The “Dispensations” or Eras in Human History: Old Testament Reading
As a 21st century Calvinist Dispensationalist aka Futurist Premillennialist, I tend to emphasize the biblical covenants and de-emphasize the “seven dispensations” of classic dispensationalism. Certainly within classic dispensationalism much (perhaps too much) has been made about the details of the seven dispensations. The actual number of dispensations, or eras, really isn’t that important, and the lines and distinctions between some time periods are not always clear. Yet in continual reading through the Old Testament, especially as I’m again in the book of Genesis in one of my genre reading lists, certain eras, or different time periods and ways God deals with man, do show up.
In the early chapters of Genesis, two significant judgments are given to all the population: Noah’s Flood, and then the Tower of Babel within a few generations afterward. The details in these chapters include a progression in understanding and divine assistance to address a problem not mentioned in the previous era. After all, during the antediluvian age Cain’s murder went unpunished – in fact, Cain was protected with a special mark. The pre-flood era lasted approximately 1700 years and during that time we know that cities were established and even some technology developed, yet references to murder (Cain and his later descendant) are allowed without any restraint. The biblical covenant with Noah addresses that very point, adding human government and capital punishment for murder (Genesis 9:5-6).
The tower of Babel incident, of course, showed the failure of human government: the people banded together (instead of obeying the command to spread abroad and subdue the earth) in an attempt to become more powerful in a concentrated group. That was a great point brought out by John MacArthur in his Genesis series, that the scattering done by God in Genesis 11 was for mankind’s benefit and protection, to keep man from becoming so powerful as to become too oppressive, a restraint on the wicked to keep them from completely destroying the weak.
After the tower of Babel, of course, the rest of mankind is left alone, still with the basic post-flood understanding and human government, but scattered and literally forced to obey the “multiply and fill the earth” part of Genesis 9. The “dispensation of promise” is therefore less obvious, dealing only with Abraham and his descendants for the next few generations. Yet the later chapters in Genesis do show a moral decline from the time when the promises are given to Abraham, to the time of Jacob and his family, especially noted in the family favoritism and the dysfunctional family in which Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery – and we see the wonderful later result of full forgiveness and restoration of the family. Still, one of the laws (among the many) I’ve noticed in reading through the Mosaic law, is the one that specifically addressed the problems in Jacob’s family: the prohibition against marrying two women who are sisters while both are still alive.
The age of law, the Mosaic covenant, similarly only dealt with a subset of the total population, though again on a much larger scale than the “age of promise,” a nation of several million people. That age too ended like the earliest judgments of the flood and the Tower of Babel (against a larger group of people), a prominent judgment: first the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and then – though the age of law was resumed again for a few hundred years, though in a deficient form under Gentile authority – again and finally in A.D. 70.
As it has been said, the “dispensations” show the human side of history, whereas the biblical covenants show the Divine perspective. Put together, though, it does help to keep in mind the particular events that did occur in human history through the Old Testament: how man responded in each time and situation, appreciating all the more the Divine help and progressive revelation given down through history and to our age.