Have you ever noticed that all of Paul’s letters are named for the people he wrote them to, but all the other letters in the New Testament are named for their authors?
Also, why is Numbers called Numbers? Sure, chapters 1, 2, and 26 are full of numbers, but the other 23 chapters are about Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Numbers is only 11.5% numbers! (In contrast, for example, Job is 100% the story of Job.)
Also, what’s an Ecclesiastes?
Let’s dig in.
As we go, we’ll note the various languages the names of the books actually came from. English is a relatively recent language (relative to the Bible, anyway), so the books were originally named in other languages, and then someone translated them, sometimes repeatedly, to get to English.
The books of the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are named in Hebrew after their first word or phrase:
|Genesis||Bereshith||“In the beginning”|
|Exodus||We’elleh Shemoth||“These are the names of…”|
|Leviticus||Wayiqra’||“And He [the Lord] called…”|
|Numbers||Bemidbar||“In the wilderness”|
|Deuteronomy||‘Elleh Haddebarim||“These are the words”|
The English names of these books comes from the Septuagint, sometimes called the LXX1, a Greek translation of the Bible completed in the 100s BC.
Genesis is a Greek word meaning “birth” or “history of origin”, which isn’t quite as cool as just naming it “in the beginning” (Bereshith) like Hebrew, but accurately describes the book: the history of the people of God from the very beginning down to Jacob and his family entering Egypt to escape a famine. And while it’s not the first phrase in the book, it does appear as early as Genesis 2:4 immediately after the first creation account: “This is the book of the generations [genesis] of…”
Exodus is the Latin translation of the Greek exodos, meaning “exit” or “departure”, a clear reference to the Israelites’ flight from Egypt. If Genesis is a fifty-chapter fall from Eden to Egypt, Exodus is the first of God’s rescue plans to bring us back to where He wants us to be. One downside of the English (Latin/Greek) name is that the Hebrew title We’elleh Shemoth (or just Shemoth) also appears in Genesis 46:8, providing direct continuity between the two books and clearly implying that they’re part of the same story rather than two different stories.
Leviticus is a Greek word meaning “relating to the Levites”, the temple helpers. Since the book largely details worship at the tabernacle, which was performed by the priests and assisted by the Levites, this name makes lots of sense. Again, we see some continuity: Exodus gives instructions for building the temple, and Leviticus gives instructions for worshipping there. Geographically, Leviticus happens almost entirely at Sinai, a middle point between the Exodus journey from Egypt to Sinai and the Numbers journey from Sinai to Canaan. The Hebrew name Wayiqra’ also reasonably describes the book, considering the holy calling of the people of Israel in general and the priests and Levites in particular.
Numbers is the English translation of the Greek, and it’s one of the more unfortunate English book names. Sure, there’s a census taken in Numbers 1 and Numbers 26 (results are also reported in Numbers 2 and Numbers 3), but there are thirty-two other chapters! The Hebrew name Bemidbar, “In the wilderness”, is far more accurate and appropriate, since Numbers is really about the journey from Mount Sinai to the camp just outside Canaan.
Deuteronomy is a Greek word meaning “repetition of the law.” It’s probably drawn from Deuteronomy 17:18, which instructs future kings of Israel to copy down the law for himself, although since Moses’s sermon that takes up most of the book does repeat a lot of the laws, it makes a kind of sense (or it would, if anybody knew what “deuteronomy” meant). The Hebrew ‘Elleh Haddebarim, of course, makes perfect sense, because indeed “[Deuteronomy is] the words [of Moses]”.
The historical books (Joshua–Esther) are exclusively named after either their main character or their contents, but despite this fact, the origins of their names are not as obvious as you might think.
Joshua is named after Moses’s protégé Joshua, whose name means “salvation”. Moses renamed him “Jehoshua”, meaning “the Lord saves.” In this capacity, Joshua, the leader of the Ephraimites (Numbers 13:8), finally claimed the promise made to Abraham to give the Israelites the Promised Land of Canaan.
Judges is literally a history of the judges of Israel, the leaders of Israel between Joshua’s death and the Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king. God gives His own reason for raising these rulers in Judges 2:16.
Ruth is of course the story of Ruth. It is one of only two books named after women, the other being Esther. The author is unknown; it’s traditionally Samuel, but considering the mention of David at the end, it was likely written no earlier than David’s accession to the throne.
1 and 2 Samuel are named after the prophet Samuel (Hebrew: Shmuel, just Samuel’s Hebrew name). He’s less the protagonist of the book and more the official covenant-keeper of Israel, the string that ties the plot together. He couldn’t have written both books, because parts happen after he dies; one possible author is Zabud, the son of the prophet Nathan who served David’s court. They haven’t always had these simple names though: originally a single book in Hebrew, the Septuagint divided it into two and called them “The First and Second Book of Kingdoms”; the Vulgate called them “First and Second Kings”, which we call two totally different books today.
1 and 2 Kings are the accounts of the kings of Israel. Like Samuel, it was originally a single book in Hebrew called Melakhim, “Kings”. And like Samuel, the Septuagint divided it into two books, and the later Vulgate did as well. However, something weird happened: in the year 1448, the traditional Hebrew scriptures followed suit and split them up as well. They were traditionally written by Jeremiah, but there’s little evidence for that.
1 and 2 Chronicles are the various chronicles, genealogies, and stories of the people from Adam to Abram to the Israelites. Kind of a boring title, really, like the English translators couldn’t come up with anything better. In Hebrew, it’s called dibre hayyamim, “the events of the days”, which sounds a lot like “chronicles” to me. The Septuagint has the best name for it: “The Things Omitted”, as in, “all the stuff left out of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings”. The Vulgate diverged from the Septuagint and called it “The Chronicle of the Whole Sacred History”, which is accurate and slightly less boring than just “Chronicles”, but then Martin Luther came along and shortened it to simply “Chronicles”. It was traditionally written by Ezra, along with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, but there’s not much evidence for that.
Ezra and Nehemiah were originally a single book detailing the return of Israel from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the walls and the temple, and the defense against the neighbors. However, the text (Nehemiah 1:1) makes clear they’re really two distinct works, first recognized by Origen, who called them “1 and 2 Ezra” despite, again, Nehemiah 1:1.
Esther is the story of Esther and Mordecai and the salvation of the entire Jewish nation during the Babylonian captivity. The Hebrew name is Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah. “Esther” means “star” while “Hadassah” means “myrtle tree”.
The wisdom books (Job–Song of Solomon) are named, with the exception of Job, descriptively after their contents. Job, of course, is named after Job. These books are called in Hebrew Ketuvim, “Writings”.
Job is named after its protagonist, Job. The author is obviously an Israelite given their understanding of the history and theology and historical theology of the Israelites, but since it takes place in roughly Abraham’s time period, it was probably written down much later by an unknown hand.
Psalms is a collection of psalms (songs) written by David, the sons of Korah, Moses, and others. The Septuagint first called this book “Psalms”, intending the stringed instruments that would accompany the songs, but the word eventually evolved to mean the songs themselves. The Hebrew title, Tehillim, means “praises” even though many of them are are actually prayers, tephillot.
Proverbs is a collection of proverbs, or wise sayings, of Solomon and others. Given the significant overlap of the proverbs with the psalms, and given David’s authorship of so many psalms, I sometimes wonder if the proverbs aren’t really Solomon just writing down “things my father always told me that I didn’t want to hear.” The Hebrew title, Mashali, means something like “proverbs.”
Ecclesiastes is an English adaptation of the Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Kohelet, also the Hebrew title of the book, which means something like “preacher;” it may also be the given name of the protagonist of the book. The author identifies himself as Kohelet, the Preacher, “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” You might think that means the author must be Solomon, especially given Solomon’s great wisdom, and indeed Jewish and Christian tradition agree. But some of the words and phrases used suggest it was written much, much later than Solomon by some unknown author.
Song of Solomon, also sometimes called Song of Songs, is a single song about a man and his betrothed. The Hebrew title, Shir Hashirim, translates very cleanly to “Song of Songs”, indicating this song is the greatest song about Solomon, not necessarily that he himself wrote it. It may have been composed as a wedding song.
The books of the prophets are divided in two sub-sections: major (Isaiah–Daniel) and minor (Hosea–Malachi). Except for Lamentations, named for its contents, all of these books are named for their authors (or, at the very least, their protagonists). Unfortunately, that means Lamentations is the only interesting book name in all seventeen of these.
Lamentations is a collection of laments of Jeremiah, who is known as “the weeping prophet” for his grief over the rebellion of Judah against God and the resulting Babylonian invasion and exile. The Hebrew title is one of my favorite: ‘Ekah, meaning “How…!”—the first word in Lamentations 1:1, Lamentations 2:1, and Lamentations 4:1.
To be continued…
LXX is the Roman numerals for 70, which is also what “Septuagint” means. The name comes from its origin story: Ptolemy the Great requested seventy Jewish scholars to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for him. ↩