The biblical canons of both modern Judaism and Protestant Christianity share the same books of Israel’s Scriptures—what Christian tradition calls the Old Testament. However, the Jewish order of these books differs from the order in Protestant denominations. In Judaism, the compilation of Scripture is called the Tanakh—an acronym for the tripartite division of Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). When readers move through the Jewish order of Israel’s Scriptures, they find an interesting pattern: both the second and third divisions (the Prophets and the Writings) begin with nearly identical reminders of the first division, the Torah. In this way, readers are reminded of the Torah’s centrality and the need to study the entire Bible with the Torah in mind.
The Five Books of Moses, Genesis—Deuteronomy, go by the Hebrew name “Torah” (תורה). Though English Bibles usually translate תורה as “Law,” the word means something closer to “Teaching” or “Instruction.” This understanding makes better sense, since Genesis is a narrative—not a “law”—and very little legal material appears in Numbers. More, legislative concerns don’t feature until midway through Exodus, and even Deuteronomy and Leviticus have significant narrative passages alongside the divine regulations. From a Christian perspective, calling these books the “Law” can make them seem legalistic, but this is not an accurate way to understand the diverse teachings and illuminative instructions throughout the Torah.
After the Torah, Joshua inaugurates the Prophets, and the Writings start with the Psalms. The latter two scriptural sections both begin in similar ways that remind readers of the Torah. Before the Israelites enter Canaan, God tells Joshua, “This book of the Torah (התורה; ha’torah) shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate (הגית; hagita) on it day and night (יומם ולילה; yomam va’laylah)” (Joshua 1:8). Similarly, the Writings begin by saying that the righteous person delights “in the Torah (בתורה; b’torah) of the Lord, and on his he meditates day and night (יהגה יומם ולילה; yehegeh yomam va’laylah)” (Psalm 1:2). The beginnings of both the Prophets and the Writings recall the importance of the Torah; Mosaic Instruction resonates throughout the Tanakh and reminds readers that all of Israel’s theology and history is built on the rock of Torah.
The word for “meditate” (הגה; hagah) in these verses does not describe meditation as it is known in Eastern religious traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism; Joshua does not require the recitation of a mantra after reading the Torah. Instead, the Hebrew הגה refers to speaking divine Teaching aloud. The poetry of the Psalms elucidates this meaning of הגה as audible utterance: “The mouth of the righteous utters (יהגה; yehegeh) wisdom and their tongue speaks (תדבר; te’daber) justice” (Psalm 37:30). The word for “utters” in this Psalm is the exact same word that appears in Psalm 1:2 at the start of the Writings. This audial understanding of “meditate” clarifies why God tells Joshua that the Torah “shall not depart from your mouth,” meaning that the Lord wants the Israelites to read the book of the Torah out loud.
After Jesus is raised from the dead, he speaks of Israel’s Scriptures using the same tripartite division of Torah-Prophets-Writings that Judaism upholds to this day. Yeshua tells his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written concerning me in the Torah of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Since Jesus describes the Torah as the five books “of Moses,” the “Prophets” must begin with Joshua, and the “Psalms” indicate the start of what would later be called the Writings. Jesus would have known that the Prophets and the Psalms began with a call to meditate on the Torah, which is why he also told his disciples before his death and resurrection, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Torah to become void” (Luke 16:17).