Four Old Testament Divisions

1 four OT divisions (2)

The books of the Old Testament fall into four major groups: law, history, poetry, and prophecy.

All thirty-nine books were accepted as part of the bible by the first century AD.


 There are five books of law (Torah). Together, they form the Pentateuch (“five books” in Greek). All bible traditions say that Moses wrote them.

The names of these books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books talk about God’s creation of humanity and the world.

They record the early history of humanity and tell how God raised up the nation of Israel to show himself to the nations of the world (Deut 4:6‒8).

As we might expect, these books also record the laws of God. The best-known parts are the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1‒17).

According to Jesus, the greatest of all commandments is Deut 6:5, and the second greatest commandment is Lev 19:18 (Matt 22:37‒40).


 There are 12 books of history in the Old Testament. The names of the books of history are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

In English Bibles, they come right after the books of law.

The books of history cover a thousand-year history of God’s people, Israel. While they do not tell everything that happened, they record the major events and show the results of both following and ignoring God’s law.


Virtually every book of the Old Testament contains some poetry, often in songs or prophecies.

Since the Old Testament was written for people who learned best by hearing and often could not read, poetry helped them remember what had been read or sung to them.

There are six whole books which are poetry. The names of the books of poetry are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Song of Songs.

These books are the worship and wisdom books of Israel. Many Jews and Christians still use the psalms to worship today.

Just as we understand poetry differently from a historical story in our culture, we must know when we are reading poetry in the Old Testament. It affects how literally we read those parts of the Bible.

As with Hebrew proverbs, a saying in a poem or song may talk about a promise or fact which is often, but not always, true. Unlike King David, I have seen the children of the righteous “begging for bread” (Ps 37:25).

An important thing to remember when reading biblical poetry is to read the whole poem before applying it to our lives.

In fact, all one hundred fifty psalms taken together talk about different parts of life.

For example, where some of these songs say that a person who walks with God is safe (Ps 1), others talk about how short and fragile our lives are (Ps 39). Both are true.

Hebrew poets wrote mainly for worship as a group.

Sometimes, they wrote for their own use to respond to what happened in their lives.

Therefore, when possible, we should read them while knowing what was happening to the author.

This helps us understand their meaning better. David likely wrote Ps 63 while running from King Saul in the wilderness. Knowing this helps us to understand what he was feeling.


The sixteen books of prophecy in the Old Testament are in two groups: Major and Minor Prophets.

This does not mean the Major Prophets are more important than the Minor Prophets.

Major Prophets are just longer books than the Minor Prophets.

Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel

Minor Prophets: Hosea, Nahum, Joel, Habakkuk, Amos, Zephaniah, Obadiah, Haggai, Jonah, Zechariah, Micah, and Malachi

These books tell what happened to the prophets and are messages from God to his people about future events.

Many of the prophecies have already happened, but others will occur in the future.

Some prophecies have already happened and will happen again in a different way.

In English Bibles, they are the last books in the Old Testament.

To help us understand the story line of the Old Testament better, we will be studying these books close to the order in which they were written.

For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles repeats what is in 1 and 2 Kings but from the viewpoint of people who returned to Israel after being exiled in Babylon. This was to help them understand why God had sent their ancestors away.

So, we will study 1 Kings, then the books of prophecy from the time of 1 Kings. After that, we will study 2 Kings, then the books of prophecy written during the time of 2 Kings.

Then, we will read 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles before studying the books which prophets wrote during Israel’s exile.

Image via Wikimedia Commons These statues show Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David.

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