The Order of the Books in the Hebrew Bible

By Goswell, Greg | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Order of the Books in the Hebrew Bible


Goswell, Greg, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


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The Bible as a literary work is made up of text and paratext. Paratext may be defined as everything in a text other than the words, that is to say, those elements that are adjoined to the text but are not part of the text itself if the "text" is limited strictly to the words. The paratext of Scripture embraces features such as the order of the biblical books, the names assigned to the different books, and the differing schemes of textual division within the books.1 Since these elements are adjoined to the text, they have an influence on reading and interpretation. This study proceeds on the assumption that text and paratext (though conceptually differentiated) are for all practical purposes inseparable and have an important interrelationship that influences the reading process. I will examine one paratextual feature, namely, the order of the placement of the books that make up the Hebrew Bible. Where a biblical book is placed relative to other books influences, initially at least, a reader's view of the book, raising expectations regarding the contents of the book.2 A reader naturally assumes that material that is juxtaposed is in some way related in meaning. It is this habit that forms the basis of the following survey and analysis.

It would perhaps be helpful at this early juncture to explain what I am not doing in the present study. This is not a history of the formation of the canon of Scripture. There are many books and articles that attempt such a survey. Some of these have been used in the present study, though their research and conclusions have been put to a different use than that of plotting the historical genesis of the collection of books that now makes up the Hebrew Bible. This article is not an effort to justify the limits of the canon, nor does it seek to explain why some books were included (e.g. Esther, Ecclesiastes) or some excluded (e.g. Sirach) from the canon of Scripture. Nor is it an explanation of the genesis of alternative arrangements of the biblical books. I am not concerned with genetics but with the effect on the reader of the present arrangement of biblical books, however that arrangement may have been produced. I will seek to tease out hermeneutical implications of the canonical orders settled upon by different communities of faith. The aim is not to justify and promote a particular order of books, whether Jewish or Christian, as the exclusive basis for further study and thinking on the meaning of the biblical text. It is not necessary to decide upon any particular order of books, favouring it over other contending orders, for differing orders highlight different features of the books thus categorized, so that each order in its own way may be valid and useful to the reader.

I. CLASSIFYING BOOK ORDERS

The ordering of books can be classified according to a number of principles. These principles need not be mutually exclusive but one may reinforce another, and there may be more than one possible principle reflected in a particular order. Unless stated by the author or editor, it is left to the reader to surmise what rationale is at work in the ordering of the literary blocks that make up a larger whole. It is not necessary to know or decide how deliberative the process of ordering was,3 for the focus of this study is the effect on the reader of the order, not its historical production.4 It is not my aim to secondguess what was in the mind of those responsible for the ordering of the biblical books. The following are some possible principles of order as inferred by the reader after an examination of the biblical material:

(1) Size of the book, e.g. the sequence: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Book of the Twelve (= Minor Prophets) in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Bat. 14b) may be arranged according to decreasing book length.

(2) Chronological setting, e.g. Ruth 1:1 ("In the days when the judges ruled") would seem to explain the lxx placement of this book following Judges, seeing that it is set in the same era of Israelite history. …

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