Helpful Hints for Reading the Historical Books.

Scholars categorize and outline the Bible in various ways. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Judaism each order the books of the Bible slightly differently and with some books added or removed with respect to each other.

In the Hebrew Bible there are traditionally three divisions:

The Law which is the first five books, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Prophets, further divided into former prophets and latter prophets.

Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. Christians divide Samuel and Kings into two books, the Hebrew Bible does not.

Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve.  The Twelve are what Christians sometimes refer to as the minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah,Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The third division is the Writings: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

What we are calling the historical books are the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), and Ezra-Nehemiah. These books tell the history of Israel from where Deuteronomy ends; on the banks of the Jordan River through the time of the judges, the kings, the fall of Jerusalem, the Exile and the return.

While these books on first reading seem like history books and we are calling them the historical books, it is important to remember that the Bible is not simply or even mostly a history text. The Bible is the story of what God has done for and through and with the people of Israel as understood and told by the people of Israel. This is not a neutral history of Israel.

Because the Bible is theology first and history secondarily, we need to read the Bible somewhat differently than we would read a “normal” history text. There are some events in these books that can be historically verified. And there are some events that cannot. But a faithful reading of the Bible is not based solely on historicity. To ask if some event actually happen may cause us to be side tracked by modern concerns about historicity and to miss the authors’ intention to tell us about God.

It will be more helpful for us to ask questions such as, “Why are we being told this story in this way?”, “What does this text tell us about God?”, “What does this text tell us about the relationship between God and humankind (in general) and Israel in particular?”

As we read these books we will find, once again, a variety of writing styles, narrative, poetry, and speeches. We will notice that the larger story is often told as a series of episodes. This writing style is what allows us to read individual stories as we often do in the context of worship or Bible study. We might read about David and Bathsheba without reading the entire story of David, for example.

We will also find that sometimes we will read the same story more than once. The story will be told from diverse viewpoints. Ancient Israel was not a monolithic culture, just as any modern nation does not contain only one viewpoint.

If you wish to read more about narrative literature, see Peter D. Miscall “Introduction to Narrative Literature” in  The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II, Leander Keck ed., Abingdon Press: Nashville)1998.

For a good resource in understanding ancient Israel’s history, see Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.


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