Reading through the Old Testament can be a little intimidating, especially for someone who is just starting to get into the Bible for the first time. The strange customs, unfamiliar settings, and ancient writing styles can often be a little confusing, even for someone who is familiar with the Scriptures. Nevertheless, you’ll find that reading through the Old Testament is time well spent, for God rewards those who make a serious effort to get to know His Word. You’ll never know what great things God may have hidden for you in His Word unless you invest the time that it takes to find them.
You may find that it’s easier to understand the Old Testament if you break it down into smaller portions rather than trying to tackle it as one big book. Although there are many different ways of dividing the individual books, the Old Testament has been traditionally divided into three major parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these segments in a little greater detail…
The books of the Law consist of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Bible. These books are sometimes referred to as the “Pentateuch” (from a Greek word meaning “five-volumes”) or the “Torah” (which means “Law” or “Teaching”). These five books cover the time period from the creation of the world up to about 1400 BC
The books of the Law offer you far more than just an explanation of how we got here or long, detailed lists of “do’s” and “don’ts.” The first five books of the Bible also provide us with an important historical record that speaks to us today. As we look at God’s faithfulness towards His people, we’re reminded that the God who worked in the lives of these ancient men and women is the same God who can also work in our lives today.
The Law also provides us with a detailed look at such important Biblical characters such as Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and many others. These five books give us the chance to look at (and duplicate) their successes -and also avoid their failures (see 1 Corinthians 10:11).
Here’s where things can get a little confusing. The prophetic books of Old Testament are sometimes divided into two categories: the “Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings) and the “Latter Prophets.” The Latter Prophets can then be subdivided into two additional categories: the “Major Prophets” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and the “Minor Prophets” (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).
In the days of the Old Testament, the Minor Prophets were simply referred to as “The Twelve” because their twelve books could fit on one scroll. One other thing to remember about the Minor Prophets is that they were not called that because their writings were less important. The terms “major” and “minor” simply refer to the length of the individual books. This means that someone like Isaiah is a “major” prophet simply because his book was lengthier and not because it was more important than The Twelve.
The final section of the Old Testament is known as the “Writings.” Like the prophetical books, these books can also be broken up into subdivisions. Among the Writings are found the “Poetic Books” (Psalms, Proverbs, Job), “the Rolls” (Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and the “Prophetic/Historic Books” (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles).
These books provide us with some of the most emotionally intense reading in the entire Bible. For example, you can follow along with Nehemiah as he struggles against tremendous odds to rebuild the city that he loves. Or you could admire the bravery of a young woman named Esther as she risks her life to save her people. You can read about romantic love (Song of Solomon) or get some good, practical, common sense advice for every day living in the book of Proverbs.
In the book of Job, you can meet a man who lost everything for no apparent reason only to gain back more than he had before- and learn an important lesson about God in the process. Then there are the Psalms, with poetry that covers every mood from pain and sorrow to joy and exhilaration. The writings found within these books are mentioned often in the New Testament and it’s well worth your time to get to know them.
Although it may be easy to assume otherwise, the books of the Old Testament do not follow a chronological order. In other words, the books of the Old Testament do not necessarily follow in the order that they were written. For example, the book of Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible, yet there are 17 books that precede it in our modern Bibles. The reason for this is that the books of the Old Testament are grouped according to the style and type of book they represent and not when the individual book was written.
So why study the Old Testament? Well, the Old Testament provides us with valuable insights that help us understand who God is and how He works in people’s lives. But more importantly, the Old Testament points us to Jesus, God’s promised Savior. He is the thread that connects the Old Testament with the New. As Jesus Himself said in Matthew 5:17…
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come– it isn’t to cancel the laws of Moses and the warnings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them and to make them all come true.”