Short Introduction to the Old Testament

The Books of the Old Testament have been divided in various ways. However, the actual contents are the same in each method.

A two-fold division of the scriptures in early Jewish tradition looks like this:

  • The Law = Genesis to Deuteronomy
  • The Prophets = Joshua to Malachi

A later three-fold division is how the Hebrew Bible is organized up to today. The "Prophets" are divided into "the Prophets" and "the Writings". The difference is between those who held the prophet office (such as Isaiah) and those who had a prophetic gift (such as David or Daniel):

I. Law of Moses (Torah) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

II. Prophets (Nebhim)
Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
Later Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve ("minor prophets")

II. Writings (Kethubhim)
Poetical Books: Psalms, Proverbs, Job
Five Rolls: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes
Historical Books: Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles.

Christian traditions follow the division which was developed when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek at Alexandria, Egypt somewhere between 280 and 150 B.C. This translation was supposedly done by 70 scholars, so it is called the "Septuagint" (abbreviated by the Roman numeral "LXX"). Here the division is by literary type. This was the "Bible" of the Roman world in that most people could speak "common" or "Koine" Greek.

I. Law Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

II. History Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther.

III. Poetry Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon

IV. Prophets

Major: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Ezekiel

Minor: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Johan, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

These three methods are ways that the same Biblical books have been organized. The organization changed, but there was no variation in the content. The 39 books of the Greek, Latin and English Bibles are the same as the 24 books as counted in the earlier methods. In those arrangements Kings, Chronicles, Samuel, and the Minor Prophets were each a single book. This was probably due to the size of scrolls used in Synagogues.

The Main Emphasis of each Section:

The Law contains the fundamental moral principles to guide God's People. These are summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5), but expanded with moral, civil and ceremonial laws and traditions. These books also contain the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses.

The Historical books contain the national life of Israel – reflecting times of obedience and disobedience to the Moral Law of God. Blessing follows obedience and hardships follow disobedience.

The Poetic books reflect the spirituality of Israel – Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes search for Wisdom. The Psalms are both prayer (it was a Hymn Book and Prayer book) and prophecy. The Song of Songs is a tribute to marital love.

The books of Prophecy called the Children of Israel to look back and look forward.

The frequent call is for the People of God to return to the moral principles of the Law – that is to Look Back.(e.g. Isaiah 1,2; Amos 1,2).

They also Look Forward to the coming of the Messiah (i.e. King, Prince of Peace, Redeemer and Restorer – Isaiah 2, 9, 11, Micah 5:2). Christians identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah – the Jewish faith does not.

(The Major Prophets are larger works, the Minor Prophets are shorter works that all fit into one scroll called "The Twelve".)

Interesting Notes on the Law:

Time Period of the Books of the Law

  • Genesis – From Creation to Bondage in Egypt
  • Exodus – From Bondage in Egypt to Mt. Sinai
  • Leviticus – one month between Exodus and Numbers.
  • Numbers – From Mt. Sinai to 40 Years Wandering
  • Deuteronomy – From the end of the Wandering to the Death of Moses –

The English names of the books of the Law come from the LXX – the Greek Translation. The Hebrew names come from the first words of each book in the original:

  • Genesis – Bereshith ("in the beginning")
  • Exodus – Shemoth ("names")
  • Leviticus – Wayyigra ("and he called")
  • Numbers – Bemidbar ("in the wilderness")
  • Deuteronomy – Devarim ("words")

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