1 January 2021
By Phil O'D
When you are new to church it can be hard to follow a sermon if you don’t know all of the Bible characters the preacher is talking about. Especially when the backstory isn’t explained.
This guide is designed to clear up some confusion and serve as a reference list. Here are ten famous Bible personalities from the Old Testament, with a brief overview of their stories.
(Scroll to location)
Abraham & Sarah
Abraham and Sarah start off their story in the book of Genesis, chapter 11. They were called Abram and Sarai, but God later changed their names. They were living with Abraham's father when God called them to go on a journey to a new land where He would prosper them.
When they arrived, God promised them a child and said their descendants would bless the world. The problem was that Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. However, miraculously, Sarah conceived and gave birth to baby Isaac and from there the Jewish line was born.
Abraham is known as a man of great faith. He is also referred to as the father of the Jews. His grandson, Jacob, was later renamed Israel and his descendants were known as the Israelites.
Found: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy
Moses's story begins with the Israelites in slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh decided that they were getting too large in number so decreed to kill all baby boys. Moses was a baby at the time, and his mother decided to hide him in a basket and float him in the river. The Pharaoh's daughter found it and adopted him.
He grew up in the palace but was aware of his Israelite ethnicity. One day he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, so he killed the Egyptian and then fled.
He became a shepherd, got married and had a family. One day he saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up. God spoke from the bush and told him to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites.
Moses went back and demanded that Pharaoh let his people go. Pharaoh refused, and God sent plagues upon the land. The last plague was the death of all firstborn sons. The Israelites put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts and the angel of death passed over their houses. (The lamb died in their place and this is the first Passover festival. Jesus fulfills this in the New Testament at Passover festival by dying in our place).
Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go and they headed to the Red Sea, pursued by an army of Pharaoh’s chariots. God instructed Moses to hold up his staff and God split the Red Sea so they could escape on dry land.
They followed Moses to Mount Sinai where God gave them the Ten Commandments and other instructions on how to live in their newfound freedom from slavery.
Moses led the people to the land that God had promised to them through Abraham. However, they were not yet ready to conquer the land so the entire Israelite population ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years (until that generation died off).
Moses handed the role of leadership onto Joshua to lead the people into the promised land.
Found: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy & Joshua
When the Israelites first saw the promised land, Moses sent ten spies into the land. Of the ten, only two thought that they should trust God and take the land. These two would be the only two who would enter the promised land - which would be forty years later, after the rest of their generation died off wandering in the wilderness. One of these two men of faith was Joshua.
Joshua became Moses' second in command. He led the army when they were attacked in the desert. He followed Moses up the mountain to see God. And Moses ended up handing the role of leadership over to Joshua at the end of his life.
Joshua split the Jordan river, emulating Moses and the Red Sea miracle.
One of Joshua’s most well-known stories is when they came to the first city to conquer - Jericho. God gave Joshua His takeover strategy: March around the city in silence every day for six days, and on the seventh day march around and give out a big shout. It worked. The walls of Jericho came crashing down and the Israelites took over.
Joshua led the Israelites to many victories. At the end of his life he handed over the reins to tribal leadership.
He was known as courageous and his last words as a leader were encouraging them all to follow God: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord".
Before the Israelites had kings, they had judges. These were people who would arise when there was a need to unite the tribes of Israel together for battle or to make decisions.
Israel had started to worship other gods, so God had allowed them to be overrun by their enemies. The people turned back to God, so God sent an angel to appoint Gideon to lead the Israelites back to victory.
Gideon was from an unimportant family in one of the smaller tribes, so didn't think he was worthy. God, however, saw him as a valiant warrior.
Gideon asked for a sign. He put out a fleece (piece of wool) overnight. He said if the fleece was wet with dew the next morning but the ground was dry, then that's the sign that God was with him. It happened. The next day he put out the fleece and asked for the opposite to happen, and it did.
Thousands of people turned up to join Gideon in battle, but God whittled the number down to 300, sending the majority of the men home. God wanted it to be impossible for them to say they did it in their own strength. It was only possible because of God.
Ruth & Boaz
Ruth is one of the few non-Israelites (apart from pre-Israelites) that are major Bible characters, and the only one with a book named after her.
The story starts with Naomi, an Israelite woman. She had moved to Moab with her husband and two sons. One of the sons married Ruth, a Moabite. Soon, however, Naomi's husband and two boys died, leaving three widows.
Naomi decided to move back to Israel. One daughter-in-law stayed in Moab, but Ruth said, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God."
They moved back and Ruth worked in the fields. The landowner, Boaz started to look after her and take an interest in her.
Because Naomi had no grandchildren through her son, an unmarried next of kin was supposed to marry Ruth (a "kinsman redeemer") to continue the family name. It turned out that Boaz could be that man.
Boaz and Ruth married and became the great-grandparents of King David.
Found: 1 Samuel, 1 Chronicles & Psalms
David started his life as a shepherd boy, the youngest of 8 brothers. The prophet, Samuel, came to David's father's house to anoint one of his sons as the new king of Israel. David wasn't even considered because of his age. However, God said that He wasn't looking at the outward appearance, but the heart - and David was chosen.
Later, David's brothers were fighting in the army for King Saul and David was sent to bring them food. The Philistine enemies were on the other side of the valley and their hero, Goliath, was taunting them. No one would fight Goliath. David went out with a slingshot and defeated him. Because of this, he was brought in to serve in the king's court and his fame spread.
He became the people's favourite, causing King Saul to become jealous and exile him. Though Saul chased him, David never fought back.
David was also best friends with the king's son, Jonathan.
Saul died in battle and David became King.
David had many wives and children.
One day he spotted a beautiful woman from his rooftop and invited her to visit him. He got her pregnant and then realized she was the wife of one of his officers. He had the officer sent into the front line of battle to be killed. He later repented of this.
David married Bathsheba and their son, Solomon, became the next King.
Despite David's obvious failings, he was known as a man after God's heart. He was also a prolific songwriter and most of the book of Psalms are his songs.
Found: 2 Samuel, 1 Kings & 2 Chronicles
King Solomon was the son of King David, and was a man who followed God. One day God appeared to him in a dream and offered him anything he wanted. Solomon asked for wisdom. God was so pleased with this answer that he granted him many other things as well, such as peace and prosperity in the land.
King Solomon built the first temple to God. Three books of the Bible are attributed to him: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon).
Solomon began well but soon began to marry many wives and seek worldly pleasures. Though he built the temple to God, he additionally built altars to the gods of his foreign wives too. Because of his straying from God's ways, Israel split into two nations: Israel to the North and Judah to the South.
Elijah & Elisha
Found: 1 Kings & 2 Kings
I have put Elijah and Elisha together because the similarities in their names means they are often confused - by the hearer and sometimes the speaker.
Elijah came first. He was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab. The king and his wife, Jezebel, did not follow God; they worshiped Baal.
God sent Elijah to them with a message: Turn back to God or there will be no rain. Subsequently, it did not rain for three years. After three years, Elijah returned to the King and laid down a challenge: Have the priests of Baal make an offering on Mount Carmel to their god, and Elijah would do the same to his God. Whoever's god sends fire from heaven is real.
In a dramatic showdown, Elijah proved God's power - but was consequently forced to flee for his life.
Alone and consumed by depression, Elijah cried out to God that he was alone. God sent him to take on an apprentice called Elisha.
One day Elijah told Elisha that his time on earth was near its end, and asked if Elisha had any requests. Elisha responded that he wanted a double portion of the spirit that was on Elijah.
Elijah then hit a river with his coat and the waters parted. They crossed to the other side where a chariot and horses of fire came and took Elijah to heaven.
Elisha picked up Elijah's coat, walked back to the river and hit the water. The river parted and Elisha knew that his request had been granted.
Elisha went on to do many miracles, some of them mirroring Elijah's. For example, they both blessed a widow so that her oil would not run out. Elijah did this so the widow and her son would not starve; Elisha did it so the woman could sell the extra oil to get out of debt and prosper. Double the blessing.
Though it is a book of only twelve chapters, Daniel is a big character to cover.
Daniel was born in Israel at a time when the Israelites had (again) turned away from God. As a consequence, God let them be conquered by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel and his friends, who had remained faithful to God, were taken to be put into the King's court as advisors.
While there, they chose not to eat the lavish diet they were given, but only had vegetables and water instead. They ended up being noticeably healthier than the other advisors. This diet is sometimes called the “Daniel Fast”.
Daniel survived Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and that of the next few kings of Babylon. When Babylon was conquered by the Persians, Daniel served their kings too.
Daniel quickly rose in the Persian court and thus made some enemies. Not being able to find fault in him, the other advisors decided to focus on Daniel’s faith as a target. They asked King Darius to make a law that people should only pray to the king for a month. The king agreed. Daniel prayed to God, and then was thrown into a lion's den as punishment. The king regretted making the law and realized he was tricked into getting rid of Daniel. However, God sent an angel to be with Daniel and shut the lions’ mouths. Daniel survived, and the king praised Daniel's God for saving him.
This book is set when the Israelites were in exile and were ruled over by the Persians. King Xerxes needed a new queen and so surveyed all the women in the land. Esther, a Jewish girl, was chosen to become queen.
Esther's uncle, Mordecai, instructed her not to tell anyone that she was Jewish and so it was kept a secret.
The king’s chief official, Haman, expected everyone to bow when he passed by. Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, which made him so angry he wanted to wipe out the entire Jewish population. He convinced the king to sign a decree that would exterminate all Jews on a certain date.
Mordecai sent word to Esther of this and said, "If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”
Esther presented herself before the king and told him that someone was trying to kill her. She revealed she was Jewish and that Haman was trying to kill her.
Consequently, Esther saved the Jewish people and Mordecai took Haman’s place in the king’s court.
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