Read It With Your Own Eyes, And Don’t Be Afraid! Some Limited Insights on the Art and Practice of Bible Reading
Prelude: An Introduction to a Long Post
Oh, The Bible
Hello. I’m in a little isolation bubble and I have been writing today, on Wednesday May the 4th (be with you). Thankfully the sun has been shining throughout. I’ve been thinking about this topic and I suppose that for me it is never too far from my mind. The Bible. What is it? What do we do with it? How should we engage with it? How should we even think about it?
And I often have people ask me about those sorts of questions, which happened again this week. So I’ve really tried to put down on paper some of what I know, or what I think I know.
It really became rather a long post, so I’ve given you this nice Table of Contents, so you can see what’s coming up. You’re welcome.
Table of Contents
If you read through this perceptively, you should also see the magnitude of things about which I know little about. If I’m aware of my lack, you should be able to find at least some small portals within these words through which you can exist and follow at your leisure. I’ve tried to stay in my lane as much as possible, and I’ll point out right up front that this is neither a book nor an article. Is it a blog post, albeit a long one, and it is addressing a specific question that has arisen from within my pastoral practice.
This writing is limited in scope by the fact I started it this morning and I’m ending it before bed. Perhaps that is not a method to guarantee good work, but that’s what I have done. Like all good pieces of creativity, I am happy for it to be perfectly good in it’s imperfection, and I pray if nothing else it would open up some horizons for some people and some conversations for others.
It is also a long piece. Perhaps it should be three or even five posts. Perhaps the reason it’s not is that I’m not good at marketing and I don’t really aspire to be. I didn’t mean for it to be long, it just arrived like that. So I have left it in its true form.
A Note To Those Who Have Been Hurt
I recognise that for many people, the Bible has mixed or entirely negative connotations. There have been many damaging messages and happenings that have arisen as people have used the Bible in different ways. There are bad passages that have been used to bash, and used to enforce, it has been and still is misused and decontextualised and badly theologised in all sorts of ways. This post is me having a look at the Bible through a friendly lens, which is largely how I’ve experienced the Bible. But for all of you out there who do not resonate with that at all, I just want to say… I see you.
I dedicate this to my Student Soul whānau. You are one ace crew.
And I dedicate it to any students who love God, who are interested in faith or curious about Jesus, who want to grow, and who are looking for ways and pathways to lean in. This is for you.
Intro: The Usefulness of The Bible For Growth
I would apologise for the heartlessness of how that heading reads, except for that fact that it does outline my first point.
It’s hard to have a high enough view of how useful Bible reading is for your growth and transformation.
How I’ve Experienced the Bible
My reasons for saying that arise out of my own experience, which has now stretched out to a 20-year reading practice.
I’ve received consolation, encouragement, and clarity of purpose through reading the Bible. I’ve been challenged and infuriated, motivated to dive deeper in my understanding of how things are. It’s made me want to make a positive change in this world.
The Bible has helped me look forward to the morning, to the dawn, and to life.
It’s often sent me to sleep, I’ll admit that. I’ve felt affirmation and a deep sense of love and acceptance in it. I’ve been stretched through my reading. At some times I have discovered a strong sense of freedom arising. At other times I’ve become increasingly awareness of my inadequacy, accompanied by a desire to grow.
The Bible’s Magnitude
There is such a magnitude of wisdom, reflection, and life shining out of these pages of the Bible, that I literally will not be able to say enough how significantly it has shaped and formed me. I have dozens of journals where I have mapped that journey. And although not one thing that I have written would come close to showing how significant a companion these writings have been for me, I can point to the pages, the words, the years, and the life. And apart from that I can simply say that the Bible has exerted a supreme and unparalleled influence in my own life.
A Powerful Tool (Wield Carefully)
And I’m aware through study that I am not alone in that experience. There are plenty of good reasons that his ancient book/collection of books has survived so long. And for why it continues to infuse the imaginative, cultural landscapes of our day.
Also, since there has been significant negative impact and collateral damage from “the Bible” being wielded dangerously, I will note the following which simply emphasises my point. If a person were to pick up a powerful tool and whirl it around with malicious intent, they would easily cause harm.
The following is an account of how reading the Bible is a powerful and useful tool for growing in the journey of following Jesus, and how you can do it wisely and well.
Part One: Stories That Invite Us In
The Bible is filled with stories.
It is filled with stories of struggle and challenge, faith and risk, uncertainty and suffering, desperate hope and slow endurance.
We need stories like this. They are stories which invite us in.
The Bible tells the story of the Jewish people, from the powerfully mythological pre-history of early Genesis, to the daring obedience of Abraham and Sarah as they left the land in obedient pilgrimage. And then onward, all the way through to their descendants’ slavery and liberation.
It tells the story of how Israel began the slow work of freedom, learning to embrace that original Abrahamic call. The task was to become a nation that was a blessing to the nations. And in that task the people of Israel faced ongoing difficulties, even as they sought steadfastly and faithfully to put it into practice through the formational impact of Mosaic law.
Crazy Characters and Interesting Movement
It is a story of kings and prophets, of strange and mysterious characters who come from off-screen with seemingly minor roles but who captivate us, compel us, and disturb us. It’s a story with battles, with death, with conquest, with loss. It’s a story the charts a people’s developing conception of who their God is and what it means to live well in the violent and turbulent environment of the Ancient Near East.
It’s a story of promise and hope, and yet also of failing hopes and fading promises. And it’s the story of Jesus. When Jesus enters the story of the Bible, he becomes a re-interpretive focus around all that came prior. And from there on out, the narrative locks in again on the fulfilment of that initial calling, to be a blessing to the nations. It is about the fulfilment of the Jewish calling, and the fulfilling of the human calling.
Things get opened right up through Jesus, and the message is one that’s meant to truly be good news for all the world. And so the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus become ways to frame our understanding of the entire Biblical narrative.
And with all that in mind, in the Bible we find ourselves dealing with central questions like this. Who are we as humans? What does it mean to be creatures made in the image of God? And how shall we live together in this world on that basis?
Hope and Possibility
From Jesus onward, the Bible narrative is once again a story of promise and hope. But in contrast to where things got to in the Old Testament, this time hope has some serious skin in the game.
And it is a story of Pentecost, it is a story of a bubbling, non-violent rebellion, a counter-culture being formed in the midst of oppressive empire. It is “the Way” (as it was called in the time of the early Church), a movement of people taking responsibility for living and witnessing to Jesus who is Risen. And so it becomes the story of the church, of which the Greek word ecclesia means “called out ones.”
So when the New Testament speaks of the church it means these people who have been called out and called together. And the purpose of this ecclesia, this gathering and scattering people, is to get aligned to Christ’s mission. It is to strengthen one another for the task at hand. It is to ensure that the life they live is properly conforming to that alternative kingdom vision which Jesus ushered into being. And it is to fulfil the Jewish calling and indeed the human calling to worship God.
This is No Tamed Religion
The New Testament charts this through the epistles or letters. Then finally, we find the story has an end, and a good one at that.
Revelation reminds us that the Way is not a tamed religion. Instead, it is a little wild….
The Way is a dangerous in the sense that it messes with the stabilities that hold us too tightly, and it calls us to question our religious practices and certainties.
The book of Revelation opens us up to embrace the uncertainties of the present. And to accomplish its task, it unleashes upon us an artistic, visionary summation of all that has gone before, teaching us how to look forward with verve.
The Stories of Humanity
All those stories that make up the Biblical narrative are powerful in the way they can pull us in. They wrap us up into themselves. These are the stories of humanity: the stories of the terrors and triumphs, the hopes and longings, the fears and rejoicings of people throughout ages past.
They are very particular, curious, and unique stories about actual people and places, events and cultures. In that way they are strange, compelling, complex, offensive.
But they are also timeless in their particularity. And when for a moment we can see, hear, taste, or feel something of what these stories are saying, doing, and inviting us into, that exact moment is when we hit the gold: those stories become our stories.
And there are endless riches to resonate with, endless possibilities to draw us in. These stories of humanity are calling out to us, inviting us to see anew that we are not alone, that we are part of a much bigger story, and that there is a direction to life that should make your heart beat just a little faster.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE! And God is with us.
It’s a big message.
So all of that that is a taster of the Biblical narrative, the actual good stuff that makes reading the book so very worthwhile. That might be a little bit of a whirlwind rendition, but there you have it.
Part Two: Other Related Areas
OK, so you made it this far. Well done.
Part One was all related to what’s in the Bible, the content inside the form.
Before we get to the next section on the actual process of reading the Bible, I’m going to warm into it by exploring what “reading the Bible” means in relationship to other aspects of Christian resourcing. After merging into the question of how we approach Bible reading as a spiritual practice, I’ll offer some advice on the actual work of reading it.
Different Strands of the Weave
There are different things you might mean when talking about “reading the Bible.” You might think about it is different strands to a weave.
One of those weaves is best described as a spiritual practice, a way to engage with God and grow in faith. This is mainly the approach that I’m writing. For the most part of this post, when I’m talking about “reading the Bible” I am really just meaning reading the actual Bible and the actual words within it. And I also mean it actively, as in being committed to the process. The “…ing” part is the active bit. As in, it’s a practice and journey which is ongoing. It’s not a past event, but a present commitment with a future aim. That’s what I am thinking about personally when I am talking about reading the Bible.
But there are other supporting strands that are related. One is linked to the vast material that you might categorise as Christian living, and another is through the deep storehouses that we could call critical study.
So let’s have a look at these other two other areas.
A Deeper Dive on Christian Living Resources
Sometimes when we think about reading the Bible, we might think about reading a devotional that has some verses from the Bible in it, or watching a video sermon that’s exploring Biblical themes.
Your reading practice may be complemented by the kind of light study that devotionals and Christian non-fiction writing or speaking might encourage, as well as sermons and other such material. Even imperfect material on Christian living can be helpful if engaged prayerfully and with discernment. It can be helpful to try to understand the underlying motivation and intention of the resource to pinpoint where the most life-giving part of it comes from.
Christian living resources are very important (this post is in fact part of that category). But at the end of the day they shouldn’t replace personal, prayerful Bible reading. Podcasts and blog posts should not become sole source of nourishment in the Christian life.
With a Diversion On Dangerous Church Cultures
A church culture that is built solely upon Christian living resources will in my view lead to a bad end.
Either it will tend toward to religious institutionalism with a top-down direction of thought. This will be supported and accompanied by a church culture that neither allows the space for dissent nor has the creative intellectual resources for it.
Or else it will lead to a steady deterioration of community as each person does exactly what is perceived to be best for them, with no acknowledgement of any kind of (Scripturally communal and servant-hearted) authority arising out of the ministry of the church at all.
One of those routes promotes religious fundamentalism, which Jesus opposed. The other promotes an individualistic religiosity which I oppose. Haha.
Supplementary & Necessary
But on the whole, the category of resources we call Christian living will probably supplement our core spiritual practise of Bible reading more heavily in some times than in others. This is especially true in times where you’re going through paradigm changes in your life and thought, and when you are desperate for extensive and fast learning. But that leads us on nicely to the next part, which is related.
A Passing Look at the Need for Critical Study
Your Bible reading can and should also be complemented by critical engagement with the theological disciplines of Biblical Studies and (as it’s put at the University of Otago) Christian Thought and History.
You don’t need to study at that level to benefit from it, although if can you totally should at least try a paper or two. Instead, think about it this way. We are all invited to be learners in the name of Jesus, and to make intentional moves to develop our capacity for critical thought. It’s necessary for the sake of the gospel.
Ideally engagement with this more critically-focused reading will inform not only your own personal practice of faith, but will also be the backbone of the “Christian living” input I spoke of in the previous segment. (Like I said, it’s an interweaving thread). That’s by no means a given, so it pays to pay attention to the sources of your learning.
The Two Supporting Strands
In summary, I am pointing out that those two different areas of Christian living and theology can and should both contribute and enhance our understanding of the Bible and the faith. This is an interweaving thread, different components that relate to one another and to a large extent rely upon one another. And I am resisting now the temptation to go down an important rabbit hole into all the other variables that makes up Christian discernment.
But at the heart of this all is the Bible itself.
And so we turn to our practice of reading it.
Part Three: Reading the Bible is a Spiritual Practice
The spiritual practice of reading the Bible is an act of prayer, discernment, and encounter with God.
This is its own important and interdependent strand. Bible reading stands on its own as a discipline, in open conversation with those other two elements (at least).
This spiritual practice of reading the Bible holds a crucial and central place in the Christian life, and it is necessary for health in the personal life of the believer and in the shared life of the Church.
What Makes Bible Reading “A Practice”?
A practice is something we do.
When I talk about Bible reading as a spiritual practice, I am talking about building a habit that will enable you to grow in a relationship with God. This habit is about to developing in the spiritual life through prayer, growing the knowledge of God, learning to exercising your faith, and allowing your imagination to be shaped by the Holy Spirit through a full and thorough Biblical infusion.
To build a habit, you make a regular commitment. You need a plan of action, a sense of direction and the big picture, and ideally the supporting rungs of friendship and accountability to support resilience on the journey.
Reading and Praying
The best way to read the Bible is with prayer.
Pray at the start: “Holy Spirit, help me to hear your voice as I read your Word.” Be prayerfully attentive as you are reading. Chew on the words, ask the questions, read actively. Join in with the praises and laments that you come across. When the text brings up a strong feeling, a big question, or a prompt to action – go with it. Dive into that. You have permission to move into prayer, or journaling, or whatever you need to do. When you are finished, close in prayer, with thanks to God and with honesty (you don’t have to pray in a way that sounds formal, just saying something real is a good start).
In that way, you’ve wrapped up your session of “reading the Bible” with prayer. And when you build that into a habit, you are truly setting these times up as opportunities for encounter with the living God.
It’s Worth Reading the Whole Thing
The Bible is a collection of books, and in the Christian view, they collectively tell the story of God and the people of God. Even in a view that’s not Christian, you can still see the integrity of the narrative when you read it. It reads like a single story whether you believe it to be true or not.
So like any book, if you want to understand it, it is good to read it.
It’s absolutely true that can learn a lot by reading about it. And that is what a lot of Church life has become. Lots of talk about the Bible. But if you want to develop a robust and critical strength to your faith, of a calibre that champions the structures of life and dismantles structures of death, then in my view, you need to read the actual book. There’s no way around that, not for the way I’m thinking about it.
You can read the Bible in a year, and lots of people do. You can do that with about 4 chapters a day. For myself I’ve found for devotional reading about 3 chapters at a time is about the max, but you can also get into effective reading grooves at by trying out different times of the day.
Reading It From the Start to the End
There are plenty of Bible reading plans, but one good way to do it is to start at the start and go till you get to the end. There are significant chunks of Old Testament material that will be best to smash out fast when you are taking this approach.
You have to remember that we are dealing with different genres of literature that have been handed down to us from very ancient cultures. There are many times when sections of the text simply will not speak for themselves, not to the untrained ear. While you’re reading perhaps you could take basic notes for later. That could form the basis of your next steps, questions to inform your further investigations. But you need to be determined from the start. Don’t let the hard bits sink you. Keep going.
Staying Motivated with the Correct Vision
The best way when you’re reading from cover to cover is to power through with intent. Take comfort during the difficult sections that you will get through to greener grass, and just sort of let it all roll over you. Stay focused on the goal. The cumulative effect of the vast expanses of the Biblical books will provide the right context for your later deep dives into the hard bits.
On the whole, I think it’s good to take this start-to-finish approach at least once. I’m certain it is a worthwhile investment of your time, and I think you will be happy you did.
This Is Foundation Laying
This might be a big assumption to make but nonetheless I’m going to have an educated guess.
You are most likely to spend the rest of your life doing little more than dipping in and out of the Bible. Nice verses to get your through the day. A few killer sermons and plenty that are forgettable. A handpicked (by who?) selection of Scripture references that form the basis of your worshipping life at church. Two or three truly significant Bible study groups that allow you to really engage at a new level.
All of that is great, and is exponetially even better if augmented by this foundational and key piece – having actually read the book for yourself!
So why not do the work at the start (as in, starting now) that can provide you the proper context for your faith? Why not do the key piece of at least once that will be the reference point for everything else on your Christian walk?
Counter-Culture on the Double
Now before you think I’m getting all preachy and bossy, let’s just set things straight. I am not saying you have to do this, nor am I trying to guilt trip you. Don’t worry about it!
On the contrary, all I’m trying to do is hold out a positive vision.
In fact, my call to read the Bible (and all of it) is a doubly counter-cultural vision.
It is counter-cultural to most Christians who will most likely disagree with me about this, in practice if not by what they say. And it’s counter-cultural to the society we live in.
Should any of you brave souls be motivated to read the whole Bible, I am contending that it will be an augmenting experience for you. It will add strength.
If you haven’t done it, or won’t do it, don’t worry! You have not lost anything! You already have everything you have, and I am not planning to take anything away from you! 🙂
What Other Approaches Can I Take?
Starting at the beginning might not be where you are at, and I totally understand. You might want to try a different route, or perhaps you want to augment an existing practice that you have. Lucky for everyone, there are interesting doors all the way through. I can try show you some of those.
Before I do that though, I’ll quickly throw out a couple of other options.
Check out the Revised Common Lectionary (eg. here) for daily and weekly selections of Bible readings that will get you through the majority of the Biblical text in three years. With the added bonus of being lined up with the Church calendar over the course of the year (eg. Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and so forth). Not to mention that this links you up with millions of Christians who are journeying in the same way at the same time. This is pretty awesome.
Or try the YouVersion Bible app or variations on that, which have endless reading plans you can do.
One simple and repeatable approach is that you could start at the beginning of the New Testament and read straight through to the end. That’s a really doable exercise. The NT it is much shorter than the Old Testament (which is also called the Hebrew Bible). I suggest this as a helpful approach you can keep coming back to, and you will get a lot of mileage out of it.
A Tour of the Biblical Literature
There are several different sections within the Bible, and I suppose different scholars have divided it up in different ways.
The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. After that we have the historical books, from Joshua through to Esther. That’s quite a ride.
Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs – these are known as the poetical or wisdom works. Following on from that, the major prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The minor prophets are from Hosea through until Malachi, and that is the end of the Old Testament.
It’s worth knowing that the Catholic Bible has a bunch of extra books hidden in there, called the Apocrypha, which by all means you should read. Although I daresay you already have enough on your hands.
As we move on and enter into the New Testament, we’ll find that there are four Gospels. You could see each of these as portraits of Jesus. Acts is a historical book, and something like a sequel to the Gospel of Luke.
Then we’re into the correspondences of the early church. 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians – these are all epistles, or letters, from Paul to specific churches.
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon are also letters from Paul, but this time (as you might guess do to their names) addressed to specific individuals. Hebrews through Jude are general audience letters. And Revelation is apocalyptic literature.
Craft Yourself a Boutique Reading Plan
Knowing all of that can be helpful for thinking about how and what you are reading. When you’re designing reading habits for devotional purposes, variety is essential.
Sometimes it’s great to read narrative sections. You get interesting characters, mysterious motives, bad surprises, all sorts of wild stuff can happen.
The wisdom books, especially the Psalms for me at least, often seem to have more immediately personal language, and this can be helpful for cultivating prayer and worship.
In the gospels, you will constantly be upended by the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is shockingly different in many regards that what you will hear about if you just go about your mundane church-going existence. The key is to truly dive in.
The epistles have an immediacy about them. This is good in many cases for Christian living, although also at times it can be confronting and difficult.
The prophetic works provide a rich and varied texture of their own.
So if you’re thinking about, say, reading the Bible actively on a daily basis, you could easily be reading three different sections at once, just a little at a time. If you were to do that, you could get a very nice and enjoyable mix going.
Choose a Path and Give It a Go
The best thing I can say to end this section is that, don’t get bogged down.
If you want to read the Bible, get started now and look for an easy win.
Like, try to read the Gospel of Mark. It’s not long. Then you’ll finish it. And then do another one.
You’ll find that it’s not hard, and actually, it’s fun! Don’t let discontent or confusion stand in the way.
And if anything I’ve written makes this whole thing seem daunting or hard, just ignore me. Make a choice to have a go, pick a place to begin, and go for it. God speed!
Outro: A Central Practice of Christianity
Well, we are just about at the end of this little expedition. I hope you have had a nice time. 🙂
Recapping Where We’ve Been
In this post, I’ve been thinking about the Bible. I started during the Introduction by thinking about what I appreciate about the Bible, about why it’s useful, and why it’s still in my view a live voice in 2022.
In Part One, I explored the big scope of the Biblical narrative and the heartbeat of the stories, songs, and sequences that make it up. In Part Two I had a quick look at the related areas of Christian living resources and critical theological study. And following on from that, in Part Three I dived into themes relating to the actual practice of reading the Bible, including what I do and don’t mean by that phrase, what you need to know to make a strong reading plan, and how on earth to stay motivated.
My Core Proposition
When I started writing this morning, my hope was to put down something about what I know about the Bible. My goal was to put forward a way of thinking about things that would be helpful. And the people I have in mind in particular are students or young adults who would like to read the Bible more but perhaps don’t know exactly how to engage.
As I’ve written though, I think I’ve realised that there’s a deeper message coursing through all these words. This is something I’ve always considered true, I probably just haven’t written it down like this.
A personal commitment to reading the Bible is a core and central part of the practice of Christianity.
There is more to following Jesus than this, but following Jesus includes this.
Why It’s Urgent
Even when we are questioning faith, I believe this is important consideration. Perhaps especially so. I personally think the most vital resources for dismantling unhealthy expressions of faith and religion exist within the Bible.
I believe the Bible is a friendly resource to all who consider themselves companions of love and friends of truth.
Watch Out For Dangers
On this note, the Protestant Reformation emphasised Scripture at the centre of Christian practice just like I have. This was in a rejection of a centralised, institutional, religious authority (the medieval Catholic Church and its Pope) as the definitive source of truth. That was fundamentally necessary at the time.
But there have negative effects of this. Changes in the philosophical landscape after the Reformation (The Enlightenment) located the true source of authority in the individual. The Protestants located spiritual authority in the Bible itself (the Word of God).
When you apply this combination, it effectively places spiritual authority in the hands of the interpreter of the Bible. In other words – anyone! All you need is a Bible and a viewpoint you are free to “decide” what the Bible “means.”
When you add to this the personal broadcast power of our social media systems, you can see why there is so much religious, pseudo-Christian (“wolf in sheep’s clothing”) white-noise in our world.
This is a serious challenge.
Getting the Balance Right
The right balance is:
1) Every person seeking follow Christ needs to read the Bible for themselves.
This is a protection against authoritarian religious environments and a slow-descent into dumb group-think. You’ve gotta think for yourself!
And then also that:
2) Every Christ follower and each church needs to stay actively engaged with a wide variety of people, sources, conversations, and dialogues.
This helps us keep one step ahead of our prejudices and assumptions. It’s basically about a maintaining a posture of openness and learning which is honouring towards others. And it’s also about being tuned into the wider Christian communion, the catholicity element of the Christian faith.
We are a part of a diverse and rich tradition of faith. We should stay proactive about tapping the wider pool of wisdom sources we have available. And all the way through the journey, we have to stay connected with others in, locked into healthy relationships of accountability and active discernment about how the Holy Spirit is guiding us.
Here’s my summary of those last paragraphs:
Don’t take any leader’s word as final truth: Read the Bible and think.
But also, don’t take your own interpretation as final. Try to find a discerning fellowship that you can be accountable to, some people with whom you can enjoy the ride.
On Listening, a Side Note
Before I end, I’ll also include a shout out to the valid option of listening.
After all much of the Bible emerged and was passed on through cultures of story-telling and oral communication. Not to mention it’s just an important aspect of learning. Nor that we are increasingly in a post-literate age with a fast growing dominance of oral communication.
Nothing that I’ve written about reading should distract from that, and if reading itself is something you struggle with, I hope you can see the heart behind what I’ve been saying and apply it effectively to your own life.
Closing It Out
Thank you very much for your attention and time engaging with this post… if that’s the best way to describe a 5000-word rant.
Bible reading is a very useful and meaningful practice that you can engage in. The Bible itself is a book of life and light. Jesus stands out big time. There are other methods of study that you can engage in that can support this endeavour, and I have shown you some ways that you could approach reading the Bible as a prayer-filled exercise.
I envision Bible reading as being an active, life-long commitment that builds and strengthens personal faith and which lays a foundation for the many other aspects of following Jesus that we are called to undertake together.
I’ve tried along the way to put up a few additional guideposts and warning signs on themes that seem relevant. I hope those have been helpful and neither distracting from the main point, nor too glaringly full of shortcomings. My hope has been to encourage people to meet God and pursue Jesus through the practice of Bible reading.
I’d like welcome any thoughts or feedback you have on the themes emerging from this material, so please feel free to comment, and even to share it online if you can see it being helpful for someone. I started writing this morning at 7am and it’s now 11pm, so it’s time to stop. Tomorrow I will do different things.
There are endless other works on every other aspect of Bible reading and Bible study, and everything that I have not covered is accessible to you in every other conceivable place, form, and style. I simply present this one-off piece of work as some limited insights on the art and practice of Bible reading.
Grace & peace be with you.
Really nice work Tom. Succinct! I think a lot of people’s struggle is with the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict Jesus ( 1 Sam 15:3; much of Joshua; Psalm 137:8-9) or simply seem really boring (book of Numbers!) & how that all fits with following Jesus. Thoughts?
Hey Kristin! Thanks. It’s kind of you to call that succinct!
Yeah, I know what you mean. Well, I think I mentioned about a developing conception of God in that post. That’s related to your question I think.
Also, there are different writers from different traditions who have different priorities and emphasises, writing from different times and situations. And that idea of the different genres of Biblical literature come in. So what kind of book are we talking about when we talk about Joshua? What’s the writer hoping to convey and accomplish? And what stage of Israel’s history is this written in, and how does that affect our reading? That can and does take you deep dive into Biblical studies and theology and we need to go there.
Apart from that though, I think it’s helpful throughout the OT to remember who we’re talking about. Israel is a minor power in a violent and extremely turbulent world. They experienced traumatic conquests and exile and constantly lived in the shadows of mighty and dangerous superpowers. We can easily read Joshua very negatively as though Israel are the strong winners and then the Church is the strong winner, and then it just looks like triumphant propaganda put forward by the winning team. But that’s completely getting the wrong point of the OT, I think. Israel are not the strong winners. They are the outsiders.
To read the Bible on its own terms I think you have to read it sympathetically toward the Jewish people. Israel are the good guys, trying to survive in a world filled with bad dudes and evil powers. They are the down-and-out slave people, and Yahweh is the only one on their side. But thankfully Yahweh has a bit of clout. So what is Yahweh trying to do for the people of Israel? That question takes us right back to the bigger story and the wider Biblical narrative. Which is where God is working, quite unsuccessfully it seems, to create a people who can become a source of blessing to the whole world. So I guess, the way I try to read Joshua when I’m reading as a spiritual practice, is sympathetically. Through the eyes of an emergent people, recently freed from slavery, who are learning to trust a God who is looking out for them. And the setting is, a world of empires and gods who are out to destroy them. That’s what I’d see as the right sort of way to look at it in the wider perspective. I think that’s enough to get started and to let that actual narrative elements of the book get inside you and do their work.
But I mentioned that Israel are the good guys here, pitted against death and evil. The thing is though, once you can see that, it frees you to enter the Jewish imagination. Because in that lens, actually Israel are not the good guys. They completely fail, and at some points become portals which channel the violence and abuse that they suffered. That’s where the theme of God’s judgment comes into it. And the Jewish prophets are under no illusions about the true state of Israel’s behaviour and action in the world. And so of course the most brutal critique of Israel comes from within its own people. And that links back to what I mentioned about the most potent resources for the dismantling and distraction of evil exist within the Bible itself. And also that related idea of why in the broader Christian Biblical narrative, Jesus becomes the interpretive centre like you suggested. Because following Jesus is not related to power or conquest, but to service and the overcoming of evil with love. For example.
Oh and yet one more thing, Jesus of course being Jewish and a Jewish prophet among other thing probably demonstrates the right kind of approach to our understanding of Scriptures and of the Jewish faith. Understanding it appreciatively from the inside out, and from that position critique it fiercely to help it align with its true intent and re-align toward it’s proper direction. That seemed to be what Rabbi Jesus did. So followers of Jesus might look to the broader scope of the Bible and the story it is telling, and ask, how might Jesus engage this? What is the warmly appreciative yet fiercely disruptive approach Jesus would take? And then that all important question that you pose, Kristin – what would Jesus do with Numbers?!