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.
- 1 The Law
- 2 History
- 3 Wisdom / poetry
- 4 Prophets
- 5 Resources
- 6 Notes
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 History 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 from Joshua to Kings is commonly known as the "Former Prophets." It is also sometimes called "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.
Transition from the Law to the First Historical Cycle
The books of Moses (Genesis - Deuteronomy) and the First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) provide a single uninterrupted historical narrative. There is a gap of less than 30 days between Deuteronomy at the of the books of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of the First Historical Cycle.
One significant difference between the books of Moses and the First Historical Cycle is a change of location. The last four books of Moses (Exodus - Deuteronomy) all occurred in the wilderness. The books of the First Historical Cycle (Joshua - Kings) all occured in the promised land of Canaan.
Another significant difference is that throughout the last four books of Moses (Exodus - Deuteronomy), Moses is continually receiving and announcing portions of “The Law” that will govern Israel for generations to come. In contrast, while Joshua and other prophets of the First Historical Cycle receive revelations from God, those revelations concern what is to be done only in the moment and do not announce additional multi-generational rules beyond those already announced by Moses. Moses was the lawgiver, and the revelations given to the prophets who followed is portrayed as implementing and reminding Israel of that Law, but not adding to or changing that Law.
Reading Israel’s subsequent history through the lens of Deuteronomy
The First Historical Cycle is easier to understand with the following portions of Deuteronomy in mind.
- From the entire Law, Moses emphasized two sets of rules:
- Moses reminded the Israelites of the importance of the Ten Commandments, as shown by the fact that this portion of the Law was not given to Moses at Sinai in private, but was given by God publicly within the hearing of the entire congregation. And the first two of the Ten Commandments are to have no other gods and to not make graven idols. (Deut 5:1-8).
- Moses also emphasized a set of three conditions upon which Israel would possess the promised land:
- No alliances with the Canaanites or other foreigners;
- No intermarriage with the Canaanites or other foreigners; and
- No idolatry. (Deut 7:1-6).
- Moses told the children of Israel that they would come to possess Canaan ‘’little by little’‘ as the Israelites increased in number sufficient to occupy the full extent of the land. (Deut 7:22).
- Moses explained that the land was taken from the Canaanites and given to Israel, not because of Israel’s righteousness, but only because of the wickedness of the former inhabitants. (Deut 9:4-6; also see Gen 15:16).
- Moses then warned Israel that when it became wicked, and in particular when it became idolatrous, God would then come out against Israel to destroy and scatter it. (Deut 4:23-28; Deut 28:58-64).
Five periods of Biblical history
Biblical history can be divided into five broad periods. Except for the first introductory period described in Genesis, each is characterized by a brief initial period of righteousness followed by a long period a decline in both the righteousness and success of the Israelites in Canaan.
- The first period was the age of the patriarchs from Adam all the way down to Jacob. Genesis describes worship during this period as occurring at altars.
- The second period was the House of Israel's sojourn in Egypt for about 400 years. This period began well under the leadership of Joseph, but over time conditions deteriorated until, by the end of this period, Israel was reduced to slavery. The forty-year transition from this period to the next, as Israel wandered in the wilderness, is recounted in Exodus - Deuteronomy.
- The third period of about another 400 years was Israel’s possession of Canaan under Joshua and the judges. The center of worship during this period was the portable Tabernacle built after leaving Egypt. This period also began well for a generation under the leadership of Joshua as recounted in the book of Joshua. But this initial good start was followed by a long period of decline in both righteousness and circumstances as recounted in the book of Judges.
- The fourth period of yet another 400 years was Israel’s continued possession under the monarchy that began with Saul and ended with the Babylonian Captivity. The center of worship during this time was the First Jerusalem Temple built by Solomon. This period also began well for two generations under Saul and David as recounted in the book of Samuel. This initial resurgence was again followed by a long period of decline as recounted in the book of Kings until Israel was conquered by Assyria and Babylon.
- Following a transitional period of seventy years during the Babylonian Captivity, the fifth and final period was Israel’s renewed possession of Canaan as a conquered province under the Persians, Greeks, and Romans for about 600 years until shortly after Christ’s ministry with the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple and banishment of the Jews from Jerusalem.
The books of the First Historical Cycle
7. Judges recounts how the next Generation 3 violated three key requirements of the covenant of complete conquest: no idolatry, no intermarriage with foreigners, and no foreign alliances. The "covenant of complete conquest" was therefore replaced with a "covenant of partial conquest" in which foreign peoples were left in the land to stir up Israel to remember God, in much the same way that the Lamanites would later scourge the Nephites. Judges also recounts Israel's descent into increasing wickedness and self-destruction, and lays the blame for this upon the faithless Generation 3.
8. Ruth married Boaz during the time of the Judges. This book indicates that individuals, even non-Israelites such as Ruth, can live faithfully and be blessed by God, even though Israelite society as a whole is descending into wickedness. Ruth says nothing about the Deuteronomistic History's concern regarding the worthiness of the group. The inclusion of Ruth in the Deuteronomistic History does make sense when it is understood as defending the worthiness of a non-Israelite ancestor of king David, and as a third companion story to the two closing stories in Judges regarding the tribe of Dan's apostasy and the tribe of Benjamin's destruction.
9-10. Samuel begins about 1050 BC. It recounts the reign of the final judge Samuel and of the kings Saul and David. During this time Israel had kings, but it was still using the tabernacle rather than a temple.
11-12. Kings tells the 400 year story of the first Jerusalem temple, also known as the Temple of Solomon. The first part of Kings recounts the reign of Solomon and the dedication of the temple in 961 BC. After Solomon, the kingdom was divided into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. A century later around 850 BC, the middle part of Kings dwells on the ministries of Elijah and his successor Elisha. Another century later in 723 BC, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom and carried off the Lost Ten Tribes. The last part of Kings relates the story of the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah until it submitted to Babylon another century later in 605 BC. Many Israelites were carried away north to Babylon, others fled south to Egypt, and following two Jewish rebellions, Babylon destroyed the temple in 587 BC.
- When the Northern Kingdom of Israel was subsequently destroyed in 721 BC and carried off to become the Lost Ten Tribes, the author of Kings gave this extremely important event only 6 verses and then spent the next 19 verses explaining that this destruction was caused by Israel’s idolatry and rejection of the covenant made at Sinai and renewed in Deuteronomy. (17:1-25)
- The author of Kings also expressly states that the Southern Kingdom of Judah was then given into the hand of Babylon in 605 for the sins of king Manasseh, namely idolatry and also murder. (24:3-4 21:1-9).
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."
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.
17. Esther is set during the time between Ezra and Nehemiah 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.
This heading is for listing links and print resources, including those cited in the notes. A short comment about the particular strengths of a resource can be helpful. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading. →
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.
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