THE FORMATIONAL ERA OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Formational Era of the Old Testament is time when God is forming the nation of Israel. The Formation of Israel begins in Genesis chapter 12 with the calling of Abram. The story is carried through in the remainder of the book of Genesis, then on through the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua up until the death of Joshua is Joshua chapter 24, covering a time period of about 715 years. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy augment the story and include Israel’s constitution. In the remainder of this paper, I want to explore what the Scriptures have to teach us about this key time in the history of Israel.
In Genesis Chapter 12, in approximately the year 2090 B.C., God called Abram out of the land of Ur for the second time (Acts 7:2-4 record the first call of Abram) and into the land that God would show him. In Genesis 12:2, God promises to make Abram into a great nation. In order to become a nation, three things are required: land, laws, and people. The remainder of the book of Genesis is the story of how God began making Abram’s family into a great nation. The first step for God was to multiply Abram’s descendants.
Throughout Genesis 12-23, the adventures and misadventures of Abram (renamed Abraham in chapter 17:5) are recorded for us. Hebrews 11:8 tells us that Abraham didn’t know exactly where God was leading him, but in faith, Abraham followed after God. The story begins with Abraham leaving Ur with several family members and traveling to Haran. After several years there and after his after died, Abraham traveled to Canaan, where he confirmed his covenant with the Lord. The records of Abraham’s covenant with the Lord are recorded in Genesis 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; and 22:15-18.
In the Abrahamic Covenant, Abraham was made several everlasting and unconditional promises by God. Abraham was promised personal blessings from the Lord. He would be made into a great nation, have a huge multitude of descendants, and prosper materially. All of these promises have been literally fulfilled. Abraham was also promised blessings to his descendants through the lines of Isaac and Jacob. These descendants were promised greatness as a nation and a land of their own (the Promised Land, see map below). Not all of this promise has been fulfilled, though as with all of God’s promises, we can trust that they will certainly be fulfilled. The last aspect of the covenant was a blessing made to all the families of the earth. This has been fulfilled and will continue to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16).
After reconfirming his covenant with the Lord, Abraham’s journey continues. He traveled through Canaan and down to Egypt, eventually returning to Canaan. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael (born of the concubine, Hagar), and the child of promise, Isaac, and then other sons with his new wife after his wife, Sarah, passed away. Through Isaac God continued to fulfill his promises to Abraham. Isaac’s story is relatively brief and is contained in chapters 24-26.
Isaac had twin sons, born to his wife, Rebekah, named Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:24). God selected Jacob to be the child through who the covenant promises would be fulfilled. In Genesis 32:28, the Lord changed Jacob’s name to Israel and blessed him. Twelve sons and one daughter were born to Jacob, they would become the twelve tribes of Israel. Their names were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin; and the daughter, Dinah.
The grand story of the Old Testament shifts in Genesis chapter 37 to Jacob’s son, Joseph. Joseph, the spoiled second youngest son, was hated by his ten older brothers. They conspired against Joseph and sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:2). Joseph became a slave in Egypt and eventually became the second ruler in Egypt (Genesis 41:46). When a famine struck all the lands of the Middle East, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. They did not recognize their brother, whether because he was twenty years older now, or because he looked so much like an Egyptian at that point, we don’t know. After messing with his brothers a little bit, Joseph reconciled with them and the entire family of Israel ended up moving down into Egypt.
In Egypt, God continued to work out his plan and fulfill his covenant with Abraham. When the Israelites moved down to Egypt in Genesis 46, there were approximately 75 of them. By Exodus chapter 1, the population of the Israelites had grown into a nation of around 2.5 million people. It was now time for God to continue the fulfillment of his promise to make them into a great nation by moving them out of the land of Egypt and into the Promised Land. He began this process through the man, Moses in the book of Exodus, eventually finishing it through Moses assistant, Joshua in the book of Joshua.
The book of Exodus records how God supernaturally delivered Israel from the bonds of slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law. The story begins with the birth of Moses and his growing up in the palace of Pharaoh. After the murder of an Egyptian, Moses runs away into the wilderness of Midian and lives there for 40 years. Finally, Moses receiveed a call from God (Exodus 3:2-4:23) and instructions to go to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. Moses returned to Egypt and confronts Pharaoh, and eventually after ten supernatural plagues are exacted upon Egypt, the Israelites are allowed to leave. Pharaoh’s heart was then hardened once again against Israel and he pursued them to the Red Sea. There God delivered the people again by parting the sea to allow them to cross and then released the waters upon Pharaoh’s army, killing them.
Exodus 20 begins the record of the giving of the law. God had already fulfilled the first requirement of a nation by multiplying Abraham’s descendants into a nation. Next, the nation needed laws to live by. Through the end of Exodus, the book of Leviticus, and the book of Deuteronomy, God lays out Israel’s 613 commandments, all the laws by which the people were to live.
The book of Numbers carries the story forward as the nation of Israel is forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. God’s plan had been for them to travel straight into the Promised Land after the giving of the law to begin its conquest. However, the people disobeyed God and grumbled against him after 10 of the 12 spies sent into the land brought back a bad report, claiming that Israel could never defeat the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 13-14). The people conspired against Moses and intended to return to the land of Egypt. God punished them for their unbelief and sent them to wander in the wilderness until all of that generation had perished save Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who had believed God and told the rest that they should obey God and move into the land.
At the end of the wandering, Moses passed the mantel of leadership, with God’s blessing, to his assistant, Joshua. Moses died never having set foot in the Promised Land because of his own disobedience toward God (Deuteronomy 34).
Joshua, then, prepared the people to enter the Promised Land and begin its conquest. The book of Joshua was the record of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land and the dividing up of the land among the twelve tribes. However, it should be noted that because of Israel’s disobedience, they never did conquer all the land (see map below) that God promised to them. To this day, that part of the covenant has remained unfulfilled. However, in the coming Kingdom, Israel will have all God has promised them.
At the end of the book of Joshua, and with the death of Joshua, Israel’s formative years were finished.
The Promised Land
Benware, Paul N. Survey of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1993.
 Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1993), 23.
 Benware, pg. 23.