First Historical Cycle

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Home > The Old Testament > Organization and Overview of the Old Testament > First Historical Cycle

Subpages:  Joshua  •  Judges  •  Ruth  •  Samuel  •  Kings

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Relationship to Old Testament. The relationship of the First Historical Cycle to the Old Testament as a whole is discussed at Organization and Overview of the Old Testament.

Story. The First Historical Cycle collectively recounts Israel's possession of the promised land from its arrival immediately following the death of Moses until the Babylonian Conquest 800 years later, and why Israel at times prospered and at times was afflicted:

  • Joshua: Brief success: Israel's people are righteous and conquer Canaan. Faithful Generation 2 that grew up in the wilderness under Moses now follows Joshua to conquer much of the promised land of Canaan. Israel prevails when it obeys, and is beaten when it disobeys. Canaanites survive when they accept Israelite possession of Canaan, and are destroyed when they oppose it.
  • Judges: Long term decline: Israel's people violate three conditions and are afflicted. The next Generation 3 violates three key conditions of the covenant of complete conquest: no idolatry, no intermarriage with foreigners, and no foreign alliances. Israel therefore enjoys only incomplete possession of Canaan as foreign peoples are left to stir up Israel unto remembrance of God. Over the next three centuries Israel repeatedly falls into a five-part pattern of idolatry, affliction by foreigners, repentance, deliverance by a judge, and then a period of rest. But over time Israel becomes increasingly weak, disunity among the tribes increases, the quality of Israel's leaders decreases, and Israel is increasingly unable to obtain rest.
  • Ruth: Individuals: Even in conditions of general wickedness, individuals can be righteous and blessed. The book of Ruth is set during the time of the judges. Righteous Ruth, who is not even an Israelite, lives a righteous life and is blessed by God, regardless of the condition of society around her.
  • Samuel: Brief success: Israel's kings abolish idolatry, and Israel prospers. Kings Saul and David both have faults and suffer personal consequences. But both diligently stamp out idolatry, and by the end of this period Israel enjoys complete possession of the promised land of Canaan.
  • Kings: Long term decline: Israel's kings sponsor idolatry, and Israel is conquered and scattered. Solomon builds the temple, but he also violates all three conditions of entering into foreign alliances, marrying foreign wives, and tolerating idolatry. Following his death, Israel is divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom is destroyed by Assyria after an unbroken string of twenty idolatrous kings over two centuries. Many of the Southern Kingdom's twenty kings are righteous, but the Southern Kingdom is likewise conquered by Babylon another century later because of the idolatry and wickedness of several later kings.

Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in the First Historical Cycle include:

  • Sinai Covenant. The Sinai Covenant between God and Israel as renewed in Deuteronomy.

Historical setting[edit]

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The second group of books in the Old Testament is history. Those historical books are arranged in two subgroups or "cycles." The First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) was written before the Babylonian Captivity, and the Second Historical Cycle (Chronicles - Nehemiah) was written after the Babylonian Captivity.

The First Historical Cycle from Joshua to Kings is commonly known as the "Former Prophets." It is also sometimes called "Deuteronomistic History" because it recounts Israel's history in the promised land in terms that are defined by the covenant made under Moses's leadership at Mount Sinai and then renewed in Deuteronomy.

Transition from the Law to the First Historical Cycle[edit]

The books of Moses (Genesis - Deuteronomy) and the First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) provide a single uninterrupted historical narrative. The gap between Deuteronomy at the of the Five Books of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of the First Historical Cycle is less than 30 days.

One significant difference between the books of Moses and the First Historical Cycle is a change of location. The last four books of Moses (Exodus - Deuteronomy) all occurred in the wilderness. The books of the First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) all occured in the promised land of Canaan.

Another significant difference is that throughout the last four books of Moses (Exodus - Deuteronomy), Moses is continually receiving and announcing portions of “The Law” that will govern Israel for generations to come. In contrast, while Joshua and other prophets of the First Historical Cycle receive revelations from God, those revelations concern what is to be done only in the moment and do not announce additional multi-generational rules beyond those already announced by Moses. Moses was the lawgiver, while the revelations given to subsequent prophets is portrayed as implementing and reminding Israel of that Law, but not adding to or changing that Law.

Israel’s history through the lens of Deuteronomy[edit]

The First Historical Cycle is easier to understand with the following portions of Deuteronomy in mind.

  • In Deuteronomy Moses emphasized two sets of rules from the Law:
  • Moses reminded the Israelites of the importance of the Ten Commandments, as shown by the fact that this portion of the Law was not given to Moses at Sinai in private, but was given by God publicly within the hearing of the entire congregation. And the first two of the Ten Commandments are to have no other gods and to not make graven idols. (Deut 5:1-8).
  • Moses also emphasized a set of three conditions upon which Israel would possess the promised land:
  1. No alliances with the Canaanites or other foreigners;
  2. No intermarriage with the Canaanites or other foreigners; and
  3. No idolatry. (Deut 7:1-6).
  • Moses told the children of Israel that they would come to possess Canaan ‘’little by little’‘ as the Israelites increased in number sufficient to occupy the full extent of the land. (Deut 7:22).
  • Moses explained that the land was taken from the Canaanites and given to Israel, not because of Israel’s righteousness, but only because of the wickedness of the former inhabitants. (Deut 9:4-6; also see Gen 15:16).
  • Moses then warned Israel that when it became wicked, and in particular when it became idolatrous, God would then come out against Israel to destroy and scatter it. (Deut 4:23-28; Deut 28:58-64).

Brief periods of success followed by long declines[edit]

Biblical history can be divided into five broad periods. Except for the first introductory period described in Genesis, each is characterized by a brief initial period of righteousness followed by a long period a decline in both the righteousness and success of the Israelites in Canaan.

  • The first period was the age of the patriarchs from Adam all the way down to Jacob. Genesis describes worship during this period as occurring at altars.
  • The second period was the House of Israel's sojourn in Egypt for about 400 years. This period began well under the leadership of Joseph, but over time conditions deteriorated until, by the end of this period, Israel was reduced to slavery. The forty-year transition from this period to the next, as Israel wandered in the wilderness, is recounted in Exodus - Deuteronomy.
  • The third period of about another 350 years was Israel’s possession of Canaan under Joshua and the judges. The center of worship during this period was the portable Tabernacle built after leaving Egypt. This period also began well for a generation under the leadership of Joshua as recounted in the book of Joshua. But this initial good start was followed by a long period of decline in both righteousness and circumstances as recounted in the book of Judges.
  • The fourth period of yet another 450 years was Israel’s continued possession under the monarchy that began with Saul and ended with the Babylonian Captivity. The center of worship during this time was the First Jerusalem Temple built by Solomon. This period also began well for two generations under Saul and David as recounted in the book of Samuel. This initial resurgence was again followed by a long period of decline as recounted in the book of Kings until Israel was conquered by Assyria and Babylon.
  • Following a transitional period of seventy years during the Babylonian Captivity, the fifth and final period was Israel’s renewed possession of Canaan as a conquered province under the Persians, Greeks, and Romans for about 600 years until shortly after Christ’s ministry with the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple and banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem.

The books of the First Historical Cycle[edit]

6. Joshua picks up the story less than a month after Deuteronomy left off. The prophet Joshua succeeded Moses and led the faithful Generation 2 to conquer much of Canaan.

7. Judges recounts how the next Generation 3 violated three key requirements of the covenant of complete conquest: no idolatry, no intermarriage with foreigners, and no foreign alliances. The "covenant of complete conquest" was therefore replaced with a "covenant of partial conquest" in which foreign peoples were left in the land to stir up Israel to remember God, in much the same way that the Lamanites would later scourge the Nephites. Judges also recounts Israel's descent into increasing wickedness and self-destruction, and lays the blame for this upon the faithless Generation 3.

8. Ruth married Boaz during the time of the Judges. This book indicates that individuals, even non-Israelites such as Ruth, can live faithfully and be blessed by God, even though Israelite society as a whole is descending into wickedness. Ruth says nothing about the Deuteronomistic History's concern regarding the worthiness of the group. The inclusion of Ruth in the Deuteronomistic History does make sense when it is understood as defending the worthiness of a non-Israelite ancestor of king David, and as a third companion story to the two closing stories in Judges regarding the tribe of Dan's apostasy and the tribe of Benjamin's destruction.

9-10. Samuel begins about 1050 BC. It recounts the reign of the final judge Samuel and of the kings Saul and David. During this time Israel had kings, but it was still using the tabernacle rather than a temple.

11-12. Kings tells the 400 year story of the first Jerusalem temple, also known as the Temple of Solomon. The first part of Kings recounts the reign of Solomon and the dedication of the temple in 961 BC. After Solomon, the kingdom was divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. A century later around 850 BC, the middle part of Kings dwells on the ministries of Elijah and his successor Elisha. Another century later in 723 BC, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom and carried off the Lost Ten Tribes. The last part of Kings relates the story of the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah until it submitted to Babylon another century later in 605 BC. Many Israelites were carried away north to Babylon, others fled south to Egypt, and following two Jewish rebellions, Babylon destroyed the temple in 587 BC.

  • When the Northern Kingdom of Israel was subsequently destroyed in 721 BC and carried off to become the Lost Ten Tribes, the author of Kings gave this extremely important event only 6 verses and then spent the next 19 verses explaining that this destruction was caused by Israel’s idolatry and rejection of the covenant made at Sinai and renewed in Deuteronomy. (17:1-25)
  • The author of Kings also expressly states that the Southern Kingdom of Judah was then given into the hand of Babylon in 605 for the sins of king Manasseh, namely idolatry and also murder. (24:3-4 21:1-9).

Outline and page map[edit]

This section contains a brief outline for the entire five Books of Moses. Items in blue or purple text indicate hyperlinked pages that address specific portions of those books. Click the "edit" link to edit or add content to this section. →

The outline below is summarized on this single-page handout (along with Joshua, Judges, and Ruth).


Unanswered questions[edit]

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Prompts for life application[edit]

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Prompts for further study[edit]

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This section is for listing links and print resources, including those that are also cited elsewhere on this page. A short comment about the particular strengths of a resource can be helpful. Click the "edit" link to edit or add content to this section. →

References cited on this page.

  • Steinmann. Andrew E. From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. (ISBN 0758627998). BS637.3 .S74 2011. Builds on the earlier work of Finegan and Thiele and may become a third standard reference; likewise addresses the difficult issues but also presents a comprehensive timeline including the easy issues.


Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves (such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word). In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources (such as Strong's Bible Concordance or the Joseph Smith Papers) are preferable to footnotes.

Home > The Old Testament > Organization and Overview of the Old Testament > First Historical Cycle

Subpages:  Joshua  •  Judges  •  Ruth  •  Samuel  •  Kings

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