7 Books to Begin Better Bible Reading

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you are a follower of Christ for whom the Bible is authoritative or simply interested in the Bible as a significant historical document or literary artifact, the following books will help you understand the various genres and the approximately 2000 years of history that it covers from the life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.image

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.

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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).

2. How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

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.image

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.

3. How To Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

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?

4. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

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.image

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.

5. The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

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.image

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.

6. Interpreting the Prophetic Word by Willem VanGemeren

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. imageThe 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:

How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth

My Favourite Commentaries or Monographs on Biblical Books:

How To Read REVELATION For All Its Worth

 

 

 

NH Photography: The 17-Year Cicadas have Emerged in Ohio

Here is the beauty of creation. Yes, I described Cicadas as beautiful. Thanks Dr. Joel Duff for tromping through the woods to get these photos.

Naturalis Historia

Periodical cicadas called Brood V  have emerged from the ground after 17 years of life as a nymphs feeding on the juices of plant roots.  It took me a week of attempts to locate a local population of these amazing critters.  I hiked several miles through nature preserves with no success knowing that they had been seen in many places in eastern Ohio.  Finally, I took my family back to Kendall Ledges in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area between Akron and Cleveland OH yesterday.   I had been there two days earlier and saw only a single cicada despite walking over a mile through woods.  This time we took a different path and we came across two patches of cicadas.

A map showing the different Broods of 17 and 13 year cicadas i the eastern USA. Brook V are the purple dots. Each brood is on a different cycle of appearance. This map come from the cicadamania webpage which is chock full of info about these cicads including local reports of spottings. A map showing the different Broods of 17 and 13 year cicadas in the eastern USA. Brook V are the purple dots over Ohio. Each brood is on a different cycle…

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Oh the Places We will Not Go: Passing on the Ark Encounter to Encounter God’s Real Creation

IP — Follow the link below to Joel Duff’s blog post at the end of this post. His recent post resonates with my recent post about Ken Ham’s Fantastic Voyage — Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter is Fantastic! In that post, I recommend going to the zoo instead.

Dr. Duff inspired me to actually compare prices of places that we might go instead of the Ark Encounter or the Creation Museum.

Let’s compare prices, shall we? For my family of five to visit the Ark Encounter where we would see an artist’s conception of fictional pre-speciation animals, it would cost $174.00 including parking but not including food, souvenirs and propaganda. . . er I mean books. Continue reading “Oh the Places We will Not Go: Passing on the Ark Encounter to Encounter God’s Real Creation”

To Be God’s Image: Living Idols

The first two theological questions that got me excited were the problem of evil and theological anthropology or what does it mean to be human in God’s cosmos. The question of what it means to be human led me to discover what was meant by the biblical phrase image of God. After all, canonically, this phrase and subsequent description of humankind’s role in God’s good creation are the first words that we read about human beings. So, for those of us who have read or attempt to read the Scriptures from Genesis through 2 Kings, this description of humankind shapes how we read all subsequent references to human beings. Yet, what did this phrase mean in its ancient context and what did the author of Genesis 1 mean by it when he used it to describe humankind, male and female. Continue reading “To Be God’s Image: Living Idols”

Book Review: Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty

Peter Enns. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016. (230 pages, including notes and index)

Now available at Amazon and your local Christian bookstore (hopefully).

I couldn’t put this book down — twice. I read Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty a few weeks ago with the intention of writing my review the next day. Of course, life does not always go according to plan. So, the other day, I picked the book up again just to look for some pithy quotes before I began writing but before I knew it I was back into this book in the way one normally gets engrossed in a good novel.

Peter Enns writes with an engaging style that makes the challenging ideas accessible to the average reader, even those who do not normally read non-fiction.

A Faith Journey:

I think what drew me into the argument of this book is the personal and autobiographical narrative that is woven throughout and gives shape to the text. In The Sin of Certainty, the reader is taken on a journey. The journey is from faith to faith.

That might not sound very exciting. If I begin to walk out my front door and my child asks me where I am going, then it might sound odd if I respond, “I’m going home.” Yet, Pilgrim’s Progess, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit or There and Back Again by Bilbo Baggins are all stories about leaving home and returning home.

Now, I am not suggesting that The Sin of Certainty is in the same league as these works. Still, I think that Enns tells a story that will be all too familiar to many North American Evangelical Christians. I say all too familiar because this book is for the secret and not so secret doubters that live among us and worship alongside us.

On the one hand, this book is for those who are either afraid to ask questions (or sometimes even have questions) for fear of being considered substandard Christians and those who wittingly or unwittingly asked questions that resulted in hurtful reactions and broken relationships. In telling his story and confronting what he calls “the sin of certainty”, Enns may be giving voice to many Christians who are afraid to ask questions, express doubt, and challenge presuppositions for fear of being censured, losing their jobs, losing their community, or, indeed, having their salvation questioned by other Christians.

To these, Enns is saying, you are not alone and historically the Church has been a place where one can have doubts, ask questions, and reform one’s faith. Doubts and questions are not the antithesis of faith but can be a proving ground for enriching your faith. Continue reading “Book Review: Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty”

Dispensationalism, Dividing the Word, Dividing Walls and all on Flat Earth

A Mystery:

How does a 21st Century Norwegian become a King James Only, Dispensationalist, Not Merely Young Earth but FLAT-EARTH Creationist?

A Living Riddle:

To @aigkenham @CreationMuseum Outer space does not exist, Ken. We live under the firmament on a flat earth which is still. You should know.

When I first saw this Tweet chastising Answers in Genesis’s Ken Ham, I thought it was a jest. The type of jest I might make to emphasize the limits of literalism and to note that every literalist stops being a literalist somewhere. Or do they?flat-earth

I doubt there are many young earth creationists who adopt a biblical biological perspective when it comes to human conception or medicine. If they did, their doctors would prescribe heart medicine for mental disorders and fertility doctors would treat women only and treat the discovery of ova like AIG treats the discovery of background radiation in space and carbon dating.

Out of curiousity, I replied to this tweet and asked, Do you really believe the earth is flat? The individual responded with “Of course I belive the earth is flat that is what the Bible teaches.” I had found someone who was at once more consistent and more of curiousity than Ken Ham.
Continue reading “Dispensationalism, Dividing the Word, Dividing Walls and all on Flat Earth”

Creation & the 10 Plagues of Exodus

What if it is not the frogs but the water that is significant?

When considering the plagues in the book of Exodus that precede Israel’s departure from Egypt, various explanations have been suggested for the order of and the reason for specific plagues. Why frogs, why hail? Do the boils have anything to do with the gnats and flies? Following and building upon lectures given by Rikk Watts at Regent College, I suggest that the best explanation is that the God of Israel is revealing Himself as the Creator God.

Some have attempted to map the plagues onto the Egyptian deities and this suggestion seems to me to be one of the more plausible interpretations. However, Continue reading “Creation & the 10 Plagues of Exodus”

How Ken Ham & Answers in Genesis Led Me to Accept Evolutionary Theory

Ken Ham and the folks at Answers in Genesis (AIG) often suggest that what leads people, including biblical scholars, to propose interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that differ from a “literal” interpretation of Genesis akin to AIG‘s own is a desire to conform their understanding of Scripture (and doctrine) to modern scientific theories, i.e. “deep time”, the Big Bang, and, of course, the theory of evolution. In other words, the suggestion is that beliefs about evolution and the age of the universe not only precede but drive Christians to seek alternate interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that better accommodate modern scientific theories.

The polemical and apologetic narrative usually sounds something like the following from a 2011 post condemning the work of Wheaton College professor John Walton:

Why are we seeing more and more bizarre and elitist ideas (e.g., William Dembski—see previous blog post for details) coming out of Christian academia? I believe it is a form of academic pride, largely from academic peer pressure, because these people ultimately “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).

Continue reading “How Ken Ham & Answers in Genesis Led Me to Accept Evolutionary Theory”

How to Teach Genesis 1 (Part II): Psalms: Creation or Exodus

Duck-Rabbits and Other Ways to Transform Perception

How to Teach Genesis 1 (Part I): Don’t Begin with “In the Beginning . . . “

In these well-known optical illusions, on initial observation the observer sees one or the other of the two possible figures in the image.img_0232-1 At first, one sees either the duck or the rabbit. When the observer who sees a duck is told to look for the rabbit, they must begin to identify rabbit features to reframe their perspective.img_0233 The duck’s bill becomes the rabbit’s ears. Similarly, with the old/young woman, one must focus on a particular feature and reinterpret it or see it as something else.

It is not possible to see both simultaneously. The brain switches back and forth between the two possible interpretations.

In a somewhat analogous way, something similar happens when we look at other creation accounts in the Christian Scriptures. And yes, you read that correctly. There are other portrayals of creation beyond the two that are most familiar to us in Genesis 1-3. (See for example Job, Psalm 77, 78, passages from Isaiah, John 1, Colossians 1, etc.) Moreover, it may be that these other biblical creation accounts pre-date those we find at the beginning of our Bibles. That is, they may have existed as part of the oral culture and worship practice of Israel and may even have been committed to papyrus before Genesis 1-3. (Of course, dating of texts is often difficult.)

As the title of this post suggest, the two events that Israel often described coincidentally and in overlapping images are the establishing of the cosmos and the establishing of Israel. Both events are seen as the creative acts of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These events are so closely associated for the biblical authors that it is frequently (and, perhaps, invariably) the case that they find they cannot speak of one without speaking of the other.

Let’s look at an example from Psalm 89. Continue reading “How to Teach Genesis 1 (Part II): Psalms: Creation or Exodus”

Daily Living on Mount Moriah: An Insight from Jacques Derrida

In his book The Gift of Death or Donner La Morte, Jacques Derrida interacts with Søren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Fear and Trembling in which he examines the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah. Spoiler alert: In the end, Abraham does not kill his son. Still, the text suggests that he was willing to do so out of obedience to the God who brought him out of Chaldea and faith in this God’s promises of blessing, land, and abundant offspring through his son Isaac.

While Abraham is often and rightly presented as a hero of faith and even the father of the faithful, he is almost as often presented as an exception and extraordinary individual in extraordinary circumstances. As Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio notes after hearing a sermon on Abraham a pastor would be disturbed if one of his congregation told him that he felt called to sacrifice his child. So, yes, Abraham’s circumstances are extraordinary and exceptional.

Nevertheless, as Silentio explains, from an ethical perspective, Abraham is a murderer. Continue reading “Daily Living on Mount Moriah: An Insight from Jacques Derrida”