Reading the Old Testament can be daunting, especially if you don’t have much context for what this collection of ancient books is all about. To help readers better understand the Old Testament without getting lost, here are quick summaries of each book.
I point out when each book’s events take place, how they fit into the overarching story, and what key themes or lessons they focus on. I’ve also included brief descriptions of the larger sections of the Old Testament (law, history, writings, and prophets) that you’ll encounter as you go along.
You could read these summaries one at a time as quick introductions before reading a biblical book for yourself, or you can skim through the whole list to get a better idea of the “big picture” storyline of the Old Testament.
I’ve followed the order in English Protestant Bibles, all dates are (very!) approximate, and feedback is welcomed in the comments below. Let me know if you find this helpful or have suggestions for making it better!
Without further ado, here is
Every book of the Old Testament in a nutshell:
The first five books were originally one collection, called the Torah (or “teaching”) of Moses. These books served as Israel’s constitution, laying out the history of its founding fathers and describing the nation’s laws, values, and mission in the world.
Genesis – The book of beginnings. Chapters 1-11 tell the story of the creation of the world and the fall of humanity in the far distant past. The rest of the Bible is all about how God will fix the problem of human sin and rebellion and restore blessing to the world he made. Chapters 12-50 then tell the history of Abraham and his family line, from around 2200-1800 BC. This is the story of Israel’s earliest ancestors and the promises God made to them, as well as how they ended up in Egypt. Genesis also highlights God’s role as the Creator and Judge of all.
Exodus – The account of how God raised up Moses to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt in 1446 BC, and of the special covenant relationship he made with the nation at Mount Sinai that same year. Exodus reveals how God acts powerfully to redeem his people from bondage, and how he desires to dwell with us. It also introduces Moses, who is the key figure in the Torah.
Leviticus – Relates the laws God gave the nation of Israel through Moses so that, by following them, they could be his holy nation to bless the world. Leviticus also contains the rules for making proper sacrifices so that Israel could have a relationship with God despite their sins. Because God is holy, his people are to be holy as well.
Numbers – Tells of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years after they rebelled against God and failed to enter the promised land (1446-1406 BC). Numbers stresses the importance of persevering in faith, and warns of the danger of falling back into unbelief.
Deuteronomy – Records the final speech given by Moses just before his death, as the Israelites are about to enter the promised land of Canaan. Moses calls the people to renew their covenant relationship with the Lord, reiterates the laws they are to follow in the land, and tells a prophecy of God’s faithfulness despite their sure future rebellion. This book calls everyone to be devoted to the Lord with all their heart.
The next seven books tell the history of Israel from the time they entered the land of Canaan, through their growth into a mighty kingdom and subsequent spiritual decline, and down to the time of their exile from the land (1406 BC all the way to 586 BC).
Joshua – Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads the Israelites into the land and defeats the Canaanite armies (1406 BC). The second half of the book records the settlement of the tribes of Israel in the land. The main theme is God’s faithfulness in keeping his end of the covenant.
Judges – Covers roughly the next 300 years, when the people are living in the land as a league of tribes (1400-1100 BC). The Israelites continually abandon God and get conquered by foreign nations, but God sends champions called judges to save them. The book emphasizes how dangerous it is for people to abandon God’s truth and seek to follow whatever seems right to them.
Ruth – Takes place during the time of the judges. Tells the story of a foreign widow named Ruth who, because of her faith, found a place in Israel and ended up becoming the ancestor of David, the future king of Israel! In addition to revealing more about David’s lineage, Ruth also illustrates the importance of showing kindness and loyalty to others.
1 Samuel – Covers the transition period from the time of the judges to when Israel became a monarchy (1100-1010 BC). Under the ministry of the prophet Samuel, Saul is anointed the first king of Israel. But after Saul exhibits repeated failures of faith, God raises up a new champion: David. A key theme of the book is that while people judge by outward appearances, God judges based on what’s in the heart.
2 Samuel – Covers the reign of King David (1010-970 BC). Tells of David’s victories (like establishing Jerusalem as the capital) as well as his failures (including adultery and civil war). Also records God’s promise that David’s royal lineage will continue forever – an important promise concerning the Messiah.
1 Kings – The first half covers the reign of David’s son, Solomon, who ushered in a golden age of prosperity, built the Jerusalem Temple, and promoted wisdom & education in Israel (970-931 BC). But after Solomon later turns to pagan gods, God takes half the kingdom away from Solomon’s heir, and Israel is split into northern and southern kingdoms. The second half of the book covers the early part of the divided kingdom and the ministry of the prophet Elijah (930-852 BC).
2 Kings – Covers the rest of the divided kingdom’s history until the time of the Babylonian exile (852-586 BC.). Israel and Judah’s kings are evaluated by whether or not they remain loyal to God’s covenant as established in the Torah of Moses, and most of them are wicked. Many prophets minister during this time, warning the people to repent of their idolatry and sins before it’s too late – but to no avail. Judgment arrives when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem in 586 BC and take its people into exile.
The next five historical books continue to tell Israel’s history from the perspective of the exile.
1 Chronicles – Originally one book, 1 & 2 Chronicles retells the entire story of Israel with a special focus on David’s family line as the heirs of God’s promises. After giving the lineages of the nation, 1 Chronicles covers the reign of David in particular.
2 Chronicles – Retells the history of David’s heirs, from Solomon to the exile. Focuses especially on the Jerusalem Temple and on the successes of David’s line. Chronicles was meant as an encouragement to the Jewish people living after the exile that God’s promises to David would endure.
Ezra – Covers the Jewish people’s return from exile under the Persian king Cyrus in 538 BC, down through the time when Ezra the scribe begins to lead the returnees in Judah in 458 BC. Ezra promotes spiritual reform among the people, who needed to rededicate themselves to their covenant relationship with God.
Nehemiah – Tells of the courageous leadership of Nehemiah, who led the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem after the return from exile (444-432 BC). Once the city is secure again, Nehemiah and Ezra lead the people in a covenant-renewal ceremony.
Esther – Tells of the experience of Jews who remained dispersed outside the land of Judah when the Persian Empire was at its height (486-485 BC). A Jewish girl named Esther is chosen to be the wife of the Persian King Xerxes and leads a daring rescue of her people from an attempted genocide. Even though God is never directly mentioned in the book, it still shows his faithfulness behind-the-scenes as the Jewish people are preserved.
Next come the poetic & wisdom books. These are writings that thoughtfully reflect on key themes from Israel’s history and on God’s relationship with his people and the world.
Job – Set during the time of Israel’s ancient patriarchs, but tells a timeless drama about a righteous man who suffers unjustly. Job explores two very complex and ever-relevant questions: How can God be just when there is undeserved suffering in the world, and is he worthy of worship even if he doesn’t bless us? These ideas are pondered in the form of a poetic debate between Job and his friends as they wrestle with why Job is suffering.
Psalms – A collection of songs and prayers from throughout Israel’s history, composed by various poets (especially King David, but also numerous others) and collected after the exile. The book of Psalms serves to instruct God’s people on how to pray and praise God as they look forward to the coming of the ultimate heir of David, the Messiah.
Proverbs – A collection of wise sayings, most of which were written by King Solomon (970-930 BC). Other proverbs and teachings on wisdom were added later, and the final book was likely published during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (715-686 BC). Proverbs explains what godly wisdom is and how God’s people can prosper by it. It teaches us that there are really only two kinds of people in life: wise people who revere the Lord, and are ultimately blessed; or foolish people who ignore God, and will ultimately suffer for it.
Ecclesiastes – A philosophical reflection associated with Solomon’s later life (around 940-930 BC). Contemplates the difficulty of finding any satisfying meaning in our fallen world, and examines the many absurdities of life to test the limits of human wisdom. Pessimistic in parts, but ultimately concludes on a hopeful note: While meaning is hard to find by human effort alone, life can be significant when lived in right relationship with God.
Song of Solomon – A love song (or collection of love songs) that celebrate the joys of the marriage covenant and human sexuality as reflections of God’s wisdom in creation.
Next up are the “major” prophets (major not in terms of importance, but because their books are longer, more developed literary works). Each of these books is a collection of the sermons that each prophet preached to the people of Israel.
Isaiah – Preached to the southern kingdom of Judah in 740-690 BC. Isaiah warns the people that they are guilty of breaking the Torah, worshiping idols, and mistreating the poor and needy. He predicts the coming of exile in Babylon, but also foretells how the Lord will afterward restore Jerusalem in a future “new exodus.” Not only that, but God will bring blessing to Israel and the nations through his Servant-King, the Messiah, the heir of David. Isaiah is famous for his prophecies of the Messiah’s future birth (7:14; 9:1-7) and sacrificial death (52:13-53:12).
Jeremiah – Preached to the southern kingdom of Judah just before and during the Babylonian invasion (627-580 BC). Jeremiah has traditionally been called “the weeping prophet” – the people strongly opposed his message, often locking him in prison, and he tells of his emotional struggles with the pressure of his prophetic calling. Even so, he bravely denounced the Jewish leaders for taking God for granted. Jeremiah is famous for foretelling that after God judged his people, he would one day make a new covenant with them and put his law in their hearts (31:31-34).
Lamentations – A bit of an interlude in the major prophets, this short poem is a funeral song lamenting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC. It was probably composed by Jeremiah, which is why it is placed here in the biblical canon. Lamentations is a beautifully-arranged work of Hebrew poetry that gives voice to the anguish of God’s people over their sin and judgment, while also reminding readers that God will remain faithful to his covenant promises in spite of our great failures – “for his mercies never end; they are new every morning” (3:22-23).
Ezekiel – This prophet ministered from Babylon shortly before the fall of Jerusalem and then during the exile (593-571 BC). He received powerful visions of the Lord’s glory leaving the Temple and tried to warn the people that judgment for their sins was imminent. Other memorable scenes in the book include his visions of the cherubim and the Lord’s glory (1-2); of the valley of dry bones coming back to life, symbolizing Israel’s restoration and the pouring-out of God’s Holy Spirit (36-37); and of a future, restored Temple (40-48).
Daniel – Tells the life story of a Jewish youth named Daniel who was taken to Babylon, where he rose to prominence because of his godly wisdom (605-530 BC). Chapters 1-6 recount the life-story of Daniel and his friends as they navigate the difficulties of life in exile in a pagan land, while chapters 7-12 tell of visions Daniel received late in his life concerning God’s future plans for Israel. These last chapters are very crucial for the entire story of the Bible, since they lay out the timeline counting down to Israel’s restoration.
The Old Testament concludes with the twelve “minor prophets.” This was originally one collection in Hebrew, called “The Book of the Twelve.”
Hosea – One of the earliest of the writing prophets, along with Amos. Preached to the northern kingdom of Israel (750s to 720s BC). This prophet is famous for being commanded by God to marry an unfaithful wife (who became a prostitute) as a living metaphor for Israel’s own unfaithfulness to God. Contains one of Jesus’ favorite verses to quote: Hosea 6:6 – “For I desire faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Joel – No one knows for sure when Joel ministered, but his message is fiery and powerful nonetheless! He warned God’s people that a day of judgment was coming – the “Day of the Lord” – and he symbolized the coming judgment as being like a frightening plague of locusts. Joel also prophesied that after judgment God would “pour out his Spirit on all people” so that they all may prophesy; this was later fulfilled in the birth of the Christian church at Pentecost (see Acts 2).
Amos – One of the earliest of the writing prophets, along with Hosea. Preached to the northern kingdom of Israel around 760 BC. Amos was a shepherd from Judah who went north to preach against the idolatry and injustices in Israel, and to warn of imminent judgment in the form of the Assyrian army. Famous for his rebuke of social injustices, since the wealthy were abusing the poor and powerless. A key verse is Amos 5:24 – “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Obadiah – A prophecy against the nation of Edom, Judah’s southern neighbor. God is judging Edom for their pride and for being opportunists during the siege of Jerusalem (586 BC). Obadiah promises that one day God will restore Judah and judge her oppressors. A key lesson is that God hates when people take advantage of others’ misfortune.
Jonah – Tells the story of a reluctant prophet named Jonah, sent by God to preach to Israel’s hated enemy, the Assyrians, in their capital city of Nineveh (760s-750s BC). Includes the memorable story of the prophet’s attempt to flee God’s call, only to end up carried by a huge fish to Assyria anyway. Jonah reveals that God’s mercy can extend even to Israel’s enemies, and (ironically) shows that pagans could sometimes repent eagerly – the very thing Israel failed to do!
Micah – Micah preached around the same time as Isaiah (750-700 BC), calling Israel and Judah to account for their sins. He especially targets the injustice and corruption among the leaders, priests, and false prophets of the time, but also promises that God will preserve a faithful remnant and bring restoration through the Davidic Messiah. Micah is famous for predicting that Messiah will come from Bethlehem (5:2), and for calling all people to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
Nahum – A prophecy of the coming destruction of Nineveh, preached by Nahum sometime between 663-612 BC. The message of Nahum (whose name means “comfort”) was a comforting one to the kingdom of Judah: with the downfall of Nineveh, their cruel enemy the Assyrians would be no more. Then, as now, God will repay unjust nations for their cruelty.
Habakkuk – Records a back-and-forth conversation between God and the prophet Habakkuk, shortly before the Babylonian invasion of Judah (640-605 BC). In this unique book, instead of God speaking to the people through a prophet, here the prophet Habakkuk speaks to God on behalf of the people! God reassures the questioning prophet that he will indeed judge the wicked, but in his own way and his own timing. God also reminds Habakkuk (and us) that the “righteous shall live by faith” (2:4).
Zephaniah – The great-great-grandson of good king Hezekiah, Zephaniah ministered around the same time as Jeremiah (620s BC). He announced the certainty of coming judgment. Everyone, from individuals to entire nations, will be judged on the Day of the Lord. God will sweep clean the whole world with the righteous fire of his anger, leaving only the righteous remnant.
Haggai – Ministered after the initial return from exile, in 520 BC (see Ezra 5:1-2; 6:14). Haggai scolds the people for rebuilding their own houses but leaving God’s house (the Temple) in ruins. After having suffered the exile, the people actually listen to the prophet this time! Even though the new temple is far less grand than Solomon’s old one, God promises to bless it with his presence. Haggai reminds us not to let physical comforts get in the way of spiritual priorities.
Zechariah – Preached during the same time as Haggai (520-518 BC) about the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile. His message is that God’s remnant should trust and obey him because he is working behind-the-scenes on Israel’s behalf. God promises to finish restoring Israel and to judge their enemies in the future, through the coming Messiah. Chapters 1-8 are spiritual visions about God’s restoring work in Zechariah’s time, and chapters 9-14 are prophecies of the future days of the Messiah.
Malachi – The last of the three postexilic prophets (432-425 BC), Malachi deals with the continued spiritual failure of the Israelites. The priests were ignoring God’s laws, the men were divorcing their wives to marry pagan women, and the people were neglecting the tithe. In response, God reminds them that they are supposed to be his chosen people, calls them to repentance, and once again announces that the “Day of the Lord” will come, when sinners will be judged and the righteous remnant will be rewarded. God also promises that he himself will come down to rule in Israel, with his messenger “Elijah” preparing the way ahead of him.