This article is concerned solely with a summary of the Bible’s contents, book by book. Concerning the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God . Concerning the formation of the Bible and the organization of its contents .
Human sin and divine salvation
The first book of the Bible, Genesis (meaning ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’), opens with a brief account of the creation of the world, chiefly as an introduction to the story of the people who live in the world. From the beginning people failed repeatedly, but God still loved them and initiated a plan for their salvation. He chose Abraham, a man from Mesopotamia, promising to make of him a nation, to give that nation the land of Canaan as a homeland, and to use that nation as his channel of blessing to the world. Genesis traces the growth of Abraham’s descendants over the next two or three centuries, and closes with them settling down as a distinct and unified people in Egypt. These events mark the beginning of the nation Israel.
Over the next four centuries the Israelites so increased their numbers that the Egyptian rulers considered them a threat and made them slaves of the government. The book of Exodus (meaning ‘a going out’) records how Moses became the Israelites’ leader, overthrew the oppressors and led his people out of Egypt (about 1280 BC). His intention was to lead them to a new homeland in Canaan, but first he took them to Mt Sinai, where they formally became God’s people in a covenant ceremony. Then, over the next year, they organized themselves according to the laws God gave them for the new life that lay ahead. Many of these laws are recorded in the latter part of Exodus and in the next book, Leviticus (named after the Israelite tribe Levi, which had special responsibilities in religious affairs).
The book of Numbers takes its name from two census that Moses conducted in preparation for the move into Canaan. The book contains further laws, along with details of arrangements for the journey. But the people rebelled against God, and their entrance into Canaan was delayed forty years as a punishment. During this time most adults of the rebellious generation died and a new generation grew up. When the time drew near to enter Canaan, Moses repeated, and in some ways expanded and up-dated, the law for the new generation. The book that records this renewed instruction in the law is called Deuteronomy, meaning ‘second law’.
Israel established in Canaan
Moses died before Israel entered Canaan, and his chief assistant, Joshua, became the nation’s new leader. The book of Joshua records how Israel under Joshua conquered Canaan and divided the land among its twelve tribes.
During the following generations the people of Israel became increasingly rebellious against God. The book of Judges shows how they copied foreign religious practices and as a result brought God’s judgment upon themselves, usually in the form of invasions from hostile neighbours. Israel had no central government, but when the people cried to God for help he provided specially gifted leaders from among them. These leaders were called judges, because they carried out God’s judgment upon Israel’s enemies and administered justice in local disputes. But among the ungodly people as a whole some remained faithful, and the story of one such family is recorded in the book of Ruth.
In an effort to improve national stability, the people decided to establish a monarchy. Their spiritual leader at this time, Samuel, advised against this, for the cause of their troubles was not their system of government, but their ungodliness. The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel, with the result that Israel gained its first king, Saul (1050 BC). He was a failure, and the story of events leading to and including his reign is recorded in the book of 1 Samuel.
The book of 2 Samuel records the reign of the next king, David, who was a strong and godly king, in spite of some mistakes. He established a dynasty through which God promised to bring a messiah-king who would be the saviour of the world.
The nation divided
Solomon succeeded David, and the history of the Israelite kingdom from his time onwards is recorded in 1 and 2 Kings. Solomon spent much of his time developing the national capital Jerusalem, but in the process he treated his people harshly and created widespread unrest. When he died, the ten tribes to the north and east of Jerusalem broke away and formed their own monarchy. They still called themselves Israel and, after some early temporary arrangements, established their capital in Samaria. The two tribes to the south remained loyal to the dynasty of David, whose kings continued to reign in Jerusalem. The southern kingdom became known as Judah, after its leading tribe.
Throughout the time of the divided kingdom, Israel and Judah had conflict with neighbouring countries, and sometimes with each other. Political, social and religious conditions steadily worsened, though a minority of people always remained true to God. Out of these, God chose some to be his messengers to his people. They condemned the people for their sin, warned them of judgment and instructed them in righteousness. They were known as prophets, and some of their writings have been collected and grouped together in a separate section of the Old Testament.
Captivity and return
As the prophets had warned, both parts of the divided kingdom were eventually destroyed. The northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria in 722 BC and its people taken captive into various parts of the Assyrian Empire. A little over a century later, Assyria was conquered by Babylon, who then advanced into the Palestine region. In a series of attacks starting in 605 BC, Babylon overpowered Judah and took its people into captivity, finally destroying Jerusalem in 587 BC.
The book of 1 Chronicles contains a shorter and parallel account of 1 and 2 Samuel, and the book of 2 Chronicles a shorter and parallel account of 1 and 2 Kings. But the books of Chronicles were written much later, after the kingdoms and Israel and Judah had been destroyed and the people were in captivity. A chronicle is an orderly record of events, and the books of Chronicles helped preserve national history and family records, in order to help those who were to re-establish the nation after the captivity.
When Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC, the king of Persia quickly gave permission for captive peoples to return to their homelands. As a result captive Israelites returned to their land and set to work rebuilding Jerusalem. No longer was there a division between north and south. However, since most of those who returned were from the former southern kingdom Judah, the name Jew (short for Judean) soon became a name for Israelites in general.
The story of this reconstruction of Israel is told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were two of the more prominent leaders in post-captivity Israel. The book of Esther gives a glimpse of Jewish life in Persia during the same period. The three books cover a period of about one hundred years, and with them the historical section of the Old Testament comes to a close.
Wisdom teachers and song writers
In the arrangement of books in the English Bible, the historical books are followed by a group of five books that are largely poetical. The largest of these books is Psalms, which is a collection of 150 songs and poems that express the writers’ feelings during their varied experiences. David wrote about half the psalms, but many of the authors are unknown.
Three of the books belong to a category of Hebrew literature known as wisdom literature. Wisdom teachers examined life’s affairs with the aim of teaching people how to live rightly. The book of Job consists mainly of a debate between Job and his friends about the problem of human suffering. The book of Proverbs, as its name indicates, is a collection of wise sayings, the majority of which are from Solomon. Ecclesiastes (meaning ‘the teacher’ or ‘the philosopher’) is concerned with the search for a meaning to life.
The remaining book in this group, the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), is neither a psalm nor a wisdom writing. It is a collection of love poems that recount the exchanges of love between a young man and a young woman.
Words of the prophets
The final section of the Old Testament consists of writings from the prophets. These were preachers who brought God’s message to his people during the periods of the monarchy, the captivity and the later reconstruction of Israel. Each book, except for Lamentations, is named after the person who wrote it. Isaiah and Jeremiah were probably the two most important prophets and their books are the longest. Isaiah belonged to the time of the divided kingdom and was concerned mainly with Judah. Jeremiah preached during the forty years leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The book of Lamentations reflects the suffering of the Judeans at the hands of the Babylonians. Ezekiel and Daniel were among those Jerusalemites taken captive to Babylon, but whereas Ezekiel lived in one of the workers’ camps, Daniel was taken into the palace and trained to be an administrator.
The twelve prophets who follow are usually called the Minor Prophets, not because they were less important than the previous four (usually called the Major Prophets), but because their books are shorter. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah all belong to the period that began with the division of the kingdom and ended with the captivity in Babylon. The final three, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, belong to the period of Israel’s reconstruction after the captivity, as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.
At the time the Old Testament story closes, Israel was back in its land but still under foreign rule, namely, the rule of Persia. When the Persians fell to the expanding power of the Greek Empire (334-331 BC), the Jews came under Greek rule. Several generations later, through persistent fighting during the years 165-143 BC, the Jews regained their independence. But in 63 BC they lost this independence to Rome, and were still under Roman rule when Jesus Christ was born.
Jesus and the early Christians
The books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, known as the four Gospels, are concerned with the life and teaching of Jesus. They do not provide a detailed record of his life, but deal mainly with the three years or so leading up to and including his death and resurrection. At times the writers record the same events, but always in a way that is fitted to their separate purposes and the needs of those for whom they write.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the apostles and other enthusiastic Christians spread the message of his salvation. This is recorded in the book of Acts, sometimes called the Acts of the Apostles. Much of the first half of the book is concerned with the work of Peter, John and others who worked in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. The second half of the book is concerned largely with the work of Paul, who made three main missionary journeys through Asia Minor and Greece and eventually reached Rome.
Letters from Christian leaders
Much of the rest of the New Testament consists of letters written by leading Christians of the first century. These have been arranged in sections. First are letters that Paul wrote to various churches in the course of his missionary activity. The letters are named after the churches to whom they were written and are arranged in order of length. The letters are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
Following Paul’s letters to churches are the letters he wrote to individuals. They are named after the people to whom they were written and likewise are arranged in order of length. The group consists of two letters to Timothy, one to Titus and one to Philemon.
The next group consists of eight letters that come from five writers. An unknown author wrote a letter (known as Hebrews) to Jewish Christians who were tempted to give up their belief in Jesus and go back to Judaism. The other seven letters are named after their authors. James the brother of Jesus wrote one, Peter the apostle wrote two, John the apostle wrote three, and Jude (probably another brother of Jesus) wrote one.
At the end of the New Testament is the book of Revelation. Although it contains letters written to churches, it is different in style from all the other books of the New Testament. Through a series of visions, God gave a revelation to the writer, who then passed it on to persecuted Christians. The message is that Jesus is still in control and the final victory of his people is certain.