Posted in Bible

First and Second Books in the Old Testament

Were the individual “books” of the Old Testament always distinct books or were they parts of a larger whole?

For example, 1 and 2 Samuel were once one book and were subdivided—initially only in the LXX, and subsequently in the Hebrew copies—because the text was too long to fit on a single scroll. However, there is no particular reason why a large Hebrew composition—one that may have spanned the entire history of the Israelites in their land—could not have existed on several scrolls.

These scroll-capacity-delimited “books” may have eventually received individual designations, such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This same procedure was undoubtedly followed earlier in the designation of the individual “books” of Moses.

However, following Martin Luther’s edition, German translations of the Bible often do not follow the English practice of naming the first five books of the Bible as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Instead, they number them as five installments of one work: Das erste Buch Mose (1. Moses), Das zweite Buch Mose (2. Moses), and so on. In this way, these German Bibles approximate what the much earlier Jewish scholars accomplished by using one of the opening words of each part: Bereshith, Shemoth, Vayyiqra, Bemidbar, and Devarim.

The KJV partially preserved this traditional naming by titling individual books of the Pentateuch as, for example, “The Second Book of Moses, (Commonly) Called Exodus.” The Septuagint (LXX), however, used neither number nor opening words to designate the five books of Moses. Instead, it used individual names—Genesis, Exodos, Leuitikon, Arithmoi, and Deuteronomion—which, via Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, found its way into the medieval and modern Western nomenclature. This tradition had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the original indications of the unity of the work.

The ancient Jewish scribes did not follow the naming procedure used for the five books of Moses in the Former Prophets. Instead, they assigned individual books a “title” based upon subject matter: Joshua because he was its central character, Judges because the book was about a sequence of savior-leader figures called “judges,” Samuel because he was the first significant character in 1-2 Samuel, and Kings because 1-2 Kings was a chronological sequence of narratives about the reigns of successive Israelite and Judaean kings.

This procedure of naming the books obscures the unity of the series. But the scribes had other ways of indicating the unity of the series. All but the first of the five books of Moses begin with the conjunction וְ (w) (“and”), showing that they always were a single series. Likewise, all the books from Joshua through 2 Kings begin with “and,” and Joshua itself is linked to the five books of Moses by the same conjunction. Although Ezra begins in the same way, Nehemiah does not, nor does 1-2 Chronicles, for these texts were not conceived originally as parts of the grand history of Israel down to the exile.

Adapted from Hoffner, H. A., Jr. (2015). 1 & 2 Samuel. (H. W. House & W. Barrick, Eds.). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.