Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bible in a Year: Starting Out

A few years ago, I made an effort to deepen my Bible study. I wanted to study comparatively
unfamiliar areas of the book, and I especially wanted to gain a better sense of its canonical interconnections (prophecies, allusions, historical connections, etc.).

The major result of this enjoyable time of study was my book Walking with Jesus through the New Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), and also some short-term blogs where I posted my reflections and notes, including an informal survey of the whole Bible. (Those sites are noted in this blog's sidebar.) 

I like to do year-long series on this blog--they help me stay spiritually focused amid life's busyness--but I hadn't yet found a new series for 2017. Meanwhile, though, I missed in-depth Bible study, which I'd neglected since finishing my book manuscript.  

I got an idea: a series of weekly summaries of Bible material through the course of the year. I Googled the number of chapters in the Bible, and discovered there are 1189. Divided by 52 weeks, that is about 22 chapters a week. So beginning this week, I'll read the Bible (and consult some of my commentaries) at a rate of about 22 chapters a week, more or less, and record here what I learn.  

This will be very informal, but I'll get back into the kind of devoted Bible study that I enjoy.  

To start with: after the cat moved, I read an interesting discussion in my Harper's Bible Commentary about the "primary and secondary histories" of the Old Testament (pp. 75ff)

The primary history is the material from Genesis through Kings, which takes us from from Creation to the beginning of the Exile. Interestingly, the history begins with great promise---God's pledge to Abraham of many descendants and a land--but it ends sadly, with ten of the twelve tribes of those descends disappeared with the 722 Assyrian conquest, and the other tribes conquered by the Babylonians in the 500s. Nearly all the leadership of the accompanying historical periods are ineffective. Is it strange that the Bible contains this long narrative that culminates in failure?

The secondary narrative is Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which also begins with Creation (Adam and his descendants), continues to the Exile, but also considers the post-exilic time of restoration in the Land (Ezra and Nehemiah) and the lives of Jews in the Diaspora (Esther, although one could also include Daniel here). The Secondary History ends on more positive notes, with the people newly settled in the land and Diaspora Jews establishing the faith as well. In the case of Daniel, we also get an apocalyptic account of God's ultimate victory.

Learning this material is part of the enjoyment of Bible study: when you begin at Genesis, you embark on a long journey through the experiences of God's people, and then once 2 Kings ends, you start again on a shorter but also important journey through the same history and a couple centuries more. Putting all this together, you start to gain a sense of the richness (and by no means uniformity) of the biblical witness, and the contrasting viewpoints and theologies of the biblical writers.

You could consider the New Testament a corresponding history, and not just new scriptures. The New Testament, after all, contains passages that begin at the Beginning (John's prologue, and Col. 1:15-20), and then reinterprets the experience of the Old Testament people, and the great institutions of their kingdom and religion, via the life of Jesus. Plus, this corresponding history opens to a new future where Gentiles are grafted onto the people of God thanks to God's grace and mercy (Romans 11:16-24).

But the New Testament is characterized by all-too-human failings, too, with writers like Paul, the Hebrews author, and John of Patmos scolding their congregations for sins, errors, and shaky faith. The very last New Testament book has the context of conflict and uncertainty within the addressed congregations, while at the same time depicting God's ultimate victory as well. So although the New Testament covers a much shorter history than the Old Testament, the ambiguities of human experience are present there, too. In the Bible, as in all of life, the glory is God's alone, and we rely upon God's mercy and kindness.

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