The ordering of the books in our English Bible is standard, if not universal―seemingly set in stone, even. But that order actually embodies a break with the wisdom and practice that came before. For many years, the Old Testament was read in a different order.
There is already a deep and rich literature on this topic, so I wanted to highlight here some of this ordering’s most outstanding features. They are worth considering because they enhance Scripture’s intelligibility and demonstrate an enduring truth of the Bible―that it is God’s Word, crafted intelligently by a wise and all-powerful God over the course of centuries.
The Jews, for the most part, ordered, and still order, their Old Testament books in a different way. The disconnect arose relatively early in church history, as Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish forerunners (“Origen and Jerome were rare among the early fathers in their ability to read Hebrew,” notes Professor James Hamilton of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describing an ignorance in Christendom that has more or less persisted to the present) and as a measure of uncertainty about the canon generally crept in.
The Hebrew ordering begins with a basic three-part grouping: the “Law”, the “Prophets”, and the “Writings.” (It is from the Hebrew initials for these three categories that the acronym TaNaKh comes.) It is this tripartite division Jesus references when He speaks in Luke 24 of “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” a divine citation that at the very least gives credence to its reasonability.
Within the final grouping, the “Writings,” there is some instability in the ordering even within the Hebrew tradition, where considerations of length, holiday recitations, and genre (again) fight for influence. Nevertheless, there is agreement on nearly all of the ordering throughout the testament, and what differences there are can be resolved by giving weight to the intrinsic text over circumstantial considerations or the urge to group by genre.
“The Twelve” (minor prophets, ordered as in English, Hosea through Malachi)
1 & 2 Samuel
1 & 2 Kings
1 & 2 Chronicles
Song of Songs
Song of Solomon
“The Twelve” (minor prophets, ordered as in English, Hosea through Malachi)
*Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are unified books by nature―while Paul wrote multiple different letters to the Corinthians and to Timothy, these three books were only ever divided into “First” and “Second” parts because of the happenstance of technology: none would fit in its entirety on a single scroll.
Our English Bibles group the books of the Old Testament more or less by genre: the very early books of Moses begin the collection, followed by histories (Joshua through Job), poetry (Psalms through Song of Solomon), and prophecies (Isaiah through Malachi). There is a logic to this order, much like one could read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books alphabetically by title. But in the same way that we would reject such an ordering as compromising the spirit of that enterprise, we owe it to ourselves, our understanding of God’s Word, and our witness to reconsider how we order our Bibles.
To start with, this ordering makes for a more readable experience. English Bibles pair Kings and Chronicles as histories dealing with roughly overlapping time periods. Now, though the Bible does not hesitate at times to provide multiple consecutive retellings of the same events (the four gospels come to mind), Kings and Chronicles do not play off of each other in the same meaningful way. Instead, the Hebrew ordering places each history in a context where they perform different functions. Kings comes in a section occupied with narrating the history of Israel from their entry to their exile, beginning its story right where its preceding book (Samuel) left off and concluding the sequence of Joshua-Judges-Samuel. (English Bibles are similar here, but for the insertion of Ruth.)
But English Bibles then feature a jarring shift when they next present Chronicles, with its opening of a nine-chapter genealogy that reviews man’s history all the way from Adam. This is a stark thing to place in the middle of the Old Testament―but as a recap of all preceding history, it is a suitable thing to encounter when beginning the end of the Testament. It is, moreover, a suitable thing to encounter right before the New Testament, given that this ordering juxtaposes the only two books in the Bible that begin with genealogies: Chronicles, and Matthew.
Chronicles’ placement is further corroborated by Jesus’ remarks when He references to His followers “the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world . . . from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary” (Luke 11:50-51, ESV). It is an easy mistake to interpret this as a version of the expression “from A to Z” when reading in English and in passing, but surely we are familiar with the actual bookend letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Omega. (The letter Zeta in Greek comes sixth; the equivalent Hebrew letter Zayin comes similarly early at seventh.) Instead, Jesus is referencing the entire story of the violence of the Old Testament, beginning with Abel in Genesis 4 and last mentioning Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24.
There is more connective tissue and general intelligibility within other books in the Writings as well. The Writings’ chief distinction is between life in Israel and life in exile (a distinction that overlaps with chronology, but ultimately overshadows it). The Writings within the promised land alternate roughly between books of poetry and more particular accounts of individuals. Thus, the books of Psalms begins the Writings with its poetry of prayer and worship in all circumstances and attitudes―including the imprecatory psalms and the despairing psalms (like 22, 44, and 88). This is followed by the historical account of Job, a man devoted to earnest conversation with God amidst both prosperity and disaster.
Next is Proverbs, a book of poetic wisdom that concludes with its crowning description of a “woman of valor” (31:10), a Hebrew phrase that occurs once else in the Old Testament―in the book of Ruth (3:11), which the reader encounters next. The link between these two is strengthened still more when we read of Boaz doing the two things we are told the Proverbs 31 woman’s husband does: sitting at the gates among the elders of the city, and praising his wife (Proverbs 31:23, 28; Ruth 3:11, 4:1-4, etc.). Thus the book of Ruth gives the reader a story of a flesh-and-blood woman who lives out the proverbial description just given in the abstract (a point made by Zenger, among others).
As I said before, there is a lot of commentary on this topic. I hope to have communicated some of the more prominent notes of intelligibility and artistic beauty that arise when the Bible is ordered in this way, and to have spurred some of you on to further study on this question. Knowing Scripture’s essay is more comprehensive, and Beckwith’s book on the Old Testament canon is more comprehensive still.
The order that our Bibles printed the Old Testament in is a silent conversation. Bibles are printed in the conventional order either for the sake of mere convention (the lowest form of conservatism), or else because the question is never raised to arrange them otherwise. But when the evidence of historical orderings and intertextual links is considered, the order of the Biblia Hebraica presents a more intelligible whole, a work that more visibly testifies to the singular intelligence responsible for its authorship.