An Invitation to Read the Bible
Many people, when they begin to read the Bible, assume that you read it like any other book – you begin at the beginning and continue till the end. What’s more, they expect to find a “story” with a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end. For the first hundred pages or so, all is plain sailing. The first verse announces that this is the beginning and the action moves on at a cracking pace, with murder, lust, retribution, political intrigue, high drama and tangled human relationships as riveting as any soap opera. But after the dramatic meeting between God and Israel at Mount Sinai, the story seems to dry up in the wastes of the desert to be replaced by a set of dry-as-dust legal regulations.
Discouraged with their first attempt to get to grips with the Bible story, the lucky ones are rescued through being introduced to Bible reading notes, designed to take the new reader by the hand and guide him or her through the text, explaining it as they go. Most of the notes available divide the Bible up into manageable portions, enough to read, think about and pray over in about 15 minutes. After some years of Bible study on this pattern, most readers will feel they have a sufficient grasp of the basics, but at the same time a longing to go deeper. They may also remember the desire with which they began, to get to grips with the Bible as a whole, to follow the story from its beginning to its end and to understand how each separate part fits in.
“Word of Life” has been prepared with these readers in mind. Its aim is to help you to build the “big picture”, to understand how the story develops and where the various sub-plots and recurring themes fit in. Although I have taught the Old Testament to people training both as lay ministers and for ordination, I do not claim to be a biblical scholar. I gratefully acknowledge the guidance of numerous commentaries and any scholars reading these notes will no doubt be able to spot which ones as well as take issue with some of the positions I have taken. What I have tried to do is to make a critical approach to the Bible not only accessible for the ordinary Bible reader but also intellectually stimulating and spiritually satisfying. You may disagree with some of what I have written, perhaps much of it, but if it sends you to a real commentary to study the passage in question in greater depth I will have succeeded. After one of my courses, a student wrote to me, “I was familiar with the Old Testament before, but never understood how to ‘read’ it.” I hope that at the end of “Word of Life” you will have a better idea of how to read not only the Old Testament but the Bible as a whole.
The approach to the Old Testament in “Word of Life” is both chronological and theological. It begins with an account of Bible history from the Creation to the fall of Jerusalem, following the “Deuteronomic history” and incorporating sections of the Law, the prophets and the wisdom tradition at appropriate points. It then begins again, this time with the parallel account of Israel’s history given in Chronicles and moving on past the return from exile to the work of the later prophets, the final compilation of the Law and the later writings. I have inserted the major wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes between the two histories.
The effect of separating Kings and Chronicles, and a major reason for so doing, was to enable the reader to appreciate the different context, purpose and theological outlook of the two works, which come from different periods of Israel’s history. This is just one example of the theological development of the Old Testament. It is only possible in “Word of Life” to give an outline sketch of this development but I hope this will be enough to help you make sense of the way the Old Testament has come together. With one possible exception (Jonah) none of the books of the Old Testament was written in the way any modern book is written. Behind each one lies a process of oral and literary development, stretching sometimes over hundreds of years. Nearly every book is a final compilation, before which there have been one or more earlier versions. In some of the books, of which Exodus and Isaiah are the principle examples, passages in neighbouring chapters may have originated hundreds of years apart. Because of this, I have had to compromise between the purely historical and the purely theological. For example, I have allowed Genesis 1 to stand at the beginning despite the fact that it was written much later than Genesis 2, since it was clearly written to be “the beginning” and gives unity to the historical narrative. On the other hand, the ritual laws of Leviticus include some which are very ancient, but I have included them in the later stages of the readings as part of the final compilation of the Law.
I have arranged the New Testament in four cycles, each based on one of the gospels. First Mark, then Luke and Acts with Paul’s letters, third the more obviously Jewish literature of Hebrews, James and Matthew, and finally the Johannine books with Jude and 2 Peter added. I have assumed that Mark was the first gospel to be written, although this is still in dispute, and that John was the last. I have assumed that some of the epistles are “pseudonymous”, that is that they were not written by the apostle whose name appears in the greeting. Over some of the epistles scholars are divided about whether they are genuine or not, but in most cases I have assumed that they are, except for one or two, where I give the reasons in the notes.
The Bible consists of a host of different kinds of literature: poetry, law, wisdom writing, epic, chronicle, short story, letters and the writings of strange “apocalyptic” visionaries in Daniel and Revelation. Each of these has to be read in a different way with some understanding of the purpose for which it was produced. In addition, the gospels are a literary genre all of their own, not straight biographies but “biographies with attitude” – the desire to kindle faith in their main subject. This highlights the fact that the Bible not only tells a story, but is actually part of the story itself. The story is of how, despite enormous obstacles and at the cost of immense suffering, God lovingly and patiently searches for his wayward people, and the Bible is part of the way he goes on doing so. To respond, we need to discover where we ourselves fit in the story, to find ourselves in its pages as the sinners for whom Christ died, the children he loves, the servants he calls, equips and disciplines and in a host of other ways. My hope is that the Holy Spirit, the one who inspired the authors of Scripture, will use “Word of Life” to bring the biblical story alive for you in new ways.
I used the New International Version in preparing the notes because it seems to be widely used among Christians who read the Bible regularly and the New Revised Standard Version in revising it because it is the most up-to-date and scholarly translation. It makes use of the great strides in our understanding of both the development of the Old Testament and the world of the New Testament which have come from recent discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Word of Life” is dedicated to my wife, Meg, for whom it was originally written and who has encouraged me at every stage of revising and preparing it.