The Structure of the Bible: Old Testament Wisdom Literature and the Prophets

My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies. 3 I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies. 4 You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, lovely as Jerusalem. (Song 6:2-4)

Among Christians, the OT is divided into three sections: the historical books, wisdom literature, and the Prophets. This is very similar to a division in Judaism, although what books go where is different. The Jewish Bible is divided into Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. The first Hebrew letters from each of these sections are formed into an acrostic, which is the name applied to the Jewish bible: Tanakh.

‘Torah’ is the Law, specifically the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. ‘Nevvi’im’ are the Prophets. They include most of the prophets in the Christian bible section of the same name, but also include Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. ‘Ketuvim’ are the Writings and correspond with the Christian category of Wisdom Literature. This section includes the poetic books (Sifrei Emet) of Psalms, Proverbs and Job; the ‘Five Megillot’ (Hamesh Megillot) of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther; also Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Note that Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are treated each as single books in Tanakh, in contrast with Christian bibles where each are divided into two books.

1. Wisdom Literature

These are the books of beautiful prose (Psalms & Song of Songs) and of philosophy (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom & Ecclesiasticus/Sirach). Wisdom and Ecclesisticus/Sirach belong to the Deuterocanonical list.

The beautiful psalms were attributed, for the most part, to the musically talented King David. These have been the mainstay of liturgical chant throughout Christian history. Some have attributed the 150 Aves of the (full) rosary to the 150 psalms. A note on the numbering of the psalms: the Septuagint Greek OT, and translations based on the Septuagint, such as the Latin Vulgate and the English Douay-Rheims, has a different numbering scheme than the Hebrew Scripture. Most modern translations (e.g., NAB, RSVCE, etc.) adopt the Hebrew numbering scheme. This can make things confusing, so please be aware. In general, Ps 1-8 use a common numbering scheme, but the Hebrew Ps 9 & 10 are combined in the Greek as Ps 9. From this point, Psalm numbers are off by one: given a Hebrew Psalm number, the same psalm in the Greek is one less. For example, Hebrew Ps 11 = Greek Ps 10. This continues until Hebrew Ps 147; the Greek splits this into two psalms, 146 and 147. From Ps 148, the Greek and Hebrew use the same numbering scheme. (Also, there is a discontinuity at Hebrew psalms 114-116 (Greek Ps 113-115) where the psalms don’t match.)

2. The Prophets

The prophets were men who carried messages from God to His people, normally in preparation for judgment and destruction; we should understand that prophets come before a fall. The books of the prophets are divided between the ‘four’ major prophets and twelve minor prophets. The four major prophets were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. To add a bit of confusion, there are three books related to Jeremiah: the book of Jeremiah, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the book of Baruch, who was Jeremiah’s secretary. Baruch is one of the Deuterocanonical books.

The prophets focused on two catastrophes: The destruction of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. and the conquering of the kingdom of Judah about 597 B.C. We must be familiar with these events if we are to understand the writings of the prophets. To prepare His people just before the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered, God sent the prophets Amos, Jonah and Hosea. Nevertheless, Israel did not listen to them and the Assyrian Empire conquered Israel; the peoples of Israel – the ten northern tribes – were scattered permanently. Eventually, Assyria became the victim of the Babylonians, who took over the empire c.600 B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah eventually fell prey to Babylon; to prepare them, God sent the prophets Joel, Michah, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Obadiah. During the Jewish exile into Babylon, God sent them Daniel, Ezekiel, Zerubbabel, Hagai and Malachi. While living in exile, Babylon was conquered by Persia; the Persian emperor allowed the Jews to return to Judah, to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Judah continued as a nation beyond the age of the prophets, but as a vassal state, ruled over by a succession of imperial governments, until finally obliterated completely by Rome c.70 A.D. While the Roman Empire ultimately was subdued by Christianity, our Jewish brothers and sisters never regained their political dependence until our own day.

We see, then, that God sent prophets primarily as a warning about an immediate and cataclysmic future. They spoke rather mysteriously, in some cases apocryphally, about the coming end. These ‘ends’ were themselves predecessors and types of the singular end to come, when the OT world would come to an end, to be replaced by the NT world. The last of the OT prophets was St. John the Baptist, who was sent as a herald of Christ; not so clear was that St. John’s message heralded the end of the OT world.

There is one more prophet that must be mentioned, although he wrote no books. The greatest of the OT prophets was Elijah, a wonder worker whom God sent to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of its most wicked king, Ahab. His stories are told in 1 Kings. He was clearly a type of Christ; yet, as the first prophet who ushered in an age of prophets (c. 850 B.C.), he was also a type of St. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets.