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Triennial Reading Cycle of the Psalms and Torah

A proposed three year reading cycle of the torah

The Structure of the Psalms

As most modern versions of the Bible show, Psalms is actually arranged as five individual books, with each concluded by a short verse saying “Blessed be Yahweh, God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting, amen and amen.”

It is well known that each of these smaller collections of psalms corresponds to one of the five books of the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy. What is not so well known is the precise relationship between the two. Many Christadelphians have noted a “broad correlation” and an “overall pattern”, but have left it at that, preferring instead to look for the answer to the arrangement of the psalms within the book itself.

The answer to the structure of the psalms lies in the ancient Israelite practice of reading the Torah over three years. This is known as the triennial reading cycle, and is described in a number of ancient rabbinical commentaries. It was known to be the practice in Israel, whereas in Babylonia the Pentateuch tended to be read over the course of a single year.

Since at least the time of Ezra, and most likely much earlier, the Jewish practice has been for a portion of the Torah to be read every Sabbath, followed by a Psalm, supplemented with additional readings from the prophets or histories. When the scriptures are read according to this traditional three year cycle two things become obvious: firstly, that the psalms have been organised in such a way as to act as a commentary on the Books of Moses, and secondly, that both books are actually structured around the Jewish calendar and religious feasts. For example, in every third year Passover coincides with the reading of Exodus 12.

Many of the seemingly randomly placed psalms actually turn out to be placed in that order to coincide with the feasts and seasons of the Jewish year. The Psalms of Asaph (73-83), for instance, would be read around the time of the feast of Succoth, and the Psalm of Moses (90) would be read around the same time of year as his death. Moreover the triennial system explains some odd features of the Psalms, such as the splitting of some psalms into two (Ps 9 and 10), and the inclusion of one Psalm twice (14 and 53).

The relationship between the psalms and the Law is thus very direct. There are 150 psalms, 145 Sabbaths, and 154 traditional divisions of the Torah. Based on the traditional Jewish sources one can quite easily recreate the traditional reading cycle, and I have listed this in the chart below. There are, admittedly, various uncertainties; however, I believe that this really only affects the later books, as the first few, particularly Genesis and Exodus, are highly precise as far as the correspondence goes and almost every source agrees. As you work through the Law, however, the relationship between Psalms and the Law becomes more general and thematic. This makes sense given that the final books of the Law become almost commentaries and reflections themselves, looking backwards. My speculation is that readings for the final year were probably more flexible, adjusting as necessary to make up for the deficiencies of the ancient Israelite lunar calendar.

Reading the Psalms based on this system will give you a fresh perspective. The Psalms perfectly complement the story of the development of God’s promise and people, and they build on our spiritual and emotional responses to God’s Word. The traditional Jewish divisions of the Torah are quite different from our own chapter breakdown, but normally make a lot of sense.

Try Jacob’s blessing, followed by Psalm 40 (“I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation”); Lot being taken captive, and then Psalm 10 (“the wicked hotly pursue the poor…”); Psalm 18, “the Lord is my rock and fortress” being read on the day of Abraham’s death; Joseph being elevated to prime minister (Ps 34, “this poor man cried and Yahweh heard him”); later, when his brothers arrive in Egypt, Ps 35, “without cause they hid their net for me, without cause they dug a pit for my life”. When Esau approaches Jacob, Ps 27, “though an army camp against me, I shall not fear, though war rise against me I shall be confident”.

If you’re skeptical about the whole thing, or if you think you’ve identified an error, email me to discuss. Otherwise enjoy…

Reading Cycle

Genesis (Psalms 1 – 41)

Genesis is the beginning of the conflict between the two seeds, and the introduction of sin, pain, suffering and death into the world. Book I of the Psalms deals with the same themes, depicting the enmity between David, a man after God’s own heart, and his enemies, as well as highlighting his suffering because of his transgression.
Gen 1 – 2v3 Creation Ps 1
Gen 2v4 – 3v21 Creation and rebellion of man Ps 2
Gen 3v22 – 4 Cain and Abel Ps 3
Gen 5 – 6v8 Generations of Adam Ps 4
Gen 6v9 – 7 Generations of Noah (and the flood) Ps 5
Gen 8 – 9v17 God’s Covenant with Noah Ps 6
Gen 9v18 – 10v32 Curse of Canaan Ps 7
Gen 11 Tower of Babel Ps 8
Gen 12 – 13v18 Call of Abram Ps 9
Gen 14 Abram rescues Lot Ps 10
Gen 15 – 16 God’s Covenant with Abraham Ps 11
Gen 17 Covenant of Circumcision Ps 12
Gen 18 Abraham’s intercession for Sodom Ps 13
Gen 19 Lot rescued from Sodom Ps 14
Gen 20 – 21 Abraham, Abimelech & birth of Isaac Ps 15
Gen 22-23 Sacrifice of Isaac, Death of Sarah Ps 16
Gen 24v1-41 Isaac and Rebekah Ps 17
Gen 24v42 – 25v18 Marriage of Isaac and death of Abraham Ps 18
Gen 25v19 – 26v11 Birth of Esau and Jacob & God’s promise to Isaac Ps 19
Gen 26v12-35 God blesses Isaac Ps 20
Gen 27v1-27 Isaac blesses Jacob Ps 21
Gen 27v28 – 28v9 Jacob flees Ps 22
Gen 28v10 – 29v30 Jacob marries Rachel and Leah Ps 23
Gen 29v31 – 30v21 Jacob’s children Ps 24
Gen 30v22 – 31v2 Jacob’s prosperity Ps 25
Gen 31v3 – 32v3 Jacob flees from Laban Ps 26
Gen 32v4 – 33v17 Jacob fears Esau Ps 27
Gen 33v18 – 35v8 Defiling of Dinah Ps 28
Gen 35v9 – 36v43 Death of Isaac Ps 29
Gen 37 Joseph’s dream Ps 30
Gen 38 Judah and Tamar Ps 31
Gen 39 – 40 Joseph in Egypt Ps 32
Gen 41v1-37 Pharoah’s dream Ps 33
Gen 41v38 – 42v17 Joseph’s rise to power Ps 34
Gen 42v18 – 43v13 Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt Ps 35
Gen 43v14 – 44v17 Joseph tests his brothers Ps 36
Gen 44v18 – 46v27 Judah’s repentance and Joseph brings his family to Egypt Ps 37
Gen 46v28 – 47v31 Jacob’s family united Ps 38
Gen 48 Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh Ps 39
Gen 49v1-27 Jacob’s blessings Ps 40
Gen 49v28 – 50 Death of Jacob and Joseph Ps 41

Exodus (Psalms 42 – 72)

Exodus contains a parable of national deliverance, the treading down of Egypt, and the construction of the tabernacle where people could find refuge in God. Likewise Book II of the Psalms deals with the righteous finding refuge and offering their sacrifices of contrition and praise, as well as seeing the treading down of their enemies. Many psalms in this book are composed by the sons of Korah, whose ancestors stood aside from their rebellious father.
Ex 1 – 2v25 Birth of Moses Ps 42
Ex 3 – 4v17 God sends Moses to Egypt Ps 43
Ex 4v18 – 6v1 Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh Ps 44
Ex 6v2 – 7v7 God promises deliverance Ps 45
Ex 7v8 – 8v15 First plague: water to blood Ps 46
Ex 8v16 – 9 Plagues 2 – 7 Ps 47
Ex 10 Plague 8 – 9 Ps 48
Ex 11 – 12v28 Plague 10 and passover Ps 49
Ex 12v29 – 51 Death of firstborn and institution of the passover Ps 50
Ex 13 – 14v14 Fast and unleavened bread and exodus Ps 51
Ex 14v15 – 16v3 Crossing Red Sea and Song of Moses Ps 52
Ex 16v4-v28 Manna in the wilderness Ps 53
Ex 6v28 – 17v16 Water from the rock Ps 54
Ex 18 – 19v6 Appointing of the elders Ps 55
Ex 19v7 – 20v26 Ten commandments Ps 56
Ex 21 – 22v23(24) Laws about Restitution Ps 57
Ex 22v25 – 24v18 Sabbaths, festivals and the covenant confirmed Ps 58
Ex 25 Contributions for the Sanctuary Ps 59
Ex 26v1-30 The Tabernacle Ps 60
Ex 26v31 – 27v19 The bronze altar and the court Ps 61
Ex 27v20 – 28v43 The Lamp and the Priest’s Garments Ps 62
Ex 29 Consecration of the Priests Ps 63
Ex 30 Altar of Incense, Bronze basin & anointing oil Ps 64
Ex 31 – 32v14 Ohiliab and Bezalel, the Golden Calf Ps 65
Ex 32v15 – 33 Moses intercedes for Israel Ps 66
Ex 34v1-26 Ten commandments again, covenant renewed Ps 67
Ex 34v27 – 35v29 Shining face of Moses, Tabernacle contributions Ps 68
Ex 35v30 – 36 Construction of the tabernacle Ps 69
Ex 37 – 38v20 Making of the Tabernacle furniture Ps 70
Ex 38v21 – 39v32 Making the Priestly garments Ps 71
Ex 39v33 – 40 The Tabernacle erected Ps 72

Leviticus (Psalms 73 – 89)

Leviticus records the sacrificial requirements of the Law and the statutes of the priesthood and sanctuary. Likewise every psalm in Book III, with the sole exception of Psalm 88, mentions the sanctuary, the congregation, the tabernacle, the temple, the cherubim, the feasts, courts, altars or saints.
Lev 1 – 3
Burnt, Grain & Peace offerings Ps 73
Lev 4 Sin offerings Ps 74
Lev 5v1-6v11 Sin offerings for failure to testify Ps 75
Lev 6v12 – 7 Guilt offerings Ps 76
Lev 8 – 10v7 The priest and the offerings Ps 77
Lev 10v8 – 14v32 Ps 78
Lev 15v1-24 Laws about bodily discharges Ps 79
Lev 15v25 – 16v34 Day of Atonement Ps 80
Lev 17 Place of sacrifice Ps 81
Lev 18 Sexual immorality Ps 82
Lev 19v1-22 God is holy, love your neighbour Ps 83
Lev 19v23-20v27 Punishments and commandment to be holy Ps 84
Lev 21 – 22v16 Holiness and the priests Ps 85
Lev 22v17 – 23v8 Acceptable offerings Ps 86
Lev 23v9-44 Feasts of the Lord Ps 87
Lev 24 – 25v12 Sabbath Year Ps 88
Lev 25v13 – 27 Obedience and disobedience Ps 89

Numbers (Psalms 90 – 106)

Numbers recounts the wilderness wanderings and the success of the nation in victory against the peoples of the lands to the east of Jordan, preparing for the conquest of the promised land. The psalms of Book IV also speak of the saints in a desolate world seeking protection in their pilgrimage. Furthermore, there are many psalms that speak of Yahweh seizing power from the nations and reigning in absolute victory.
Num 1
A census of Israel’s warriors
Ps 90
Num 2 Arrangement of the camp Ps 91
Num 3 – 4v16 Duties of the Levites, redemption of the firstborn; duties of Kohathites Ps 92
Num 4v17 – 5v10 Duties of the Kohathites Ps 93
Num 5v11 – 6v21 Nazarite vow Ps 94
Num 6v22 – 7v47 Offerings at the Tabernacle’s consecration Ps 95
Num 7v48 – 89 Contributions to the Tabernacle Ps 96
Num 8 – 9v23 Cleansing and retirement of the Levites Ps 97
Num 10 – 11v15 Silver trumpets, the people complain Ps 98
Num 11v16 – 12v16 Elders appointed to aid Moses, Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses Ps 99
Num 13 – 14v10 The 12 spies, and the rebellion Ps 100
Num 14v11-45 Moses intercedes for the people Ps 101
Num 15 – 16v50 Sacrifices and Korah’s rebellion Ps 102
Num 17 – 18 Aaron’s staff buds; duties of Priests and Levites Ps 103
Num 19 – 23v9 Waters of Meribah; Moses strikes the rock Ps 104
Num 23v10 – 28v25 Balaam’s second oracle Ps 105
Num 30v2 – 36v13 Recounting Israel’s journey Ps 106

Deuteronomy (Psalms 107 – 150)

Deuteronomy is all about the spirit and intention of the Law. It presents such lofty thoughts as loving, fearing, and praising God with all one’s heart, soul and strength. It also delineates the blessings and cursings of the covenant, and ends with a song of witness against Israel. Book V contains psalms with the same themes. They are songs of praise, blessings, thanks, and joyful response to God’s overwhelming graciousness. Psalm 119 records the disposition of the righteous as he contemplates the spirit of God’s law working in his heart. The Songs of Degrees were songs of appreciation following Hezekiah’s deliverance from the Assyrians and from death. Finally there is the series of Hallel psalms that bring the whole of the psalter to a glorious finale with a crescendo of singing and praise.
Dt 1
Israel’s’ rebellion
Ps 107
Dt 2v1-30 The Wilderness years Ps 108
Dt 2v31 – 3v22 Taking possession of Sihon’s land Ps 109
Dt 3v23 – 4v40 Moses forbidden to enter land, idolatry forbidden, Yahweh alone is God Ps 110 – 112
Dt 4v41 – 6v3 Ten Commandments Ps 113 – 115
Dt 6v4 – 7v11 A chosen people Ps 116 – 117
Dt 7v12 – 8 Remember the Lord your God Ps 118
Dt 9 – 16v17 Not for Israel’s righteousness, remember the golden calf Ps 119
Dt 16v18 – 18v13 Justice; forbidden worship and laws for kings and priests Ps 120 – 123
Dt 18v14 – 21v9 A prophet like Moses shall be raised up Ps 124 – 128
Dt 21v10 – 23v9 Laws concerning murder, and families Ps 129 – 132
Dt 23v10 – 24v18 Uncleanness in the camp, marriage and divorce Ps 133 – 135
Dt 24v19 – 25v19 Levirate marriage Ps 136 – 137
Dt 26 – 28v14 Offerings of firstfruits and tithes; altar on Ebal Ps 138 – 139
Dt 28v15 – 29v8 Curses for disobedience Ps 140 – 142
Dt 29v9 – 30v10 Covenant renewed in Moab Ps 143 – 144
Dt 30v11 – 31v13 Repentance and forgiveness; choice between life and death Ps 145
Dt 32v1-52 The Song of Moses Ps 146 – 147
Dt 33 – 34v12 Moses final blessing on Israel Ps 148 – 149