Chapter 1.
The Books of History: An Overview

Sunday School children memorize the divisions of the Old Testament library as five books of law, twelve books of history, five books of poetry, five major and twelve minor prophets. The second of these divisions is the focus of this volume.

THE TWELVE VOLUME COLLECTION

Actually the 5-12-5-5-12 breakdown of the thirty-nine Old Testament books is but one of several systems for organizing this material. The rabbis of old, as well as modern writers, have proposed other schemes of representing the organization of the Old Testament library.

A. Ancient Arrangements

As early as the second century BC Jews saw their Bible as consisting of three divisions: Law (Torah), Prophets (Nebhiʾim) and Writings (Kethubhim). The modern Hebrew Bible follows this arrangement. The five books of Moses—the so-called Pentateuch—constitute the first division. The Prophets consists of eight books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings (the Former Prophets); Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve (the Latter Prophets). The remaining books are considered the Writings. In this system the books which follow the Book of the Twelve (the Minor Prophets) are: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

Not much has been written about the twelve historical books as a collection. This is probably due to the false perception that the arrangement of books in the modern Hebrew Bible represents an ancient assessment of the Old Testament collection. The evidence, however, points in a different direction.

While it is true that the tripartite organization of the Old Testament can be traced to pre-Christian times, the present-day assignment of books to the three divisions (5-8-11) can be traced only to the fourth century AD. In the days of Josephus (c. AD 90) the second division (Nebhiʾim) contained thirteen books. According to Josephus the third division (Kethubhim) consisted of four books containing "hymns to God" and "precepts for the conduct of human life" (Against Apion 1:8). Most likely those four books were Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.

The reasons for shifting Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Ruth and Esther from the Nebhiʾim to the Kethubhim after the days of Josephus are obscure. The important point is, however, that the twelve historical books were considered as being "prophetic," i.e., written by prophets. These twelve books—eleven when Ruth is counted as part of Judges—were a unit even from pre-Christian times.

Whereas the tripartite arrangement of the Old Testament books is attested as early as Ben Sira (c. 280 BC), the Dead Sea Scrolls point toward a twofold breakdown, namely, the law and the prophets. Both the twofold and the threefold system are reflected in the New Testament. One is therefore forced to conclude that the two ways of organizing the Old Testament books enjoy equal antiquity.

Other ancient evidence regarding the organization of the Old Testament books is more difficult to assess. The earliest extant manuscripts of the Septuagint (Greek) version come from the fourth century AD and come from Christian circles. Here the books of the Apocrypha—books which never were accepted as Scripture in authoritative Jewish circles—have been mingled with the canonical books of Scripture. A discussion of the reasons for this strange circumstance lies beyond the scope of the present volume. The lists of Old Testament books which come from the early Church Fathers support the conclusion that at least the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Chronicles were regarded as a unit. Ruth and Esther and sometimes Ezra and Nehemiah were mingled in these lists with the poetic books.

B. Modern Arrangements

J. Sidlow Baxter has proposed a modern threefold breakdown of Old Testament books as they appear in the English Bible. He classifies the first seventeen books as history and the last seventeen as prophecy. Sandwiched between are the five experiential books which focus on the inner life of Old Testament believers. In detail his organizational scheme looks like this:

  1. HISTORY (17)
    1. Basic Law (5)
    2. Preexilic Records (9)
    3. Postexilic Records (3)
  2. EXPERIENCE (5): the heart
  3. PROPHECY (17)
    1. Basic Prophecy (5)
    2. Preexilic Prophets (9)
    3. Postexilic Prophets (3)

Another threefold way of viewing the Old Testament library is as follows:

  1. FOUNDATIONAL BOOKS (5): Genesis-Deuteronomy
  2. FRAMEWORK BOOKS (12): Joshua-Nehemiah
    1. Premonarchy (3)
    2. Monarchy (3 double books)
    3. Postmonarchy (3)
  3. FOCUS BOOKS (22): Psalms-Malachi
    1. Focus on Individuals (5): Psalms-Song
    2. Focus on Issues (17): Isaiah-Malachi

Chart No. 1: The Contents of The Historical Books

Chart No. 1: The Contents of The Historical Books

In the above scheme the framework books are those which give the outline for the history of Israel from the time of the conquest through the second governorship of Nehemiah. Merely seeing these twelve books in a list, however, conveys the erroneous impression that each continues the history which was recorded in the preceding book. Actually in each of the triads of books the first two might be designated "forward motion books" because they advance the history of Israel chronologically. Thus Judges, for example, advances the history which was narrated in the Book of Joshua. Kings advances the history of Samuel and Nehemiah that of Ezra.

The third book in each triad might be labeled a "sidestep book" or "spotlight book." The Book of Ruth highlights an incident which chronologically fits somewhere into the Book of Judges, probably into chapter 10. The two books of Chronicles (considered one book in Jewish tradition) spotlight God's dealings with the Davidic dynasty. The Book of Esther fits chronologically between chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Ezra. Ruth records the preservation of a family, Chronicles the preservation of a dynasty, and Esther the preservation of a nation. The arrangement of the historical books in the English Bible moving two steps forward and one to the side creates the impression that one is virtually waltzing through a thousand years of history.