UPDATE: Since posting this a few hours ago, I’ve done my daily counting exercises and realized that there are in fact eleven (not nine as I originally posted) basic historical books.
Like a lot of people I’m sure, the New Testament pages of my Bible have considerable more wear than the Old Testament ones, and it’s not just because of the epic coffee spill that seemed to inexplicably cover only the NT. The truth is, many of us stick primarily to the NT because the Old (minus certain parts) is, to be honest, weird and confusing.
But more than anything, I think what hinders our understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament is that we just can’t grasp how it all fits together. Even if you’re like me and have read the entire Bible, it still feels like you need a guided tour, especially when you get to books like the prophets.
Part of the problem is the order of the Old Testament. Instead of a chronological ordering of all 39 books, the books are grouped by genre. So first you have the historical books (Genesis through Esther). Next you have the poetical books (Job through Song of Solomon). Finally there are the prophetical books (Isaiah through Malachi). The difficulty with this ordering is that things Isaiah may be referring to in his prophecy are things which historically happened way back in 2 Kings. So if you’re going through the OT in a Bible reading plan, by the time you even get to Isaiah 36-39, you may have forgotten that you’re reading the same basic thing you read in 2 Kings 18-20.
My own confusion about how all the pieces of the OT fit together has led me to get passionate about how to understand it all, and I think step 1 to doing that is to get an overview of how all the books fit together historically. So here’s a pretty simple overview.
The Only Eleven Books of the Old Testament You Need to Read (To Get the History)
As I already said, the first grouping of OT books is the historical books, of which there are seventeen. Of these seventeen, you only really need to read eleven in order to cover the whole story of the Old Testament. These are:
Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah
These books cover the whole history from creation to the post-exilic era and are the only ones that actually advance the story. The twenty-eight remaining books fall into the OT story covered by these eleven books. Leviticus and Deuteronomy for example were books composed during the time covered by Exodus and Numbers. Ruth takes place during the time period covered in Judges. 1 and 2 Chronicles recount events that were already covered in 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. And Esther takes place during the time of the book of Ezra.
Additionally, every other book in the OT after Esther falls somewhere in the time covered by these eleven books.
Where the Poetical Books Fit
- Job- thought to be the first book of the Bible to actually be written. It fits somewhere in Genesis.
- The Psalms- in large part written by David, and thus were written during the events of 2 Samuel.
- Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon– mostly authored by Solomon, these books were written in the time of 1 Kings.
Where the Prophetical Books Fit
Since the prophets delivered messages from God concerning historical events that were going to happen, were happening, or had happened, knowing where they fit in the biblical timeline is necessary to understanding what they heck they were talking about.
The prophets spoke God’s words of warning to both the northern kingdom of Israel and to the southern kingdom of Judah in response to the great sinfulness of both. In Deuteronomy, God had promised that he would exile his people if they were unfaithful to him (Deut.28:58-68). The kingdom of Israel split after Solomon’s death, and both nations had a long string of unfaithful kings who led their respective kingdoms to be unfaithful to the Lord.
In his mercy, God spoke to his people before exiling them, during their exile, and after it. All of the prophets fall into one of those three categories:
- Hosea, Amos (prophets to Israel), Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah, Zephaniah, Lamentations (prophets to Judah), Jonah, Nahum (prophets to Assyria), Obadiah (prophet to Edom), all prophesied before the exile. Their prophecies cover events found in 2 Kings.
- Ezekiel and Daniel were prophets during exile in Babylon. They ministered after 2 Kings but before Ezra.
- Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all prophesied after the exiles returned to Jerusalem after being captives in Babylon. Haggai and Zechariah fall into the book of Ezra, and Malachi falls into the book of Nehemiah.
Start with those eleven basic books that advance the story of the Old Testament, and then start placing the remaining twenty-eight books within them. In doing so, all the strands of the OT will begin to come together and start making sense. Even if you’re reading Isaiah and wondering what on earth certain phrases mean, at least knowing where he fits in the story is a huge advantage.
Here’s a chart of everything I’ve talked about, courtesy of Max Anders (from 30 Days to Understanding the Bible). Click to enlarge: