Introducing the 2024 TMBT Bible Reading Plan
As a child, I couldn’t name all 66 books of the Bible. I would’ve been hard-pressed to name four. But my wife most certainly could name them all with gusto (and set to music, to boot).
My guess is that most Christians would fall somewhere between the two of us, and that’s fine: what use is memorizing book order when we have table of contents, indices, and Bible searches?
But the order of the biblical books does matter, at least to a small number of Bible nerds who ask a question few of us ever imagined: what if the order of the biblical books communicates something about their contents, and therefore the heart of God?
It’s an interesting question, but also a complicated one, because our Bible order today isn’t the same as it was in the days of Jesus.
Of course, in his day there were no books, just scrolls preserved in fancy cupboards. But there was a general order to them, and Jesus seemed to be aware of it himself.
After his death, two disciples fled Jerusalem for a nearby town, Emmeaus. The only problem was that Jesus wasn’t dead. In fact, he was on the road with them, though they couldn’t recognize him.
They tell incognito-Christ that their hopes were dashed days before, only to have their mysterious interlocuter rebuke them,
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
I wish I could’ve been a fly on the tunic of one of those disciples to hear his lesson. But the main thing I want you to focus on are those words in bold “Moses” and “the Prophets.”
You might assume you know what he’s talking about—maybe Moses is Exodus through Deuteronomy, and the Prophets are Isaiah through Malachi?—but you’d be wrong.
Years ago, I realized Jesus’s Bible had a different order than mine while reading the work a Jewish scholar named Robert Alter. He wrote that Jesus was clearly referring to two of the three collections of writings which make up the Hebrew Bible: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim.
(Fun fact: Jewish people call the Old Testament “The Tanakh,” a word that uses the first consonant of each section in order.)
So when Jesus said “Moses,” he was referring to the first five books of the Bible, a collection of books which Jews and Jesus (elsewhere) call “The Torah,” which translate as “the law.”
When Jesus said, “The Prophets,” he was referring to what Jews call “The Former Prophets,” which included most of the historical books from Joshua to Kings, and “The Latter Prophets,” which included the books you must likely think of as prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets.).
Traditionally this section is called “The Nevi’im,” which is simply Hebrew for “the Prophets.”
Taken together, Jesus taught his disciples a lot of the Old Testament on the way to Emmaus. Apparently, he focused especially the storyline from Abraham to the day Babylon conquered Jerusalem. He showed them how the history and mission of Israel found its culmination in his life, death, and resurrection of king Jesus.
But there is one collection of books Jesus doesn’t mention: “the Ketuvim,” which is Hebrew for “the Writings.”
Fear not, Jesus wasn’t suggesting we should throw out this collection of books. We can be certain that Jesus taught the Ketuvim, because it included a part of the Old Testament that Jesus quoted most:
That said, the Writings is a strange collection.
At first glance it looks like a grab bag. It’s a smattering of history (1-2 Chronicles, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah), wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs), apocalyptic literature (Daniel), and poetry (Psalms, Lamentations).
The fact that—unlike the Torah and Nevi’im—the books collected in the Ketuvim rarely stayed in the same order only underlines the point: maybe these are just the kids Moses and the Prophets didn’t picked to play on their team?
Perhaps that’s why, after the time of Jesus, Christians reordered the Old Testament to make a bit more sense to them. The Ketuvim (Writings) got sprinkled throughout the Nevi’im (Prophets) in such a way that we get a rather different set of divisions:
Now, I want to be clear. I don’t think that the order of the Bible is inspired. It’s never been totally consistent.
But I do fear that pulling “the historical books” out of “the prophets” causes us to read them differently. We tend to read them as sacred history, which is good. But what if we could read them as what they were in Jesus’s day: prophetic writings, recounting the tumultuous ebb and flow of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel for posterity. What if we read them primarily as a prophetic act of resistance designed to vaccinate Israel against the idolatry it kept lapsing into?
Likewise, the Writings lose their strange beauty in modern Bible.
In the ancient order, the Writings clearly emphasizes books written from the period of the exile (1-2 Chronicles, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah). This creates an alternate context for the books.
As we read them, we imagine Jews in Babylon and Persia, struggling to remain faithful to Yahweh and make sense of worship apart from the temple, and away from the land.
In this context, the Psalms take on a new flavor: the songs written for the temple in Jerusalem are now sung in synagogues across the Empire. They are music for the scattered and the gathered.
Likewise, in the context of exile, wisdom literature takes on a fresh meaning: how can we live according to God’s will while immersed in an idolatrous culture?
The history books also take on a new purpose:
How do we explain our situation away from the land, enslaved under foreign occupation? How do we make sense of our ancestors’ failures and renew our covenant relationship with God? How do we move forward when our attempts at renewal fail?
These questions are not far from our own.
After all, we too live as “exiles” in a modern “Babylon” (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11, 5:13, Rev. 18). We, too, must learn to sing the songs of the heavenly Jerusalem while dispersed across the empires of earth. We, too, must seek to develop wisdom in an unwise age. We, too, must seek to make sense of the church’s sordid sacred history, perpetually seek renewal, and wrestle with our failures to produce it.
So, maybe, there was at least a little wisdom in the old way? Maybe reading all the books collected in the Ketuvim within the context of the Ketuvim makes them richer? And maybe the same goes for the Torah and Nevi’im?
To that end, Ten Minute Bible Talks spent all of 2022 exploring the first collection of Old Testament books, the Torah. In 2024, we will explore the entirety of the third collection, the Writings.
Of course, every section of scripture speaks today, but as we enter another election year in which many of us will be continually challenged to remain faithful to God in exile, I can think of no greater collection of texts for exiles than the those originally written for them: The Writings.
So make 2024 the year you open the “grab bag” that is the Writings, and found the treasures laid up for you there by God. In these words, we will find the messiah. And in him, we find life.