This is part five of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
One of the popular stereotypical views of the Bible is that it’s a collection of dull historical writings, and worse, not even accurate historical writings. The answer to this view and concern is multi-sided: much of the Bible is indeed historical in nature, though its narrative purpose is not usually simply to report names and dates and events, and pre-modern historical writings are of a sharply different nature than the modern historical writing style.
Just over half of the books of the Bible could be read as if they were historical narrative accounts of past events, dates, and persons. However, of these, many of them have a different purpose or focus than simply relating history. The Torah, for example, contains much historical material, but is presented subordinate to the purpose of explaining the covenant God made with his people through Moses. Events leading up to, and surrounding, the giving of that covenant were important to include to fill out the greater picture, but that also indicates to the reader that one should not attempt to study those writings as if they were purely historical.
Even the books that are primarily about history do so with a particular emphasis and perspective. Where modern historical writing tends to prefer objectivity in perspective, attention to chronological order, and accounting for social movements and trends that provide a larger view of the historical subject, pre-modern historical writings can be quite different. Written more like a story, ancient histories like those found in the Bible unapologetically speak from a specific perspective, tweak the minor details and even chronological sequence of events in order to make a point, and ignore other seemingly-important factors that are deemed outside the scope of the written work. This is especially important for the reader of the Old Testament to understand. Israel and Judah were very small and generally inconsequential states in the ancient Middle East, yet the Scriptures that speak of their history give almost no information about the large neighboring kingdoms empires except when direct confrontation (usually invasion) takes place. The premiere examples of historical books in the Bible are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Luke, and Acts.
Joshua is the book that focuses on the story of Joshua, the successor of Moses, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land and led their armies to conquer the local populations who had descended into the most heinous forms of idolatry, including child sacrifice. The book begins at a slower place, describing individual battles and cities at first, but then speeds up through time, describing the conquest of whole regions in shorter and shorter sections. A lengthy portion of the book also describes the boundaries set between the twelve tribes – making for dull reading for the Christian today, perhaps, but giving vital geo-political information against which the details of later inter-tribal squabbles can be better understood.
Judges the book that summarizes the centuries between Joshua’s life and the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. A “judge” in this book is a leader, sort of like a federal President appointed by God to organize the twelve tribes together for a limited time. Perhaps summarizing this period of history through a symbolic number, a total of twelve such judges are named, though some receive considerably more attention in the book than others. The final chapters of this book contain additional stories and incidents that are meant to illustrate the spiritual low to which Israel had fallen during this period. Indeed the entire book is written with a negative view, making periodic references to their lack of a good king to lead them.
Ruth is a very short book telling a single story about an Israelite widow, named Naomi, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. It takes place during the later portion of the Judges history and is steeped in cultural references that are difficult to understand without familiarity with Law (Torah). Its purpose, within Old Testament history, is largely to give a prelude and backstory to King David and his family. The significance of this for Christian readers is extended to the fact that King David was also the kingly prototype for Jesus, as well as one of his ancestors along with the characters in Ruth.
1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings are a set of books that tell the history of Israel and Judah from the transition from tribal judges to the monarchy under King Saul (1 Samuel), then the monarchy under King David (2 Samuel), then the monarchy under King Solomon and the following couple centuries until the final conquest of Jerusalem in 586BC (1 & 2 Kings). In some traditions these four books are named 1 through 4 Kingdoms, noting their continual narrative. Throughout these books, the actions of various kings are overtly evaluated and judged by the author as good or bad, faithful or faithless, clearly making this a religious history, not a political history – events that a modern historian might consider more important may hardly get mentioned in these books, or at least get described in very different ways.
None of these books have identified authors, editors, or compilers, as is the case with several other Old Testament books. Ancient tradition, such as found in the Jewish Talmud, posit that Joshua, Samuel, and Jeremiah authored these books, though we have no way of confirming these theories.
In the New Testament, each of the Gospel books are historical in nature, though more strictly speaking are a sort of carefully constructed biography. Of the four, the one most apparently chronological in writing style is Luke’s Gospel book. Matthew, Mark, and John each have distinct structures and purposes in their Gospel books; Luke simply opens his book stating his desire to “compile a narrative” and “write an orderly account… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (1:1-4).
Saint Luke also wrote a sequel to his Gospel, which we call The Acts of the Apostles. That book begins with the ascension of Jesus, overlapping with the end his Gospel, and then spends roughly half its pages following Saint Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Judah, and the second half following Saint Paul’s ministry across the Mediterranean world. Taken together, Luke and Acts give us a beginning nearly two years before Jesus’ birth and ending with the preaching of the Gospel in the very heart of the Roman Empire – Rome itself. The progression from mysterious prophecy and promise to the advance of the Gospel across the known world shows us the power and triumph of Christ over the powers of this world.
So reading the historical material in the Bible should never, for the Christian, be merely a matter of learning past names, dates, and events. Rather, we see the story of God’s work unfolding through time. This witnesses to God’s constancy, faithfulness, order, purposeful will, and ultimate victory and providence over all. These are not stories for us to memorize and moralize; this is the story in which we are to find and place our own.