Personal Great Books · Reading

In Progress: Bible at the Half

Glancing down my feed reader today, I noticed that this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic was “Top 10 Books Since I Started Blogging.” I’m not going to post on that today, but it did cause me to glance over my list of books read since I started here, and I was vaguely surprised to notice that 2011 was a lousy reading year (relatively speaking)—but that, despite feeling like I’ve been forcing myself through my books this year, it’s been a pretty phenomenal year. Even books that felt like a lot of work at the time I find myself looking back on fondly. (The Silmarillion, anyone?) Even though I’m still on my “read whatever I feel like” binge, I know I’ll return to my “forced” reads someday. (Speaking of which, the binge is going so spectacularly, I’m starting to build up a backlog of books I need to review. A good problem.)

An On-going Project

One reading project I haven’t temporarily abandoned is an ongoing, year+ long reading project. If you’ve been reading around here long enough—closely—and have a good enough memory, you might recall (and you probably don’t) that on my Original Classics list I included the Old and New Testaments. I’ve read it through once before—eons ago. It took me nearly two years and I remembered it well enough to know that good chunks of the Old Testament really drag. So I decided to change it up this time and read it chronologically. Approximately.

A quick search reveals several variations of chronological Bible Reading plans. I’m using THIS one, the first I found when I was beginning the project, although it has a number of typos. (THIS plan appears similar, but without the errors?)

Of course, what do I mean when I say “chronological” in reference to the Bible? In this case, approximate order of events (as opposed to date of writing). For example, inter-textual evidence suggests to scholars that the action of Job took place before Abram/Abraham started wandering around the Middle East, so Job is read after the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and before Abram leaves home (Genesis 12). (As a religious text, there is of course debate as to the historicity of the Bible, but the order works whether the stories are historical or not.) Some debate exists as to proper order of some of the books: did Obediah make his prophecy during Queen Athaliah’s reign over Judah as some suggest or is it from some 300 years later as others believe? Thus the “approximately.”

I see two advantages to read the Bible this way. The first is if you’ve ever tried to read Psalms straight through, you know it can be a bit of a slog—especially if you need to read about four pages worth a day to keep pace. The chronological plan divies them up according to when they were likely written/sung and places them with the appropriate story. The second advantage is the idea of context. It makes a lot more sense that so many of the psalms attributed to David are about “enemies” when you read them right after the passage about David hiding out in the cave from his…enemies.

The Project Thus Far

I’m not on track to finish this year, having just hit the halfway point Sunday. Of course, I didn’t start until February, but I’ve also missed days, which I sometimes make up and sometimes don’t. The Old Testament is much longer than the New, so I still have a good chunk of it left, but I might be able to make up for some lost time when I get to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)—I’ll hold out hope that I might finish the reading around February 2013.

Read so far:

  • Genesis
  • Job
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Ruth
  • I Samuel
  • II  Samuel
  • I Chronicles
  • I Kings
  • Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs)
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Obadiah
  • most of Psalms

Thoughts so far:

I’m reading from the King James Version, which has long been my favorite for the poetry of the language. (Does that make me a hypocrite if I struggle with actual poetry?) It’s also the version that most of the well-known phrases from the Bible come from, archaic language and all. It’s not the easiest translation though (and some question its accuracy, as the translators didn’t have at their disposal as much scholarship as later editions did), but I’ve become used to it—and I can always grab a later translation when I get lost. (My grandpa contended that the King James wasn’t any harder than any other translation; you just have to get used to it.)

Jack Murnighan, in Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, considers Job and Song of Solomon to be the most literary of the books of the Bible. He must be on to something, because so far, those are the two books I had the hardest time following. Of course they are also poetry, and I have the hardest time with poetry! I’d like to go back to Job sometime and spend more time on it. The arguments are a bit complex, and sometimes even telling who is speaking is problematic. It needs more time than just the quick read-through to say I’ve read it I gave it originally.

Although I’ve read all this before, it was at least 10, maybe 15 years ago since I’ve looked at much of the Old Testament. There’s a lot I completely forgot about! Some bizarre, or at least unexpected events. For example, after killing an Egyptian and hiding out in the wilderness for some time, Moses is ordered back to Egypt by God (to lead the Israelites). On his way back, God nearly kills Moses because Moses forgot to circumcise his son—only his wife’s quick action to circumcise the boy saves them. (And I don’t think she was too happy about it!—Exodus 4:20-26) And the violence! Murders, rapes, civil wars, wars against others, attacks, raids…this is not bedtime reading. But then I’ll come across a passage, say the book of Ruth or Psalm 42, that is peaceful and lovely and an absolute delight. The Old Testament is certainly a collection in contrasts.

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly looking forward to any of the upcoming books, at least not any more than what I’ve read already. Some will be easier, some harder; some stranger, some more expected. It will be interesting to see what else I’ve forgotten since last read—and to find out what other oddities there are to be discovered!

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15 thoughts on “In Progress: Bible at the Half

  1. Yahweh is an all-time great character. His ongoing love-hate argument or whatever it is with Moses is fascinating. And then contrast that with Yahweh-David.

    That order is interesting. It is only subtly different than the original order, isn’t it? I, too, find the Psalms hard going in any quantity greater than one. So whatever helps.

    A curious effect of the KJV order is that Yahweh’s declaration from the whirlwind in Job is his final “appearance,” as if after saying his piece he takes a step back from the affairs of man or something. Contrast that with his lunch with Abraham!

    Well, good luck with the rest of the books. I was going to say that you were past the worst of the violence, but you’ve still got II Kings and II Chronicles.

    1. There are so many fascinating aspects–I think I could find something different to focus on no matter how many times I read the Bible or an individual book of it. I hadn’t even thought to contrast the Moses or David relationships, but now that I think about it–that is a really intriguing comparison.

      Yes, the order is only slightly different, especially at the start. The prophets aren’t really ordered chronologically in the Bible, so that order will be different as I move through them.

      Thanks! Interesting that a religious text is one of the most violent books I’ve ever read….

      1. Yeah, I think that will be helpful. The only problem is it appears that scholars don’t always know where to assign them for sure–as in the Obadiah example above. (On the other hand, it seems to have been narrowed down to two possibilities.)

  2. Reading the Bible is quite an accomplishment. I tell to myself I should read it, for cultural and literary reasons, but I just lack the courage!

    1. The mere length alone can be a bit intimidating, but the Bible can be read in a year just by reading a few pages a day. Some parts are very readable, others more difficult, so you can always ease into it by trying out some of the easier sections. Off the top of my head, Genesis, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Esther, Jonah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts are probably the easiest as they are mostly narrative. They also contain most of the well-known stories.

  3. It has never occurred to me to read the Bible as a litary endeavour (though I do enjoy reading the KJV or NKJV translations). While I can appreciate the literary-ness of the Bible when reading in these versions, for me it must always be more of a study. Hving said that, I have yet to read the Bible completely…about a month ago I downloaded a chronological plan to put everything within context. It’s been really slow going for me as I am not particularly out to finish it in a year, but it sure makes many things a lot clearer…especially when it comes to linking the books of prophecy with the historical books. It puts all the prophesying well within context which makes the understanding of it all a wee bit easier.

    All the best with the rest of this project. 🙂

    1. I thought it was interesting that in a recent post by O of Délaissé, she admitted that even though non-religious, she found it difficult to read the Bible just as literature–because it’s a more complicated mix than that; it was written as a religious book, not as literature. And I wouldn’t say I’m reading it just as literature, but since it does have such influence on other literature through the centuries, I thought I’d mention it a little here.

      Thanks and good luck with your own reading!

  4. I hadn’t ever heard of a Bible reading plan like that. Sounds like a fascinating way to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. I’ll have to check it out. I’ve read the New Testament through several times but have never read all of the OT. I do read Proverbs a lot, they provide such a good foundation for interpersonal relationships and a good map of what to do vs. what not to do in order to be successful and content.

    1. I really like the contextualization reading in this order provides. I think it will be interesting in the New Testament as well, as I believe it places the Epistles into their context in Acts, which I’ve never looked at before.

      The New Testament is a lot more familiar to me too, outside of a handful of favorite book. I really liked Ruth and Esther when I was little, so those have been read a lot! Proverbs is a good book–I’d like to return to it when I can look more closely and not rush through it just to finish.

  5. It is great and worth admiring that you’ve ventured to read the Bibble. I should too! But living in a mainly Catholic country there are not many study groups that would help. Even in college there are no lessons on religious texts… And I think I would really need help, otherwise I’d be overwhelmed by the symbolism and the many interpretations.

    1. It does seem that reading the Bible is more emphasized among non-Catholics. I’m a little surprised you don’t have any literary lessons on the Bible, just because it’s referenced so frequently throughout literature. (My brother took a course in college called “Bible as Literature”–nothing to do with religion, just the literary side of things.)
      The great thing about the Bible is that even though it can be really deep at parts, other parts can be read pretty straightforwardly. For example, a theologian can find all sorts of symbolism and religious meaning in the story of Abraham asked to sacrifice Isaac, but the lay-person can just read it as a story. Just like any other great classic, the we don’t have to work it all out the first time we read! There are also Bibles available (at least in English–I don’t know how common these are in other languages) with study helps. My brother’s class used The New Oxford Annotated Bible, for example. If you decide you want to try some of the Bible out, the list of books I mentioned in my response to Miguel above are probably the easiest to start with.

      1. I had no idea about that Oxford annotated Biblbe! I’ll definitely look it up. I have a Protestant version in both English and Spanish given to me by an American friend (she even highlighted her favourite parts!).

        1. I haven’t used the Oxford version myself, but it’s supposed to have a lot of scholarly-type notes. My brother didn’t care for the notes from a theological standpoint, but I think they would be helpful in just a general understanding of the text, especially if your focus is more literary.

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