Organizing the Bible (Pt. 2 of 3)
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Hebrew Bible is organized differently than the Christian Old Testament. Instead of the Pentateuch, books of History, books of Wisdom, the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, the traditional Jewish organization has only three major parts: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.
Torah is often translated “law,” but it can also simply mean “guidance,” “teaching,” “instruction”—that sort of thing. Jews typically use the name Torah, while many Christians use Pentateuch, which comes from the Greek word for “five.” Both, however, contain the five books of the law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are sometimes called the books of Moses, because traditionally, Moses was taught to be the author. The books themselves, though, do not specify who wrote them and were probably compiled over time. They are the core of the Jewish faith because they tell the story of the beginning of the Jewish people, as well as listing important laws about how to worship God, set themselves apart from surrounding peoples, and treat one another fairly.
Nevi’im means “prophets,” but these books include more than just the “major prophets” and “minor prophets” of the Christian Bible. Some of the Christian Bible’s books of history also belong in this division: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. Notice, the books of Ruth, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are not included here, even though Christians include them in the “history” section. We will deal with them later! Also, there is no division of “1 & 2” for Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible, but simply the book of Samuel and the book of Kings. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are known as the “former prophets.”
Most of the major and minor prophets of the Christian Old Testament are sometimes called the “latter prophets” in the Hebrew Bible. These include the big books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as “the twelve,” which are shorter: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Notice that two of the other Christian major prophets are not included here: Lamentations and Daniel.
Lastly, there is the Ketuvim, meaning “writings.” These books include the wisdom books, but also the Christian “history” and “major prophets” books that we skipped earlier. First, there are three books of poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Next come the five megillot (“scrolls”), which were traditionally grouped together and are read by the Jewish community on special days throughout the year:
- Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which is often read for Passover, though also at the beginning of each Sabbath in certain communities.
- Ruth, which is often read for Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah, as well as celebrating the wheat harvest, occurring 50 days after Passover and therefore also called “Pentecost” (from the Greek word for “five”).
- Lamentations, read on the Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av, a Jewish month), which commemorates the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Jewish temple.
- Ecclesiastes, which is read on Sukkot (the “festival of booths/tabernacles”) in some communities.
- Esther, which is read on Purim, the day celebrating Esther’s saving the Jews from genocide during the time of the Persian empire.
The last books of the Writings are not grouped together in a special way like these first two sets and include Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (grouped together!), and Chronicles (the Christian 1 & 2 Chronicles). The Writings are considered important Scripture, inspired by God like the Torah and Nevi’im, but most of its books were written later and included in the canon later than the Law and the Prophets.
This series is continued in Pt. 3.