Updated: Nov 8, 2019
The books of the Old Testament are organized in the canon of Scripture by historical, poetical, and prophetical.
Historical- books that describe key figures, events, locations in biblical history
Poetical- books of poetry, songs
Prophetical- proclaiming the Word of God, both for that present generation and the future generations
The word "canon" means rule of faith and is what we call the books making up our sacred Scripture. The Hebrew (Jewish) Canon is identical to the canon of the Protestant Bible’s Old Testament. We just arranged it differently than they did. We divided some books out (like 1 and 2 Kings and prophetical books). But the Canon of the Protestants and the Jews is the same.
Historical Books: These books are the first 17 books of the Old Testament. They are divided into the Law and the History books. The historical books of Genesis through Esther make up about one-third of the Bible. The length of time covered in the opening chapters of Genesis is unknown, but from Genesis chapter 12 to the end of Nehemiah is a time period of about 2,000 years. The historical books present the story of the Creator’s desire to have an intimate relationship with the people He created. God reveals Himself through relationships with key people. These books are not intended to be a complete history of the world. And the history does not flow evenly and consistently. There are great gaps in time - for instance the 400 plus years the Jews were in slavery in Egypt. They tell us what God wants us to know.
Law (Pentateuch): These are the first five books of the Old Testament. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These 5 books are called The Pentateuch which is a Greek word meaning “five vessels or scrolls.” They are considered by the Jewish people to be the Law and are called the Hebrew word “Torah”.
The Pentateuch/ Torah/ Law tells us about the creation of the world and how sin entered the world. They tell us of God forming a people for Himself to which He will bless all nations. How God rescues those people from slavery and leads them and what He expects of them. These books lay the theological groundwork for the rest of Scripture.
History: The next 12 books in the Old Testament, Joshua through Esther, are called the history books. These books tell you about various historical eras of God’s redemptive plan. Starting with Joshua they go over how God gave the Promised Land to His people. Judges talks about how they ruled Israel until they asked for a king. Then you get into the kingdom books where Israel was a united nation and then civil war erupted and they were a divided nation. God brings judgment against the northern nation of Israel and then later against the southern nation of Judah where the temple Solomon built is destroyed. The Jewish people are exiled. Then a remnant is able to return to Jerusalem and rebuild a smaller temple and the city. The history of the Jewish nation is fascinating and well documented outside of the Bible in both archeological findings and ancient writings.
The Kingdom Books
4. 1 Samuel
5. 2 Samuel
6. 1 Kings
7. 2 Kings
The Post-Exilic Books
1. 1 Chronicles
2. 2 Chronicles
Poetical Books: These five books, Job through Song of Solomon, are sometimes referred to as Wisdom Literature or Writings. These books are poetic in genre. Some tell stories; others contain songs or general wisdom. These books do not add to the history of Israel or advance the chronology. God often uses these books to lead and comfort us in times of suffering.
Prophetical Books: The last 17 books of the Old Testament are the prophetical books. The prophets often predicted the future, but they also confronted the people of their day with strong messages from God about how they were living. The people had turned away from God and the prophets would tell them to come back to God.
The prophetical books are divided up into the Major Prophets and the Minor Prophets. The first 5 being the major prophetical books - Isaiah through Daniel - and the next 12 (the last 12 books of the Old Testament) are considered the minor prophetical books. The major prophetical books are not considered more important than the minor prophetical books. The terms major and minor have nothing to do with the prominence of the authors or the importance of the material. They only call them "major" and "minor" because of length. The major books are long and the minor are short books.
Another important thing to know is these books are not organized chronologically! So before you read a prophetical book, it is prudent to read an introduction to that book to get some context – who was writing to whom and in what historical time period. Read an introduction either in a study Bible or in a book such as The Complete Guide to the Bible. (affiliate link)
So why do we read the Old Testament?
Why is it in our Bible?
Why do we consider it Scripture?
The Old Testament Scriptures are referred and alluded to over and over in the New Testament. To understand concepts in the New Testament (for example Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb, referring to Passover, or the symbolism in the book of Revelation); reading the Old Testament Scriptures are critical. In the Old Testament we find how God created the world. How evil entered the world and we are sinful. We are told of God’s character – holy, just, merciful, loving, powerful, sovereign, almighty,… We see how God makes a series of covenants with His people. How God expects His people to keep their part of the covenant and to worship only Him. We see how God has a redemptive plan for His people to bring them a Savior.
The moral law of the Old Testament does not change because God's character does not change.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
"For I, the LORD, do not change;"
...coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty."
The Old Testament has many prophecies of the coming Messiah. The Savior of the world is to come from the Jewish people - specifically from the line of King David. Jesus is the only Man of all mankind to fulfill every Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah and that is because Jesus is the Messiah. He is the Christ.
The Old Testament shows us how God interacts with His people, and as believers in Jesus as our Savior and Lord that we are grafted into His people.
Jesus regarded the Old Testament Scriptures as authoritative. The writers of the New Testament books also recognized the authority of the Old Testament. The universal church regards them as authoritative. Thus, that makes them authoritative for our rule of faith too.
Organization of the Old Testament Books:
17 Historical Books
5 Pentateuch/ Torah/ Law
12 History Books
5 Poetical Books
17 Prophetical Books
5 Major Prophetical Books
12 Minor Prophetical Books
Reading God’s Word includes reading the Old Testament.
Only by knowing it will you get the big picture of His redemptive plan.