Three very helpful but imperfect ways of dividing the Bible


One of the most important ways to understand what biblical stories and texts are saying is to examine and understand the biblical event, idea, or word in the context of the section. This obviously requires that the reader know where the episode begins and where it ends. Readers who think the narration begins and/or ends in the wrong place in the Bible will frequently misinterpret what they read. There are three distinct ways that the Bible is divided. Each causes readers to develop different understandings.


The three ways the Bible is divided

Each of the three divisions of the Bible is ancient but do not go back to the days of Moses. They are: (1) The Christian separation of the Bible into chapters. (2) The Jewish breakup of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses) into 54 portions (called parasha in Hebrew) so that Jews can read and finish the entire Torah every year. (3) The Jewish partition of the Torah text into paragraphs and sections.


Before the divisions

Today, the Bible is made up of 187 chapters and 5,845 verses, but this was not always so. The ancient Hebrew Bible was not divided into chapters and verses. As far as we can tell, the Bible was written in continuous lines with no division between words or verses. This was also the style of other ancient documents.


Division by chapters and verses

The prominent fourth-century Church father Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament into Latin. He was the first person who divided the texts into chapters. His translation is called Vulgate, meaning “popular,” because his goal was to make the Bile accessible to everyone. He felt that by separating and numbering chapters, people could refer to and find parts of the Bible that they are seeking easily. His Latin translation became the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church and his concept of chapter division was accepted by all faiths.

In the thirteenth century, Stephen Langton, an English cardinal who rose to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, refined Jerome’s work by dividing the biblical books into chapters and verses as we know them today.


Division into 54 portions

While Jews use the chapter divisions for references, they have another system for weekly Bible study and synagogue services. Tradition states that Moses, to whom the Torah was revealed, instituted the practice that a parasha (portion) of the Torah should be read publically each Sabbath, so that the entire Torah should be read to all Jews. Whether or not Moses made the division, it soon developed that The Five Books of Moses was divided into 155 portions in Israel so that it could be read each week and finished in three years, and 54 portions (parashat hashavua – “portions of the week”) in Babylon so that the Torah could be read in its entirety in a single year. The Babylonian practice was ultimately accepted by virtually all Jews and is the current practice today. The 54 portion break-up take leap years into account when a full month is added to the Jewish calendar and there are more than 52 weeks in the year.[1] Thus during non-leap years, two sections are sometimes read on the Sabbath.

Tradition states that after Moses, Ezra, who lived and led the Jews in the fourth or fifth century BCE, extended to practice to read parts of the Torah to even more days than the Sabbath. It is now read during synagogue services on Monday and Thursday mornings, Saturday evenings, and holidays.[2] Moses’ and Ezra’s goal was that the Torah should not be restricted to a privileged class.


Division by the Hebrew letters pei and samekh

Still later, another practice arose to divide the Torah into sections and paragraphs. This was done by placing the Hebrew letter pei in Torah books (but not in the scrolls used in the synagogues) to indicate that a new section will begin and the Hebrew letter samekh to indicate that a new paragraph starts.[3] But the pei (sections) and chapter and parasha divisions do not correspond. As I will show below, those who divided the Torah by using a pie frequently disagreed with those who divided the Torah by chapters and parasha. Each frequently had different ideas as to when the narration of a subject ended and a new one began.[4]

The practice of dividing the Torah into paragraphs (samekh) and sections (pei) is very old. We find that this type of division existed in the book of Isaiah, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran at the Dead Sea, and this book and its divisions must have been composed before 67 CE when the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans.


Problems with each of the three systems

            Chapter divisions

Very often the Christian division of the Bible is at odds with the Jewish divisions and seems illogical. For example, the very onset of the Bible, chapter 1, tells the story of the origin of creation in seven days. Yet the events of the seventh day, which belong in chapter 1, are in verses 1 to 3 of chapter 2. Chapter 2 verse 4 begins a totally different narrative and verse 4 should have been the opening verse of chapter 2.

The same thing occurs in the biblical book Amos. The prophet Amos begins his book describing the calamities that occurred to seven neighboring kingdoms of Israel and predicted that the same disasters will happen to Israel. Yet, curiously, the chapter division places the last two of the seven descriptions in chapter 2, in verses 1-5, with 2:6 beginning a totally new subject. Chapter 2 should have started with 2:6.

Similarly, the story of Abraham begins in 11:27, which should be the opening verse of chapter 12 because 11:27 through 32 give essential information about the patriarch.


            Division into portions

One might expect that each of the 54 biblical portions should begin at the beginning of a chapter or the onset of a new subject, but this does not happen. For example, six of the twelve biblical portions in the book Genesis, half of them, start in the middle of chapters and narrations.[5]

For example, the biblical portion Noah begins with chapter 6 verse 9, but the actual story starts with verse 5 where the Bible tells why God decided to bring a flood.[6] The tale of Jacob’s death opens the portion Vayechi in 47:28, but the actual narration of Jacob’s death commences with chapter 48:1, which another Jewish tradition recognized by placing a pei at this site and set no indication of an ending before 47:27.


              Pei and samekh

The pei-samekh division frequently differs with both the chapter and portion divisions, as we saw in the prior paragraph. One significant difference is how the pei-samekh system divides the Decalogue (Decalogue means Ten Statements, which contain more than Ten Commandments) and how the generally accepted tradition does so today. The pei-samekh systems includes what is today called the first and second commands as the first statement and divides the tenth into two.

The final Torah portion in Genesis, Vayechi, not only commences in the midst of chapter 47, but in the Torah scroll there is no customary space separating one parasha from another. This is because the originators of the pei-samekh system felt the subject started with 48:1 and placed a pei there.[7]



Since it is important to understand the context of a section in order to comprehend the event, idea, and word in the section, and since there are conflicting notions of how to divide the sections, which result in seeing the contexts differently, people who want to fully know what the Bible is saying need to view what is being said from all three perspectives and decide what they feel is right.      


[1] If the division takes leap years into account, shouldn’t the division be 52 + 4 = 56? No, when a holiday occurs on the Sabbath, the weekly portion is not read in the synagogue. Instead, a portion of the Torah is read that mentions the holiday.

[2] Why is the Torah read on these days? Mondays and Thursdays were market days in ancient Judea when farmers would come to town to sell their produce and could hear the Torah read. They were also often present on Saturday and holidays.

[3] The pei is the first letter of the Hebrew word petuchot, “open.” It is called “open” because the following new section starts on a new line in Torah scrolls. There are 290 pei sections, while there are 187 chapters. The samekh is the first letter of the Hebrew word setumim, “closed.” The next paragraph is on the same line in Torah scroll and is separated from the prior paragraph by only a short space, not a new line. There are 379 samekh sections.

[4]  Neither these divisions nor the verses are numbered. Torah scrolls do not have the pei and samekh, but do have the spacings. The letters are only placed in some Torah books.

[5] 6:9, 25:19, 28:11, 32:4, 44:18, and 47:28.

[6] A pei is placed before 6:5.

[7] Rashi (based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah) offers two homiletical explanations for the absence of an open space. One is that after Jacob dies, the hearts of the Israelites “closed,” because they began being enslaved. The other is that Jacob wanted to disclose to his children when the exile and travail of their descendants in Egyptian slavery will end, but his prophetic vision was “closed” and he could not tell them.