The Hebrew Bible is not so much a “book” as a library. As the central sacred text of Judaism, it is a collection of inspired literature, comprising some 39 books, written over a period of many centuries and completed about four hundred years before the Common Era (“BCE”). It is also incorporated in the Christian Bible, where it is described as the “Old Testament”.

The Bible is described by Jews as the “Tanach” (“ch” as in the Scottish “loch”), which is an acronym for the Hebrew words Torah (“the Law”), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and K’tuvim (“Writings”).

The word Torah is used in this context to describe the the five books of Moses, namely: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. For Orthodox believers, these books represent the divine word given to Moses at Sinai. For the Progressive and Conservative, they are seen as divinely inspired.
The section described as Nevi’im includes not only the works ascribed to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve “minor” prophets, it also includes the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.

The K’tuvim comprise works of prayer, poetry and philosophy – the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes – as well as the stories of Job, Ruth, Esther and Daniel and the Lamentations of Jeremiah; and the section also includes the histories in Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah.

The Bible in the Synagogue

Every synagogue has at least one Torah scroll, handwritten by a scribe on parchment, from which a section is chanted in the traditional melody on the Sabbath and on Mondays and Thursdays. This is the public reading of the Law which was established after the Jews’ return from exile in Babylon to Israel in the fifth century BCE. After the Sabbath reading of the Torah there is also a reading from the Prophets, which is known as the ‘Haftorah’.

During the times when the Jewish Temple still stood in Jerusalem, many of the Psalms were featured in services there. Today the Psalms appear throughout the synagogue liturgy. Psalms are also read privately or publicly for comfort and hope in times of distress or sickness.

Other books from the Ketuvim form part of the synagogue service on special occasions. The Book of Ruth is read at the harvest festival of Shavuot; the Megillah (scroll) of Esther is read with great noise at the Feast of Purim, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah are read sitting on the floor of the synagogue on the Fast of 9th Av as the congregation mourns the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies of Jewish history.

The Biblical Narrative


Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1615


The Book of Genesis begins with the Creation, and continues with vivid tales of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and the Flood. We now know that some of these stories have parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature. In the Biblical account, however, there are ethical elements which become the subject of commentary and discussion in the subsequent Jewish literature.

By the time the Biblical narrative reaches the generations of Abraham and the Patriarchs – generally dated at about 1900 BCE – it has become a national-religious family history. Abraham enters into a covenant of national commitment to a single incorporeal God. Jacob is re-named ‘Israel’ (‘he who struggles with God’) and the ‘Children of Israel’ receive the promise of a ‘Land of Israel’.

By the end of Genesis, the Jews are living in relative prosperity in Egypt. By the beginning of Exodus they have become slaves living in the depths of oppression and degradation. Then, interwoven with the story of the physical escape from Egypt (about 1400 BCE), comes the Law, which gives a unique character to the continuing Biblical narrative.

One feature of the Law, with its 613 commandments appearing in the context of the national journey in the wilderness, is that it proceeds from the Deity. It follows that all rulers are bound by the Law and the principles which it implies. The aim is a society with central values of individual freedom and justice, especially social justice; and bound by fixed moral code, including the equal rights of the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

The story continues through a period in which Judges lead the tribes as they settle in the Land. The Book of Judges itself ends with a description of anarchy: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” The perceived danger inherent in this situation is reflected in the Talmudic injunction written fifteen hundred years later, for Jews to pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since otherwise “men would swallow one another alive”.

Notwithstanding, in the next generation the prophet Samuel attempts to resist the popular call for the appointment of a king to lead the Jews’ defence against the Philistines. Samuel’s warnings against oppressive taxation and forced labour are ignored, and when Saul does become the first king he is anointed by Samuel with divine authority.

(It is interesting to consider the sixteenth century concept of a ‘Divine Right of Kings’. It is upon this Biblical precedent that England’s James I, for instance, claimed absolute power. It is also the basis of present British custom by which the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the monarch. Of linguistic interest is the fact that the word ‘messiah’, (‘mashiach’ in Hebrew) means ‘anointed one’.

In the Books of Kings and Chronicles, succeeding kings of the single kingdom, and then the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, rule in a state of tension with the Prophets. The Prophets demand righteousness and submission to the Law; the elimination of idols; property rights for the citizens and the protection of widows and orphans.


The Prophet Ezekiel, Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo, 1510
The Prophet Ezekiel, Sistine Chapel fresco by Michelangelo, 1510

Nevi’im – The Prophets

Disaster strikes with the rise of the imperial powers of Assyria and Babylon. The northern kingdom of Israel and the ten tribes that make up its inhabitants are lost in 722 BCE. The destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the Temple at Jerusalem takes place in 586 BCE, and the Babylonian exile follows. The Prophets now assume a new role. Jewish survival requires both an explanation of the disastrous events and a vision of hope for the future.

The total defeat of the Jewish kingdoms is thus blamed by the Prophets on hypocrisy and moral decadence. However, at the same time, just as Israel has been punished, so too will the surrounding nations be punished for their wickedness. Eventually a new order will arise, and the Jewish people will be restored to live in peace in their land. Isaiah goes further, with a vision of a world at peace under divine justice.

The Prophetic vision was appropriate for the historical moment, and indeed partly fulfilled when the Persians permitted the re-building of the Temple to commence in the fifth century BCE, as recorded in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the works which complete the Biblical history.

(There are arguably a number of problems with the Prophetic concept that nations get what they deserve. Of course the concept is manifestly untrue, as witness the triumphs of merciless imperial powers. At the same time blaming the loser can itself become an instrument of oppression. In the case of the Jewish people, for example, the mere fact of dispersion following military conquest has itself been a justification for doctrines of supremacy in both Christianity and Islam.)

Poetry and Philosophy

The Song of Songs III, Marc Chagall, 1960
The Song of Songs III, Marc Chagall, 1960

Ketuvim – The Writings

The Bibical Ketuvim fall into various categories of wisdom, poetry and philosophy. These are works which range from the liturgical poetry of the Psalms to the moral maxims and vivid imagery of Proverbs, reflections on the meaning of life in Ecclesiastes, the conundrum of the undeserved suffering of the righteous in Job, and the soaring love poetry of the Song of Songs.

The Biblical Canon

The idea that there should be a single recognised collection of sacred books originated in about 400 BCE, after the return from the Babylonian exile and the establishment of the custom of public Biblical reading by Ezra and Nehemiah. According to the Book of Maccabees (which appears in the Apocrypha and is not itself part of the Jewish Canon) Nehemiah is credited with having founded a library and collected books about the Kings and Prophets, and the writings of David and letters of kings about votive offerings.

According to the traditional literature, various Writings were also incorporated into the Biblical canon during the same period. The process is described as part of the work of the ‘Men of the Great Assembly’, a body of 120 sages which acted as a governing religious body under Persian rule between 410 BCE and 310 BCE. It is said that the first Assembly actually included the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, as well as Ezra and Nehemiah. Both the number of sages and the actual period of the Assembly’s work are the subject of varying opinions. The modern parliament of Israel, called in Hebrew the ‘Knesset’ (‘Assembly’) has 120 members, specifically in memory of the Great Assembly.

In the nineteenth century scholars concluded that the Biblical canon was finally established at the Academy of Yavne (Jamnia) in the first century CE. However this view is no longer generally accepted and there is no current scholarly agreement on the issue.

11th Century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible
11th Century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible

The Composition of the Bible

Much of the Bible has its origin in oral traditions, with poetry and narrative refined and perfected in a process of recitation and story-telling from generation to generation. By definition such ancient works cannot be conclusively dated, and scholars have to rely on surviving manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts, as well as deductions from the text and from external sources.

Examples of such manuscript evidence include the Dead Sea scrolls, which verify the age of various books as at the first century BCE. Other early sources include the Septuagint, a Greek translation ascribed to a group of seventy scholars commissioned by the Macedonian rulers of Egypt for the Great Library of Alexandria, and written in the second century BCE.

The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of an academic discipline of biblical study described as ‘higher criticism’ and originated by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German professor of theology. This new study comprised a verbal and stylistic analysis of the text itself, from which scholars traced a putative authorship and dating to various components of the Biblical works. For example, in the case of the Torah and the Book of Joshua, which the ‘higher school’ of criticism refers to as the ‘Hexateuch’, followers suggest the existence of three works written between the ninth and the seventh centuries BCE, and later combined.

Needless to say, such theories are rejected by observant Jews who see a Divine origin in the Torah, and see the Book of Joshua as a contemporary record. There is no current scholarly agreement on the issue.

A Note on the English Translations

The Authorised English Version of the Bible, with its classical seventeenth century translation of the Hebrew, can be daunting to the modern reader. On the other hand some of the modern translations may appear bland and lacking in poetic force. Also the use of “Yahweh” to translate the four letters which symbolise the unpronounceable name of God is not acceptable to Jews, who pronounce the Tetragrammaton by using the Hebrew word for “Lord”, as appearing in the Authorised Version.

This website uses the Revised Standard Version, which is accessible to the modern reader while retaining much of the poetry of Authorised Version. However, like all translations, it can only seek to convey an approximation of the majesty and simplicity of the original Hebrew.

© Ian Lacey AM 2006