Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Approach to Bible-reading

I sometimes allude to my "famous two-step method for understanding the Bible":

1. Read the Bible through.
2. Do it again, and this time pay attention!

You need to read the Bible at least twice to begin to understand it: once for the general context, and again to use that context. (I'm not suggesting that you stop with two readings, of course.)

The first time through you should read in roughly chronological order--I say "roughly" because I've seen "chronological" Bibles, and they're often rather confusing. Thus I wouldn't recommend bouncing back and forth between Samuel and Kings on the one hand and Chronicles on the other, with side trips into Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets. Not only would it be confusing, but it would muddle the styles and goals of the individual writers: for example, the Chronicler is more interested in immediate rewards and punishment for obedience and disobedience than the writer of Samuel/Kings is, and he also idealizes David and Solomon. He's also writing from a post-exilic standpoint with some theological differences.

Anyway, speed is useful the first time or so, as long as you have reasonable retention. Read as swiftly as you can without forgetting it all the next day. And the first time through, allow yourself to skim the genealogies and other challenging bits. Also have a separate time for devotional reading, perhaps with one of the many daily reading publications available. Reading for information and reading for growth are different things, especially at this stage.

Use a study Bible in a really easy-to-read translation. Later on, you should consider that "easy reading" tends to distance you from the text, so you should ditch it for something closer to the text on the second or third pass. Some good examples are the New International Version, the New American Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New King James. It's actually a good idea to have more than one more serious Bible and switch between them occasionally so you don't get locked into one version. Also, get in the habit of checking between translations. Each one has its own quirks, so if a particular reading only occurs in one of them, don't build a doctrine on it.

Once you've made your second or third pass, you might want to consider a method of Bible reading that will keep you current. At this point it can also have some devotional value, because you'll be reasonably familiar with the text.

I divide the Bible into six zones, and I read from each zone every day:

1. Old Testament History. Genesis through Exodus 19, then a jump to Joshua and on through Esther.

2. The Law. (Not the same territory as the Torah, of course, and not all rules and regs anyway.) Exodus 20 through Deuteronomy.

3. Wisdom Books. Job through Song of Solomon.

4. Prophecy. Isaiah through Malachi, plus the Revelation.

5. New Testament History. Matthew through Acts. I always go from Luke straight to Acts, then pick up John afterward.

6. New Testament Doctrine (a.k.a. the epistles). Romans through Jude.

One of the reasons I like this mix is the balance: I'm reading in both Old and New Testaments, and I have the Mosaic Law alongside the Gospel and epistles. And since the zones aren't the same length, you wind up with different combinations each time you read through. And there isn't an obvious end point: you don't finish the zones all at the same time, so it's easier to keep going.

In my own reading, since zones 1, 3, and 4 are longer, I read more than a chapter a day. (OT History in particular lends itself to this.) I find that 3, 2, 2 works well; if you bump prophecy to three chapters a day on weekends, it makes the zones fairly close in duration.

In any case, after you've read through the Bible a few times, you'll become extremely familiar with its contents. After a while, you'll nearly memorize it simply through repetition, and what's better, you'll be programming your brain with God's Word, which is a major bonus in itself.

Try it!

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