It is appropriate, as we prepare for Christmas, to reflect on what the Scriptures tell us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older than 1000 bc are approximate.
The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation came into being.
Before 4000 bc – The creation of our universe ● the human race falls away from communion with God ● life on earth as we know it begins. Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth, re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light, followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries
The Pre-History of the Israelites
Before 3000 bc – Godlessness prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel, Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood (Genesis 4-9). According to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood. Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law.
Before 2100 bc – The rise of Middle Eastern peoples ● the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10, 11). Jewish tradition sees the tower as an act of arrogance aimed at world domination by a particular people which God rejects.
Before 1991 bc – Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12-36): God calls the Mesopotamian Abram, renames him and promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars and that they will inherit the land of Canaan. He establishes circumcision as the sign of that covenant.
1900-1806 bc – Joseph and his brothers, the descendants of Abraham in Egypt (Genesis 37-50): Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph becomes the most powerful person in Pharaoh’s court when he favorably interprets the sovereign’s dream, averting a famine in Egypt. He is then able to rescue his father and brothers and thus insure the Israelites’ survival.
Israel in Egypt
1800-1446 bc – The Israelites prosper, then are enslaved (Exodus 1, 2).
1450-1400 bc – The call of Moses ● the exodus from Egypt ● beginnings of Judaism: the Ten Commandments, the establishment of the priesthood, and erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 2-40, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). This is the formative experience of Israel, celebrated each year at the Passover: their liberation from slavery in Egypt and passage through the Red Sea to freedom in the Land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.
1400-1375 bc – Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer parts of the “Promised Land”
The Promised Land
1375-1050 bc – Israelite tribes settle in the Promised Land. Governed by tribal elders, or Judges, they extend their control of the area at the expense of the Philistines (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel 1-7).
1050-931 bc – The Israelites form a united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon. This is the Golden Age of the Israelite nation. Saul was chosen by God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the first king. In 1007, during a losing battle with the Philistines, Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture.
The United Kingdom
Through the prophet Samuel, God chooses the righteous (although flawed) David to succeed Saul. God makes a covenant with him that his throne would be established forever. David would be the ancestor of the Messiah, promised to come from the house of David. The third king, Solomon, was renowned for his wisdom and power. He is considered author of the earliest Biblical Wisdom Literature. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, but ultimately turned to the idolatry of his foreign wives (1 Sam 8-31; 1 Kings 1-11; Chronicles).
931-860 bc – The kingdom is divided in two: north and south (Israel and Judah). Unity and monotheism give way to squabbling and pagan influences (1 Kings 12-17; 2 Chronicles).
Breakup of the United Kingdom
860-722 bc – Prophets Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah insist on a return to monotheism and justice among the people (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-17; Joel; Amos; Hosea and Isaiah).
722 bc – Northern Kingdom (Israel) defeated. The victorious Assyrians settle foreigners in the land. The intermingling of Israelites and pagans gives rise to the Samaritans (2 Kings 17-24).
700-590 bc – Prophets Naoum, Zepheniah, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, and Ezekiel warn the Southern Kingdom (Judah) that they too have forsaken God and face destruction.
588-586 bc – The Babylonians attack Jerusalem, conquer it and deport the Jewish elite to Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy a return.
The Babylonian Captivity
537 bc – The Persians defeat the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to their country and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1-6). Many Jews remain in Babylon and prosper there (Esther).
535-430 bc – Judah is restored, rediscovered temple scrolls become the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jewish life is revived (Ezra, Nehemiah) under nominal Persian rule.
333 bc – Alexander the Great defeats the
Persians and extends Greek rule throughout the Middle East. Jews establish an important colony in Alexandria, Egypt.
Greek and Roman Rule
250 bc –Jews in Alexandria translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Other books written in Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew are included (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch and parts of Daniel) in what is called the Septuagint (lxx).
175-164 bc –Jews in the Holy Land are suppressed by the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiles the temple and tries to abolish the Jewish religion. The Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolt and recover Jewish independence, which lasts until 63 bc. The books of Maccabees, written later in Hebrew and Greek, are added to the Septuagint.
63 bc – The Romans seize control of Syria. The Jewish kingdom becomes the Roman province of Palestine. The events of the New Testament take place under their rule.