Old Testament

Bible Reading 101 (Part 1): Start Slow

Image result for slow runningI often hear someone say, “I’m going to read through the whole Bible this year.”   I don’t say it, but I think, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”  I’m not normally a pessimist.  When I applied to college, the adjective I used to describe myself on my application was “optimistic.”  But when I comes to year-long Bible plans, I’m a realist–they are rarely realized.  I don’t want to be a heretic, but I think trying to read the Bible in a year is usually a bad idea.  And I love reading the Bible.

I’m reminded of the new jogger who boldly declares, “I’m going to run a marathon in 3 months.” I’ll believe it when I see it.  I’ve been running for twenty years.  I’ve run three half-marathons, but haven’t been able to do a full marathon for a variety of health reasons (AFib, plantar fasciitis, and a varies of injuries to my toe, calf, knee, hamstrings, etc).  Running in a marathon won’t happen for most people, and it’s probably a bad idea (running is hard on the body).

Reading through the Bible in a year is a lot like running a marathon.  It’s hard for most of us to do, and not very helpful.  The Bible contains 1189 chapters, which means if you read seven days a week, 365 days a year, you’ll need to read 3-4 chapters a day just to finish.

If you’re sick, or miss a few days on vacation, it goes up to 5-6 chapters a day.  How much do you comprehend, or even remember when you are reading that much Scripture that quickly?  Not much.  (If you’re retired and have several hours a day for long Bible reading–that’s fantastic–I’ll look forward to that!)

Most people who start with this lofty plan end somewhere in Exodus, or perhaps they make it as far as the desert of Leviticus.  Then they feel defeated, discouraged, perhaps like they let God down.

I never recommend reading through the Bible in a year.

I was speaking this past Sunday to the high school group at my church (Calvary Church of Souderton) with my wife Shannon about personal Bible study.  I gave them three recommendations.  My first was, “Start slow.”

Most people when they start running are excited, eager, energetic, so they run too fast, too far, too long, which often leads to injury, pain or burnout, which means they give up after a few runs, like most year-long Bible readers.  If people ask me about starting to run, I say, “Start slow.”

When I started running (in my 30’s), I began running a slow mile, for several weeks, and then very gradually running longer distances.  Over the course of a year, my distances increased, and I started running in races: a 5K, a 10K, then a half-marathon–but only after having run for several years.

When it comes to Bible reading, “Start slow.”  Plan to read your Bible just a chapter a day, or perhaps 5-10 verses.  It may take you a few years to finish it but you probably already know how the story ends.  And you will get more out of it from a slow read.  If you’re reading a short section, you can re-read it, and reflect on it since you aren’t in a hurry to tick off those four chapters.  You are far more likely to remember a chapter you’ve read twice, than 4 chapters you’re read once.  If God can speak through a donkey (Numbers 22), he can certainly speak through speed-reading programs, but it is more likely we will be able to hear him if we are reading his word slowly.

My next blog, “Bible Reading 101 (Part 2): Keep Track.”

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Why is the Bible so violent?

During the time of Noah, God wiped out humanity with a flood (Gen. 6-9).
During the time of Moses, God killed all the Egyptian firstborns and then drowned their army in the Red Sea (Exo. 12, 14).
During the time of Saul, God told Saul to completely slaughter the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15).
During the time of David, God smote Uzzah for merely trying to stabilize the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6).
During the time of Hezekiah, God destroyed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kgs 19:35).

Why is the Bible so violent?

To hear my 38 minute response to this question, click on the video.

Christ Community Church (a multi-campus church in the Chicago suburbs) invited me to speak on violence in the Bible as a part of their summer of 2017 sermon series entitled, “Elephants, the questions we can’t ignore.”

The video begins with an moving 2-minute story that answers the question, “Do elephants really never forget?”  I appear at the 2:05 mark.

To listen to the audio, click here.

I don’t cover all the incidents of violence in the Bible, but focus on what I believe to be the most troubling one, the Canaanite conquest recorded in the book of Joshua.  Some of this material appears in God Behaving Badly, or in my Relevant article on the Canaanite Genocide.

Enjoy.

 

Confusion is Good

Confusion, for lack of a better word, is good. At least that’s what we see in several passages in the Bible.  Why would God want to intentionally confuse people?  Great question. When God called the prophet Isaiah, he gave him confusing message .

When God called Isaiah to be his messenger this is what God told him to say:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; 
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull
and their ears heavy
and blind their eyes:
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with the ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

What’s Isaiah’s message? Don’t understand, don’t perceive, don’t see, don’t hear, don’t turn, don’t be healed. What? It sounds like God wants the Israelites to remain confused. It’s confusing that God would want people to be confused.  I guess God gets what he wants.

While many of us avoid or ignore weird texts like this one, Jesus didn’t. In each of the four gospels Jesus quotes these verses from Isaiah 6 (Matt. 13:13-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40). There are very few Old Testament texts quoted from the mouth of Jesus that appear in all four of the gospels. Jesus thought this confusing text was important, that sometimes it’s good to be confused.

Those of us who teach the Bible often like to put the cookie on the lowest shelf, to make it really simple, to help people understand. But there is a problem from always making things simple and easy to understand.  That’s not how God does it in the Bible most of the time.  The Bible is often confusing. Many of Jesus’ parables are confusing. God makes his word confusing intentionally.

We need to not remain in a perpetual state of confusion. But sometimes, confusion is good. If we are never challenging, provoking, and even confusing people, we aren’t teaching like Jesus.

What purpose does confusion serve?  I see three.

First, confusion makes us humble.  We have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. We are finite. We may not like it, but we are dependent. Do we really expect that we could fully comprehend a gloriously mysterious God? Confusion keeps us humble before an infinite, sovereign, power God.

Second, confusion causes us to ask questions.  In his confusion about this confusing passage Isaiah asks a question, “How long, O Lord” (Isa. 6:11).  Jesus quoted this passage to the disciples when they asked him a question about the parables.  When we’re confused we should ask questions.  People ask questions about things they care about. Care enough about the Bible to ask questions.

Third, confusion leads us to God. What does Isaiah do with his question? He goes directly to God with it.  “How long, O Lord” is one of the psalmist’s favorite questions (Psa. 4:2; 6:3; 13:1, 2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84). In the midst of our confusion, our humility and our questions should take us to God who may or may not answer them.  But if our confusion leads us into a deeper relationship with God, it serves a great purpose.

Sinai and the Saints

IVP has just come out with a new book which could be very helpful to people trying to figure out how to understand the laws of the Old Testament, Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community by James M. Todd III.

IVP asked me to give an endorsement, and the first half of it ended up on the back cover.  So, I thought I’d include my full endorsement here, for any one who’s interested.

“Many readers of the Old Testament struggle to understand all those random, bizarre, strict, and oppressive laws.  What’s a Christian to do?  Start by reading James Todd’s Sinai and the Saints.  Todd offers his readers engaging stories, provocative insights, and a compelling interpretation that offers a way forward, one that makes sense of the Law, and helps people understand it in light of Jesus and the rest of Scripture.”

Here are the other endorsements that appeared on the back cover:

“The failure to understand the relationships of the old covenant to the new is probably one of the most important areas where Christians need good help–and they will receive good help here.”  – Peter Gentry, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Anyone grappling with how to approach the laws of Exodus to Deuteronomy from a Christian perspective will find this book an invaluable introduction.” – T. Desmond Alexander, Union Theological College.

I hope you can check it out.