The Big Picture

by Ed Gallagher

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4
József Molnár, Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan, 1850, Wikimedia Commons

For this lesson, we want to think about the Old Testament as a whole so that we can see the big picture (1) of what the Old Testament is as a collection of books and (2) about the story told in the Old Testament. 

Note to teachers: this is a difficult lesson to plan because you will want to make this Old Testament overview helpful to those students who know very little about the Old Testament, while at the same time not boring those students with a much firmer grasp of this material. In my opinion, a good way to strike a balance is to elicit a lot of class participation in narrating the Old Testament story. This would also allow the teacher to evaluate the class’s knowledge of the subject and determine which areas need more emphasis. 

There are two main ways to approach an Old Testament overview, and you will want to give some attention to both ways: (1) the arrangement of the Old Testament in terms of its books, and (2) the story of the Old Testament and how the various books fit into that story. 

What is the most important chapter in the Old Testament? 

(I hope that this question will generate discussion. Of course, there is no right answer, but the question will hopefully get students thinking about the major parts of the Old Testament. The teacher could spend several minutes discussing possible answers:

  • Genesis 1
  • Genesis 3
  • Genesis 12
  • Exodus 20
  • Leviticus 16
  • Deuteronomy 6
  • 2 Samuel 7
  • Isaiah 11
  • Jeremiah 31 (see v. 31)
  • etc.

What are the bookends of the Old Testament? When does it begin and when does it end? 

It begins with creation and ends a century or so after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, about the year 400 or 450 BC. 

How are the books of the OT arranged? 

We usually talk about a fivefold arrangement: Law (5 books), History (12 books), Poetry (5 books), Major Prophets (5 books), Minor Prophets (12 book). 

You could look at the Old Testament a little differently, and say that it has two halves. If you were going to divide the Old Testament into two, based on content, where would you divide it? I would divide it after Esther, so that the first half, the 17 books from Genesis to Esther, tell the entire story of Israel until after the exile, and the second half of the OT, the 22 books of poetry and prophecy, fit into that story at different points. 

The first half of the Old Testament makes sense to most people, because it’s a long story. We will think about that story in just a moment, but let’s spend a little bit of time thinking about the second half of the Old Testament, because it can be a bit more confusing. 

What do you know about the books of poetry? Who wrote them? When were they written? What are they about?  

(The teacher can take this discussion in different directions depending on the answers to these questions. The main goal is just to make sure everyone has a basic familiarity with what these books are. If you need a quick refresher, see here or here.) 

What about the prophetic books, the Major Prophets and Minor Prophets? First of all, why are they called major and minor? 

It’s because the Major Prophets are longer than the Minor Prophets. This terminology goes back to early Christian times, about the year AD 400. Jews do not call them ‘major’ and ‘minor’. They actually count all of the Minor Prophets as one book, and call it the Book of the Twelve. 

Is there anything odd about calling these 5 books the Major Prophets? 

It’s a little weird to call Lamentations a Major Prophet, since it is sort of short, and it’s not really a book of prophecy. What is it? It’s a book of lamentations about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Why is it placed among these prophetic books? Because tradition says that Jeremiah wrote it, so it’s placed after Jeremiah. 

How are the Major Prophets arranged? They are arranged chronologically: Isaiah prophesied first (in the 8th century BC), then Jeremiah about 100 years later (7th century), then Ezekiel and Daniel were both taken into captivity by the Babylonians (6th century). The Minor Prophets are also arranged chronologically. 

Now, for the first half of the Old Testament, the long story of Israel. Let’s imagine the Old Testament story in terms of a clock, so we’ve got twelve hours on the clock. What are the twelve periods you would want to use for the clock? In other words, let’s divide the Old Testament story into twelve periods.  

(The class can do this exercise perhaps in different ways. The goal is to get the class to use the knowledge they already have so that they can see the big picture of the Old Testament story.) 

Suggested twelve periods: (1) Creation, (2) Sin, (3) Patriarchs, (4) Egyptian Bondage, (5) Exodus, (6) Wilderness Wanderings, (7) Conquest of Canaan, (8) Judges, (9) United Monarchy, (10) Divided Monarchy, (11) Judah Alone, (12) Exile. If we could add a 13th hour, it would be return from exile. 

(For each point on the clock, the teacher may want the class to tell him more about the point, where it is found in scripture, etc.) 


The Old Testament can be intimidating because it is so big, with a variety of literary genres, and it can be hard to navigate your way through it. But it tells us so much about God and his dealings with people that it is important for the Christian. We know that these things were written for our instruction (Rom 15:4). Attention to the Old Testament will help us know God better. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

What is your favorite book in the Old Testament? Why? 

What do you like most about reading and studying the Old Testament? 

What do you like least about reading and studying the Old Testament? 

If you were going to make an effort to understand the Old Testament better, what’s the first thing you would do?

Additional Resources

This video quickly runs through the entire OT. The audio is ok, not great.

This one is briefer, with better audio.

%d bloggers like this: