One thing that often confuses people when they begin to read through the Bible is that it isn’t in chronological order! The Bible is arranged somewhat in “chunks” – sometimes the ‘chunks’ are chronological within themselves, and sometimes they’re not! [Stephanie did a great job charting out the general “genre” divisions of the Bible for us on Monday, so you might want to peek back at that post for reference.]
The first main division of the Bible is often called the “Pentateuch” – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These 5 books form the foundation for the rest of Scripture, and they were all written by Moses. The narrative of these five books does occur in chronological order – although Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are composed primarily of law.
This Pentateuch Timeline gives you the dates, chapters, and general sequence of events.
The next “chunk” also continues in chronological order. The Israelites enter the promised land under the leadership of Joshua and the tribes begin to settle into their allotted lands. For many years they have no human king (Israel should have been a theocracy under the Kingship of God Himself and guided by godly priests). They did not remain faithful to God and began to be oppressed by their enemies, a consequence God warned them would come if they disobeyed. After being oppressed the people would cry out to God and He would provide a “judge” or deliverer, and then the cycle would repeat. Sadly, throughout the time of the Judges (which is also the time period of the book of Ruth) Israel fell further and further away from God and became largely ignorant of the law.
Eventually the people demanded a king – the prophet Samuel first anointed Saul, who was later rejected by God for his faithless disobedience. David was then anointed and his son Solomon followed him. Unfortunately Solomon’s son Rehoboam foolishly oppressed the people and ended up causing the nation to split into two – the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, known as Judah.
This is when the timeline of the Bible gets very, very confusing! David and Solomon both wrote extensively, and their writings compose the majority of the books of Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. (These books are often known as the “wisdom books.”) The books of 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, and 1st and 2nd Chronicles all record the history of the kings of both Israel and Judah. Also during this time period, God was sending prophets to both Israel and to Judah to call them to repentance and warn them of the judgment and exile they would face if they continued to disobey. Eventually both kingdoms were conquered and carried into exile, and God sent additional prophets to His people in captivity to remind them of the law, of the reasons for their exile, and that He was still in control. These books of history, prophecy, and wisdom literature are all contained in different “chunks” of the Old Testament, but they all overlap chronologically. This timeline lays out the history and time periods well.
About 400 years after Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, had written God’s message to the people God Himself entered the story. Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem as foretold by the prophets, turned the nation upside down with His message – the narrative accounts of Jesus’ life are contained in “The Gospels” – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books cover the same time period from slightly different vantage points. After Jesus’ resurrection, His disciples continued to spread the good news of Jesus’ identity as the long-awaited Messiah – the book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel and the forming of local churches.
After these churches began to be established throughout the Roman empire, they needed more teaching – much of the teaching given to them is recorded for us in the “epistles” – letters written to individual churches. The epistles are not organized chronologically, either – the letters written by Paul (the “Pauline epistles”) are included first, arranged from longest (1 Corinthians) to shortest (Philemon). Next come the “general epistles” – letters written by anyone other than Paul! These are also arranged from longest (Hebrews) to shortest (Jude).
Revelation is obviously in it’s correct chronological sequence, as it records the end of the story!
Keeping the overall timeline of the Bible in mind is very helpful to me as I read and study, and I hope it will be for you, also! If you’d like to read the Bible in chronological sequence, a chronological Bible can come in very handy – I enjoy reading the Gospels in chronological sequence, and it adds further depth of meaning to read individual Psalms placed at the correct time in the narrative when most scholars believe they were written. Kathy Howard also has a great free resource on her website – it’s a daily Bible reading plan that guides you through different passages to put the Biblical story in chronological order.
Dig in, friends – what a story we are privileged to explore!