A New Guide to the Old Testament – Setting

A New Guide to the Old TestamentAs we begin to look at the Old Testament, it is important for us to keep in mind the setting of the Old Testament. Setting involves characters, location, and time (answering the who, where, and when questions). Just like other forms of literature, the Old Testament is a product of its setting; in order to best understand the Old Testament, we must understand the setting.

Much of the following will be further explained in future posts; for now it is important for us to be on the same page before we look further into the Old Testament.

Characters

The Old Testament focuses on the nation of Israel. This group of people trace their lineage back to founding fathers Abraham (Genesis 12) and Jacob (Genesis 28). Returning from Egypt, Israel conquered some land in Canaan and established a kingdom of tribes. Both kingdoms would be conquered by strong Mesopotamian empires1, and the people would be exiled. Some exiles would return to Canaan and reestablish several cities.

Additional characters found in the Old Testament include several nations serving as antagonists2. Another type of character is the gentile convert to Israel (Rahab and Ruth come to mind.).

Location

The narrative in the Old Testament takes place in the Middle East, with a majority of it dealing with the land of Canaan. Bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the Jordan river—running to the Dead Sea—to the east, this territory was fertile and an agreeable place for a nation to settle down. Serving as a land bridge between two continents3, Canaan was a hotly-contested territory for rising empires in the region; many sought control of Israel to use as a buffer between continents. The land of Canaan is where Abraham was told to settle by God (Genesis 12). When Israel returns from Egypt, they conquer and settle in Canaan. As the kingdom flourished, the city of Jerusalem becomes the capital and center for worship; it remains the capital for the Southern kingdom until its conquest by Babylon (2 Kings 24). Those returning to Canaan after exile settled in a rebuilt Jerusalem (Ezra/Nehemiah).

Aside from Canaan, additional parts of the Old Testament are set in the Mesopotamian region of the Middle East. This region is a very fertile region, nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This is the region from where Abraham was first called (Genesis 11). It also served as the location for both the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Many Israelites were relocated to cities here during the exile (2 Kings 24)

A final setting for the Old Testament is the land of Egypt. Located in the northeast corner of Africa, this land is supported by the river Nile. According to the Old Testament, the descendants of Jacob initially fled to Egypt to survive a famine; several hundred years later God rescued them from their captivity as Egypt’s slaves. Egypt also makes an appearance later in the Old Testament, as Jeremiah and others go there after the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 43).

Time Period

The Old Testament covers a sizable time period—over 1500 years! While dates can become unreliable—especially when dealing with what happened over 4,000 years ago—we can surmise approximate time periods for the biblical narratives. We will divide the Old Testament dating into three time periods.

Patriarchs

The first time period, which we will call the patriarchs, stretches from 2000–1600 BCE. This period covers Abraham through Jacob and the move to Egypt. Abraham and his family were typical for Canaan and the Middle East—nomadic tribes of shepherds. To put in perspective, by this time Egypt is already gone through a dozen dynasties, and the pyramids at Giza are centuries old.

Kingdom

The second time period deals with the conquest of the land and development of the kingdom, which would span 1400–600 BCE.
Cities are becoming more developed, as are the empires of Egypt and Assyria/Babylon. The use of iron was becoming more prevalent, but at times is withheld from Israel by enemies (1 Samuel 13).

Exile & Return

The third time period surrounds the exile and return to Jerusalem. The fall of both kingdoms took place in several waves; for this guide I will use a single date to mark the falls of the Northern (722 BCE) and Southern (586 BCE) kingdoms. Likewise, the return to Jerusalem occurred in successive waves, with Nehemiah serving as governor around 445 BCE.

For More Information

If you would like more information on the setting of the Old Testament, a good study Bible will be a great start—providing detailed maps, insightful introductions to each book, and notes throughout the text. An atlas or an Old Testament introduction can also provide insight into the setting of a certain text. I have found John Walton to be particularly helpful when dealing with matters of Old Testament context and setting; his one-volume Bible Background Commentary would be the next step for anyone wanting to go a bit deeper into the setting of the Old Testament.


  1. Northern kingdom by Assyria in 722 BCE, and the Southern kingdom by Babylon in 586 BCE. 

  2. Egypt in Exodus, Philistia in Samuel, and Assyria in Kings 

  3. Asia and Africa, with a close connection to Europe just to the north. 

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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