One challenge when reading the Old Testament is dealing with the amount of material contained within it. As a person reads along, he encounters narrative or story-like books or portions of books. The reader also encounters non-narrative passages, like poetry in the Psalms, genealogies, laws and regulations, and prophetic discourses. How do all these fit together? How can one stay oriented while reading through the Old Testament?
One helpful approach is to keep in mind the divisions of the Old Testament. Of course, the Old Testament is already divided into books, but those books are grouped together into four major sections in the Christian tradition and three distinct sections in the Hebrew tradition.
The four sections of the Christian bible are the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Prophetic Books, and the Wisdom literature. The Hebrew Bible used in the Jewish religious tradition has a different breakdown: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Hebrew category of “Prophets” is then subdivided into the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets include what the Christian tradition refers to as the Historical Books. The use of the category of “Prophets” for both historical and prophetic writing is fitting, however, as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“[W]hen the Church reads the Old Testament, she searches there for what the Spirit, ‘who has spoken through the prophets,’ wants to tell us about Christ. By ‘prophets’ the faith of the Church here understands all whom the Holy Spirit inspired in living proclamation and in the composition of the sacred books, both of the Old and the New Testaments. Jewish tradition distinguishes first the Law (the five first books or Pentateuch), then the Prophets (our historical and prophetic books) and finally the Writings (especially the wisdom literature, in particular the Psalms)” (CCC, No. 702).
In the Christian Bible, the Old Testament’s first section is usually called the Pentateuch, which means “five volumes” or “five scrolls.” Torah, the Hebrew word for these first five books, means “law,” an apt name for this section because these books include the law that God established to govern Israel, including their worship and rituals. This section begins with creation and includes the stories of Abraham, Jacob and his sons, the Exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the Covenant made between God and His people at Mount Sinai. It concludes with the final speech of God’s servant Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.
The second section is the Historical books. These books trace the entry of the Hebrew people into the land of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants by God. They tell the story of the conquest of the land, the establishment of the monarchy and the lives of Saul, David and Solomon. These books also recount the division of the Davidic Kingdom into Israel (North) and Judah (South) after the death of Solomon. From that point on, the two kingdoms were frequently entangled in wars and disputes with each other and foreign nations. Eventually, both kingdoms were conquered: Israel by the Assyrian empire in 722/721 B.C. and Judah by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
The Prophetic books run chronologically parallel to the Historical books during the time of the divided kingdom. For example, the book of the prophet Amos is considered the earliest book, and he is dated to the middle of the 8th century B.C., before the fall of the northern kingdom. The prophets give some historical references in their writings, but the focus of the prophetic message is theological. The prophets speak for God and give explanations, exhortations, and sometimes harsh invectives against God’s people because of their infidelity to Him.
The Wisdom literature, or the Writings, is a diverse collection of books. Perhaps the greatest of these books is the Psalms, which functioned like a prayer hymnal for the people of Israel and, now, also for the Church. Other types of Wisdom literature include proverbs and instructions on how to live righteously in the world according to God’s design for human persons. The book of Job, also in this category and written mostly in poetry, is a lengthy exploration of human suffering and its meaning. This group of books is not tied historically to any one person or period of time, but contains the long tradition of wisdom earned by the covenant people through their experiences of suffering, repentance and prayer.
The conclusion of the Old Testament looks toward the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people, especially in the form of the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”) of God. His coming would mark a definitive step for God’s revelation to His people and the salvation of all humankind.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, R.S.M., is Director of Christian Formation in the Diocese of Knoxville. Read more from the Bible 101 series here.