Posts in this series
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Introduction
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Order of the Canon
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Setting
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Transmission
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Purpose
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Christian Benefits
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Reading Old Testament Stories
- A New Guide to Old Testament - Reading Old Testament Laws
- A New Guide to the Old Testament - Reading Old Testament Poetry
As we begin to look at the Old Testament, we must first deal with an important question: In which order should we study the Old Testament books?
That’s right, there is more than one way to order the books of the Old Testament.
About the Canon
When dealing with the books and order of the Bible, we use the term canon, which literally means “rule” or “measuring rod.” This term refers to the discussion and agreement on what books belong in Scripture, and in what order. Any discussion on the Old Testament canon would be incomplete without focusing on the Apocryphal books—those books included in the Catholic Bibles but excluded from Protestant ones. That discussion will have to wait for another post; the present discussion will focus only on the order of the books.
Why Does It Matter?
When the Old Testament was first written and compiled on a series of scrolls, order didn’t matter as much. But when the first handmade books, called a codex, were developed, the ordering and placement of books in the Old Testament became more important. And with the rise of the printing press, one order was adopted as the standard. We will call this the Protestant Bible order, as it is the order we find in our Bibles today. This order will be contrasted with the Hebrew Bible order, which is still found in Hebrew Old Testaments even today. Let’s look at the details of each, noting the differences between both, along with the strengths and weaknesses of each order.
Protestant Bible Order
Most Bibles you have encountered have been in the familiar Genesis-Malachi order, which we will call the Protestant Bible order. This order starts with Genesis, ends with Malachi, and is structured around 4 main divisions. This order comes from the Latin Vulgate, which was the official Scripture for the church for over 1,000 years.
The four main divisions in the Protestant Bible order:
- LawThis is Genesis through Deuteronomy—also known as the Pentateuch—which traces the story of Israel from Abraham through Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land.
- History Containing the books Joshua through Esther, this division narrates the history of Israel from the conquest of the Promised Land, to the first kings, to the division of the kingdom, and finally to the exile and return of the people.
- Poetry Featuring only five books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs), this division features the poetry, psalms, and wise sayings in the Old Testament. While only containing five books, this division is still sizable, as Job has 42 chapters and the Psalter contains 150 psalms.
- Prophets This division, from Isaiah through Malachi, encompasses all the prophetic books in the Old Testament. While there is some narration (specifically the book of Daniel), most contain prophecies stretching from the kingdom to the exile and return.
This order came from the Vulgate, a Latin translation used by the church for over 1,000 years. But the fourfold division (Law, History, Poetry, Prophets) can be traced all the way back to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 2nd century BC. While there are some changes between the ordering of the Septuagint and the Protestant Bible, this system has a long line of use in the Christian church.
By far, the best benefit for this ordering of the Old Testament is that it provides a chronological ordering to the narrative. As a reader, you can trace the history of Israel from the beginning with Abraham (Genesis) straight through to the exile and return (Ezra/Nehemiah & Esther).
First, this four-part division of the Old Testament is one which Jesus and the New Testament believers would not have recognized. As we will see below, there are several references in the New Testament to the three-fold division of the Old Testament.
Second, the reordering for chronological ordering removes some books from their traditional position and context. Again, as we will see below, the Hebrew placement of several books—including Proverbs, Ruth, Esther, and Chronicles—provides more meaning in context.
Hebrew Bible Order
The second way to order the books of the Old Testament is in the Hebrew order. This is the order found in the Hebrew texts used by practicing Jews today, as well as scholars and pastors working in the original language. It is often called the Tanak, an acronym for the three-part division of the text.
The Tanak divides the books into three major divisions:
- Law Known as Torah, this division contains the Pentateuch: Genesis through Deuteronomy. Just like the Law section from the Protestant Bible, it tells the story of Israel from Abraham to the edge of the Promised Land.
- Prophets Also known as Nevi’im, this large section encompasses two sub-divisions. First, the Former Prophets (Joshua – Kings) provide the story of Israel from the conquest of the Promised Land to the fall of the kingdom. Second, the Latter Prophets collects the prophetic books that took place during the downfall and exile of Israel. This contains most of the books found in the History and Prophets sections of the Protestant Bible, with a few exceptions (Ruth, Esther, Chronicles, etc).
- Writings In Hebrew called the Ketuvim, this grouping of books forms the last division of the Old Testament. It includes all the Poetry books from the Protestant Bible, as well as some from other sections—including Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Chronicles.
This three-part order is attested to in the New Testament (see below), as well as several ancient writings, including the prologue to Sirach and Baba Bathra 14b.1
There is some theological significance to this order, focusing on the Mosaic covenant: the covenant is established (Law), enforced (Prophets), and enjoyed (Writings).2 This implies that there was an intentional shaping of the canon as a whole, a concept we will further discuss in another post.
First, this three-part order of the Hebrew Bible is mentioned several times in the New Testament. Jesus refers to it in Luke 24:44:
These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.
Second, we find richer meaning for a few books when we see them in their intended context. The Writings features the Megillot (Five Scrolls), a subset of books that includes Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These five books form a cohesive unit used in synagogues for worship. Specifically, each book corresponds to a Jewish religious feast, and would be read on those holy days.
In this order, Chronicles is no longer relegated to be a mere retelling of Kings, but rather—as the final book in the OT—serves as a theological summary of the entire Old Testament. And we see this in Chronicles: the book starts with the genealogy of Adam (1 Chronicles 1:1) and ends with the proclamation of Cyrus for the exiles to return to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23).
Third, we can significant ties between passages near the beginning and end of each major division. For example, the end of the Law (Deuteronomy 34) shares connections between the beginning (Joshua 1) and end (Malachi 3) of the Prophets, as well as the beginning of the Writings (Psalm 1). More can and will be said about this when we look at the shaping of the canon in another post.
The main issue facing this ordering is its unfamiliarity. If you grew up in the church, you likely had to memorize the books of the Bible in some clever tune. Perhaps you still sing that tune to yourself as you flip through the Bible! But this Hebrew order shifts too many of the books, making it foreign for most of us.
While your head may be spinning from everything listed above, let’s focus on the main distinctions between the two orders. First, there is the issue of the major divisions. Should we focus on a three-part division (Law, Prophets, Writings) or a four-part division (Law, History, Poetry, Prophets)? Second, there is the issue of specific book ordering. Should Chronicles come after Kings or at the end of the Testament? Do Ruth and Esther fit in History or in the Writings?
Are these big issues? If so, how do we reconcile all this in a productive manner?
Personally I think these are important issues, but not issues requiring major changes. I wouldn’t suggesting ripping apart your Bible so you can glue it in a new order. But, I would not mind if more publishers considered printing English Bibles in the Hebrew order.3
Given the ubiquity of the Protestant order in our English Bibles, that is and will continue to be the primary method for ordering the Old Testament. But I think there are a few ways we can be cognizant of the Hebrew order:
- Pastors preaching from an Old Testament book can show the congregation know where the book fits in a canonical context.
- You can use a Bible reading plan (PDF) that features the Hebrew order.
- You can read books that help show the importance of the Hebrew order, highlighting connections found between books and passages. A good Old Testament introduction, like the ones by Paul House and Jason DeRouchie—will help you navigate the murky waters of the Old Testament. On the more technical side, I have found great value in books by Stephen Dempster and John Sailhamer. Out of all, the volume by House (Old Testament Survey) is most accessible and would be my first recommendation.