Summaries of the Old Testament’s books.

It’s nice to have the book order memorized, but it’s far more useful to know what’s in the books. So here’s a brief summary of each book of the Old Testament.

Books of Moses.

GENESIS. These are the formation stories of the earth and the Hebrew people.

  • Creation.
  • Adam and Eve and humanity’s fall.
  • Noah ben Lamech, and humanity wiped out by floods.
  • Babel, and humanity’s scattering.
  • Avram ben Terah, or Abraham the Hebrew; his relationship with God, and his relocation to Canaan.
  • Jacob ben Isaac, or Israel; his relationship with God, and the creation of his large family—the ancestors of the 13 tribes.
  • Joseph ben Jacob, or as the Egyptians called him, Chafnat-pahaneakh; how he went from slavery to become Egypt’s vizier, and his brothers’ relocation to Egypt.

EXODUS. Primarily it’s about the Exodus—how the Hebrew descendants of Israel became a nation, became enslaved by Egypt, and had to be saved by the LORD himself. It tells how the LORD did that, through 10 plagues of judgment upon Egypt. It introduces his prophet Moses ben Amram, his Law, and his instructions for the tabernacle (which’d be replaced four centuries later by the temple).

LEVITICUS. Largely consisting of commands, Leviticus mostly focuses on how the LORD wanted his priests to perform his ritual sacrifices, and his definitions of ritual cleanliness. He wanted Israel to be holy; these were the steps they had to take.

NUMBERS. What happened to the Israelis (KJV “Israelites”) after the LORD handed down his commands at Mt. Sinai: Wandering though the wilderness, grumbling all the way; failing to enter Canaan, so wandering through the desert some more; rebellions from certain malcontents, and opposition from other Hebrew nations. Various new commands were added by the LORD as needed.

DEUTERONOMY. Right before the Hebrews entered Canaan, Moses gave a book-long speech to the new generation of Israelis, reminding them of the Law and informing them what they were in for. (And foretelling how they’d repetitively go through a cycle of repentance.)

History.

After the books of Moses, the Jewish and Christian book orders deviate, ’cause the translators of the Septuagint reordered them, and Christians traditionally go with the Septuagint’s order. So some of these books come from “the Prophets,” as the Hebrews called the Deuteronomistic history and the older prophetic books; and some come from “the Writings,” a fifth-century BC collection of later sacred writings.

JOSHUA. How the Israelis initially conquered Canaan under their leader, the prophet Joshua ben Nun, starting with the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest of Jericho. The subsequent first battles, including big mistakes by the Israelis; and how the land was initially divided between the 13 tribes.

JUDGES. Before the Israelis had kings, they practiced anarchic libertarianism. How’d it go? Horribly; Judges is often the ickiest book in the bible. In response, the LORD let the Canaanites whom the Israelis didn’t conquer, regularly conquer them. So they’d repent, and the LORD would give them שֹׁפְטִ֣ים/šafatím, “decision-makers” (KJV “judges”) to drive out the enemies and create peace… for a time.

RUTH. From the Writings: How Ruth, a Moabite, became the great-grandmother of King David.

SAMUEL. Book 1 is about the creation of the monarchy: The prophet/judge Samuel ben Elqaná is ordered by Israel and the LORD to make Saul ben Kish the first king. He’s a massive disappointment, so the LORD selects his successor, David ben Jesse—whom Saul spends the rest of his life trying to destroy.

Book 2 begins with a civil war between David and the second king, Ishbaal ben Saul, who’s eventually assassinated. David conquers Jerusalem and reigns over Israel, despite a few attempts to overthrow him, and despite his nephew Joab, his murderous chief general.

KINGS. Book 1 is about Israel’s golden age… followed by its division into two countries.

  • Solomon ben David, and the creation of the LORD’s temple.
  • Rehoboam ben Solomon sparks a civil war, and loses 10 tribes to Jeroboam ben Navat, the first king of northern Israel (i.e. Ephraim).
  • Jeroboam creates heretic temples, effectively bringing God’s judgment upon his own dynasty, not to mention northern Israel.
  • Northern Israel’s third dynasty is so bad under Ahab ben Omri, the LORD sends Elijah the Tishbite to call a drought. Ahab is still awful, and gets killed by the Syrians.

Book 2 tells of the destruction of Ahab’s dynasty by Jehu ben Jehošafat—followed by more awful dynasties, and finally the destruction of northern Israel by the Assyrian Empire. Meanwhile, Ahab’s sister Athaliah tries to take over southern Israel and fails; the rest of its kings generally suck (with the exceptions of Hezekiah and Josiah); and the Babylonian Empire conquers it.

CHRONICLES. From the Writings (as are all the subsequent history books), which we have in two books. They retell the history of Israel, with more of a focus on southern Israel. Book 1 consists of a lot of genealogies, followed by the King David stories (with most of his mistakes skipped over). Book 2 goes from Solomon to the Babylonian conquest… to Cyrus of Persia’s decree that the Israelis can go home.

EZRA. Picking up where 2 Chronicles left off, Zerubbabel ben Šealttiel leads nearly 50,000 people back to Jerusalem to reestablish it and rebuild the temple. The scribe Ezra ben Šeraiah comes to instruct them in the Law.

NEHEMIAH. A generation later, Jerusalem still has no city wall, so the Persians send Nehemiah ben Khakhaliah to build it, despite great opposition from other leaders in the area, and corruption among the Jews.

ESTHER. A generation after that, a Jew becomes the queen consort of Persia at about the same time the Persian vizier decides to kill all the Jews in the empire.

Wisdom/Poetry.

All the books called “poetic” (’cause they’re typically written in Hebrew poetry) or “wisdom” (’cause they’re wise) are from the Writings.

JOB. Satan wanted to attack the most righteous man on earth, Job of Edom, to see whether he’ll still follow the LORD anyway. He does, but he and his friends go on for a few dozen chapters about theodicy. Ultimately the LORD’s response is “Who do you think you are?” and he gives Job his stuff back.

PSALMS. Ancient Israel’s hymnal: Five books of songs, 150 total, in praise of the LORD.

PROVERBS. The collected wisdom sayings of ancient Israel, much of it composed by Solomon ben David.

ECCLESIASTES. The wisdom of an unknown Israeli king (most of us assume it’s Solomon) who realizes much of what humanity pursues is meaningless.

SONG OF SONGS (or SONG OF SOLOMON). Solomon’s best song, an opera about two lovers who are super hot for one another—which to this day bugs Jews and Christians who have hangups about sex.

Prophecy.

Actually I summarized all these books in another article. So there’s no point in my repeating it; go read that article!

Biblical literacy.