Old Testament Shape Revisited

A day off, chillin’ contentedly in a clothing store as my wife tries on some clothes, with One Direction “Drag me Down” on the radio (great song) and my mind turns to the Old Testament…like it does so often these days…

One of my particular interests is to consider the original arrangement of the Old Testament and tease out any implications of that arrangement when it comes to “putting your Bible together” as they say. The standard order of books in basically every Christian Bible starts with the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then moves into the Histories from Joshua to Esther with books like Ruth and Chronicles spliced in chronologically.

However, there is really good evidence, actually overwhelming evidence, that the Old Testament the early church inherited was arranged like this:

  1. Pentateuch
  2. (Former Prophets) Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and then (Latter Peophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve minor prophets.
  3. Then the collection finished with the Writings, which was something of a catch-all: Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Somg of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles.

The Hebrew collection (also called the Tanakh) was threefold – Law, Prophets, and Writings – and it was arranged with less of a strict chronology compared to our English order, which follows an order found in Septuagintal codices (compilations of Greek manuscripts). For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth was lumped in with Psalms and Proverbs likely due to its connection to David (Boaz was David’s great grandpa) rather than after the Judges, even though it recounts events in the time period of the Judges. 

The books that made up the Writings probably were written on individual scrolls housed in a chest and so it’s best not to make too much of their specific arrangement within the third section. That said, these books do seem, by and large, to be organized thematically around King David and his son Solomon.

So what?

The first thing to say is that the books themselves are inspired, not their order in the collection. So any considerations of order and arrangement are questions of secondary importance. These matters have some consequence for how we put our Bibles together and how we do biblical theology, but they do not affect significant doctrines of the faith.

With that caveat, the significance of the threefold structure of the collection is that the Pentateuch is the primary foundation of the entire Bible – it is God’s foundational disclosure of himself and his will; the Prophets are an extended commentary on the Law, meant to drive home the implications of that Law in the society and the governance of the nation; finally, the third section – the Writings aka “Hagiographa” – are all an extended meditation about the Messiah and “the good life” – the life of wisdom lived under the Law. This third collection is meant to show us what it means to have a heart that is governed by the good and gracious rule of God.

That is why this arrangement is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes a chronological preoccupation can obscure a rich thematic arrangement. The Law is primary and then it gets driven into politics and then driven into the heart.

Your thoughts? Comment below.

“Nobody nobody – with your love nobody’s gonna drag me down.”

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