Old Testament: Organization
The purpose of this page is to explain the logic behind the order in which the books of the King James Old Testament are arranged, and where each book fits within that collection. The place of each book in Israel's history is not discussed here, but is instead addressed at Historical Overview of the Old Testament. This page (excluding footnotes) should remain short enough to read in about fifteen minutes.
The human brain has difficulty making sense of more than about five items at a time. This means that people will naturally find it hard to comprehend a list of all 39 books of the Old Testament. If that list can be broken up into something closer to 5 groups of 5 items each, then it becomes much easier to make sense of the Old Testament as a whole, to understand how the parts relate to each other, and to begin conquering the parts one at a time.
Protestant Bibles, including the King James Version, arrange the 39 books of the Old Testament in four groups, further subdivided into a total of six groups. The books within each group are arranged in mostly chronological order:
I. The Law
II-a. First Historical Cycle
II-b. Second History Cycle
III. Wisdom / Poetry
IV-a. Major Prophets
IV-b. Twelve Minor Prophets
Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish Bibles differ by including additional books known as the "Apocrypha" and by arranging books in different sequences. See D&C 91 and Wikipedia: Books of the Bible.
The first group of books in the Old Testament is the "Law," also known as the "Torah," as the Five Books of Moses, or as the "Pentateuch." These books set forth the origin of the House of Israel as God's covenant people and the law that Israel must obey in order to enjoy its God-given right to possess the land of Canaan. These books are further discussed as a group at Five Books of Moses.
1. Genesis is the founding story of the House of Israel. It recounts the creation of the world, Abraham's genealogy back to Adam, Abraham's special covenant relationship with God, the passing of that Abrahamic Covenant to Isaac and then to Jacob, and how that covenant then passed not only to one favored son but to all of Jacob's descendants as a group.
2. Exodus recounts God's deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt including the ten plagues, the Passover, and the destruction of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea. It also recounts how Israel entered into the Sinai Covenant with God, under which Israel agreed to obey God, including the Ten Commandments, and God promised that Israel would be his covenant people and would be given the promised land of Canaan. Exodus also recounts the construction of the Tabernacle.
3. Leviticus, the central book of the five, contains very little narrative apart from the establishment of the Levitical Priesthood. In contrast to Exodus and Deuteronomy, the rules prescribed in Leviticus generally relate to ritual cleanliness and holiness. The central chapter prescribes the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in which Israel is symbolically cleansed and reconciled with God.
4. Numbers begins with the preparations for Israel to leave Sinai and go conquer Canaan. In the middle portion Israel refuses to enter Canaan. In response, God accuses Israel of provoking him ten times, as did Pharaoh, and decrees destruction upon this rebellious Generation 1 that came up out of Egypt with Moses. Forty years later, after all of Generation 1 has finally passed away, faithful Generation 2 is prepared to enter and conquer Canaan.
5. Deuteronomy consists almost entirely of a single long sermon by Moses repeating the conditions set forth in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers under which Israel would enjoy possession of Canaan. Generation 2 then renews the Sinai Covenant to obey God, be his people, and to (finally) possess the promised land of Canaan.
The second group of books in the Old Testament is history. These historical books are arranged in two subgroups or "cycles." The First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) was written before the Babylonian Captivity, and the Second Historical Cycle (Chronicles - Nehemiah) was written after the Babylonian Captivity.
First Historical Cycle
The First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) is commonly known as the "Former Prophets." It is also sometimes called the "Deuteronomistic History" because it recounts Israel's history in the promised land in terms that are defined by the covenant made under Moses's leadership at Mount Sinai and then renewed in Deuteronomy. Special emphasis is given to three conditions for possession of the promised land that are set out in Deut 7:1-6: (1) no alliances with foreign nations; (2) no intermarriage with foreigners; and (3) no idolatry.
Although there is no gap in the historical narrative between the Five Books of Moses and the First Historical Cycle, two significant changes mark the movement from one group of books to the next. The first is that the House of Israel moves from the wilderness to actual possession of the promised land of Canaan. The second is that, in contrast to Moses who received laws that were to apply for many generations, the First Historical Cycle portrays subsequent prophets as receiving revelation intended only to remind Israel of that Law or to provide situational guidance not binding as a rule upon future generations. These books are further discussed as a group at First Historical Cycle.
6. Joshua picks up the story less than a month after the conclusion of Deuteronomy. The prophet Joshua succeeded Moses and led the faithful Generation 2 to conquer much of Canaan. Israel prospered miraculously when it was obedient but was afflicted when disobedient. Similarly, Canaanites were destroyed except when they took action to submit to God's will. While the three conditions are not explicitly referenced in Joshua, Israel entered into a treaty with foreigners only when it failed to inquire of God and was fooled by the Gibeonites. And at the end of Joshua, Israel was ready to go to civil war over a single act of perceived idolatry by the trans-Jordan tribes until the misunderstanding was resolved. The sin for which Israel was afflicted in the story of the conquest of Ai was the sin of any single individual, and the righteousness for which it was blessed was the righteousness of the entire people.
7. Judges tells how the good start made in Joshua was followed by three centuries of decline. Judges opens with an introduction in which the next Generation 3 was explicitly accused of violating the three key conditions for possession of the promised land. The "covenant of complete conquest" was therefore replaced with a "covenant of partial conquest" in which the Philistines and other foreign peoples were left in the land to stir up Israel to remember God, similar to the way the Lamanites would later scourge the Nephites. The main body of Judges recounts three pairs of stories that describe Israel's descent into increasing wickedness, disunity, and self-destruction. in the central pair of stories the Lord miraculously delivered Israel through the judge Gideon, and Israel then turned upon the sons of that deliverer in the story of Abimelech, symbolizing Israel's relationship to God who brought it up out of Egypt. The book closes with an epilogue relating two more stories about the tribes of Dan and Benjamin that again lay the blame for Israel' sorry condition upon the faithless Generation 3. In Judges, the sins for which Israel was afflicted were the sins of the people, and the book concludes by stating four times that Israel's sorry state was the result of not having a king.
8. Ruth married Boaz during the time of the Judges. The book of Ruth says nothing about the Deuteronomistic History's concern with the devotion and worthiness of the nation. This book instead indicates that individuals, even non-Israelites such as Ruth, could still choose to live faithfully and be blessed by God, even though Israelite society as a whole was descending into wickedness. Ruth can be understood in this way as a contrast to the two closing stories in Judges regarding the tribes of Dan and Benjamin, and also as a defense for the intermarriage of king David's ancestor Boaz with the foreigner Ruth.
9-10. Samuel begins with the reigns of judges Eli and Samuel but is concerned primarily with the the reigns of the first two kings Saul and David. Despite any other failings, Saul and David both consistently stamped out idolatry for two generations, and by the end of this time Israel occupied all of the promised land out to its ideal borders. The devotion for which Israel was blessed at the beginning under the judge Samuel was the devotion of the people, but the devotion for which it was blessed at the end of the book under the monarchy was the devotion of its king David. The center of worship during this time is identified as the ark of the covenant rather than the entire the tabernacle.
11-12. Kings tells the history of the first Jerusalem temple, also known as the Temple of Solomon. Kings also tells how the good start made under Israel's first two kings was followed by a third faithless king who initiated three centuries of general spiritual decline, in much the same way that the good start made under Joshua was followed in Judges by a faithless third generation that initiated three centuries of decline. The first part of Kings recounts the reign of Solomon, who built the temple, but then violated the three key conditions for possessing the promised land, which was punished by a division of the kingdom into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The second part of Kings is concerned with "the sin of Jeroboam," the first king of the Northern Kingdom, who instituted as national policy a local form of idolatry in the form of two golden calfs located at Dan and Bethel. The central portion of Kings relates the ministries of Elijah and Elisha and their fight against "the sin of the House of Ahab," who violated all three conditions and introduced worship of the foreign idol Baal. The final portion of Kings relates Assyria's destruction of the Northern Kingdom and carrying away of the Lost Ten Tribes for failing to keep the covenant made in Deuteronomy. The Southern Kingdom miraculously survived the Assyrian invasion under devout king Hezekiah. But it was later conquered by Babylon for "the sins of Manasseh," which included many murders and intentional defilement of the temple altar with idolatry. Babylon also destroyed the temple and carried away many Israelites north to Babylon, while others fled south to Egypt. In Kings, the sins for which Israel was afflicted were the three enumerated sins of its kings, all relating to idolatry, and at times also triggered by foreign alliances and intermarriage with foreigners.
Second Historical Cycle
The organization of the Old Testament is straightforward from Genesis through Kings. But the remainder of the Old Testament consists of several other groups of books organized by type that overlap with the chronological sequence of Genesis - Kings.
The second subgroup of historical books is often called the "Post-Exilic Historical Cycle" because it was written after the Babylonian Captivity. Judaism after the Babylonian Captivity is also known as "Second Temple Judaism," so this cycle is also often called the "Second Temple Historical Cycle." These books are further discussed as a group at Second Historical Cycle.
13-14. Chronicles was written after the Babylonian Captivity (605-538 BC). But Chronicles does not pick up the story where Kings left off. First Chronicles instead covers the same historical ground as Genesis - Samuel, including nine chapters of genealogy going back to Adam, a chapter on King Saul (r. 1049-1009 BC), and nineteen chapters on King David. Second Chronicles then covers the same several hundred years of history as First and Second Kings. Chronicles ends with four verses recounting the Babylonian Captivity, the fall of Babylon to Persia, and the Persian emperor Cyrus’s decree in 538 BC allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.
Jewish identity changed over time, in large part during and as a result of the Babylonian Captivity. During the Babylonian Captivity, large and active Jewish communities were established in Babylon, in the Nile delta of Egypt, and elsewhere. Increased importance was therefore naturally given to aspects of religious practice that did not require a national temple, such as reading from written scripture, observing the Sabbath, and the local synagogue. Even after many Jews returned from Babylon to Judah, most Jews continued to live outside of Judah among the scattered Diaspora. Thus, even after the Babylonian Captivity ended, the Jews became less a geopolitical entity defending a piece of land from foreign armies, and more an ethno-religious identity defending itself against impurity, whether in the form of unorthodox religious practices or intermarriage with foreigners. During this period of Second Temple Judaism, the period of Jewish history into which Christ was later born, Jewish national identity was concerned much more than it had been previously with exclusivity based upon ethnic and religious purity.
Thus, the emphasis in the Deuteronomistic Historical Cycle, which was written before the Babylonian Captivity, is on obedience and disobedience to the terms of the Sinai Covenant as renewed in Deuteronomy. The Second Temple Historical Cycle, written after the Babylonian Captivity, instead emphasizes the importance of having a ruler from the tribe of Judah and from the house of David, and treats the Northern Kingdom, ruled instead by the tribe of Ephraim, as though it were a foreign nation and not even Israelite. This difference in emphasis helps to explain why Chronicles ignores Israelite history prior to King David except to say that the prior King Saul was bad and to provide genealogical records establishing Judah's birthright right to the Abrahamic Covenant.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther do cover new historical ground that was not already covered in Genesis - Kings.
15. Ezra picks up the story as Zerubbabel and the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem and in 516 BC dedicated the second Jerusalem temple, also known as the Temple of Zerubbabel. Ezra then led a second group of returning exiles in 458 BC.
16. Nehemiah led the third and last known group of returnees to Jerusalem in 444 BC and rebuilt the city wall. Ezra and Nehemiah are often treated as two parts of a single book. Ezra and Nehemiah both enacted religious reforms to counteract threats of apostasy among the Jews at Jerusalem, including intermarriage with foreigners.
17. Esther is set during the time between Ezra 1-6 and Ezra 7-10, and explains the origin of the Jewish festival of Purim. The book tells how Esther married the Persian king and then in 474 BC prevented a palace plot to destroy the Jews.
This concludes the second historical cycle and recounts the last historical events in the Old Testament.
Wisdom / poetry
The next group of five books in the Old Testament is generally called wisdom literature and/or poetry. These books are located far out of chronological order and are instead grouped together as a collection of wisdom literature and/or poetry.
18. Job Job is a long narrative story written mostly in poetic verse, much like Beowolf and the Greek epics but without the violence. One of the key themes in Job how to find wisdom. Job likely lived at least as early as the Israelite exodus from Egypt to Canaan. But Job is about
19. Psalms is traditionally attributed in large part to King David. Each Psalm is a poem.
20. Proverbs is traditionally attributed in large part to Solomon. Some parts of Proverbs, including the last twenty verses, are about wisdom itself. Large portions of Proverbs consist of wise sayings, each two lines in length, one after another, but lacking in any poetic form or other organizational structure.
21. Ecclesiastes is also traditionally attributed to Solomon. It contains thoughts about how to live a good life and endorses wisdom as a means to do so. Significant portions of Ecclesiastes are written in poetic verse.
22. The Song of Solomon or Song of Songs is a collection of poems and is also traditionally attributed to Solomon.
The fourth and last group of books in the Old Testament is the prophets, often called the "latter prophets" to distinguish them from the "former prophets" of Joshua-Kings. This of works by sixteen prophets begins with the four longest books arranged in chronological order by the four "major prophets," followed by the works of the "Twelve Minor Prophets" mostly in rough chronological sequence.
The existence or length of a prophet's writing does not necessarily correspond to the prophet's importance. Elijah (ministry c. 874-852) was among the greatest of ancient Israel's prophets, and yet we do not have any Book of Elijah. The larger number of prophetic books that date from works after about 800 BC is a function of the increasing prevalence after that time of writing in Israelite society. And labeling a prophet as "major" and "minor" is based only on the length of the prophet's writing and on nothing else.
Some of the warnings in the writings of the prophets are aimed at foreign nations. The warnings directed at the House of Israel emphasize Israel's lack of proper worship or trust in God, taking economic advantage of the poor and defenseless, and corruption and dishonesty in commerce and in the administration of justice.
23. Isaiah was the first of the major prophets. He ministered in the Southern Kingdom when Assyria invaded and carried off the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then invaded but failed to conquer the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Moses had warned that if Israel became wicked, it would be scattered among the nations before eventually being restored to Canaan. (Deut 28:64-68; 30:1-10). But Isaiah (and other prophets who ministered in his day) began the consistent prophetic warning that Israel, if it did not repent, would be scattered from Canaan until being restored in the latter days to its land of inheritance.
25. Lemantations is a short book of five poems written by the prophet Jeremiah. It is not grouped with the other books of wisdom and poetry, but is instead placed immediately following the book of Jeremiah.
27. Daniel was carried off to Babylon as a child. His book covers the entire seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity. His book affirms that, despite the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, God is still in charge, Israel is still God's chosen people, and there is still merit in serving God.
The twelve minor prophets are often referred to collectively as the "Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets" or simply the "Book of the Twelve." Of the twelve, only Obadiah is likely arranged far out of chronological order.
29. Joel could have been either the first or among the very last of the twelve minor prophets, or almost anywhere in between. There is no scholarly consensus regarding when Joel was written.
Four of the minor prophets ministered during the divided kingdoms period. 30. Amos and 32. Jonah ministered in the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II. 28.Hosea and 33. Micah later ministered in the Southern Kingdom at the same time as Isaiah during the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah.
The last four ministered after Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom. 31. Obadiah probably ministered soon after the Babylonian conquest near the close of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's ministries. Later, following Babylon's fall to Persia, Ezra recorded that both 37. Haggai and 38. Zechariah actively ministered as the Second Jerusalem Temple was being rebuilt. 39. Malachi ministered later, about the same time as Nehemiah at the close of the Old Testament.
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Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.
- This page takes its historical facts from Historical Overview of the Old Testament and relies upon that page's documentation.
- See the notes at Historical Overview of the Old Testament#second-temple-judaism.