The Forming of the Old Testament

This article will attempt to briefly show how the Old Testament Canon came to be. There are much more in depth studies on this but we can see in Scripture the many commands of God to people like Moses to write and articulate the events that were occurring. I believe this is in God’s perfect providence to preserve His words for all time. It should be noted that the exact instances of the forming of the Canon are unknown, to an extent.

The first five books of Scripture were from Moses. The Bible says that God spoke face to face with Moses and revealed much to Moses during his time before and after leading Israel.

And he said, "Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the LORD make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face-clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (Numbers 12:6-8).

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

Moses was God’s first and foremost spokesmen to His people. Further, God used Moses to write down authoritative Scripture. The ANE Jews were very skilled at scribing and oral tradition. We can see later on that their Oral Tradition was as almost as cemented as the scribe works.

The first five books of the Old Testament are known variously as the Law, the Law of Moses, the Torah, and the Pentateuch (meaning "five books"). This concept of the canon can be traced back to the time in the wilderness:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (Exodus 17:14).

And the Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel" (Exodus 34:27).

And consequently, The writings that came from Moses were the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. Moses seems to have used earlier documents to write Genesis. For example, we read in Genesis:

This is the written account of Adam's line. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1).


And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 24:4).

Even in Numbers:

Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD; and these are their stages according to their starting places (Numbers 33:2).

We see the oral and the written merge:

So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:22).

But Moses didn’t leave the writings open-handed. On the contrary, they were formed into a book which can be argued to be the first Jewish Canon:

Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. . . . Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, "We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey" (Exodus 24:4,7).

The preservation of these writings were taken extremely serious. Scribes copied them word for word and each King would have a physical copy:

Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

They held such authority they could be considered a witness against the people:

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: "Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God. There it will remain as a witness against you" (Deuteronomy 31:24-26).

Which of course meant they had a responsibility to obey what was written:

Then Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the levitical priests responsible for carrying the ark of the Lord's covenant and to all Israel's elders (Deuteronomy 31:9).

It wasn’t abandoned after Moses was gone, in fact, it was seen as the authority among the people:

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful (Joshua 1:8).

The Leaders read out the entire word of Moses that was given to Him from the LORD and all the events surrounding:

There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them (Joshua 8:31).

The later generations then saw this as authoritative and respected it as God’s word:

And keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn (1 Kings 2:3).

As previously stated, we know that oral/memorial tradition was a huge part of their everyday lives. The law was for all intents and purposes “written on their hearts”. However, the book itself was recovered:

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD." He gave it to Shaphan, who read it (2 Kings 22:8).

Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD (2 Kings 23:1,2).

Kings were judged according to this law which inherently makes it an authority:

Go, tell Jeroboam, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because I exalted you from among the people, made you leader over my people Israel, and tore the kingdom away from the house of David to give it to you; yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my sight" (1 Kings 14:7,8).

Even further to the Prophet of Nehemiah after their Babylonian captivity:

He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law (Nehemiah 8:3).

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8).

You might be asking “OK, that’s the 5 books, what about the rest?” The prophets all had scribes following them, as mentioned before, they take it seriously. Every event was recorded by the scribes and every word given to them. The tradition of writing down the things of the LORD and the acts of Israel continued past Moses:

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD (Joshua 24:25,26).

Joshua's writings were placed in the very Book of the Law that Moses wrote. His work would have been immediately accepted with the same authority as Moses' writings.

Samuel continued:

Samuel explained to the people the regulations of the kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the LORD. Then Samuel dismissed the people, each to his own home (1 Samuel 10:25).

Further events were placed in the Scriptures:

The other events of Jehoshaphat's reign, from beginning to end, are written in the annals of Jehu son of Hanani, which are recorded in the book of the kings of Israel (2 Chronicles 20:34).

Isaiah was commanded to preserve the words of God for the future:

The LORD said to me, "Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz" (Isaiah 8:1).

These words were to be preserved as a memorial for the future.

Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness (Isaiah 30:8).

Ezekiel and Jeremiah alike:

And if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple - its arrangement, its exits and entrances - its whole design and all its regulations and laws. Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations (Ezekiel 43:11).

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you'" (Jeremiah 30:1,2).

Then we see the Proverbs are recorded and written:

These are more proverbs of Solomon, copied by the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (Proverbs 25:1).

In all of this, it holds to the evidence that the people who read this book and were submitting to it, saw it as authority. It also shows that it wasn’t just the 5 Books of Moses but the later prophets and wisdom literature we have. The Old Testament as being processed all the way up to the beginning of the years of silence between Malachi and Matthew.

The LORD preserved His word with great providence and sovereignty. The reliability of these books have been proven time and time again through (1) Archeological verification (2) Actual manuscripts being discovered.

Through all of the years, this is how we derive at our canon.