Your guide to reading the Old Testament

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The Bible is made up of two parts—the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is a set of books that was written before the life of Jesus. The New Testament is a set of books that was written after Jesus’ death.

The Old Testament is sometimes also called the Hebrew Bible because most of it was originally composed in ancient Hebrew. However, some books were written in Aramaic or Greek, so the name is not completely accurate. The Old Testament is also sometimes referred to as the Jewish Scriptures because the bulk of it is drawn from the sacred texts of the Jewish people. However, that’s not completely accurate, either, because the Catholic Old Testament includes some texts that the Jewish people do not consider to be sacred.

The Old Testament contains 46 books, which can be divided into four parts:

  1. Torah (or Pentateuch)
  2. Historical Books
  3. Wisdom Books
  4. Prophetic Books

Torah

“Torah” is roughly translated as “law,” but it has a more complex meaning. The law of Moses (which is extremely condensed into the Ten Commandments) was given to the ancient Israelites by God. The law is meant to show the Jewish people a right way of living—a way that leads out of darkness and into light. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch because it is made up of five (“penta”) books:

  1. Genesis
  2. Exodus
  3. Leviticus
  4. Numbers
  5. Deuteronomy

Historical Books

The historical books tell the story of the Israelite people entering the Promised Land, which is roughly modern-day Israel. The stories also include Israel’s rise to power in the ancient world and the eventual destruction of the Israelite kingdom. The Jewish people were exiled to live in places outside of Israel and then, years later, allowed to return.

Wisdom Books

The Wisdom Books are a collection of lifestyle writings. They are commentaries or guides for being in right relationship with God and with each other. The most famous of the Wisdom Books is the book of Psalms. The Psalms are prayers or songs for individuals and for public worship.

Prophetic Books

The Prophetic Books often deal with the experience of exile. They were mostly written when the Israelites were under threat of foreign domination or after they had been conquered and dispersed to foreign lands. These writings emphasize the need to remain faithful to God and to live a life of holiness.

Reading the Old Testament

In another article, we talked about reading the Bible along with the liturgical year of the church. That is a terrific way to approach Scripture. However, there are other ways to read the Bible also. The Bible is like a library. If you were standing in a library, you would pick out books that interested you, and you would pass over those that didn’t. Use that same inclination in deciding what to read in the Old Testament.

If the liturgical readings for the day do not interest you, perhaps you’d be interested in short, fascinating stories. If so, start with:

  • Ruth
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Esther

Maybe you like history. In that case, go to:

  • 1 and 2 Samuel
  • 1 and 2 Kings
  • 1 and 2 Chronicles
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees

For spirituality, turn to the prophets. Start with the shorter ones:

  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Amos
  • Haggai

As you are reading, you will come across names, words, and phrases that are unfamiliar. Often times, there will be some explanation in the footnotes. And some Bibles include a glossary and other helpful information in the appendices. Usually, you can discern the author’s main idea even if you aren’t familiar with some of the terms he or she uses.

Books of the Old Testament

Pentateuch
Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy

Historical books
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Tobit
Judith
Esther
1 Maccabees
2 Maccabees

Wisdom books
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Songs (Song of Solomon)
Wisdom of Solomon
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

Prophetic books
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Baruch
Ezekiel
Daniel
Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zecariah
Malachi


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