The books of History in the Old Testament mostly tell the story of the Israelites in the land God promised them. When God picked Abraham to lead His people, He promised Abraham a certain amount of land in Canaan. After a time, Abraham's descendants conquered and lived in this land until their rebellion led God to send them into exile.
What is the Story of the History Books in the Old Testament?
The books of The Law tell how the Israelites escaped Egypt and travelled to the eastern border of Canaan — the land God chose for them to have. Canaan was filled with many different tribes of people who did not follow God. They were so cruel and evil that God knew they needed to be destroyed before they taught others to follow their ways. Israel was chosen to go in and destroy them, take over their land, and show the surrounding nations what it meant to follow God.
The story of the History books starts right when Moses died, Joshua took over, and the Israelites were ready to move into Canaan (Joshua 1). Although God promised the twelve tribes of Israel the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, two tribes and one half-tribe settled east of the Jordan — with God's permission (Joshua 13:8–12). The men of those tribes still promised to help the others get their land in Canaan proper. The Israelites crossed the Jordan River (Joshua 3), made sure all the males were circumcised (Joshua 5), and started their campaign. The people invaded Canaan and split up the land according to their tribes (Joshua 13—21). The original inhabitants were so evil that the Israelites were supposed to destroy all the other tribes living there, but they didn't do a very good job; in addition to letting strays go free, the Gibeonites tricked them and accepted slavery over destruction (Joshua 9). Still, they moved in, made their homes, and promised to follow God and His Law (Joshua 24). God told them if they didn't, He would take their land away and give it to other nations.
In those days, Israel didn't have kings. The tribes were led by elders, and each city had a gate where wise older men would sit and help people understand and obey the Law. When things got really bad and the Israelites ignored the Law, God sent judges. Several men, including Gideon (Judges 6—8) and Samson (Judges 13—16), and one woman (Judges 4—5), Deborah, were chosen by God to lead the Israelites so they would obey God and have protection from their enemies.
Eventually, the Israelites decided they didn't like having judges telling them what to do, so they asked the last judge, Samuel, to find them a king to rule over all of Israel (1 Samuel 8:1–9). God knew they weren't ready for a king yet, but He also knew they'd get into trouble if they picked their own. So He had Samuel choose Saul (1 Samuel 9). Saul was an okay leader, but he had a hard time obeying God. God anointed David, a shepherd boy who later became a mighty warrior in Saul's army, to be king. While Saul tried to keep Israel together under his own power, David patiently waited for God to establish him on the throne. When Saul was killed in battle (1 Samuel 31:1–7), David was made king (2 Samuel 2:1–7; 5:1–5).
David loved God with all his heart, but he, too, sometimes found it hard to obey. Still, his love and respect for God were so powerful that God promised him that the Messiah (Jesus) would come from David's descendants (2 Samuel 7:12–17). David was a man after God's own heart and a good king, but he wasn't that great of a father. His son Absalom tried to take the kingdom from him (2 Samuel 15) and was killed (2 Samuel 18:9–15). When David died, his son Solomon took the throne (1 Kings 1:28–37).
God blessed Solomon with riches and wisdom (1 Kings 3:3–14). Unfortunately, Solomon's devotion to God was not as complete. His many marriages to women of other countries and faiths established pagan worship in Israel (1 Kings 11:2–3) to such an extent that, upon his death, God allowed the kingdom to be divided (1 Kings 12:16–24). Solomon's son Rehoboam took over the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon. Because Judah was by far the biggest, the nation was called Judah (which is where we get the word "Jew" from). Solomon's servant Jeroboam took the northern tribes and made up the nation Israel. To try to keep his people from going to Jerusalem to worship and maybe choosing to follow Rehoboam, Jeroboam disobeyed God and built worship places in Israel (1 Kings 12:25–33). It kept his country together, but it was the beginning of Israel's long rejection of God.
The next several hundred years are a blur of a few good kings mixed with a lot of bad kings. God sent prophets to tell His people to follow Him, but the people mostly disobeyed. About 300 years after David became king, the Assyrians came down and destroyed the northern nation of Israel, taking the people away (2 Kings 17:6). About 100 years later, the Babylonians took Judah into exile (2 Chronicles 36).
But the people of Judah did not stay in exile. As Jeremiah had prophesied, after seventy years, the first group returned to Jerusalem, led by Zerubbabel (2 Chronicles 36:22–23). When the people returned to a burned-out Jerusalem, their priority was repairing homes and fields so they could survive. The leaders began work on the Temple out of fear of the settlers who surrounded Jerusalem — they needed a place to seek God's protection (Ezra 3:1–7). The surrounding enemies started a political war, trying to get the construction stopped (Ezra 4). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people (Ezra 5:1–5), but it wasn't until Ezra the scribe brought written permission from King Artaxerxes that the Temple was completed (Ezra 6). When Ezra arrived, he took time to convict the people of their sins and help them restore their right standing with God (Ezra 9—10). Close to the same time, Nehemiah, the cupbearer of Artaxerxes, received permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (Nehemiah 2:1–8). Despite attacks through mockery, conspiracy, extortion, and treachery, the people finally finished construction. The people celebrated by having Ezra read the Law of Moses and repenting of their sins (Nehemiah 8—9).
In and amongst the stories of Israel and Judah are two short stories about women who were faithful to God. Ruth lived in the time of the judges. She wasn't an Israelite, but she took care of her Israelite mother-in-law. For her faithfulness, God made her the grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:18–22). Esther was an Israelite. She lived in Persia, in exile. When she became queen, she risked her life to save all the other Israelites.
The historical books overlap quite a bit, giving different perspectives and details to the stories.
Joshua: Joshua takes leadership and leads the people into taking Canaan. The people take an oath to remain faithful to God, and Joshua dies. The author was Joshua, presumably with a scribe filling in the last chapter.
Judges: One woman and several men provide the tribes with a moral compass, convicting them of sin and rescuing them from their enemies. Although the author of Judges isn't listed, it's believed to be Samuel, Nathan, and/or Gad.
Ruth: A short story set during the time of the judges about a woman from Moab who remains faithful to her Israelite mother-in-law after the deaths of their husbands. Written by Samuel, Nathan, or Gad.
1 and 2 Samuel: Samuel is born and dedicated as Israel's last judge. He anoints Saul as king, and Saul is succeeded by David. David weathers war, sin, and political intrigue until his death. Tradition states that Samuel, Nathan, and/or Gad wrote the books.
1 and 2 Kings: The first half of 1 Kings describes Solomon's kingdom; the rest of 1 Kings covers a succession of kings in Israel and Judah — some good, most bad. Second Kings continues the narrative until chapter 17 when the Northern Kingdom was taken into exile by Assyria. Judah is taken into exile by Babylon by the end of the book. It's believed Jeremiah, who served as prophet during the end of 2 Kings, wrote the books.
1 and 2 Chronicles: First Chronicles begins with genealogies up to the establishment of the twelve tribes, then briefly mentions King Saul before going into more detail on David's reign. It ends with his death and Solomon's ascension. Second Chronicles covers Solomon's accomplishments before listing the highlights of the kings of Judah. Ezra compiled the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles using a variety of sources including the lost document "The Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel."
Ezra: Ezra records the decree of Cyrus that allowed the Jews to return, and then lists the families who did return. The Temple is rebuilt, and Jerusalem experiences a spiritual and moral revival. The book was written by Ezra.
Nehemiah: With Nehemiah's encouragement, the people of Jerusalem rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, read the law, repent, and renew their commitment to God. The book ends with administrative details and enforcements of the Law.
Esther: Like Ruth, Esther is a short story which occurred within the context of larger books. In this case, it is of a Jewish girl still living in exile who is chosen by King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) to be his wife. God leads her to use her position to save the Jews. It's believed to have been written by Esther's cousin, Mordecai.
The Jewish Scriptures deviate from the Old Testament here in organization. The Nevi'im, or "Prophets" consist of Joshua, Judges, the Books of Samuel (1 Samuel—2 Kings), the Books of Kings (1 and 2 Chronicles), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets combined into one scroll. Esther, Ruth, Daniel, and Ezra—Nehemiah are included in the Ketuvim (Writings). In some variations, Ruth was appended to the end of Judges.
There are some issues with continuity between 2 Samuel—2 Kings vs. 1 and 2 Chronicles, mostly when it comes to numbers — like the headcounts of soldiers or the ages of different kings. Some can be attributed to copyist errors; none have any bearing on theological matters. You can find explanations at the CARM.org site.
Why should we read the Old Testament?
What is the basic timeline of the Old Testament?
What is the Story of Kings and Chronicles?
Why is knowing about the various characters in the Bible important?
What is the importance of genealogies in the Bible?
Truth about the Bible