episode and section in the book employs verbal repetition, historical paralleling and quotations from Joshua.

Samuel, in turn, is related to Judges. Judges prepares its audience for the establishment of the Davidic monarchy by raising the question of proper leadership and strongly affirming that God chose Judah, not Benjamin, to lead his nation. Samuel records the actual failure of Benjaminite kingship under Saul and the successful establishment of the Judahite monarchy under David. Even the refrain in Judges "in those days Israel had no king" might be applied to the early chapters of First Samuel prior to Saul's kingship. Finally, Samuel's summary treatment of the history of the judges (1 Sam. 12:9-11) sounds like an application of the editor's summary of that history (Judges 2:6-19).

Kings is so closely related to Samuel that some scholars see a common source running from 2 Samuel 9-20 through 1 Kings 2. In those chapters one finds a narrative treating, among other concerns, the succession to David's throne, beginning with the birth of Solomon and climaxing with his coronation.

Thematic unity. To meet the exiles' crisis of faith, several themes that are emphasized in Deuteronomy are featured throughout the rest of the Deuteronomic History.

First, Deuteronomy lays down a firm foundation for the office of prophet and provides the test of a true prophet, namely, that his words come to pass (Deut. 18:14-22). The distinct office of prophet is instituted in 1 Samuel 9. Jewish tradition, as noted above, was so impressed with the important role prophets played in the Deuteronomic History that they labeled it Former Prophets. Beyond this, many specific prophetic elements connect the books of this history. For example, Joshua's prophecy that whoever undertook to rebuild Jericho would do so at the cost of his firstborn (Josh. 6:26) is fulfilled in 1 Kings 16:34. Solomon interprets his reign and his building the Temple (1 Kings 8:20) as a fulfillment of the Lord's promise to David (2 Sam. 7:12-13). Kings reassures the exiles of the truth of the prophetic word that God would give his people an eternal land and throne.

Second, the concept of "covenant," so important in Deuteronomy, informs this entire history. On the divine side the focus is on promise. God swore to the patriarchs and their descendants that he would be their God and never forsake them (Deut. 4:31; 29:12-13; Josh. 1:6; Judges 2:1; 2 Kings 13:23). Out of his inscrutable love God chose Israel and obliged himself to give them the land he swore to the fathers. That promise, repeated about thirty times in Deuteronomy (e.g., Deut. 1:8; 34:4), is remembered in the rest of the history (e.g., Josh. 1:2; 24:13; Judges 1:2; 1 Kings 4:21; 8:34). On the human side the focus is on trust and obedience. Possession of the land, this history repeats again and again, depends on Israel's covenant faithfulness. The Lord's promises and Israel's obligations are featured in the sermons of its heroes such as Moses (Deut. 1-4, 5-11, 27-28), Joshua (Josh. 24:1-27), Samuel (1 Sam. 12) and David (1 Kings 2:1-4). The Lord clearly annunciates the conditions to Solomon with reference to kingship (1 Kings 9:1-9).

Israel's obligations are concentrated in the first two of the Ten Commandments: worship no other gods and do not make idols. Or, in the language of this history, the nation is to "love," "serve" and "hold fast to" the Lord, to "walk before him," to "follow him," and "not to forget him" (Deut. 6:5; Josh. 1:7, 8; 24:14, 15; Judges 2:6-10; 1 Sam. 12:20, 24; 1 Kings 2:4; 3:6; 8:23-25; 11:4-5). The command is fundamentally a matter of faith, not of strict obedience to an external code. For example, the particular commandments, such as worshiping only at Jerusalem, did not serve bureaucratic legalism but thwarted the temptation to idolatry. This history is not so much concerned with individual commands as with loyalty to God. Failure to obey specific commandments is symptomatic of a more pervasive problem, namely, disloyalty to God. God's election of Israel and his saving actions on its behalf constituted the relationship. Trust in the Lord derived from the bond God has already established. Joshua 1 exhibits the connection. The Lord had committed himself to Israel, and the land was theirs for the taking. They needed only trust (Josh. 1:1-9). On the other hand, if they failed to trust and so disobeyed the command to love God and put away other gods, then the guilty would be judged (Deut. 28; Josh. 24:19-20; Judges 2:10-15; 1 Sam. 12:5-15; 2 Kings 17:7-20). The key question raised by the exiles in Babylon is articulated in Deuteronomy 29:24 and 1 Kings 9:8: "Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?" This history answers unambiguously: "God did not fail; Israel failed." Nevertheless, God's promises are everlasting (Deut. 30:1-9; Judges 2:1; 1 Sam. 12:22; 2 Sam. 7:16).

Third, Deuteronomy also lays down a firm foundation for kingship and its regulation (Deut. 17:14-20). Israel's merciful and faithful God is an endless source of blessing, even though the people have been faithless (Deut. 9:4-6). In spite of Israel's sin, the compassionate God takes new initiatives and raises up leaders in times of crisis: Joshua, the judges, Saul and finally the house of David. His covenant with David's house, like all covenants with Israel, invariably moves the Kingdom of God forward but presents conditions that regulate participation in that Kingdom. God will continue to raise up a "son" in the house of David, but he will discipline unfaithful ones (2 Sam. 7:14-16). The history ends with sinful king Jehoiakin in exile; nevertheless, he is elevated to a seat of honor higher than those of other captive kings in Babylon. That glimmer of hope will not be extinguished but shine ever brighter until the coming of the greater Son of David, the true Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Finally, the theme of repentance in this history rests on God's eternal promises (Deut. 4:29-31; Josh. 7; Judges 2:18; 2 Sam. 12:13; 1 Kings 8:46-51). The hope of relief from divine judgment, even returning to God's blessings once the judgment of exile occurs, is repentance (Deut. 30:1-10; 1 Kings 8:58). Thus John the Baptist and Jesus came offering the Kingdom of God to all who repent (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; note that repentance is a gift of God, 2 Tim 2:24-26).

The Chronistic History (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah)

As noted in the introduction to Ezra, Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book. Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are linked together as a connected piece of literature by introducing the latter with the conclusion of the former (2 Chron. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-3). In addition, the two works share many of the same religious interests and ideology. For example, they describe the preparation for building the first and second Temples in parallel ways (1 Chron. 22:2, 4, 15; 2 Chron. 2:9, 15-16; Ezra 3:7); both Temples are endowed by the heads of ancestral houses (1 Chron. 26:26; Ezra 2:68); both show great interest in sacred vessels (1 Chron. 28:13-19; 2 Chron. 5:1; Ezra 1:7; 7:19; 8:25-30, 33-34); and both present the order of sacrifices (2 Chron. 2:4; 8:13; Ezra 3:4-6) and the enumeration of sacrificial materials (1 Chron. 29:21; 2 Chron. 29:21, 32; Ezra 6:9, 17; 7:17, 22; 8:35-36) in practically identical ways. Just as the Deuteronomic history consists of distinct books edited into a common history, this postexilic history is composed by locking disparate works together.

This later group of works covers much the same ground as the Deuteronomic History but continues beyond the point at which the first concludes to take in the constitution of Israel after the exile. Whereas the former is based primarily on Deuteronomy, this history is based on the entire Pentateuch, tracing its history back to Adam. It centers, however, on Israel's history from the First Temple period to the Second, the latter anticipated in the final verses of Chronicles and narrated fully in Ezra 1-6.

Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were written to encourage the dispirited Judeans after exile. These books reminded the people of their glorious heritage in the Davidic dynasty and the Temple. The history taught the returnees that they had to keep covenant and repent of their sins (2 Chron. 7:14). Nevertheless, it did not focus on failure but featured the greatness of David's dynasty and the glory of the Temple. David is depicted as the founder of Israel's worship, those kings who restored Israel's liturgy after dark periods of disorder and neglect are singled out for special attention: Hezekiah following Ahaz, and Josiah following on Manasseh and Amon, serve as models to the Judeans who survived the dark chaos of the Babylonian exile. Following these emphases, the New Testament presents Jesus as the rightful and perfect heir of David's covenant (Matt. 1:1; 22:42; Luke 1:31-33) and the One in whom the Temple is fulfilled (John 2:19-22; Rev. 21:22). Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Related Resources:

Overview of the Book of Joshua
Overview of the Book of Judges
Overview of the Book of Ruth
Overview of the Book of 1 Samuel
Overview of the Book of 2 Samuel
Overview of the Book of 1 Kings
Overview of the Book of 2 Kings
Overview of the Book of 1 Chronicles
Overview of the Book of 2 Chronicles
Overview of the Book of Ezra
Overview of the Book of Nehemiah
Overview of the Book of Esther

Articles on the Historical Books
Q&A on the Historical Books
Sermons on the Historical Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.