Does it matter that Judges follows Joshua in our Bibles? We can all agree that it matters whether Joshua is “canonical,” part of God’s authoritative communication to His Church—part of the Bible. But does the order of the books matter? Among the various translations of the Old Testament the books considered “canonical” are mostly the same (though the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate add several), but there are significant differences in the way the Latin, English, Greek, and various forms of the Hebrew Bible order the Old Testament. Is one of these right—does it matter at all? I want to argue that none of these orders are wrong, but it is important to maintain that one is indeed a “right” order. That is, there is one order God intended but the alternate orders can be helpful.
The order of the Canon Matters
Looking only at the canonical books, each of these canonical orders helps us see something different about our Bibles. John Sailhamer discusses this effect through the analogy of a film montage: in a montage, different combinations of film clips are juxtaposed producing different effects. Seeing one clip beside another will emphasize their commonalities and differences, sometimes making subtle differences more evident or leading the viewer to miss certain details. In a similar fashion, the different ways our canon is ordered help us to look at our Bible’s in new ways by juxtaposing different books with one another.
The English order of the Old Testament historical books helps us to see the commonalities between the different historical narratives, the historical relationship between Judges and Ruth, and draws out the contrast between Kings and Chronicles. The Hebrew Order, on the other hand, helps us see that the Proverbs 31 woman is embodied in Ruth and draws our attention to the similarities between Samuel and Kings and the rest of the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc…). Because each order reveals different details to the reader, each of them helps us catch what was there the whole time. In this sense, none of them are wrong (considering only the canonical books).
There is a Right Order
However, sometimes one order of books can lead us to conclusions that another order refutes. Is the book of Ruth intended to be read as an illustration of Proverbs 31, and so an example of behaviour to follow, or is it a narrative intended to point us towards David, the descendant of Ruth and Boaz? Are we to read Samuel-Kings as prophetic books, as their place in the Hebrew Canon would suggest? Does the Old Testament conclude its history with Ezra-Nehemiah, suggesting that there was a successful return to the land, or with Chronicles, suggesting that the people of God never fully returned—that their King still needed to come up and deliver them?
If no canonical order is right, then we have no answer to these questions. However, if one order is indeed right, then we must pay careful attention to the features of the Bible revealed by the right order while valuing the perspectives presented by alternate orders.
It is very clear from the study of the internal and external evidence that the Hebrew Canonical order is chronologically first, has historical precedent (the Early church looked to the Hebrew and not the Greek text as Canonical), and is biblically warranted. The last piece of evidence is the most significant. Consider how Jesus speaks of the Old Testament: He speaks of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44, corresponding to the three sections of the Hebrew OT). Elsewhere, he speaks of the blood of the martyrs “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary” (Luke 11:51). The latter statement is not a chronological statement; instead, it refers to the first and last martyrs recorded in the Hebrew Old Testament (in Genesis and 2 Chronicles).1
Jesus, and the other New Testament authors, read their Bibles according to the Hebrew order of the books. Given that there was an order at this time, and that the order of books influences how we interpret them, we must regard the order which Jesus and His apostles read to be the right order. We should therefore consider the Hebrew order the right order for reading or Old Testaments: Ruth illustrates Proverbs 31, Samuel-Kings should be read as prophetic (along with Judges and Joshua), and the Old Testament ends with a cliff-hanger.2
Does this mean, however, that our English Bible order is wrong and should be discarded? By no means! Any conclusions drawn from the juxtaposition of books in our English Bible should be measured against the Hebrew order (so Ruth is not intended to make a historical connection between Judges and Samuel), yet great insights can still be gleaned by reading the books in this order.
As noted above, the differences between Chronicles and Kings are helpfully highlighted; the chronological relationship between Biblical books is reinforced (Judges, Ruth; Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah); and the shared features of the different biblical genres are made clear by their proximity.
What then is the point? Read from and profit from the English Bibles with which God has blessed us! But do not remain there forever; move on to the new landscape of the Hebrew ordering and understand how Jesus and the apostles read their Bibles. I have provided a sample of different Old Testament canonical lists below:
|English||Hebrew (MT)||Hebrew (Rabbinic)||Septuagint (excluding apocrypha)|
|Historical Books||The Prophets||The Prophets|
|Ruth||Samuel (1 & 2)||Samuel (1 & 2)||Ruth|
|1 – 2 Samuel||Kings (1 & 2)||Kings (1 & 2)||1 Kingdoms (1 Samuel)|
|1 – 2 Kings||Isaiah||Jeremiah||2 Kingdoms (2 Samuel)|
|1 – 2 Chronicles||Jeremiah||Ezekiel||3 Kingdoms (1 Kings)|
|Ezra||Ezekiel||Isaiah||4 Kingdoms (2 Kings)|
|Nehemiah||The Twelve||The Twelve||1 Chronicles|
|Wisdom Literature||– Hosea||– Hosea||2 Chronicles|
|Esther||– Joel||– Joel||1 Esdras (Ezra with Nehemiah)|
|Job||– Amos||– Amos||Esther|
|Psalms||– Obadiah||– Obadiah||Psalms|
|Proverbs||– Jonah||– Jonah||Proverbs|
|Ecclesiastes||– Micah||– Micah||Ecclesiastes|
|Song of Solomon||– Nahum||– Nahum||Song of Solomon|
|The Prophets||– Habakkuk||– Habakkuk||Job|
|Major Prophets||– Zephaniah||– Zephaniah||The Twelve|
|Isaiah||– Haggai||– Haggai||– Hosea|
|Jeremiah||– Zechariah||– Zechariah||– Amos|
|Lamentations||– Malachi||– Malachi||– Micah|
|Ezekiel||The Writings||The Writings||– Joel|
|Minor Prophets||Job||Psalms||– Jonah|
|Amos||Song of Solomon||Ecclesiastes||– Zephaniah|
|Obadiah||Ecclesiastes||Song of Solomon||– Haggai|
|Nahum||Daniel||Ezra (with Nehemiah)||Isaiah|
|Habakkuk||Ezra – Nehemiah||Esther||Jeremiah|
|Zephaniah||Chronicles (1 & 2)||Chronicles (1 & 2)||Lamentations|
1 For more ways the Bible validates the Hebrew canon, see my paper J. Alexander Rutherford, “A Critical Review of Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty” (Teleioteti, 2017), accessed January 23, 2018, https://teleioteti.ca/2017/10/13/a-critical-review-of-dempsters-dominion-and-dynasty/.