An overview of the prevailing theological themes of the Old Testament.
Colloquial approaches to the Old Testament (OT) abound in cultivating the notion that there is not much in the way of connective tissue fastening together the myriad of accounts and anecdotes which comprise the OT other than the caricatured version of the Hebrew God who is bearded and grumpy. Indeed, the casual reader of OT Scripture is dead set on cherry-picking the most discomfiting passages they can find in order to corroborate their claim of the OT’s cantankerous deity. But such claims are not only groundless when measured against the mass of OT Scripture — but are also utterly unsuccessful in grasping the OT’s prevailing essence. Namely, that the entire meta-narrative of OT history serves to divulge humanity’s ultimate deliverer. “The Historical Books,” attests D. I. Block, “are primarily concerned with the character and role of God.” Such is what, Block goes on to say, “represents the only thread that ties together all these books.”1
By the time the pre-monarchial period begins, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are well-embedded into Israelite life. The blurred promise of one who would be born to make things right continues to stimulate Israel’s worship of Yahweh. Further stoking their reliance on him, however, are the innumerable conflicts with which Israel engages as they are led into the land of promise. Such is what the book of Joshua records. Throughout its exegetically and theologically complex narrative, Joshua insists on exposing Yahweh’s covenantal faithfulness, belaboring the point which was made throughout the Pentateuch: that God is predisposed towards reconciliation. (Josh 21:43–45) This is brought to light in ways both brilliant and savage. “Joshua,” L. D. Hawk writes, “is a richly provocative text, presenting many daunting challenges to its interpreters.”2 As one reads of victory after victory for the people of Israel, one is also compelled to come to grips with the theological ethics of conquest. (Josh 6:21; 8:28–29; 10:16–27; 11:7–8) But notwithstanding one’s initial consternation at the blood drawn by Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land, one cannot elude the prevailing substance of what is furnished by Joshua’s catalog of Israel’s triumphs in battle. That is to say that what was paradigmatic of the campaigns of Israel when they crossed the Jordan was the divine presence (Josh 1:6–9; 5:13–15) and assurance (Josh 8:1–2; 10:8; 11:6) with which they engaged in each conflict.
However, notwithstanding the hope offered by Israel’s nationhood and covenantal renewal (Josh 8:30–35; 24:1–28), as seen in the narrative of Joshua, humanity’s proclivity for sin and rebellion thrusts upon them an era of spiritual, moral, and national decline. It is thus that as the books of Judges and Ruth begin, one is able to ascertain strands of the covenantal threads of Pentateuch only in their inverse. Juxtaposed against Yahweh’s presence with Israel during Joshua’s leadership is Yahweh’s absence in the aftermath of Joshua’s death. Successive generations forget Yahweh and “the works he had done for Israel.” (Jgs 2:10) Such is what spurs not only Israel’s collapse but also God’s righteous indignation. (Jgs 2:11–15) Yet even as Israel abandoned the God of their fathers, their fathers’ God did not abandon them, raising up judges who were sent to save them from their oppressors. (Jgs 2:16) But hopes for restoration through the line of judges are quickly dashed, with Israel continuing headstrong in the path of rebellion. (Jgs 2:17–19) Indeed, the foreground of Judges is brimming with devastation, with “Israel’s ‘saviors’ becom[ing] increasingly monstrous or tragic.”3
The agonizing tragedies of the judges are contrasted by the staid affections of Ruth, a book whose composition is not necessarily more covenantal than Judges — but it is more hopeful. The inverted lens of the covenant is stunningly displayed by Ruth the Moabitess, who, as an outsider, cunningly demonstrates a better example of covenantal faithfulness than anyone before her in the time of the judges. Ruth’s marriage to Boaz is remarkable not only because it was a union which ran fundamentally opposed to Yahweh’s covenantal restrictions, but also because the blessings which emanate from this union are indicative that God’s covenantal promises extend beyond national recognition. Indeed, what was suggested by Judges is furthered by Ruth: that Israel is desperate for one who would come and conclusively establish a peaceful kingdom. Ruth’s embryonic hope suggests, though, that Israel not only needs a king — they need a kinsman redeemer. (Ruth 2:12; 3:9; 4:10–14)
Whereas Judges concludes with the ominous proclamation that “there was no king in Israel” (Jgs 21:25), 1 and 2 Samuel afford one with a decisive look at the consequence of Israel realizing her desperation for kingship. From the beginning of 1 Samuel, it is clear that Israel’s national instability teeters on the edge of ruin. Rather than a local judge, therefore, Israel clamors for a king — a national, unifying figure which they perceive would bring respectability and profitability among the surrounding kingdoms. (1 Sam 8:19–20) Despite the prophet Samuel’s hesitancy to acquiesce to their protests (1 Sam 8:10–18), Israel is eventually granted their wish, with Saul of Benjamin selected as Israel’s inaugural king. (1 Sam 10:17–24) What becomes evident, however, is that Israel cannot save itself by mere selection. Israel’s burgeoning expectation that restoration is correspondent to kingship is allowed to germinate until they are made to realize that no king of their own making has ultimate ameliorative power. Such is why, as B. T. Arnold suggests, the books of Samuel contain “both positive and negative attitudes toward the concept of kingship.”4
The rest of 1 and 2 Samuel is comprised of explorations of these positive and negative conceptions of kingship, most predominantly through the royal figures of Saul and David. The reigns of the first two monarchs of Israel could not be more at odds with each other, as each epitomizes the antipodal outcomes of kingship itself. Saul’s ruinous reign is contrasted with David’s exemplary leadership. One is able to most clearly identify this contrast in the diverging trajectories of their lives. From a place of promise and potential, Saul’s rule is decimated by his own hubris (1 Sam 16:14; 18:8–9), culminating in a blatant refusal of the prescribed means of divine counsel in his consultation with the medium of Endor. (1 Sam. 28:7)
The melancholy conclusion to Saul’s reign gives way to the anthemic rule of King David, whose reign was typified by a consistent reliance “on the prophetic word of Yahweh.”5 (1 Sam 22:10; 23:2, 4; 30:7–8; 2 Sam 2:1; 5:23) It is this inclination which becomes archetypal for the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel, with David upheld as “all that Saul should have been.”6 Saul’s failure to deliver Israel from the hands of her most formidable enemies, the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16), stands in stark contrast to David’s triumph over Goliath and the Philistine army. (1 Sam 17:52–53) Likewise, Saul’s stunted reign is further distinguished from David’s as one reads of Yahweh’s covenant that the Davidic dynasty would “be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:11–16) It is this covenant, writes J. J. M. Roberts, that “formalized the elevation of David as the anointed king of the God of Jacob as an enduring appointment that would be passed on in perpetuity to David’s descendants.”7
Even still, God’s trademark during the united monarchy is yet to be grasped — because despite God’s covenantal commitment to David, David’s résumé is not without abhorrent failure. (2 Sam 10—12) As the scandal with Bathsheba and Uriah is exposed, so, too, is Yahweh’s penchant for mercy. Unlike Saul, God was not going to turn away from David. Yahweh is steadfastly, graciously committed to the Davidic kingdom despite the sin of David or his successors. Accordingly, the sinewy compassion of God serves to demonstrate that notwithstanding the moral repute or infamy of her king, Israel’s true Great King is none other than Yahweh himself. (1 Sam 4:4; cf. Ex 15:18; Num 23:21; Dt 33:2–5) More than any other monarch, Israel was desperate for him.
This, however, does not hinder Israel’s penchant for kingship. Rather, she intensifies her desire to elect kings of her own choosing. As David, Israel’s “ideal king,”8 passes aways and leaves his throne to Solomon, a swelling tension begins to grip the monarchy. David’s exemplary standard for kingship spiritually and militarily is rivaled only by Solomon’s political and economic prowess. (1 Sam 10:23–25) Unfortunately, he is unable to achieve the monarchial success and longevity of his father, with the closing years of his reign “marked by political decline, economic instability, and moral decay,”9 precipitating the eventual fracture of the kingdoms. (1 Kgs 12:15–17; 2 Chr 10:16–17) Thus, Israel’s era of a unified monarchy ends “where it began, with the Hebrew tribes in disarray and clamoring for new leadership.”10
As the northern and southern entities scramble to establish themselves as legitimate powers, any remaining hopes for the covenantal promises of the Pentateuch are all but lost. Sin and sedition ravage the kingdoms. “What should have been the story of a United Kingdom under God,” J. G. McConville comments, “becomes that of two kingdoms, divided even by religion and often at war, such that the meaning of the name of ‘Israel’ is itself called into doubt.”11 Both records of the Kings and Chronicles suggest that as Israel grapples with a disheveled identity, her disorder was not accidental but, rather, was intentional. The annals of faith and failure as seen in the kings of Israel and Judah provide a preponderance of evidence of humanity’s catastrophic failure at ruling himself well. (1 Kgs 14:22–24; 2 Chr 21:11)
Such, then, is the impetus behind the books of the Kings and Chronicles, which serve to advance a theological purpose behind the disaster and disarray with which Israel was inflicted. Namely, to demonstrate that the one unchangeable feature of Israel’s entire history, from Yahweh’s initial Abrahamic promise to her postexilic existence, is Yahweh’s inimitable faithfulness to Israel despite her profligate rebellion. Such is what reveals the heart of God. Through ways more or less opaque, one is made to see throughout the history of the OT that God’s congeniality in dealing with mankind is his most innate characteristic.
D. I. Block, “God,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 337.
L. D. Hawk, “Book of Joshua,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 563.
L. G. Stone, “Book of Judges,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 604.
B. T. Arnold, “Books of Samuel,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 867.
J. J. M. Roberts, “Davidic Covenant,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 207.
A. E. Hill, “History of Israel 3: United Monarchy,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 450.
J. G. McConville, “Books of Kings,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, edited by Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 627.