Monday, December 17, 2012

Keys to reading the Bible for the first time

Bible? which one? I really mean mostly the TNK or what Christians in a different order call the OT. But the process applies equally well to the NT.

What is the purpose of reading the Bible? It is not to get smarter than everyone else around you so you can have power. And though some knowledge may protect you from those who desire power (and who doesn't), it is not to figure things out as if to explain the world away. It is not even so that you individually might be saved - even if you are lost (and who isn't lost at various times and places - the only place we got lost in Israel was in Nazareth - The one who sits in the heavens was laughing - I could hear it when I backed the rental car into a telephone pole). So why? It seems there is an invitation in the air. Maybe there's a good story there. Maybe some carefully researched poetry. Maybe some sense of age or some observations that fit with our own.

I didn't expect to deal with that question, why. I wanted to ask more how rather than why. Several people have asked me 'um.. what should I read first' - and like many, they tend to start at the beginning and plough through. Few make it past Leviticus. Most get stopped by or before the 10 chapters in Exodus on the Tabernacle. And if they get to the end of Deuteronomy, they are thoroughly confused by the variations in forms of law. Leviticus is a great place to start - at least one verse: love your neighbour as yourself. Deuteronomy has the first great commandment and the formative Hear O Israel.  But you aren't likely to find these by hunting and pecking.

What did I do? I ploughed through from the beginning. It was frequently painful. And I didn't know that I had no idea what I was doing. It's not actually important to read in sequence. It's not a cover-to-cover type book. It's more like a library. In neither testament is the sequence of the books related directly to chronology.

I put the question 'reading the bible for the first time' into Google and an Inter-varsity page came up first. It's not bad advice. The best part of it is the suggestion that you read the Psalms concurrently with everything else - one a day.  But would I start with Mark and then read John?  Would I even start in the NT?

In my current state, I think I would do this if I were starting over - and repeat randomly: I would use RSV or NRSV or JB or KJV if I were feeling archaic. (I read too slowly in Hebrew or Greek to do more than a few verses at a time. I always check the original language for related words. It's just not possible in a translation.)

Start with short books and bits and pieces of books and let a question arise from each book - don't necessarily answer these questions.
  • read Ruth - good story - four chapters, 1 hour - read it out loud. Why is this in a different place in TNK from the place it has in the OT?  Who are these Moabites?  (Check them out with a reference search engine in your language of choice.) Now you have a bit of knowledge of Torah, Prophets, and Writings - and you know there is no way this question is going to go away for some time.
  • read Jonah - good story - four chapters - 1 hour - read it out loud. Why is this one called a prophet when there's a thinking ship in it? Who are these Ninevites?  Enemies everywhere (Psalm 3:1)! And they get a mention in Matthew. In Jonah, you can summarize the story with 8 words. 
  • skim Genesis 1-5 - a multiplicity of stories - and your introduction to a long genealogy. (There was a short one in Ruth). I don't think you can read Matthew without recognizing the tradition he is coming from - a tradition that begins with 'these are the generations of ...'. There are enough questions on Genesis to sink Jonah's thinking ship. (Say that quickly.) Anytime you want you can reread these stories - especially read chapter 1 to 2:4 often - and learn to sing it or at least listen.
  • Now you are ready for some serious stuff about creation. Leviathan is not mentioned in Genesis 1 - how come? Find all the places where Leviathan occurs and examine how this creature relates to the created order. So you now are reading Job 3 and 41, Psalm 74, and 104, and Isaiah 27.
  • skip back to Isaiah 1, just one chapter. Then read Psalm 49. What's going on with blood and ransom?
You can see if you do a search on this word (carelessly glossed in the KJV) that it would rapidly move you into several possible directions. Blood - to covenant - to sacrifice - to atonement.
  • OK read Leviticus 16.
  • Ransom - and you are ready for the Gospel of Mark.  Allow 2 hours for a read-out-loud performance.
  • And this word for cover-price is also the flower Camphire, the henna plant - so you could read the Song for the first time. 
  • or you might follow up with Job. Allow yourself to do this one over several days or even weeks. But do enjoy Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn.
  • read Qohelet, just to make sure you keep the questions coming.
  • You need a lot more introduction to poetry before you tackle the Gospel of John.  
  • So do read a psalm every day - start with the paired Psalms 1 and 2. (Warning - self-serving link: If you use my book, you will find it points you to nearly every part of the Bible from a Psalm).  
  • You need several more Psalms (2, 5, 10, 14, 18, 19, 32, 36, 44, 51, 53, 69, 94, 106, 117, 120, 122, 140, 141, 143) before taking on Romans. Paul models his opening argument in chapters 1 and 2 on Psalm 50.
  • But do read Romans - out loud from start to finish - give yourself 2 hours. What does Paul mean by the obedience of faith? Romans will carry you to Galatians, Hebrews, and Habakkuk.
Then as an antidote to rhetoric and argument, find the songs in the Bible. If you have a Bible that distinguishes poetry from prose, this will not be too difficult.
  • For examples: Genesis 49, Jacob's blessings
  • Exodus 15, the song of the sea
  • Numbers 23 and 24, the oracles of Baalam
  • Then Deuteronomy 33, Moses' blessings
  • 1 Samuel 2, Hannah's song
  • Luke 1 and 2. Magnificat - Mary, Benedictus - Zechariah, Nunc Dimittis - Simeon.
  • Where do we find the new song? (In the Psalms of course 33, 40, 96, 98, 144 and 149, also Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 and 14).  
  • You have to read Revelation someday. Hint - it's about the Lamb.
Notice - you are meeting people and places and hearing testimony.
  • Don't forget Lamentations. What is the relationship of Israel and their Scriptures to the message to the churches? Who is the speaker of chapter 3? Compare Psalms 42-4 and 89.
As far as the NT is concerned, I have my prejudices. It's got some horrible places (and Revelation is not one of them) that need a very well-oiled question-generating soul to read them. Don't believe every written condemnation or order that you read in the letters in the NT. Consider that you might be mis-reading it. What tone of voice is in use? Isn't that strange - most people warn you off the Old Testament, but I have warned you off parts of the New. Why does God require such a need for judgment?  Be careful you don't misread the loveliness of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. When Jesus says - judge not lest you be judged, he is not talking about remaining in a state of naive ignorance and stupidity. See Psalms 7, 26, 35, and 43 and invite the judge to judge you.)

If you complete the above, I expect you will be hooked. But be hooked for love and not for power. There's so much more. One could live in the Psalms and all they reference for a lifetime. How would you answer Jesus question: who do people say I am? (Mark 8:27) The questions should keep arising in you - refining and developing as you mature into this fascinating collection so carefully preserved for us. Don't lock yourself in with answers. As R. Akiva teaches, be able to return from Paradise with your sense intact.
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Bob - what would you do now? There are large chunks of the Bible I don't know particularly well. Chronicles for example, and Ezekiel, Ezra-Nehemiah, eleven of the Twelve, in fact there's about 3/4 of the TNK that I have not read closely. And even what I have read and translated for myself, I forget.

Recently - in the last 2 years or so, I covered Samuel with a group. I found it a tough read - it seemed quite disjointed in places, as if there were bits missing. I didn't have time to do 3 or 4 chapters a week in Hebrew so I had to work with my usual translations and squirm when others were reading translations that I think are too generous with their paraphrases.

I am at the moment following my nose. I hope to stay with the Isaiah Facebook group for the year. I expect that will cover a lot of ground. I don't read to hear the word of God. I think God teaches me always whether I am reading or not. The Bible pointed me to God, but the Bible is not God.  I am not going to try and tell you how that works or how it happens. That would be to lock the doors that are yours rather than mine. But let me be clear: I am not conservative. I am not a literalist, but I pay attention to every jot and tittle when I am reading. That does not mean I take them at their surface value. The Bible is full of complexity and contradiction (and so is every other book, institution, tradition, or person who claims otherwise including science.)  There are things we don't know and will never know in the sense of being able to control and describe.

So why bother? That's the question we started with.  It's a bit circular.

Lord, who will guest in your tent?
who will dwell on your holy hill? (Psalm 15)