What is the Hebrew Bible? (Torah, Tanakh, or Old Testament)

The Torah, the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the Old Testament. What are they, what are they about, and what’s the difference between them?

The Tanakh and the Hebrew Bible

The terms Tanakh and Hebrew Bible are synonymous. The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym; the consonants each represent words, with the vowels added in so you can pronounce it: TaNaK – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. The Torah, Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim are the three sections of the Hebrew Bible. In English, “Torah” is most often translated to “Law,” though it often means “teaching” or “instruction” as well. Nevi’im means “Prophets,” and Ketuvim means “Writings.”  So the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh is one big collection of ancient scrolls made up of three smaller collections of scrolls. This chart shows the individual scrolls of each Section:

First and foremost the Hebrew Bible is a narrative, it’s a story. Saying it’s a story does not mean it isn’t scripture, trustworthy, or anything else you might have heard about it. It just means that whatever message it’s trying to send, the authors chose to send that message in the form of a story. How do we know that?

Open up the Tanakh to page 1, and you’ll see that it begins at the beginning of everything, with an account of creation. It shows God creating the world, including humans. When God made humans, he said they would be in charge of the creation. Then he looked at all of his creation and said that it was very good (Gen. 1:31).

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Genesis 1:26

God put the humans in a garden where both he and the Humans dwelled together. He told them to take care of the world on His behalf (Gen. 1:28). Even though they were supposed to trust God and take care of it the way that He wanted them to, they decided that they should be the ones to determine what’s good and evil instead of God (Gen. 3:1-7).

The plot is a rescue mission

Already you can see how this is flowing like a story. A story arc begins with everything at peace, and then a Conflict happens that causes a problem, and then the rest of the story is all about how the problem gets fixed. In the Tanakh, everything is at peace, and the two main character groups get introduced right away, humans and God. Then a conflict develops between humans and God when humans decide not to trust God and determine what is good and evil for themselves. The conflict is that they brought evil into the world when they chose good and evil for themselves instead of trusting God. Evil comes into the world when they decide between good and evil because humans are terrible at deciding between good and evil. And as humans multiplied on the earth, evil was multiplying on earth with them. Clearly, humans were the ones bringing evil into creation.

“Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land…Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Genesis 6:1-5

God warned them before that there would be serious consequences if they chose good and evil for themselves, namely death. And then after humans brought evil into the world that they were supposed to take care of, God laid out the consequences. God told them they would die and then he separated them from himself.

There are a few levels to the conflict; the main points to pay attention to are:

  1. There’s now Evil in the world that used to be good.
  2. God and humans used to dwell together, but now God and humans are separated.
  3. Humans are now doomed to die.

The Messiah is the main character

So already just a few pages into the story, we should expect the rest of the Hebrew Bible to be about getting evil out of the world and restoring a relationship between God and humans so they could live. That is exactly what we see as we follow the story because even as God told them the consequences of their sin, he gave them hope by telling them he had a rescue plan.

God announced that he would use the woman’s descendant to rescue them from evil, but her descendant would be struck and suffer in the process (Gen. 3:15). So the plan to resolve the conflict was to use the woman’s offspring. Then, sure enough, the story zooms in on the woman’s descendant, and most of the smaller biblical stories follow this future rescuer’s ancestors until his arrival. This person has several titles and duties described throughout the Tanakh. You probably know him as the Messiah. We should be careful to note that even though the vast majority of main figures in the story are ancestors of the Messiah, not every person in the story is an ancestor of the Messiah. Actually, not even every person who’s a main focus of attention is a direct ancestor of the Messiah. Many that aren’t his direct ancestors foreshadow what he’ll be like. Sometimes the narrators or even God plainly say that the rescuer will be like a certain figure (Deut. 18:14-19). Some of the smaller stories aren’t directly about him at all, but they all add to the story’s plot, which IS all about the rescuer.

Think about Lord of the Rings, the story of Lord of the Rings is all about how Frodo must take the Ring to Mordor and destroy it. But not every single paragraph or even page mentions Frodo or the ring. There are entire pages dedicated to how much Hobbits love mushrooms and never mention anything about a ring or Mordor. That doesn’t change the fact that the whole story is about how Frodo is taking the ring to Mordor to destroy it. As you read the Lord of the Rings, you easily follow the plot, and all these other side stories add to the plot by giving you context and more necessary information. The Tanakh is the same way, it introduces the plot in the beginning, and the rest of the story is about how it will be resolved. Almost all of the Tanakh follows that direct storyline, but sometimes there will be other little “side adventures” that serve to build up the plot without directly mentioning it.

The Torah

The word “Torah” is the title given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, although some people occasionally use “Torah” to reference the whole Hebrew Bible. The Torah is where the story is introduced. The Torah is the section that introduces the creation of the world, the first humans, Adam and Eve, and how they chose evil and were separated from God. Then it demonstrates more of how each generation after Adam and Eve continued to decide good and evil for themselves instead of trusting God and how it polluted the world with evil. Then after showing how serious this conflict is, the Torah introduces God’s first step towards rescuing his world. And his first step was Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, the ancestor of the Messiah. God promised Abraham that he would give Abraham land and use him and his descendants to bless all nations. In light of the storyline, you could just as easily hear that God promised to use Abraham and his descendants to bring the promised rescuer who will resolve this conflict between God and people and get rid of evil. So the Torah follows Abraham’s descendants all the way through Moses, and it ends right before Abrahams’s descendants get to go into the promised land. 

So the Torah is obviously primarily a narrative, but we can’t pretend that it doesn’t contain hundreds of laws. The laws that God gave Israel within the Torah are also commonly referred to as “the Torah,” because Torah most often translates as Law. In fact, this section of the Tanakh is named “Torah” because it contains the Torah laws. These laws make up a massive chunk of the Torah and are clearly important, but it’s equally important not to rip the laws out of their context within the narrative. If we want to understand the Torah’s message fully, we can’t just look at the laws without the story and we can’t look at the story without the laws.

The Old Testament

Same scrolls – Different Order

The Christian Old Testament is pretty much the same as the Hebrew Bible, except it’s in a different order. We don’t have any strong evidence for why the order is different. But we can make some educated guesses based on the history we do know. The Christian movement started as an entirely Jewish group following Jesus, who was going around Israel teaching that he was the rescuer promised in the Tanakh. Then Jesus was crucified, and his followers went around Israel claiming that they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion and that all of Israel should believe in him. Although thousands of Jewish people in Israel began to follow Jesus when they heard about him, most of Israel did not. And the Jewish people who didn’t follow Jesus and the Jewish people who did quickly became very separated.

We have to remember that the Tanakh didn’t exist in the form of a bound book. It only existed as separate scrolls. So there’s a good chance that after Jesus’ followers separated from the other Jewish people, they just didn’t know the original order. So maybe they put it together as best they could, and that’s why the order is different. Or maybe not. Early Christians apparently didn’t pick up on it, but Jesus and the New Testament authors actually referred to the Tanakh in its Torah, Prophets, Writing order. They’d call it “the Torah and the Prophets” or “the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 16:16, 24:44,  Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40,  John 1:45,  Acts 13:15, 24:14, 28:13, Romans 3:21).”  Psalms is the first book of the writing section and it was common to refer to a collection of books by the name of the first in the collection. So when Jesus or the New Testament authors said “the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms”, they were referring to the three collections, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.

What is the difference in the Old Testament order? Well, A lot of it is actually really similar to the Tanakh. The Torah section is in exactly the same order. But then, when we get into the Prophets and the Writing sections, they seemed to do their best, but the order is a little different.

Why did they change the name?

So far we’ve been talking about the Protestant Old Testament. The books themselves are exactly the same in the Protestant Old Testament and the Tanakh. They are just in a different order. But, when we look at the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments, they disagree with the Protestants and each other on what books are scripture and include more books. The books that the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testament add to the Tanakh are Jewish works from the Second Temple period that have historically been considered important Jewish religious works, but not quite scripture.

Another obvious difference between the Christian Old Testament is the name. Christians don’t call it the Tanakh. They call it the Old Testament… Why? In the Torah, God makes a covenant with Abraham’s descendants. He told them several times that if they obeyed all his commands, then he would bless them. But then they didn’t obey all his commands, and later in the Tanakh, God announced that since Israel broke his covenant with Him, He would make a new covenant with them. And He said that this new covenant wouldn’t just be with Israel it would be with all of humankind and all of creation. And he told them that this covenant would be possible through forgiveness.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast…”   “…Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them…for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah who God promised in the Tanakh. Christ is not Jesus’ last name it’s a title. “Christ” means “Messiah.” So the New Testament teaches that Jesus ushered in this new covenant of forgiveness that the Tanakh said would come. The words “Covenant” and “Testament” are synonymous, so the New Testament could just as easily be called the New Covenant. It’s called the New Testament/Covenant because it’s about the new covenant promised in the Tanakh. So if you’re going to call it the New Covenant, I guess it makes sense to call everything that happened before, the Old Covenant/Testament. The New Testament is a collection of writings about the new covenant that God promised in the Old Testament or Tanakh.

There are a lot of terms used in the Judeo-Christian world for the same scriptures, but we can start to see how the different titles make sense or at least are supposed to make sense. The Tanakh is the collection of Hebrew scriptures, and the Hebrew Bible is another term for that same collection. The protestant Old Testament is also the same collection, just in a different order. And the Torah is a name given to the first five books, which are the first five no matter whose ordering you are looking at. These are the different titles given to Israel’s scriptures.

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