The Old Testament

The Old Testament writers span possibly 2,000 years and the events recorded encompass a much longer time period. Dates some of the books are thought to have been written have been included; in the case of the history books, the dates are those of the events referred to in the text.

Prehistory, Ancient History and Law

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”


The Creation
Genesis, the first book, introduces the idea of one God, the Creator: God created the Universe from nothing but his word: "and God said, ‘Let there be light,' and there was light.” After making the inorganic Universe he made the plants, marine life, birds land animals and finally humans: he made a man, then a woman. He looked at his creation, "and behold, it was very good”.

The "Fall"
God told Adam that all the plants were suitable food for him, except one specific tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam relayed this to Eve but later "the serpent” told her that they would not die but that the fruit would make them wise and like gods, so she ate it. Adam joined her and so both were expelled from the paradise-like Garden of Eden: he would have to work hard to produce food and would contend with thorns, she would have trouble with childbirth, and the "serpent” would now have to crawl along the ground. They started eating animals and wearing their skins. Later, their first son Cain killed his brother Abel then ran away.

The Flood and the first rainbow
Now the world was so bad that only Noah respected God. God decided to flood the whole world, but wanted to save Noah and his family. Noah built a huge waterproof vessel, the Ark, from God's specifications, and took samples of all animal life into it with him and his wife, his three sons, and their wives. Noah constantly warned everyone to turn from evil and join him in the ark, but they laughed at him. Once all were inside, God shut the door. Underground waters burst out and the rain sheeted down for 40 days and nights. Even the mountain tops were under water. The eight humans and all the animals stayed in the ark for a year. When they came out, there was a rainbow in the sky: God said it symbolised his promise that he would never destroy all life with a flood again. The descendants of Noah's three sons settled in different parts of the world and gave their names to the nations descended from them.

The Tower of Babel - the origin of different languages
The people of Babel started building a city with a tower, to try to become dominant. God said this was dangerous so he mixed up their language. They stopped building and dispersed across the land, taking their different languages with them.

Abraham and Sarah (BC 1900)
Abraham left Mesopotamia with his childless wife (and half-sister) Sarah at God's call to receive land promised to his descendants. After a long time, Sarah gave him her servant as a concubine to bear him a child (as was the custom) who bore Ishmael, but he was not the son promised by God. Sarah did have a son when she was very old, called Isaac. She threw Hagar and Ishmael out because they made her life a misery for years. God told Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham made the journey with Isaac but as he lifted the knife God stopped him and said he was satisfied - now he knew Abraham thought enough of him to give up his son.

Sodom and Gomorrah
God told Abraham he would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their terrible wickedness. Abraham pleaded for Sodom, saying there might be some good people there. God agreed to investigate. Two messengers visited Lot, Abraham's nephew, to take him and his family out of Sodom before it was destroyed. Lot protected them from a gang of men who wanted to rape them. Lot didn't want to leave but the messengers grabbed Lot, his wife and their two daughters and dragged them to safety in the hills. Lot's wife looked back as fire and brimstone rained down, and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters lived alone in a cave. The daughters wanted children and despaired of finding husbands, so they took turns in getting Lot drunk and got pregnant by him.

Isaac and Rebekah
When Abraham's son Isaac was forty he married his cousin Rebekah, and they had twins, Esau and Jacob: these were complete opposites, physically and in temperament. Esau was born first but Jacob wanted the firstborn's special blessing and rights: Esau didn't care and agreed to swap it for some of Jacob's lentil soup, but Jacob had to deceive Isaac (with his mother's help) when the time came, to actually get the blessing.

Jacob's family
Isaac sent Jacob to find a wife from his own people. He fell in love at first sight of Rachel, his cousin, but his uncle set the bride price at seven years' work for him. Jacob agreed and after seven years the wedding took place - next day he discovered he'd got her elder sister Leah instead! "We couldn't go against custom and marry off the younger one first. But don't worry, in a week I'll give you Rachel too, but you must work another seven years for me,” said his uncle Laban. Jacob agreed, but Laban constantly changed his wages. However, Jacob always had plenty. Laban became more hostile and in the end, Jacob gathered up his wives, children, possessions and animals and left suddenly. After this he spent a night wrestling with a stranger who then blessed him and renamed him Israel. He had twelve sons and a daughter by his two wives and their personal servants.

The Migration Into Egypt
Jacob's favourite son Joseph was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers whilst still a boy and taken to Egypt. There, because of his intelligence, integrity and ability to interpret dreams, and despite imprisonment on false charges, he rose to serve the Pharaoh and saved the whole country from famine. His brothers came to buy grain because of the famine. Joseph told them who he was, was reconciled to them and invited the whole family to live there.

Quotes from Genesis
1:29 And God said, "behold, I have given you every herb (vegetable) bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of the tree yielding seed: to you it shall be for meat (food).”
12:1-3 The Lord had said to Abraham, "Get out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you: and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great: and you will be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you, and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”


Slavery in Egypt (BC 1700 - 1250)
Jacob's descendants were still in Egypt when a new Pharaoh decided to make them into slaves. Later, he made their working conditions even worse. They begged God for release.

Moses's Rescue and Upbringing
The descendants of Jacob had proliferated so that Pharaoh got nervous, so he ordered baby boys to be killed, but the girls spared. When Moses was born, his mother hid him in a waterproof basket among the reeds along the Nile. His sister Miriam stood guard. Pharaoh's daughter decided on a dip at just this spot, found the baby and adopted him. Miriam offered to find a nursemaid and brought their own mother. So Moses spent his first forty years in Pharaoh's palace.

Moses's challenge to Pharaoh
When Moses was forty, he left Pharaoh's court to live in the desert for some years. Whilst there, God spoke to him, from a bush that was burning but did not burn up, to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for his people. Pharaoh refused. God sent different disasters and plagues on Egypt (see below) and each time Pharaoh refused. Finally God said, "I'm going to set you free.”

The Ten Plagues of Egypt
1. All water turned to blood: the court magicians imitated this
2. Frogs everywhere: the court magicians imitated this also
3. Gnats everywhere
4. Flies everywhere except Goshen, where the Israelites lived
At this point Pharaoh said he would allow them to leave for three days to make offerings, but then changed his mind.
5. Animals belonging to the Egyptians died
6. Boils on all the Egyptians
7. Heavy hail that killed anyone outside, except in Goshen
8. Locusts to finish off anything left after the other disasters
9. Complete darkness for three days, except in Goshen
10. The death of the firstborn in every house (see Passover, below)

The Passover and Exodus (BC 1250)
Moses told the Israelites that on a given night they must kill and roast a lamb or kid and put its blood on the lintel and door posts of their houses. The Angel of Death was to kill the firstborn in every house in Egypt but would pass over any house with the blood on the door. They must also bake bread without raising agent, then "borrow" from their Egyptian neighbours all the jewellery and valuables they could. They must pack their bags, eat the meal wearing their shoes and outdoor clothes, and leave immediately.

While the Egyptians mourned someone in every house, they made their escape eastwards. Pharaoh and his army soon chased after them, nearly trapping them at the Red Sea but a wind dried a path for them through the sea during the night. They passed through, the Egyptians hot on their heels. Then the wind dropped and the pursuing army was drowned. Passover is still celebrated every year for a week.

The Years in the Wilderness
The Israelites were led by Moses who followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They wandered in the desert for forty years because of disobedience to God. During this time, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law.

Laws about slaves
a Hebrew male slave must be freed in the seventh year with his wife and children if he was already married when he became a slave
a female slave is not set free in the same way as male slaves
if he came into service unmarried he may not take a wife with him or children, if his master gave him a wife while he was there
if he wants to stay for life, his master will pierce his ear: he will then not be freed in the seventh year
if the buyer intended to marry the female slave and changed his mind he must sell her back to her father
a female slave bought as the buyer's son's wife must be treated like a daughter
if a master beats his slave to death it is murder, but if he dies from his injuries after a few days his loss of property is punishment enough
if a slave is permanently damaged by his or her master, the slave to be freed

Laws about marriage
if a married man takes another wife the first must still have the same food, clothing and rights as before, or be set free without him getting compensation
if a man seduces or rapes an unbetrothed virgin he must pay the bride price for a virgin and marry her if her father allows it. He may never divorce her because he humiliated her

Laws about injuries
compensation for lost time to be paid for injuring someone in a fight if he recovers
if a woman suffers an early labour because of a fight near her, her husband to determine the punishment of the injurer and the court to set damages. If there is further hurt, the same injury to be inflicted on the one who did the injury

Laws about manslaughter and murder
Six cities were to be chosen. If someone killed another person accidentally he could run there and be safe from vengeful relatives. ‘Accidental' means that he did not mean to hurt him at all and did not push or hit him or use a weapon, e.g. an axe head flew off and killed him while they were chopping wood. The manslaughterer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. If the person intended harm to the dead person, it was murder: the victim's closest relative must kill him and not accept financial compensation instead.

Laws about livestock and property
a bull that gores someone to death to be stoned to death
the death penalty for an owner who knew the bull was dangerous and did nothing
compensation to be paid if the dead person was a slave
details about compensation in case of accidental death of livestock
stolen animals must be repaid 4 or 5 to 1 if killed, 2 to 1 if still alive
compensation for animals eating or fire destroying someone else's crops
laws about animals or property lost when in another person's possession

A change in inheritance law
Five sisters asked to inherit their father's land. Moses agreed that when a man had no son his daughter should inherit his property and after that other close male relatives. A woman with property must marry within her own tribe so that the property stayed within the right tribe.

Laws about justice and respect
treat immigrants well
treat the fatherless and widows well
do not charge interest on loans to the poor
do not speak evil of God
do not curse a leader of your people
killing a thief in your house at night is not murder, but it is during the day
do not spread false rumours
do not give false evidence, make false allegations, accept bribes or pervert justice
do not deny justice to the poor
help your enemies' animals if they are in trouble

Offences carrying the death penalty
Hitting or cursing a parent, abduction for sale or slavery, witchcraft, sex with an animal, sacrificing to other gods.

The seventh year
Don't cultivate your fields and the harvest to be taken by the poor and wild animals.

The seventh day (the Sabbath)
No work to be done at all: by free people, slaves, immigrants, visitors or animals.

The Golden Calf
God gave Moses the commandments written on stone while he was up Mount Sinai. When Moses returned, he found people had melted down their jewellery and made a calf shaped idol and were having an orgy. Moses was so angry he smashed the stone slabs on the ground. He ground the idol to dust and made them drink it in their water. Then he called out, "Who is on the Lord's side?” Those who joined him had to take swords and kill those who had taken part in the idolatry.

The making of the worship tent/the tent of God's Presence
Lengthy details of the worship tent and for worship are given in this last section. The people brought gifts of jewellery, good quality cloth, leather and wood. They were so enthusiastic that Moses had to tell them to stop giving.

The Ark of the Covenant
This was covered with gold inside and out and had carrying poles. Two golden figures of winged creatures were on top. It contained the two slabs of stone on which the ten commandments were written.

The anointing oil
The recipe for this is given: spices mixed with olive oil. This was for the priests to use in worship and anyone who imitates it will no longer be one of God's people.

The tent of God's Presence dedicated
When the tent of God's presence was set up, Moses put the special anointing oil on it and it was filled with a dazzling light. The cloud and fire that led them now stayed over the tent and only when it moved did they break camp and move on.


Regulations for offerings to God
salt must always be added
no raising agent or honey in the baked grain offerings
fat and blood belong to God and must not be eaten
the fire on the altar must not be allowed to go out
no part of an offering for an offence to be eaten
the meat and skin of a sacrificed animal belong to the officiating priest
cooked flour offerings belong to the officiating priest, uncooked to be shared among the priests
any animal offered must be perfect and not obtained from a foreigner

Different purposes of offerings
to thank God or maintain the relationship with him - must be brought in person
offerings for unintentional offences
offerings for perjury (a civil penalty also to be paid)
for touching something ‘unclean'
for falling behind in proportional gifts to God
for fraud, theft or refusal to return a deposit (120% compensation also to be paid)
for appointment as a priest
for a woman after childbirth
wave offerings for harvest thanksgivings

Regulations for priests
no alcohol to be consumed before entering the worship tent
food from grain offerings to be eaten in a holy place
food from other offerings to be eaten in a ‘clean' place with only their family and slaves
no mourning clothes to be worn, keep out of a house containing a dead body, only attend funerals of immediate family
may marry only a virgin from the tribe of Levi
no disabled or deformed person to present offerings, but they may eat them

Dietary regulations
land animals both with divided hooves and that chew the cud may be eaten, but no others
fish with fins and scales may be eaten, but no others
only insects that hop may be eaten
predatory and scavenging birds may not be eaten
rodents, lizards, bats, small creeping creatures may not be eaten
eating any animals that have died naturally is not recommended, and is forbidden for priests
no blood to be eaten because it contains the life, and purges sins

Hygiene regulations
hygienic precautions if the dead body of an ‘unclean' animal falls into food or drink or food equipment
hygienic precautions after touching the dead body of an ‘unclean' animal
skin problems to be examined by a priest: guidance on when quarantine required for a week or longer, whether to wash all the person's clothes, when to be re-examined
how a quarantined person is to warn others to stay clear
rituals and hygienic precautions when the skin problem clears up or stabilises
destruction of cloth or leather goods if covered with a dangerous growth
precautions to be taken for a growth on the walls of a building
hygienic precautions for bodily discharges
hygienic and ritual regulations after sex

Women after childbirth
son: must avoid holy things and places for a week until the circumcision, then unclean for 33 days
daughter: must avoid holy things and places for two weeks, then unclean for 66 days

The Day of Atonement
On this day the whole community of Israel had to go without food and not work. Once a year the high priest must go into the Holy of Holies, a place hidden behind a curtain in the worship tent or temple. He must bath and wear special clothes and make special sacrifices.

The scapegoat
There were two goats for the Day of Atonement: one was sacrificed to pay for offences against God. Over the head of the other, all the evil things done by the people during the year must be recited and the goat sent off into the desert, carrying their sins away.

Forbidden sexual practices
no sex with close relatives
do not marry your wife's sister while the first wife is still alive
no sex during the woman's period
no adultery
don't allow your children to be involved in worship of Molech1
no man to have sex with another man
no sex with animals
1practices not specified in this passage but often involved child sacrifice

Other laws
respect your parents and old people
observe the Sabbath
no worshipping idols
no making idols
observe the regulations for offerings and religious services
only gather crops once, carelessly. The remainder and corners are for immigrants and the poor to gather
no stealing or cheating
no lying: don't spread lies about people
no false promises
pay wages on time
don't curse deaf people, don't put an obstacle in front of a blind person
try court cases fairly
act as a witness for the defence if you know something and their life depends on it
don't take revenge or bear a grudge: love your neighbour as you love yourself
don't crossbreed animals, mix crops on the same patch or wear mixed fabrics
sex with another man's slave concubine requires a sacrifice but not the death sentence
don't eat a tree's fruit for the first three years: give the fourth year's as an offering
don't practice magic or witchcraft
don't cut your hair or body or take tattoos because you are mourning
don't consult mediums
treat immigrants as well as your own people
trade with accurate weights, measures and scales
if you kill someone else's animal, replace it
injuries and murders must be paid for by the same injury to the perpetrator
if a neighbour becomes poor lend him money interest free so he is not dispossessed

Offences carrying the death penalty
giving their child for Molech worship
cursing their parents
sex with another man's wife
homosexual acts
marrying a woman and her mother
sex with an animal
consulting spirits of the dead
cursing God

The festivals
The timing and offerings are given for the following festivals:
Passover, a week marking their release from slavery in Egypt
Harvest Festival1, for the beginning of harvest: a sheaf from the first field to be cut to be waved in God's presence
New Year's Day, a holiday
The Day of Atonement, a day praying and abstaining from food
Festival of Shelters (or Booths), a week at the end of harvest living in temporary shelters outside their houses to remember living in tents in the desert after the escape from Egypt
1also known as Pentecost, as it was 50 days after Passover

Years of restoration
During the seventh year:
do not cultivate your land
do not pick the grapes
all other crops may be harvested and will be enough for everyone
During the fiftieth year (the Jubilee):
all property to revert to its original owner or his descendants
all Israelite slaves to be set free
do not sow or harvest corn
do not gather grapes

Property laws
No one owns land outright, it belongs to God, therefore:
land sold to be valued according to the number of years' crops due until next Jubilee
the original owner retains the right to buy back his land
if the owner is too poor, a close relative may buy it back
houses in walled cities may be sold permanently: the right to buy back remains for a year
the city house of a descendent of Levi will revert at Jubilee
houses in villages to be treated as farm land in the Jubilee year

Laws about slaves
Israelites were owned by God and so could not be truly owned by another person
if an Israelite sells himself to you as a slave, only give him the work of an employee
a foreigner in the same position may become a slave and be inherited like property
an Israelite who is slave to a foreigner may be bought back, the price fixed according to the number of years until Jubilee
Rewards for keeping the laws
Plenty of crops, security from dangerous animals and war, plenty of children.

Punishments for breaking the laws
Incurable diseases, enemies eating their crops, occupation, fear, drought, famine, predators killing livestock and children, war, dispersion, the land left in ruins.

Restoration after the punishments
God will gather them again to their land, they will change their ways and be joined to God again.

Compensation for dedicated things
This book ends with a pricing system and regulations for buying back land, animals and people who have been dedicated to God.


A record of events during the desert wanderings. Includes the first census and who was eligible for military service (e.g. no one to be called up during the first year of marriage, except in an emergency). There are instructions for priests for investigating accusations, worship and the Annual Festivals: Passover, Harvest Festival, New Year, Day of Atonement, Festival of Shelters. Laws given include those relating to diet, and criminal and civil justice, including inheritance law and the cancellation of debts every seven years.

The separation of the Levites for God's service
God said all the firstborn sons and the firstborn of the animals were his but he would take the Levites (the tribe descended from Jacob's son Levi) instead. Their duties were to look after the worship tent (later the temple) and equipment.

The law about suspicious husbands
If a man suspected his wife of being unfaithful he could take her to the altar where the priest would mix water with dust from the floor. She had to take an oath that the water would only harm her if she had committed adultery, then drink it. If her stomach swelled and her genitals shrank she would be accused of adultery.

Nazarite dedication
Anyone could dedicate themself to God with this vow for life or for a limited period:
they didn't consume anything from the vine, or anything alcoholic
they didn't shave or cut their hair
at the end of the vow they took offerings, shaved off their hair and burnt it on the altar

Laws about offerings
These are covered in the section dealing with Leviticus (previous book).

Tassels with a blue cord in must be attached to all garments to remind them to keep the laws.

Manna and Quails
The people used to gather small white stuff from the ground, called manna, which they made bread from, but some complained that they missed the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt, and wanted meat. In the end, God said they'd have meat until they were sick of it. A wind blew a huge number of quails into the camp. The people caught and killed them, but those who had eaten the quails fell ill and many died.

Joshua and the Spies
Moses sent 12 men to look at the land they were returning to after 400 years. One was Joshua. When the spies returned, all said that the land was fertile but ten gave frightening reports of the defence systems and prowess of the inhabitants. However, Joshua and another, Caleb, assured them that the land was theirs for the taking if God was with them.

Poisonous Snakes and the Brass Snake
Poisonous snakes got into the camp and the people were dying. God made Moses form a snake from brass and put it up on a pole in the middle. If someone who had been bitten looked at the brass snake, they would recover.

Balaam's donkey
King Balak of Midian sent for Balaam to curse the Israelites because, he said, his blessings and curses always worked. God told Balaam he shouldn't curse them but he went anyway. However, Balaam's donkey kept stopping suddenly and each time Balaam hit it. Suddenly, the donkey asked Balaam why he had hit him when he had served him so well all his life. Then Balaam saw an angel with a drawn sword who said that the donkey had saved his life, and he must change what he was going to say. When he arrived he blessed Israel and foretold ruin for Midian and Amalek.

Various skirmishes on the way to their destination are recorded.

Quotes from Numbers
6:24 The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
14:7-8 And Joshua ... spoke to all the company of the children of Israel saying, "the land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us: a land which flows with milk and honey.”
23:19(Balaam said) God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man that he should repent; has he spoken and shall he not do it? or has he spoken and shall he not make it good?


This is a record of what Moses said to the people of Israel. At this time, judges had been appointed to help Moses settle disputes and keep law and order.

Inhabit the land
God had told them to occupy the land bordered by the Mediterranean, the Euphrates river, the Negev desert and the Lebanon mountains, and not be afraid of the inhabitants. But despite God looking after them in the desert, they didn't trust him to help them occupy it, so they had to spend another thirty-eight years in the desert until the unbelieving generation died. God helped them to completely annihilate the Amorites because they would not allow them through passage. As they advanced into their new territory God would drive out seven nations: they must completely wipe them out, then destroy all trace of their idol worship.

Keep God's laws
Moses warned the people of Israel to keep and obey all the laws God had given; not to take away from it or add to it. This would get them a reputation for wisdom. God had performed spectacular miracles to free them from slavery in Egypt because he loved their ancestors and wanted them to be his people. They must tell the story of this escape to their children down all the generations, and teach them to keep God's laws. But if they or their descendants worshipped idols they would be scattered throughout the world, there would only be a few left, and they would have manmade lifeless gods: even so, God could still be found if they searched wholeheartedly.

Forbidden practices
Once they were settled, there would be one temple in the place of God's choosing, and they must not copy the manner of worship of the surrounding nations: sacrificing their children, divining, observing omens, using spells and charms and consulting the dead. They must stone to death even their nearest and dearest if they incited them to idolatry.

In their new home
There would be all sorts of resources in their new home: they must never forget they had it because of God's power, not their own. Foreigners living with them must be treated well: they themselves had been foreigners in Egypt.

Recap on important laws
How to distinguish clean and unclean animals (which they might eat or touch)
A tenth of their earnings or produce to go to the temple, priests and very poor people
The cancellation of debts every seven years
The compulsory release of slaves after seven years with generous gifts
False accusation would bring on the slanderer the same penalty the alleged crime carried
No one to be held responsible for the crimes of family members
Also laws governing conduct during war, inheritance, premarital sex and adultery, who is considered an Israelite, charging interest, divorce, fair weights and measures

Blessings and Curses
Moses listed blessings and curses to be declared, when the people settled in their country, connected with obeying and ignoring God's law. Then he passed leadership to Joshua. The book ends with the Song of Moses, about God's protection, provision for his people and his justice.

Quotes from Deuteronomy
30:19-20I call heaven and earth to record against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live: that you may love the Lord your God, and that you may obey his voice, and that you may cleave to him.

Next section: Books about the time of the Judges (before the kings)
Previous section: Introduction and Index

Introduction and Index     Books of Moses     Books about the time of the Judges     History of the Era of the Kings      The Exile in Babylon     Songs and Wisdom     The Major Prophets     The Minor Prophets     The Gospels     Acts of the Apostles     Letters (Epistles) from Paul the Apostle     Letters (Epistles) from Other People     Revelation     Ten Commandments     Selection From Psalms     Selection From Proverbs     Jesus's teachings and sayings

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