The Big Picture Story of the Old Testament

In this excerpt adapted from the November/December issue of Bible Study Magazine, Stephen G. Dempster, author of Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible, provides a big-picture overview of the story of the Old Testament.

 

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One of the problems in reading a large book is that it is easy to get so lost in the mass of details that you don’t get a sense of the big picture, the grand plot that connects all those details into one coherent story.

This is the case with many people’s understanding of the Old Testament. They are familiar with most of the stories such as Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, Gideon and the fleece, Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones. But the details don’t fit into a larger pattern for them; nor do they point to a definite goal.

The rule of God

When Jesus looked at the Old Testament, he was very much aware of all its stories; but he saw where they pointed: toward the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. This kingdom was uppermost in his mind. His whole message could be summed up in the concise sentence, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!” He saw his own ministry as the dawning of this coming kingdom. In fact, he encouraged his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!”

The story of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is thus all about the coming kingdom of God, which essentially means the rule of God on earth. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth—and wished to establish his rule on the earth.

The Old Testament is all about the coming kingdom of God

Creation

God creates human beings to be his image-bearers and his kings and queens over the creation. Their dominion is to be the entire earth and their dynastic line the whole human race. They are to love and serve each other, and they are to serve the rest of creation by helping it flourish under their just reign. Working together in obedience to the divine Word, they are to fill the universe with more human beings and extend that rule throughout the world.

God lives in covenant with the first couple, and it is through a covenant that the kingdom is realized: human beings in harmony with their Creator, each other, and the natural world. Some theologians call this the “covenant of creation.” Life and blessing flourish as the first humans live in the immediate presence of God.

Creation: Life and blessing flourish as the first humans live in the immediate presence of God.

Fall

But covenants require faithfulness, and this covenant is broken as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. An anti‐God creature, a serpent, deceives the human beings and entices them to rebel against their Creator. As a result, they lose their connection with their Creator, with each other, and with the natural world. Death and curse now dominate, and exile from the presence of God becomes the norm.

Banished from the life‐giving divine presence, all hell breaks loose on the earth. Adam and Eve’s firstborn son murders their second-born child. A member of the seventh generation from Adam boasts to his two wives of killing a child. Human life spirals into chaos and violence. The reality is that the serpent now rules the creation.

Fall: All hell breaks loose on the earth . . .

Redemption

But God does not give up on his creation. He provides a way so that his kingdom can be reestablished.

He promises a descendant, someone who will conquer the serpent, reverse the conditions of the curse, and bring in his kingdom. But he doesn’t do it all at once. As God used a covenant at creation to establish his kingdom in the world, he continues to use it—and he reaffirms it. The serpent’s kingdom resulted in all hell breaking loose in the world, making it a place of violence and death. But God preserves his chosen seed through a genealogical line beginning with a new son of Adam and Eve: Seth. And this line eventually produces a child named Noah, who is chosen by God to save the world.

Redemption: God does not give up on his creation

Noah

Since the world has become so violent, God decides to “reboot” his creation. He makes a covenant with Noah, a reaffirmation of the creation covenant in Genesis. He purifies the earth of violence and evil by declaring war on the creation with a destructive deluge. Noah and his ark become the means of saving the creation, providing a place of refuge and safety and salvation for the chosen seed and the animal creation. The sign of the covenant is the rainbow, which means that God has tossed his warbow aside, giving the earth stability so that he can provide a foundation for the working out of his salvific plan for the world—through the seed of Noah.

Abraham

God now calls out Abram and Sarai and makes a covenant with them so that through their seed the entire world may experience blessing. The sign of this covenant—circumcision—stresses the fact that this salvation will come through a descendant. This act points to the supernatural character of the seed because Abram becomes a father at the age of 100 and his wife Sarai at 90. The sign of circumcision also points to death: something in the person must be cut off, or die, to participate in the covenant. What has to die is a trust in oneself and one’s own resources.

Moses

As Abram’s family grows, they go down to Egypt, where they increase into a large population of national proportions. There, though, the Egyptians begin to oppress them. But God does not forget the covenant he made with Abram. He sends a deliverer, Moses, for the Israelites. As Noah delivered the world with an ark, Moses is saved by an ark as a baby—and this presages Moses’s saving of his people from the water through their miraculous deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea.

After the exodus, God makes another covenant with the people of Israel, this time as a nation. They are to embody the kingship of God to the world and to represent God to the world through the enactment of just laws and a just rule. By obedience to these laws, the people will flourish and be a light to the world. They will prophetically proclaim the coming kingdom. By disobedience, the people will experience curse, death, and exile.

Joshua and the judges

Abraham had been promised a new land, and his descendants in fact acquire this land by bringing God’s judgment down on the Canaanites in the book of Joshua. But after initial success, the people forget the covenant. God sends them “judges” to help them, and as long as each judge lives, they experience relative success. But when the judge dies, they spiral down further into an immoral abyss.

Saul

The judges are not ultimately able to save God’s chosen seed, and when they fail, the people cry out for a human king to help them. God gives them the king of their dreams in Saul, a Mr. Israel, a head taller than all other Israelites, someone who proves his mettle in battle.

David

But Saul also proves a failure because of disobedience, and he is supplanted by a lowly shepherd, David—God’s new choice to lead his people. God makes a covenant with David: David will always have a descendant on the throne of Israel, and eventually, this descendant will rule the world and reverse the curse.

Here it is becoming clear who the seed promised to Eve will be. David suffered much before he became king, and he suffers even more because of his own sins. Thus as the dynasty moves down through the generations and each new king is crowned, the question raised is, “Is this the one who is to come, or do we look for another?”

The prophets

Yet from the ashes of exile, there remains hope in the Davidic covenant. The covenant is still intact despite the disobedience of the people. The prophets look to the future, a time when—they predict—a coming Davidic ruler will bring a new world order, bringing peace to both the human and natural worlds. Isaiah sees a tender shoot arising from the “stump of Jesse,” whose Spirit-saturated presence will be the agent of this transformation. Ezekiel envisions the coming of this new David as someone who will sprinkle Israel and cleanse the people from their sins.

The new covenant

All this takes the form of a new covenant, where God will solve the problem of disobedience by forgiveness and by circumcising hearts. That is, he will give people a new nature that will delight in doing the will of God. This will come about through a royal figure who will leave his exalted throne to atone for the sins of the world.

Jesus

This figure of a royal servant who does the will of God by suffering comes to expression in the life of Jesus Christ, whose sole goal is to serve his heavenly Father and who dies as a sacrifice to atone for not only the sins of Israel but for the world. He is raised from death and exalted at the right hand of the Father, where he will reign until he defeats the last enemy. It is he who establishes the new covenant with his disciples to bring to fruition the prophets’ hopes for the coming of the kingdom. 

Christ is raised from death and exalted at the right hand of the Father, where he will reign until he defeats the last enemy.

Christ is raised from death and exalted at the right hand of the Father, where he will reign until he defeats the last enemy.

In the present time Christ issues marching orders to his disciples to go into all the world announcing this new kingdom, where there is forgiveness and new spiritual power through his Spirit poured out from on high. All authority and power is now given to Jesus, and his disciples live in the power of the new kingdom that has broken into the old kingdom of the serpent. The decisive victory has taken place, and now all creation waits for the consummation of the new world order.

The kingdom comes

Thus the kingdom is realized through the succession of these covenants, finally reaching fulfillment in the new covenant as human beings through Jesus Christ retake their positions as kings and queens of creation. But the kingdom is not here in all its fullness. There is still death, and the power of sin is at work in disease, famine, natural disasters, and demonic deception and possession.

V-E Day

Oscar Cullman, a Lutheran theologian, used an illustration to capture the difference between the kingdom, present and future. In World War II, the Allied forces effectively guaranteed victory when they landed their forces on the beaches of France in Normandy on June 6, 1944. This event was called D‐Day. But the war did not actually end until May 10, 1945, V‐E Day. Hitler did not surrender on D‐Day, because he wanted to wreak as much damage as possible.

With Christ’s death, resurrection, and gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a cosmic D‐Day has occurred. The disciples of Christ are sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of the kingdom—forgiveness and amnesty and reconciliation for all. The reason why V‐E Day has not yet arrived is the fact that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. When the cosmic V‐E Day arrives, disciples from every nation and tribe will take their place as kings and queens ruling over a transformed creation forever and ever.

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This excerpt about the big-picture story of the Bible is adapted from the November/December issue of Bible Study Magazine.

Stephen G. Dempster is an emeritus professor at Crandall University. He holds degrees from the University of Western Ontario, Westminster Theological Seminary, and the University of Toronto.

 

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