Begin the Journey Today
Whether you are a follower of Christ for whom the Bible is authoritative or simply interested in the Bible as a significant historical document or literary artifact, the following books will help you understand the various genres and the approximately 2000 years of history that it covers from the life of Abraham thru the early Christian Era.
This list of titles offers you a place to begin understanding the Bible. It is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive. I have listed them in order of difficulty and the order I would suggest the complete novice read them. Click on the Titles to follow the links to Amazon to take a closer look and see what others have to say about these books.
1. The Big Picture Story Bible w/ CD by David Helm with illustrations by Gail Schoonmaker (Crossway Publishing)
This delightfully illustrated children’s book (that’s right, I said, children’s book) will do what the the title suggests. It will give you the big picture.
Unlike many children’s books and sadly many introductory texts to the Bible, Helm and Schoonmaker take you through the entire history of Israel from the creation narratives thru John’s visions. Helm includes parts of Israel’s history like the exile that rarely (if ever) appear in the children’s Bibles. Moreover, visually and verbally they trace some of the major themes that tie the Biblical stories together, i.e. kingship, creation, redemption.
When I teach Christian Scriptures to college freshman, I have my students read this book and encourage them to read it again and again. I have found that most Christians do not have a good sense of the order of events in the history of Israel. Through something as simple as this beautifully illustrated children’s book, you can develop a good foundational understanding of the history of Israel and literally begin to see key biblical themes. It will function like an overture before a symphony, a playbill before seeing the play. A synopsis of Hamlet is very helpful before you see or read Hamlet for the first time. Without such an overture or synopsis, it is easy to get lost in the details or mired down in lists, names, and places.
I highly recommend this book for you (and the children in your life).
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart introduce you to the basics of biblical interpretation. As part of this process, they walk you through the various genres of literature that are found in the Bible, ancient letters, apocalyptic literature, historical narratives, poetry, etc.
If you think that all movies are documentaries, then you are likely to be very confused when you go to a Marvel movie or you will get very frustrated by the historical inaccuracies of something like Gladiator (Does anybody else remember Whose Line is It Anyway?’s Drew Carey and his beef with this movie? Prime example of genre error and frustrated expectations.) Many Biblical readers pay little attention to the type of literature that their favorite verse is found in or even who is saying them. This flattening of the text and ignoring context leads to some ironic situations i.e. someone taking a quote from one of Job’s friends for their life verse.
This book serves as a companion volume to How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth. As the title suggests, this book has helpful advice for reading each book of the Bible. Fee and Stuart point out the major themes and main characters etc. They offer an outline of each book which gives you a sense of how a particular book is arranged.
This book is a handy tool to have around. You will not likely read this book cover to cover. Instead, as you are reading through the Bible, read the brief introduction to each book as you come to it. Even with a Masters Degree in Old Testament, I find this book helpful especially before I teach from one of the lesser known books in a Sunday School setting. What is Haggai about? When was it likely written? What are its main themes?
Now, that you have the Big Picture in mind and you have begun to understand that not all the books in the Bible should be read in exactly the same way and with the same expectations (genre), it is time to dig in a bit deeper. Much of Genesis through 2 Kings or the bulk of the Old Testament is written in story or narrative form. So, it is worth the effort to get to know how Ancient Hebrew narrative works.
Although much of the narrative is straightforward, knowing more about Hebrew wordplay and the structure of narrative will deepen your appreciation of the stories. In time, you will begin to make connections and observations about themes and characters that you would miss had you remained ignorant of the genre expectations of the original audience. In some ways, reading Biblical narrative is like watching a foreign film. A viewer might be able to follow the basic plot but will likely miss a great deal of less overt subtext and sometimes be utterly confused by the structure of the film or editing choices.
For instance, why do we have three versions of an almost identical story in Genesis where one of the patriarchs hands his wife over to a foreign ruler?
Robert Alter’s readable and very influential book The Art of Biblical Narrative will open your eyes to some of the structural features of Hebrew narrative that will help make sense of some of the author’s choices. He will introduce you to the significance of key words and repetition in Hebrew narrative.
What isn’t narrative in the Old Testament is for the most part poetry. The Psalms are poetry, of course but so is most of Job, the prophets wrote poetry, and there are poems embedded in the narratives as well, i.e. the Songs of Moses and Miriam. For this reason, Robert Alter wrote this follow-up to his book on narrative.
For English readers, rhyme is a key feature of much poetry but in other languages Hebrew included rhyme rarely appears. Instead, Hebrew poets use parallelisms. They play with synonyms, antonyms, etc. Of course, there are elements of Hebrew that don’t carry through in translation. For instance, it is nearly impossible to capture alliteration in translation.
With these two books by Robert Alter, you will develop a greater awareness of how Biblical narrative and poetry work. You will become aware of what often and for the most part inevitably gets lost in translation.
When I first became a Christian and was trying to understand what I was reading in the Bible, I happened upon VanGemeren’s book on a bargain table in a Wendell Holmes bookshop back in the early 90s. The odds of happening upon a good book on Biblical Prophecy in most bookshops are astronomic and with few notable exceptions the unlikelihood only increases in Christian bookstores. The “Prophesy” section in most Christian bookstores would be better labelled as “Dispensationalist Lit” or “End-Times” or “How Not to Read the Prophets” or maybe even “Books by Authors who were Wrong the Last Time but They Still Want Your Money”.
While I now disagree with VanGemeren on a number of specific points, I still think this book is an excellent place to begin studying the Major and Minor prophets. First, VanGemeren introduces his reader to the changing role of the prophet in the ancient world and in Israel in particular, then book by book VanGemeren sets each prophet in his historical and political context. In more detail than Fee and Stuart, VanGemeren outlines each of the books often highlighting the intentional organizing structure. Then he provides a mini commentary.
While I initially read this book cover to cover, like Fee and Stuart’s Book by Book, Interpreting the Prophetic Word makes an excellent reference work to read alongside your Bible. Again, as with all of the books in this list, they are intended to begin your journey. The more you read the more you too will begin to converse and sometimes disagree intelligently with these and other authors. Like you, these authors are interpreting the Bible and while they get many thing right, I have yet to read anyone who gets everything right.
VanGemeren’s Interpreting the Prophetic Word introduced me to the historical-grammatical method. That is, VanGemeren introduced me to the idea that reading the Biblical books in light of their historical context and with awareness of the original languages was important in the intepretive process. Duh! Right?
Yet, many Christians go their whole life not grasping this simple and now seemingly obvious concept. As a teacher, I have had students who went to Sunday School their whole lives and did not know who came first Abraham or Moses.
VanGemeren’s The Progress of Redemption is also an great book that will give you an overview of the whole Bible and introduce you to the sub-discipline often referred to as Biblical Theology. (Do you see how I slipped the seventh book into this post?)
Dig Deeper, Today.
What books have helped you dig deeper and understand the Bible more fully? Leave your reading suggestions in the comments. I would love to hear from you.
For more reading suggestions see these pages on my blog: