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No. 80: Rethinking the Order of the Old Testament

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 80
December, 1995
Copyright 1995 Biblical Horizons

The Book of Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament. The word "canon" means "authoritative list" when used in connection with the Bible. What we call the Hebrew Canon consists of 24 books arranged in three major divisions: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Christian Bibles have 39 books, because, following the early Greek and Latin translations, the Christian Bible divides Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two books each, splits Ezra-Nehemiah into two books, and breaks the Twelve into the twelve Minor Prophets.

Students often assume that the Hebrew Canon reflects the "true" order of the books of the OT. In fact, however, there is a great deal of doubt about this order. First of all, the fact that each of the books of the OT was written on its own scroll means that there was not necessarily any fixed order at all.

Second, the Greek form of the OT seems to go back as far as the Hebrew Canon, and the Greek order is the order we have in our Bibles today. Many different canonical sequences are found in early Judaism and in the early Church.

Third, many ancient Jewish and Christian sources (e.g., Josephus and Origen) speak of 22 rather than 24 books. Generally it is assumed that Ruth was included with Judges and Lamentations was included with Jeremiah. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and in terms of ancient thought this must have played a role in counting the books as 22 in number. On this, see our discussion below.

Fourth, and most important, I think, is that the "Hebrew Canon" is liturgical in structure. The books are arranged as they were actually read in the synagogue, not necessarily in a literary-theological order. Take a look at the schedule of readings for the Sundays of the year as used in any liturgical church, and you will see an appointed OT lesson, Psalm, Epistle lesson, and Gospel lesson for each Sunday. The same was true of the annual appointed lessons in the Synagogue. The arrangement of the Hebrew Canon reflects this liturgical system.

[References: R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), pp. 260ff, 1136. M.D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974); and Goulder, The Evangelists’ Calendar (London: SPCK, 1978).]

The purpose of this essay is "to boldly go where few have gone before," and open the possibility that there is another, more definitive order to the Old Testament canon, one that can be discerned from the text itself, which is superior to both the Hebrew and the Greek Canons.

A Biblico-Theological Canon

My starting point is the covenant-making acts of God. In connection with each of three great times of covenant-making in the Old Creation history, we find sections of the Bible being written. There are centuries-long breaks between each of these periods of writing.

The first canon, which I shall call the Book of the Ox (after the first face of the cherubim, the priestly face) consists of the five books of Moses and Joshua. While it is probably the case that parts of Genesis were written before Moses, by Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, the book as a whole was ordered and completed by Moses (with a few later additions by Samuel). Moses completed his five books in the year am 2553 (Anno Mundi). The book of Joshua was finished a few years later.

We then have a gap of about 350 years before any new Scripture was written. This brings us to the Book of the Lion (the kingly face of the cherubim). The first book of this "New Testament" was Judges. The theme of Judges, that the people were rejecting Yahweh’s kingship, is the same as that of Samuel in 1 Samuel 8. It is most reasonable to assume that (a) Samuel wrote Judges, and (b) that he wrote it just before Saul became king, in am 2909. About 30 years later, to validate the selection of David as king, the book of Ruth was written (also probably by Samuel).

At this point let me insert a comment: If Ruth is added to Judges, the literary structure of Judges is destroyed. Moreover, the two books have different, though complementary themes: the rejection of Yahweh’s kingship versus the selection of a true vice-regent for Yahweh (David). Thus, these two books should not be combined into one.

The book of Samuel, which ends with the selection of the site of the Temple, would follow Ruth.

The following five books are also part of the Book of the Lion: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is the Wisdom Literature, and in the Bible, wisdom is a kingly attribute. David produced the heart and the bulk of the Psalter, and even though some psalms were produced later on, the book was set up at this time. Solomon wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Attempts to separate Solomon from Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are silly and groundless, gnat-straining and camel-swallowing exercises.

Thus, the Book of the Lion was written over the course of about a century, from approximately am 2905 to 3020.

We now have another period of silence, lasting from the death of Solomon to the first of the writing prophets, probably Amos, a gap of almost 200 years. Over the ensuing 300 years, the next "New Testament" was written, which I call the Book of the Eagle, after the prophetic-imperial face of the cherubim.

That this should be seen as one section can be deduced from the Twelve, which is one book. We usually call it the Minor Prophets today, but this book actually has one "plot," provided by its divine Author. Recall that most of the booklets in the Twelve were written by dictation from God anyway, so the idea of one overarching story line is not at all improbable. Amos was the earliest writing prophet, and Malachi the last. Doubtless the separate booklets were regarded as Scripture as they were written, but in their final form they are one book. [On the overall structure and plot of the Twelve, see Paul R. House, The Unity of the Twelve (Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1990). I hope to share the insights of this book in a later essay in Biblical Horizons .]

With the completion of Chronicles and the Twelve, we come to another break in the history of written revelation, lasting until ad 30, when Matthew produced his gospel immediately after Pentecost. The fourth and final New Testament I call the Book of the Image of God, after the fourth face of the cherubim.

Now, what I have done to this point is produce a Biblico-theological arrangement of the books of the Old Testament, different from either of the two traditional canons. Let us turn now to the order of the books in the third section of our revised canon.

The Book of the Eagle

Uncovering the proper order of these books, assuming there is one, is problematic. A chronological sequence is what I shall attempt here, as a provisional working sequence.

First comes Isaiah, because his book was finished well before the exile.

Then, I suggest, the Book of Kings. The description of the destruction of Jerusalem in 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:30 is virtually identical with that in Jeremiah 52. Jeremiah is, of course, the most likely author of Kings, the prophet who put it together from previous materials under divine inspiration. Just as Acts comes before the Epistles, and provides their historical context, so I would put Kings before Jeremiah.

Next would be Jeremiah-Lamentations, which should be seen as one book, and then Ezekiel, and then Daniel.

I shall argue below that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are one book. Since Nehemiah carries us down to the end of the reign of Darius, and the events of Esther happen in the middle of that reign, Esther should precede Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.

What about the Twelve? I shall discuss below the possibility that Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah is actually an introduction to the New Testament, and for that reason, should come last. Thus, I shall put the Twelve after Esther.


The Twelve

Greater Chronicles

In the Hebrew Canon, Chronicles is the last book and comes right after Ezra-Nehemiah. This does not seem to make much sense, and for this reason, Harrison and others argue that the only way it could have come to occupy this position is if it had been written later and independently of Ezra-Nehemiah. As we shall see, however, there is a better explanation for how this happened.

If we set aside tradition and look at the text, there is good reason for considering Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah as one book, which I shall call Greater Chronicles. First of all, there are strong similarities of style and theme.

Second, a survey of Greater Chronicles turns up a unified structure. The book begins with a genealogical prologue that ends, "So all Israel was enrolled by genealogies; and behold, they are written in the Book of the Kings of Israel. And Judah was carried away into exile to Babylon for their unfaithfulness" (9:1). This genealogical theme is picked up in Ezra 2, where we have a list of those who first returned from exile, and then we read of those "who were not able to give evidence of their fathers’ households, and their seed, whether they were of Israel" (Ezra 2:59; and compare 1 Chronicles 9 with Ezra 2:62). Note that by itself, the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1-9 goes nowhere. Only if we put it with Ezra 2 does it make any sense.

Then Chronicles immediately tells us about the death of Saul (1 Chron. 10). This seems to come out of nowhere, but in fact it ties with the end of Chronicles and the death of the last king of Judah.

What follows are three things:

  1. The reign of David, who organized the people as a human temple (1 Chron. 11-29).
  2. The reign of Solomon, who built the physical Temple (2 Chron. 1-31).
  3. The later kings. Unlike the book of Kings, the northern kingdom is virtually ignored. Elijah and Elisha do not appear. Rather, the history contrasts the good kings who brought reform and rebuilt the Temple and people, and the bad kings who ruined both. We find more information about good kings Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah in Chronicles than we do in Kings. Particular attention is given to the repair of the Temple and worship by Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah.

Then we come, in 2 Chronicles 36, to a brief history of the destruction of Judah. This is followed, in the last two verses, by the proclamation of Cyrus that the Jews should return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. These last two verses are reproduced word for word in the first two verses of Ezra.

Cyrus is presented as a new and greater David, who gets the people organized to build the Temple. He provides material for them to build it. Then the building project is stopped, because of the sins of the people, just as David, for his own sins, was not allowed to build the Temple.

The next significant king is Darius the Great. Darius sees to it that the Temple is finished, and so Darius is a greater Solomon.

Now at this point modern commentators are virtually unanimous in their confusion. They assume, wrongly, that the letters of opposition sent to Kings Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes in Ezra 4 refer to events after the reign of King Darius (Ezra 5-6), and thus are out of chronological order. They further assume that the King Artaxerxes of Ezra 7-12 and of Nehemiah is this later Artaxerxes. Here is the current scheme:

Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1-3)
Darius the Great (Ezra 5-6)
Ahasuerus (Xerxes) (Ezra 4; Esther)
Artaxerxes Longimanus (Ezra 4, 7-12; Neh.)

In fact, however, this cannot be. First of all, all of these kings went by several titles, and so by themselves these names don’t necessarily identify different kings. Second, the Hebrew particle translated "and" in Ezra 4:6 & 7 sometimes means "that is," in which case both Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes are different names for the Darius of Ezra 4:5. Third, comparing the list of priests who returned in the first year of Cyrus (Neh. 12:1-9) with those serving in the 20th year of "Artaxerxes" (Neh. 10:1-12) shows that 15 out of 22 are the same. This is possible if "Artaxerxes" is Darius, because there are only 35 years in between. If Artaxerxes Longimanus is in view, however, there are 78 years in between the two lists, which is impossible. Thus, clearly those older commentators were correct who maintained that Darius is the Artaxerxes of Ezra and Nehemiah. Darius is also the Ahasuerus of Esther, and this also can be proved by genealogical considerations. (For a detailed discussion of all this, see my paper, Esther in the Midst of Covenant History.)

Thus, Darius is a new Solomon in that (a) he gets the Temple built, (b) he gets the walls of the new "holy city" built (which extend the walls of the Temple to the whole city, and (c) his love of a bride is celebrated in a book, like Song of Songs.

Lastly, in Nehemiah 13 we see Nehemiah return to Jerusalem to repair the Temple and correct abuses. This sets in motion a history parallel to the history of the kings who repair the Temple in Chronicles.

Now let us outline Greater Chronicles:

A. Genealogical Introduction
B. Death of the Wicked King
C. David
D. Solomon
E. Kings who repair the Temple
B’ Death of the Wicked Nation
C’ Cyrus (David)
D’ Darius-Artaxerxes (Solomon)
E’ Nehemiah repairs the Temple

This literary structure is a seamless garment. It clearly is one progression of thought, establishing that the new Restoration Covenant carries on the original Kingdom plan on a new stage. To put it another way, the message of Chronicles is obscure unless we see its climax in Ezra-Nehemiah.

It seems clear that Greater Chronicles was originally one book. How, then, did Ezra-Nehemiah get put before it? Goulder, in the works cited above, provides an answer: The lectionary system presented Greater Chronicles in a one-year cycle. If we begin with Ezra and end with Chronicles, then the two-verse statement about Cyrus begins and ends the cycle (Ezra 1:1-2; 2 Chron. 36:22-23).

This would explain how the Cyrus statement wound up being duplicated, and suggests that it was not originally duplicated. If 2 Chronicles 36 leads directly to Ezra 1, there is no need for the duplication.

On the other hand, if the order is Ezra-Chronicles, then we find something interesting theologically. God identified Cyrus as His Messiah (Is. 45:1). Ezra presents Cyrus as initiating the rebirth of Israel. Chronicles shows the people in sin and under judgment, but with Cyrus rescuing them. Thus, Cyrus is alpha and omega, a fitting type of Christ.

I am frankly undecided as to which comes first. In terms of history and overall literary structure, it seems that Chronicles comes first. But if Goulder is right, and Ezra-Nehemiah-Chronicles are designed as a commentary on Genesis-Deuteronomy (see his works), then possibly this order is correct. Possibly both orders are intended.

One thing is fairly certain: Greater Chronicles is one book, written by one hand, with one theme and purpose.

Further Considerations

The total number of books in the Bible is 49, which is seven times seven. As I have pointed out before, the first seven books of the Bible recapitulate the seven days of creation (see my Covenant Sequence in the Leviticus and Deuteronomy.) There needs to be an investigation into the whole canon to see if this structure is carried through the whole. All I can do is point to some possibilities here.

While Judges is the first book in the Book of the Lion, it is also the book of sabbath sin and failure for the Book of the Ox. Thus, the new "week" of books will start with Ruth.

Ruth is much like Genesis in its themes. Twice in Genesis famines drive God’s people from the promised land. There are three barren women in Genesis, like Naomi. The genealogy of Ruth 4 carries forward Judah as the kingly line from Genesis 49.

Samuel is filled with Exodus themes. The return of the Ark after defeating Philistia is the first exodus. Saul becomes a new Pharaoh, and David a new Moses, so a second exodus sequence is found there. Then David, for his sins, is driven from the holy land by Absalom. His return is a third exodus and conquest. The book closes with the selection of the site of the Temple, analogous to the building of the Tabernacle at the end of Exodus.

Now, where to fit the five wisdom books? The Greek order is Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles. The Hebrew order is Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Canticles, and Ecclesiastes. I believe the Hebrew order is most fitting.

Psalms, the book of worship, corresponds to Leviticus. The silent sacrificial worship of the priestly era is enhanced with the sung sacrifice of praise in the kingly era.

Proverbs, the book of how to live, corresponds to Deuteronomy, an obvious parallel.

Canticles is parallel to Joshua. Woman was made with man on the sixth day, while mankind sinned on the seventh; thus, Canticles should precede Ecclesiastes. Moreover, Joshua completes the history and promises made in Genesis, and the love song of Canticles completes the love story of Ruth.

This leaves Ecclesiastes, which reflects on the futility of work under the curse of Genesis 3, God’s sabbath judgment. Man cannot work by sight, because the ground brings a curse. He must work by faith, telling himself that his work is good.

At the center is Job. The theme of celestial warfare in Job compares nicely with Numbers, because in Numbers the children of Israel are portrayed as a heavenly host.

Now what about the Book of the Eagle? First of all, I want to put Greater Chronicles with the New Testament as an introduction, so we shall be concerned only with the other seven books. I must confess that it is harder to see a structure here, but let me give it my best shot for now.

Kings is a kind of anti-exodus, beginning instead of ending with the building of God’s house, and moving backwards to enslavement and deportation into a new Egypt.

Esther parallels Joshua, the conquest this time of the entire world being in view.

Ezekiel takes place in exile, in the wilderness, and thus might well link with Numbers.

Daniel is concerned with sea monsters, which were made on the fifth day.

Jeremiah is a priest (Leviticus) and Lamentations would link with the Psalter.

Isaiah has to do with judgment and new creation (Day 1), while the Twelve end once again in sabbath sin and failure (Malachi).

Genesis Ruth Isaiah
Exodus Samuel Kings
Leviticus Psalms Jeremiah-Lam.
Numbers Job Ezekiel
Deuteronomy Proverbs Daniel
Joshua Song of Songs Esther
Judges Ecclesiastes The Twelve

To complete this survey, consider the following for reflection. See if you can "fill in the blanks" and if the system makes sense.

Day 1: The Light of the Law given (Genesis – Judges).

Day 2: The Firmament People established as mediators (Ruth – Ecclesiastes).

Day 3: Land and Sea (Jew and Gentile) interact (Isaiah – Twelve).

Day 4: The Governing Light Established: The Wars of Numbers and Job: The Greater Son of Man (Ezekiel).
Greater Chronicles
Day 5: The Swarms of God’s Glory Cloud Established: How to Live (Deuteronomy & Proverbs): The Climax of the History of Israel (Daniel): These are the Apostles to the Circumcision.
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John
Day 6: God’s New Man and Bride Established: Conquests of Joshua, this time in the world: Bride (Canticles; Esther) established.
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Day 7: Sabbath: Failures of Judges, Ecclesiastes, and the Twelve are answered at last. God’s future comings (Thessalonians); the future of the Church (Timothy, Titus, Philemon); the theme of entering into God’s rest (Hebrews).
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy

A Revised Canon

We have now ascertained that the canon of the Old Testament consists of 22 books. A project that I think needs to be undertaken is this: Are these books to be associated with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and if so, how? We have several alphabetical psalms and other parts of Scripture, and Psalm 119 is an alphabetical celebration of the Word of God. It is possible, then, that God intended these 22 books of His Word to be an alphabet. If alphabetical correlations can be made, then we would come up with a definitive literary order, or canon, for the books.

Here are the books, in the order I have come up with thus far, with their letters. As you will see, in some cases the letters fit with the books; in others they do not seem to fit at all. There is also the question of the meaning, narrower and wider, of some of the names of the letters. A full study should be made of this.

  1. Genesis – ’aleph (thousand; cp. promise to Abraham)
  2. Exodus – beth (house; in Exodus the Tabernacle is built)
  3. Leviticus – gimel (ripen; or recompense, re-ward, requite)
  4. Numbers – daleth (door, entrance; enter the holy land)
  5. Deuteronomy – he (lo! behold!)
  6. Joshua – vav (hook, nail)
  7. Judges – zayin (weapon; God trains Israel to war)
  8. Ruth – heth (living thing)
  9. Samuel – teth (a winding; goodness?; mud)
  10. Psalms – yodh (hand)
  11. Job – kaph (palm)
  12. Proverbs – lamedh (ox-goad; learn, study, teach; clearly fits Proverbs)
  13. Song of Songs – mem (water)
  14. Ecclesiastes – nun (sprout, propagate, flour-ish, generate)
  15. Isaiah – samekh (support; something relied on, trusted in)
  16. Kings – ‘ayin (eye)
  17. Jeremiah-Lamentations – pe (mouth; fits Je-remiah)
  18. Ezekiel – tsaddi (related to "capture" and "righteous"; both fit Ezekiel, the tsadiq)
  19. Daniel – qoph (ape; eye of a needle)
  20. Esther – resh (head)
  21. The Twelve – shin (tooth, jaw)
  22. Greater Chronicles – tav (sign, cross)