How is the Old Testament (the Tanak) read by Jews?

Being a Christian, Protestant, Reformed evangelical pastor, I use the modern-day Bible that I bought from the bookstore (New King James and the ESV).  These contain what we know as the 66 books of the Bible, the 39 in the Old Testament and the 27 in the New.  These books have been placed in a certain order for certain reasons.  For instance, the New Testament begins with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).  Matthew is placed first because it was considered by the early church to be the most Jewish in its authorship and its audience, so it was placed first.  It was considered a bridge to the Old Testament and was considered the first Gospel to be written.  Mark was placed second because it was the shortest.  Luke was then placed and John was last because it is more theological than chronological.  Acts is placed after John, which is somewhat odd because it should be positioned straight after Luke’s gospel, since Luke wrote Acts, and Acts is considered Part II of Acts.

Romans – Philemon comes next in the canon because, being written by Paul, they go from the theologically heaviest (Romans) first and then the longest (1-2 Corinthians) to the shortest (Philemon).  (Although Corinthians is placed in the biblical canon before 1-2 Thessalonians, evidence suggests that Thessalonians was written well before Corinthians).  James is placed where he is, after Philemon, all by himself because he wrote no other epistle.  Hebrews is in an obscure place because the church was divided as to who originally wrote it.  Then comes the letters of Peter and then the letters of John before Revelation (since John wrote Revelation). 

But what about the Old Testament?  Technically in the OT there are not 39 books as much as there are 36 (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel is actually one book in Hebrew, as are Kings and Chronicles).  The Jews also read the Bible in a different order.  The Old Testament was typically read as follows:

  1. First of all, Jews read the books of The Law (otherwise known as The Books of Moses, or the Torah), which = Genesis to Deuteronomy. 
  2. Secondly they read the Prophets (or the Neviim), which = The early prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings), the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the minor prophets, otherwise known as The Twelve (e.g. Hosea, Daniel, Malachi). 
  3. Lastly, they read the Writings (or the Ketuviim), which = the historical books (e.g. Ruth and Nehemiah) and the wisdom book (e.g. Song of Solomon, Job, and Proverbs).
  4. Notice how the Jews put the Old Testament into three distinct categories of Torah, Neviim, and Ketuviim?  When you take the first letters of those words (T-N-K), you make the word ‘Tanak‘.  Tanak is actually the name that Jews officially call the Old Testament.  (They do not call it “Old” because they do not recognise the New Testament.)

I have  put together a summary of the Hebrew Canon Order (in PDF) to demonstrate the order of reading the Old Testament.  I personally prefer this kind of order because it improves how you understand the unravelling of the biblical story line.  You can, of course, read it in the order of the Bible as you have it now, but this is an alternative that will help you to grasp how the Word of God unfolds. 

Here is a suggested Bible reading plan for the Bible over a year; if you wish to do the Old Testament reading in the Jewish order, you just rearrange the plan.  You can also do the same thing with the New Testament – why not read the book of Acts right after you’ve read the book of Luke?  Why not read Thessalonians before Corinthians?  

God bless and happy reading!  Pastor Haydn.  


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