The Structure of the Bible: Old Testament History

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Ps 1:1-2)

The books of the Old Testament are traditionally divided by Christians into three categories: The historical books, the wisdom literature, and the prophets. Let’s look at the historical books, which are the source of most of our favorite bible stories.

There are twenty-one historical books. The first five (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are called Torah or The Law in Judaism (Pentateuch in Greek). They are called ‘The Law’ because most of the Jewish ceremonial laws originate from these books. By tradition, the authorship of these books is attributed to Moses. Genesis 1-11 describes a kind of pre-history, from the creation of the world through the Flood. The rest of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel, followed by his progeny, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s twelve sons – four generations at the dawn of Israel.

Torah continues with Exodus, which tells the story of Moses and Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy continue that story through forty years’ wandering through the wilderness to the border of the Promised Land and the death of Moses. The Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land is told in the book of Joshua, then the first several generations of life in the land of Israel are described in the book of Judges. The Israelites divided the Promised Land, the land of Israel, between the twelve tribes; as a nation, they had no king but the Lord. A series of judges, both male and female, made decisions that affected all; otherwise they trusted in God as their leader.

Next comes the history of the kings, beginning with the very short story of King David’s grandmother in the book of Ruth. 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings describes the succession of the kings of Israel in the north and the kings of Judah in the south. 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles repeat the stories of the kings, from a different perspective. (In the Greek Septuagint and translations made from it (e.g., Douay-Rheims), 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings are titled 1, 2, 3 & 4 Kings, respectively.)

The stories of the kings end with the Jews conquered and living in Babylonian exile. The remaining historical books describes such life. Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the exiles’ return after the Babylonians were conquered by Persia. Then follow three short stories of individuals, the books of Tobit, Esther and Judith. The historical books end with 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, which describe Judean life in the second and first centuries B.C. 1/2 Mac are placed at the very end of the OT, away from the other historical books.

Understanding the history of Israel/Judah is critical to understand the New Testament, which assumes such knowledge. A common theme throughout the OT is ‘separation.’ God called His people to separate themselves from the surrounding nations, to worship the one true God and so bear witness to the other nations. Separation was a key element to Jewish holiness. Their failure to maintain such separation, and their assimilation of the other nations’ culture of idol worship, led to the permanent separation of the nation in civil war and their final integration into the surrounding nations.

Next, let’s look at the subject of canonicity – how do we know what books are inspired? There has always been controversy on this subject: today there is a difference of opinion between Catholics & Orthodox on the one side and Jews & Protestants on the other. We modern westerners tend to place value on clear definition; we assume this is true of everyone. So, as we value a clear definition of a scriptural canon, we assume everyone always did. But not so the ancient Israelites; the five books of Torah were clear, but a list of books otherwise was not written down. There are many ideas regarding historical events that one can seemingly point to discern the truth. For example, there is the translation of the OT into Greek during the 3rd to 1st century B.C. This Greek OT is called the Septuagint (abbr. LXX), after a legend that seventy rabbis in Alexandria did the translation. From this, we have an idea of what books the Jews before Christ deemed inspired. As the NT was written in Greek, and as all OT quotes in the NT are verbatim from the Septuagint, Catholics/Orthodox believe this is reasonable evidence to believe we can look to the Septuagint OT for a canon of OT books accepted by pre-Christian Jews. This is one example; there are many others. However, the topic is difficult and there really is no simple, historical answer. Because of this difficulty, we need the help of the Holy Spirit and we get such help in the form of Sacred Tradition; by this we know the OT canon.

What is this disagreement? Simply put, there are seven books, plus passages from two other books, that are disputed as inspired. They are 1 & 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Sirach, Wisdom and Baruch, along with certain passages in Daniel and Esther. Those who do not accept these as canonical refer to them as the Apocrypha, while those who do accept them call them deuterocanonical. Traditional Christians (i.e., Catholic/Orthodox) accept these works as inspired, based on Sacred Tradition. Jews and Protestants reject them as they were written after the age of the prophets; their belief is that after the last prophets, divine revelation ceased.

Of note: the non-deuterocanonical books were written in Hebrew. The deuterocanonical books were written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Finally, we should consider a well-worn critique: the God of the OT seems terrible, fearsome, and uncaring. He calls for whole-scale slaughter and ethnic cleansing, bloody animal sacrifice, slavery, misogyny, racism, and an unwavering loyalty and woe to those who fail in their loyalty to Him. For Christians, this critique is amplified when we are asked about the contrast between this terrible God of the OT and the Christ of the NT – the loving, merciful One who taught social justice and who sacrificed Himself for our benefit. The reply to such criticism is blunt: God meets us where we are. In ancient Palestine and the Middle East, human life was cruel and callous; how does God win such hardened hearts? Does He reveal ‘love one another’ to a war lord? ‘Turn the other cheek’ to a brutal, warrior culture? 21st century westerners forget the self-interested brutalism of primitive culture. But they were people, too; God loved them and wanted them to love Him in return. So He met them as they were, in their primitive brutality of war, slavery and animal sacrifice. Slowly, they changed through His patient beckoning. Finally He could reveal the mystery of love to them and they accepted. Even today, God meets me where I am, no matter where that is, loving me and gently, patiently leading me closer to Him. It has been the same, unchanging God throughout history; only His people have changed. (Or have we really? War, misogyny, racism, slavery, cruelty – they all still exist in the shadows.)

Again, the NT is premised on the OT; failure to understand well the OT will result in a stunted understanding of the NT. Likewise, the OT remains difficult to understand without unlocking its secrets through the NT. God reveals Himself through a history, a love affair with His people. Let’s learn well that history.