In the Protestant Bible, twelve books are commonly called the “historical books”: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Esther.1 The term is simply one of convenience because other books (or portions thereof) can also be considered “historical,” i.e., they tell stories of events occurring in historical time and place.2 Most were written by different authors, although each pair of books (1–2Sam, 1–2Kgs, 1–2Chron) likely was written or compiled by single authors. Most of the books are anonymous, though portions of Ezra and Nehemiah can be attributed to these men, since they are written in the first person.

The historical books are arranged in a rough chronological order, and they tell the story of God’s dealings with his people over many centuries. They begin with Israel’s first entry into the land of Canaan as a nation (Joshua), continue through the chaotic period of apostasy in the time of the judges (Judges; Ruth), the establishment of the Davidic monarchy (1–2 Samuel; 1 Chronicles), and the subsequent history of Israel’s life under its kings, including the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon (1–2 Kings; 2 Chronicles), and they conclude with some Jews who returned from exile (Ezra–Nehemiah) and other Jews who lived in Persia under hostile conditions (Esther). They cover close to a thousand years of history, from the time of Joshua (ca. 1400 BC)3 until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (458–433 BC).

How Were the Historical Books Written?

Even though we know them as the “historical” books, they were not written to tell “history for history’s sake.” Rather, they were written to show how God works in and through history, and any serious consideration of these books must keep such purposes in view. These books are not primarily “history” books, but rather works of “theology” (“theology” meaning “the study of God”); they present history from a God’s-eye perspective. The historical books tell about God’s repeated in-breakings into human history, whether by dramatic accounts of miracles, by God’s speaking directly to people, or by his indirect presence, visible in the providential outworking of events.

The historical books tell about God’s repeated in-breakings into human history, whether by dramatic accounts of miracles, by God’s speaking directly to people, or by his indirect presence, visible in the providential outworking of events.

Historical narratives are not, therefore, simple clusters of facts laid out after more facts. Their authors used their God-given talents and creativity to tell the stories of true events from certain perspectives and to highlight certain facts and truths. The books are all written in different ways:

  • In Joshua, the triumphal accounts of Israel’s entering and settling into the land of Canaan in chapters 1–12 and 22–24 are interrupted by long lists of tribal-land distributions in chapters 13–21, all in service of showing God’s promises fulfilled.
  • In Judges, we find a cyclical history spiraling downward through the regimes of successive judges. A sense of godless apostacy prevails.
  • Ruth is a self-contained and beautifully told story of God’s grace in the life of one family of David’s ancestors.
  • 1–2 Samuel tell of the establishment of the legitimate Davidic monarchy via a richly textured account of the events; much in these books has the feel of an eyewitness account, as a period of perhaps 100 years is covered in depth (in 55 chapters).
  • 1–2 Kings, by contrast, tell the story of more than 400 years of Israel’s kings after David in a much more stereotypical manner (and in only 47 chapters), structured around repeated formulas of the accession, main exploits, and deaths of the successive kings. No characters are as fully developed in 1–2 Kings, nor stories told in such detail, as we find in 1–2 Samuel. The relentless downward slide, interrupted by the reigns of a few good kings and the words of warning by prophets raised up by God, leads eventually to the brutal exile of God’s people to a foreign land, Babylon.
  • 1–2 Chronicles cover much of the same ground as 2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, but the audience for these books is post-exilic, and they have different purposes in telling Israel’s story; in addition, they add much material not found in Samuel and Kings.
  • Ezra–Nehemiah contains first-person and eyewitness accounts, lists, and correspondence about the return from Babylonian exile and post-exilic life.
  • Esther, like Ruth, is a self-contained and well-told story, this one about life for the Jews in Persian exile, where God is mostly unseen, yet clearly “felt” behind the scenes.

Israel’s history in these books unfolds via a series of narrative accounts, told in straightforward prose, and this (prose narrative) is the largest single literary genre in the historical books. But there are other genres in these books as well, such as

  • Poetry/songs/laments (Judg 5; 1Sam 2:1–10; 2Sam 1:17–27; 22; 23:1–7; 1Chron 16:8–36).
  • Genealogies (Ruth 4:18–22; 1Chron 1–9).
  • Lists (Josh 13–21; 2Sam 23:8–39; 1Kgs 4:1–19; 1Chron 11:26–47; 12:23–40; 23–27; Ezra 2; 10:18–44; Neh 11).
  • Letters (Ezra 4:11–22; 5:7–17; 6:2–22).
  • Prayers (Josh 7:7–12; 2Sam 7:18–29; 1Kgs 8; 2Kgs 19:15–19; 1Chron 17:16–27; 29:10–19; 2Chron 6; 20:5–12; 30:18–19; Ezra 9:6–15; Neh. 1:5–11; 9:5–37).
  • Speeches (Josh 23–24; 1Sam 12).
  • Covenants (Josh 24; 2Sam 7:4–16; 2Kgs 23; 1Chron 17:3–14; 2Chron 29–31; 35).
  • Prophecies (1Sam 2:27–36; 2Sam 12:7–14; 1Kgs 9:3–9; 22; 2Kgs 19:20–34; 22:15–20; 2Chron 18).

What Are the Main Features of Old Testament Narrative Texts?

The extensive story-narratives found in the Old Testament are not paralleled anywhere in the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel lived; they are unique. And, many features differ from narrative texts that we today might be familiar with. For example, in narrative, often the main story line is contained in the words of the characters, not in the prose narrative “framework”; see, for example, the information conveyed through the characters’ speeches in texts such as Joshua 1 or 1 Samuel 8. Narrative texts also differ in several respects from poetic or prophetic texts. Here are some points of contrast:

  • Selectivity: As a rule, Hebrew narratives are not as selective as poetic texts, that is, they tend to go on at much greater length with greater detail than poetic texts do. So, for example, compare the full prose account of the Israelites’ victory under Deborah in Judges 4 with the sparser poetic account in Judges 5.
  • Figurative Language: Also, poetic texts employ much more figurative language than prose texts. Compare the prosaic summary of this same battle in Judges 4:23–24 with the attention to the elements of nature themselves arrayed against God’s enemies in 5:4–5, 20.
  • Emotive Language: Poetic texts can often capture the depth of human emotion better than prose texts can. So, for example, compare the spare prose description of David’s mourning over his son’s terminal sickness in 2 Samuel 12:16 with the emotion-filled poetic account of his desperate straits on another occasion, in Psalm 69:1–4.
  • Timeframe: Narrative texts are almost always concerned with past events, whereas prophetic texts are much more commonly future-oriented.

Are the Historical Books “Historical”?

Even though the primary purpose of the historical books was theological (and not “history for history’s sake”), they nevertheless were rooted in actual historical events. The Bible’s message is not given via abstract philosophical treatises; it is through historical writings about historical events that we learn much about God and his purposes for humans. The stories in these books are presented as straightforward accounts of real events, and they treat miracles in the same narrative fashion as they do everyday events; see, for example, the matter-of-fact mixing of the two in the book of Joshua or in the Elijah and Elisha accounts in 1–2 Kings.

The historical books are thus “referential,” that is, they “refer” to historical realities, not fictions. This anticipates the Apostle Paul’s claims in 1 Corinthians 15. The ground and basis of our Christian faith is rooted in the actual historical reality of the resurrection. The same can be said for the faith of Old Testament believers: They put their faith in a God who worked in and through historical events that they or their forebears lived through.4

What Are the Historical Books About?

Beyond the people, places, and events covered in the historical books, each one also contains themes consonant with some of the larger, overarching themes found throughout the rest of the Bible. We can identify five overarching themes in the historical books: God’s sovereignty, presence, promises, kingdom, and covenant.

  • God’s Sovereignty: God is consistently presented in the historical books as sovereign over all creation, including the elements of nature and the affairs of individuals and of nations. God’s sovereignty is sometimes demonstrated through spectacular miracles (see the book of Joshua or the Elijah-Elisha narratives). But, beyond this, Israel was to submit to God’s authority, care, and protection. Even the nations were subject to God, from the small city-states and peoples in the time of Joshua, the judges, and the first kings (e.g., Philistines, Moabites, Canaanites) to the great empires of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, which formed the backdrop to the events of 1–2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Esther.
  • God’s Presence: In most of the historical books, God’s presence is close at hand. He designated Joshua as Moses’ successor, raised up the judges in response to Israel’s dire straits over several centuries, and designated Saul and then David as his chosen king. He was a source of help to the godly kings who sought him and to bold prophets who spoke in his name (Nathan, Gad, Elijah, Micaiah, Elisha, Huldah, and others). He empowered Jeshua, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah to be bold leaders after the trauma of the exile. Prayers of godly kings such as David (2Sam 7), Solomon (1Kgs 8), Jehoshaphat (2Chron 20), and others show the closeness of their relationship with God. And yet, at times, God seemed more hidden. Most often, this was because of Israel’s sin. In Judges and Samuel, this was clearly the case (Judg 2; 1Sam 4:19–22), as it was repeatedly in 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles. Sometimes, however, God’s hiddenness is not attributed to sin; it is simply a fact, and his presence must be inferred indirectly. In Esther, for example, God is not mentioned at all. This signals that sometimes he chooses not to reveal himself as directly as at other times.
  • God’s Promises: The historical books carry forward the stories and themes of the Pentateuch. One consistent theme is God’s promise to be with his people, going back to Abraham (Gen 17:8), and continuing with Moses (Exod 3:12), Joshua (Josh 1:5, 9), David (2Sam 7), Ezra (Ezra 7:6), Nehemiah (Neh 2:8), and many others. The important promises to Abraham—sometimes called the “Abrahamic Covenant”—included the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7; 17:18–21), many descendants (Gen 12:2; 15:5), and blessings on Abraham and, through him, on the nations (Gen 12:1–3), and they are especially fulfilled in the book of Joshua (see esp. Josh 21:43–45).
  • God’s Covenant: Life under the Abrahamic Covenant involved obedience to God in all realms of life. God said that Abraham had “obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen 26:5). In other words, Abraham—who lived centuries before the Mosaic Law was given at Mount Sinai—had lived his life in relationship with God in full accord with what later would be understood as keeping the Law. The collections of Mosaic laws, and the attendant promises and obligations, have come to be known as the “Mosaic Covenant,” which spells out how to live life under the Abrahamic Covenant. The book of Deuteronomy laid out most fully the rewards and punishments that would follow obedience or disobedience (Deut 27–28), and this perspective governed most of the writing of the historical books: when people followed the LORD, they were blessed, and when they did not, they suffered. We see this over and over again in Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, and 1–2 Chronicles.
  • God’s Kingdom: The Bible teaches that God is king over the earth (e.g., Exod 15:18; Ps 93:1); the exercise of his rule can be seen in his sovereignty over all nature, people, and nations, as we have noted. But, God also chose to exercise his rule through human kings. As far back as Abraham’s day, God had promised that kings would come from his line (Gen 17:6, 16; 35:11; 49:10). He carefully prescribed that these kings should not be like the kings of neighboring nations, where warfare and foreign alliances were the primary features. By contrast, Israel’s kings were to be rooted in a study of God’s Word and to let God fight Israel’s battles (Deut 17:14–20; Judg 8:22–23; 1Sam 8:5, 20). The king was God’s representative on earth, and God’s kingdom was entrusted to him. We can see this clearly in texts such as 2 Chronicles 13:8, which refers to “the kingdom of the Lord in the hands of the sons of David,” or 1 Chronicles 29:5, where Solomon was chosen “to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the LORD.”

God was a “father” to the Davidic kings, and they were “sons” of God in perpetuity (2Sam 7:11–16); these promises are known as the “Davidic Covenant.” While most of Israel’s and Judah’s kings did not live up to the ideals set out in Deuteronomy 17 and 2 Samuel 7, nevertheless, the model was one where the king exercised his rule in connection with God’s will and in dependence upon God. Eventually, the ultimate “Son” of God was born from the lineage of David: Jesus, the Christ.

Timeline for the Old Testament Historical Books

1406 BC5 Moses’ death and Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan under Joshua
1375(?) Joshua’s death
1375(?)–1050 Period of the Judges
1050–1010 Saul’s reign
1010–971 David’s reign
971–931 Solomon’s reign
931–722 Divided kingdom (Israel) – 19 kings
722 Destruction of Samaria, Israel’s capital, by Assyria, and Israel’s resettlement
931–586 Divided kingdom (Judah) – 19 kings, 1 queen
586 Destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, by Babylonia, and Judah’s exile to Babylonia
586–538/7 Judah’s exile in Babylonia
561 Release of King Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon
539 Cyrus II of Persia captures Babylon
538/7 First return of Jews to Jerusalem under Jeshua and Zerubbabel
515 Temple rebuilding completed
484–465 (?) Esther and Mordecai rise in the Persian court
458 Ezra’s return to Jerusalem from Babylon
445 Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem from Babylon
445ff Walls of Jerusalem rebuilt
433 Nehemiah’s visit to Babylon and return to Jerusalem


1In the Hebrew Bible, the books are divided differently: Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings are part of the second section of the Bible, entitled the “Former Prophets,” and the rest of the historical books are found among the third section, entitled the “Writings.”
2These would include Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, and Haggai.
3Or ca. 1200 BC, according to an alternative dating scheme.
4See, e.g., V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History, chap. 3: “History and Truth: Is Historicity Important?”
5Some scholars place these events 200–250 years later, in which case the period of the judges would be much shorter. Dates after Saul are known with a high degree of certainty.

Further Reading


Chisholm, Robert B., Jr., Interpreting the Old Testament Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006.

Hamilton, Victor P., Handbook on the Historical Books. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.

Howard, David M., Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago: Moody, 2007.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. and Paul D. Wegner, A History of Israel from the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars. ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.

Long, V. Philips, The Art of Biblical History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Long, V. Philips, Iain Provan, and Tremper Longman, III, A Biblical History of Israel. 2nd Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015.

Online Resources

The Bible Project on the Old Testament Historical Books

David Howard on the Old Testament Historical Books

David Howard on Joshua, Judges, Ruth

Elaine Phillips on Old Testament History, Literature, and Theology