Tanakh is an acronym. It stands for ‘Torah, ‘Nevi'im, ‘Ketuvim (the 'k' sound is sometimes pronounced as a 'kh'). In popular speech, however, the word Tanakh is used to refer to the latter two sections – the Prophets and the Writings - being as the Chumash portion is almost always reckoned separately. So Tanakh actually is ‘Nakh’, and the two terms are used interchangeably.
The books of the Tanakh, according to Jewish tradition, are arranged as follows:
Joshua, Judges, Samuel I and II, Kings I and II
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi)
Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles I and II
The total, with the five books of the Chumash, is 24, the traditional number of books in the Bible. There have been minor disagreements on the order of the books, but the basic structure has remained the same since the final canonization about 1900 years ago (for more details on the canonization process in Judaism, see the introduction to the next section).
These two distinct sections of the Tanakh, the Prophets and the Writings, both make their own unique contribution to Judaism and the Bible. The Prophets focus on the Biblical history of the Israelites following the death of Moshe, the essential messages of ethical monotheism, and the ultimate destiny of the Israelites and their successors, the Jews. From the dry history of Joshua, Judges, and Kings to the glorious messianic prophecies of Isaiah to the mystical visions of Ezekiel, these books comprise the story of Israel and the burden of the chosen people. They are not easy to read. Some are ambiguous to the point of being almost incomprehensible. Yet they all contain a part of the Biblical message that has endured as what is arguably the most important and influential idea in all of human history. The core of this idea is the role that God plays in the world and the nature of our relationship with God.
The Writings elucidate that same core idea through a completely different mode of transmission. While the Writings include historical works that are similar to the other histories of the Tanakh (Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles I and II), they also contain works that have nothing in common with the visionary, destiny-oriented, doomsday predicting harangues of the Prophets. These books include Biblical philosophy (Job), very personal spirituality (Psalms), and Biblical wisdom (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs). They also include the very unconventional (by Biblical standards) books of Song of Songs (a love poem) and Daniel (mystical prophecies). They also include the simple story of Ruth and the classic story of Jewish triumph over vastly stronger enemies - Esther. Though it is hard to find a common theme through them all, in the end, one is always led back to the frequently hidden workings of God intervening in human affairs.
As far as actual content is concerned, the early Prophets section deals primarily with the history of the tribes of Israel from the time of their entrance into Israel possibly around 1300 BCE, until the final exile of the kingdom of Judah and the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians. The classic scholarly date for this cataclysmic event is the year 586 BCE. The later Prophets cover a period from some time in the 8th century BCE 9(there are a few centuries of overlap between the two categories) until the late 5th century BCE. The earliest were probably Isaiah and Hosea and the latest Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, whose period of prophecy occurred during the early years of the second temple.
Much of the content of the Prophets deals with the frequent conflicts between the two kingdoms of the ancient Israelites, Judah and Israel. The split occurred after a relatively brief period of a unified kingdom under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom, Israel, split off and formed its own royal line with its own religious shrines, seemingly rejecting the temple in Jerusalem.
Another common theme in the Tanakh is the nearly incessant wars with neighboring kingdoms – the various tribes of ancient Canaan, the Philistines, Moab, Ammon, Aram, Assyria, Edom, Egypt, and finally Babylonia and Persia. The almost constant message of the various Prophets was that faith in Hashem and obedience to the core ethical principals of the Torah would free the Israelites from their enemies, while laxity in either of these crucial areas would result in war, defeat, and ultimately, exile.
The books of the Prophets contain many concepts that became core elements of Judaism. Among these are the role of the Jewish people in the world and their relationship to God, the concept of a final period of judgment (end of days) in which all the nations would be held accountable for their deeds, the future redemption through a messianic leader, and the recurring theme of God desiring justice and kindness as opposed to ritual offerings. Many modern scholars go so far as to trace monotheism itself to the Prophets and not the Chumash.
Many of the best-known events in western culture are found in the early and later Prophets, such as the fall of the walls of Jericho, the battle of David and Goliath, the wisdom of Solomon, the ascension of Elijah to heaven, and the divine chariot of Ezekiel. In fact, the Prophets are among the only works in all of Western literature that rival the Chumash and the New Testament in their lasting impact on the eventual course of Western culture. It is impossible to guess what the world would be like without the Prophets – would those same messages have emerged from other works because they are so basic to humanity, or would we have significantly different ethical values. Would Christianity and its enormous influence ever have happened? Would the fundamental idea of one God simply have submerged into the oblivion of ancient religious cults and never become an integral part of the human mindset?
It is difficult to imagine even the Prophets themselves having any inkling of how great their impact would eventually be. In a sense that is where their true greatness lies – in spite of the frequently laborious tirades and the difficult metaphors, the tedious histories and the endless infighting, there is something very human, something terribly essential, about their ideas. There is the message of hope beyond all tragedy, of good triumphing over evil, of individual and collective responsibility, of God reaching out to man and of man reaching back, and of faith in an unseen power that guides the world through its meandering course.
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