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.

Here, then, is the ordering of the Old Testament, favored, among others, by the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia and by Knowing Scripture, contrasted with the standard English order:

Hebrew Order English Order
The Law:

Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

The Pentateuch:

Genesis

Exodus

Leviticus

Numbers

Deuteronomy

The Prophets:

Joshua

Judges

Samuel*

Kings*

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Ezekiel

“The Twelve” (minor prophets, ordered as in English, Hosea through Malachi)

Histories:

Joshua

Judges

Ruth

1 & 2 Samuel

1 & 2 Kings

1 & 2 Chronicles

Ezra

Nehemiah

Esther

Job

The Writings:

Psalms

Job

Proverbs

Ruth

Song of Songs

Ecclesiastes

Lamentations

Esther

Daniel

Ezra

Nehemiah

Chronicles*

Poetry:

Psalms

Proverbs

Ecclesiastes

Song of Solomon

Prophets:

Isaiah

Jeremiah

Lamentations

Ezekiel

“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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper is a senior research analyst at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, National Review, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere.

12 Comments

  1. […] The Case for Rearranging the Old Testament Books […]

    Reply

  2. […] The Case for Rearranging the Old Testament Books […]

    Reply

  3. Thank you for writing this article. I had no idea this issue of the order of the old testament books could be so impactful to the readers experience of scripture. I wonder how many things about scriptures such as the ordering of books we usually take for granted.

    Reply

  4. There is both logic and beauty to how the Tanakh is arranged, to be sure. But it’s anachronistic in the extreme to suggest that this ordering was in place prior to the first century. The evidence suggests otherwise.

    Consider the evidence from Josephus (late 1st century). The arrangement presented in his Against Apion does follow a tripartite format, starting with the Torah and concluding with four books that contain “hymns to God” and “precepts for human life.” The middle portion of Josephus’s loose catalog, however, consists of “thirteen books” which trace the history of Israel from the death of Moses to the reign of Artaxerxes: in other words, Joshua through Ezra-Nehemiah (Against Apion I.8). Presumably, Chronicles was included in this section. Likewise, Melito of Sardis, our earliest Christian witness to the arrangement of the Old Testament canon (late 2nd century), includes Chronicles smack dab in the middle of his list (Ecclesiastical History iv.26), as does Origen (EH vi. 25), who ends his list with Esther (omitted from Melito’s list). Jerome, in the Helmeted Prologue, places Chronicles near the end of the canon but concludes with Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther. By the way, Melito, Origen, and Jerome all appear to have derived their information from Jewish sources.

    As for what is said to be the traditional ordering of the Hebrew Bible, the earliest detailed list we have from an exclusively Jewish source is a tradition preserved in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14b-15a). Here the order does culminate in Chronicles. But the arrangement of books in the Prophets and Writings differs from what one finds in the Tanakh today. The Leningrad Codex (1008 C.E.), the earliest complete Hebrew Bible still in existence, likewise deviates from what is claimed to be the traditional order. Its arrangement of the Writings begins with Chronicles and ends with Ezra-Nehemiah.

    All that to say, the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was hardly set in stone by the 1st century or even by the 11th century of the Common Era. There was tremendous fluidity within both Christian and Jewish circles (not to mention fluidity of content among Christians from Melito to Augustine to Luther!). To argue that the order familiar to most Christians–Genesis to Malachi–represents a significant departure from the settled wisdom that came before it, is to ignore the vast historical complexity of this matter.

    Reply

  5. I can see the argument for not sticking to the traditional Christian order, but I don’t see the Jewish one as a vast improvement. Since neither of these are inspired, ask the obvious questions: Why would you put Ezra-Nehemiah before Chronicles? Why aren’t the prophets in chronological order?

    Let’s put the prophets in chronological order and insert Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah & Esther, then follow up with the last prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

    Reply

  6. In the first place, the OT is not history. The story of King David has no corroboration in archeology, histories, or records outside I and II Samuel.

    For Christians, Marcion assembled a “pure” New Testament devoid of Mark, Matthew and John and only parts of Luke and Paul’s letters. It is more important for Christians to drop the OT altogether than merely re-arranging the OT. The fundamental heresy of Ebiontism is to view Jesus as merely human, the require Torah obedience and to accept James, not Paul, as successor to Jesus. The entire OT is a Christian heresy. For all we know, Mark and Matthew were written as propaganda to claim Jesus was from Judea while in reality he was from Galilee and was an ethnic gentile not Judean.

    Reply

  7. […] The Case for Rearranging the Old Testament Books Published February 6, 2022By Donn DayCategorized as Religion […]

    Reply

  8. I like the Hebrew order of the arrange of O.T. books, especially that Esther comes before Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. And I like the headnote to the Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, KJV, edited by Spiros Zodhiates, for Esther. It indicates that the events of the book took place about thirty years prior to the efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah. Many have suggested that their successes would not have been possible had not Esther, Mordecai and Daniel paved the way with their conduct and accomplishments.

    Nehemiah 2 informs us that the queen was present when the cupbearer talks with king Ahasuerus or Xerxes. “…And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time…” This queen may have been Esther. So, therefore, the book bearing her name should come before Ezra and Nehemiah. It makes sense from a chronological perspective.

    Reply

  9. The order of the Books of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible, First Testament) found in most modern translations is not an innovation from English translators or any other Europeans. It was the order of the books as arranged by the Greek-speaking diaspora community in Egypt who translated it from Hebrew into Greek during the 3rd Century BCE, for a Greek-speaking culture, allegedly at the request of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. It was an entirely Jewish innovation, and since the early church was largely part of this diaspora, and Greek-speaking, they used this translation, keeping its order intact.

    Reply

    1. Edward Hamilton February 9, 2022 at 4:46 pm

      There are some minor differences between ordering in the LXX and English versions (e.g. the 12 before vs after the major prophets), but overall I agree that it’s an unfortunate decision to contrast the “English” and “Hebrew” orderings, as though deviations from the Hebrew order were somehow a novelty of English translation during the Reformation. It would be more useful to contrast “Greek” vs “Hebrew” orderings, and this would amount to steel-manning the case for the former by emphasizing its antiquity and its essential connection to a translation of the Hebrew Bible well known and quoted preferentially by the apostles.

      I do think this essay is still helpful in understanding why Jesus used Abel and Zechariah to bracket prophetic history, but aside from that I see great merit in placing the Prophets in close proximity to their fulfillment in the Gospels, and the LXX is well-motivated in placing Chronicles close to the other historical books rather than giving it the appearance of being a deuterocanonical book by relegating it to a chronologically inappropriate appendix position.

      Reply

  10. […] Old Testament books in a different order than was used by Jewish traditions? Noah Diekemper makes a brief yet strong case for rearranging the books in our Bibles to be more like Jews have ordered them for millennia. Among […]

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.