I read 59 books in 2019. And yet, I was intimidated when my friend asked me to read the Bible with her this year. Sure, there are 66 books in the Protestant Bible, but some of those are less than a page long. What’s the big deal?
Okay, obviously, overall, the Bible is a large, dense book. I can remember other times in my life when I vowed to read the Bible cover to cover, only to stop a few months in. I was even hesitant to write this post this month and confess to all of you readers that I have this goal! Somehow I know that the risk of not reaching the end is a number far greater than zero, and far greater than I would like to admit.
And it’s hard to start at the beginning. The writing style of the Old Testament can be incredibly dry...especially if you don’t also take the time to interact with the text and ask what it means, not just glaze over the very long lists of genealogies and laws. Then again, if you take the time to interact with the text, you might become dragged down by difficult material...and seeming contradictions.
No surprise there, perhaps, but we have held ourselves accountable to checking in with each other regularly. Every Monday I can expect a text from my friend with a reaction or question about the reading, and I respond in kind. She has been great about referencing outside articles and hunting down answers, perhaps to the detriment to our page goals, but perhaps to the enrichment of our experience.
If you study the Bible even casually, you will likely wonder how the Protestant canon was chosen, and how the order of the books was decided. In the introduction to the Chronological Study Bible, the contributors note that the canonical order was determined by the Latin version translated by Saint Jerome in the 4th century A.D.
In this study Bible, the contributors arranged the texts according to narrative structure, grouping texts not according to when they were written but by common time periods and events, so we can appreciate how God’s story unfolded over time. The contributors caution readers that rearranging the text into chronological order “will probably highlight some difficulties that many Bible readers have never noticed. The Bible as it really is, not as we have imaginatively harmonized it in our mind, may be a bit unsettling at first.” (xi)
Even so, they suggest that recognizing “such problems will only help readers better appreciate the efforts of serious biblical scholars to interpret the Bible. One goal [here] is to help Bible readers join the scholars’ quest for historical truth.” (xi)
To date, I have read the first four books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, which maintain their order chronologically. Here’s what stood out:
In Genesis, I learned theories on the origin of the word “Hebrew.”
“The Habiru (also spelled Hapiru) were a class of fugitives found in the ancient Near East from about 2000 to 1000 B.C.,” although it’s unclear whether there is a link between these people and the early Israelites.
Abram is first called a “Hebrew” in Genesis 14:13. “Although “Hebrew” is clearly an ethnic term in the Bible, it may have been originally a term describing the social condition of persons in flight or those in armed gangs. Abram could have been called “the Hebrew” simply because of his status as a foreigner in Canaan.” (23)
I appreciated the sidebar commentary relating other traditions, stories and myths of the people groups of the time and how they differed theologically from the Biblical stories. Overall, the contributors point out that the pagan “peoples surrounding the Hebrews built their religious beliefs on the [recurring, regular] rhythms of nature” whereas “Israel wanted to tell how God had performed unique, one time actions in human history.” (xii)
I found it striking how the narrative of Genesis changes -- indeed becoming more narrative-like -- when Joseph is introduced in chapter 37. So much detail about this man and a great example of God dealing with his creation in “one time, extraordinary moments of self-revelation.” (xii)
In Exodus, following the narrative of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, I noted a stark shift to the extensive lists of laws and very, very specific requirements. I realized that learning about God without the Bible already must have been very challenging. The Israelites’ repeated failings and efforts to return to right living made me feel like they had to repeatedly stumble around pagan traditions to find God.
My friend and I talked about this as an argument for the Bible’s as truth -- that if someone were to make it up, they wouldn’t have put all of the foibles and mistakes and sins in it! And women, for sure, wouldn’t have been the first witnesses to the resurrection. (But we’ll get to the New Testament in time.)
When I got to Leviticus, I was struck by this verse:
“If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.” (Leviticus 5:1)
I wondered if there was a parallel between it and our current call to stand up to injustice, to prevent false accusations and “give people their truth back,” as in Bryan Stevenson’s expose Just Mercy. (quote from movie adaptation)
I got a little confused in Numbers chapter 13 when the Israelites talk about how they can’t enter a new land because there are godlike people there. A sidebar refers back to Genesis 6:2 that talks about the sons of God, suggesting the possibility that sons of God mingled with sons of humans, creating a demi-god species. Certainly not something we covered in Sunday School! My friend looked this up for me and suggested they were either giants or fallen angels. She also directed me to Jude verse 6:
“The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home, these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great day.”
We wondered about the role of Satan and fallen angels and whether the introduction of temptation also allowed the introduction of choice, making our choice to turn to God out of love the entry point to a true relationship.
I feel like I have only just cracked the cover in this new study, but already I agree with the contributors that what I read “may be a bit unsettling at first”! If you’ve made it to the bottom of this post, will you pray for my friend and I as we continue on this journey? Please pray that we’re able to complete it, and that through completing it, our faith may be challenged...and strengthened.
Now, on to Deuteronomy!
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.