Books, I love them! Going into a library or a bookstore can be a step toward an adventure, an awakening of ideas, and the mastering of a subject. With all the books organized by author, by topics and right there within reach, you could travel far away in your imagination. Those feelings have fueled a lifelong passion for books. Whether reading to entertain, educate, escape, unwind, hear opinions or gain inspiration, I have been drawn to the written word. You do not need electricity, a driver’s license or money, but oh, the places you could go! To think that a book was so popular that it took the world by storm and left it changed. This is what I wanted to read, something that many other people had or were reading. Classic or popular fiction, would the book change me? Whether it did or not, at the least, I would be able to decide what I thought of it. Was it worth all the attention? Did it give me new ideas or was it just an entertaining way to pass my time?
As a young adult, I’d squeeze in an extra book in the summertime or between school semesters. I enjoyed reading stories from Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Steven King and Ann Rice. In more recent years, I would embrace both the Harry Potter and the Twilight series. These latter books certainly take the reader on a fun ride into a fantasy world of magic and super-natural abilities, where in the end, the power of love proves to be the greatest power of all. The other thing wonderful about these books is that they brought back the joy of reading for a couple generations of youth being fully engaged in and inundated by all the videos that were taking over as the main means of sharing information. Ah, the thrill of seeing how books can still change the world.
One day, several years ago, I heard a DJ on the radio talking about the five top read books. There are many different lists of top books based on various criteria. I cannot say the source for the list I heard about that day, but as the titles and authors were read, I found that I had read four out of the five. The one that I had not read was the Bible. Well, I had read certain sections and had started to read it a couple times, but I had generally treated it more like a reference book. Like a dictionary or an encyclopedia, I would turn to the part of interest and read the words out of context from the whole. I never seriously thought about reading the Bible through as if it was a novel. The small text and the number of pages had always intimidated me.
I knew there were schedules for reading the Bible in a calendar year, but I didn’t know anyone who did it, or if they had, it wasn’t a topic they talked to me about. Sticking to a defined schedule wouldn’t be a good fit for my life. There were weeks that went by without enough minutes in the day as it was. I wasn’t going to set a goal that would have me quickly tossing in the towel or feeling guilty each day for missing the mark. I already felt pretty stupid. All these years thinking I was reasonably well read and looking to what others wrote and said to figure out what everything means instead of reading the Word of God. It was about time I went to the source.
As I read the Bible, I did it with a sense of skepticism. I wanted the words to prove themselves as more than something written by man. Maybe you consider this irreverent? Also, is it wrong to approach the Bible as if it were the latest “NY Times Bestseller”? To read it myself would let me see what all the fuss is about. Would I like it and by moved by it? I kept my mind open. I allowed myself to be critical and to have doubts. As opposed to bringing all my preconceived notions and what I’ve been taught before, I considered this to be a fresh start. I didn’t go to the deepest level of disbelief as if to say, “I don’t believe there is a God, Bible prove I’m wrong.” I knew that a Greater Power exists. That belief has been based less on what I have read and more on what I feel. But still, what is God like? The way I look at it is that God gave me a brain that asks questions, why would He hold it against me to wonder about who He is? Is He a vengeful God of “Fire and Brimstone”? Is He Jesus, an All-Loving God of forgiveness and grace?
I started with the “New Testament” since Christmas was coming in several weeks. This way the books I was reading would tie to the “reason for the season”…Christ. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are an easy, uplifting, read filled with the parables and the miracles of Jesus. These are the Gospels, meaning “The Good News”. Many of the stories were familiar to me from Sunday School and others were new to me. I was surprised by Jesus saying that the people should not tell about miracles they witnessed. At the time I read this, I thought, “Why not shout it from the rooftops?”
The Acts of the Apostles read like an action adventure book with shipwrecks and fabulous tales of visits to foreign lands. I kept at it, not fully understanding the Epistles, Letters from Paul to the new Christian churches. Later I would read a version of the New Testament with a historical perspective section precluding each book. The statements made started to be clearer with knowledge of the context of the times and culture that Paul was addressing. I started the “Old Testament” in March. In all, it would take me sixteen months and 13 days to read the King James Version of the Bible. I was not that quick, but I was proud of myself for staying dedicated to it.
At times I was shocked by what I read. Sometimes, I thought “They didn’t tell me THAT in Sunday School!” Stories of violence, cheating, lies, jealousy, incest, murder, war, power, weakness and conflict revealed real people, many quite broken and messed up. Other times I was energized by the Word and the new ideas that took hold in my head. Some parts, I could not possibly believe were inspired by God.
Now I wanted to discuss what I was reading with others. Talking about God, the Bible and what people really believe, doesn’t always just happen naturally. Sometimes you have to push the topic into the conversation. Even once God was in the discussion, this isn’t really a subject that you can fully and openly debate, since everlasting life or death may be riding on this one. The discussion can make people uncomfortable. I’ve seen people have two styles. One is where one side forcefully pushes their beliefs on the other person regardless of where the other is on their own journey. Another way is that they play nice and try not to offend by not really diving deep, dancing across the surface of the questions. Well, I feel this is certainly a debate that shouldn’t be handled by brute force. There is a Jason Gray song that says getting to know God should be “more like falling in love, than something to believe in, more like losing my heart, than giving my allegiance.” These words send a much stronger message to me than someone banging on their Bible and saying “if you don’t believe, you are bound for Hell.”
“In the beginning…” with the earth being without form, with darkness all around, I have no problems with reading about an All Powerful God speaking and making it so. I’ve always considered the “Garden of Eden” to be an analogy, a story that was easy to understand, a moral and one I did not look to as being strictly literal. As a woman, I don’t want to share the blame with Eve for having allowed evil into the world. Pretty bad for Adam to cop out of responsibility and say “it wasn’t my fault, I just did what Eve told me to.” Oh, come on now Adam, didn’t you also hear God when He told you “Don’t eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge?” You could have told Eve “No, we shouldn’t do this.” But if Adam did resist, that wouldn’t give the story its intended meaning now, would it? Does anyone ask how the snake (the Devil) made it into the Garden of Eden? I guess it really wasn’t a perfect paradise if an evil element was present. The lesson: humans can easily be tempted to not follow the rules, to do what we want, to disobey God. After eating that forbidden fruit, humans had to leave the Garden and face challenges of life on Earth.
What greater evil can be shown than to have two sons and one, giving in to jealousy, commits the first murder? Brother killing brother, the Cain and Abel story tells how evil feelings can take the upper hand over our better nature if we let it. This horrible episode happens so early in the biblical narrative of humankind. The Bible says that the trouble between Cain and his brother started over God not respecting Cain’s offering of the “fruit of the ground”. We are told that God had respect for Abel’s offering “of the firstlings of his flock and the fat thereof.” (Genesis 4:4) Looking beyond the words, wouldn’t a good God accept and respect any offering if it came with the right attitude and purity of purpose? God says to Cain, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.” (Genesis 4:7) God wasn’t looking at the offering but what was in Cain’s heart and He didn’t like what he saw. Cain’s soul was sure ugly if he thought that the answer to his problem would be solved by bashing his only brother’s head with a rock.
Now this little family of four becomes only three, with one committing the monster sin of murder. The knowledge of good and evil sure wasn’t enough to keep this first generation on the right path. Eve was happy when God granted her another son, Seth. Cain leaves the presence of the Lord and the Lord put a mark on him that he wouldn’t be killed (Genesis 4:15). The Bible tells that several generations later, Cain’s descendent Lemech slays a man and makes threats to kill more (Genesis 4:23). What a wicked family tradition! No women are mentioned as being born of Adam and Eve, and Cain is sent away and yet he still has descendants. God put a mark on Cain to indicate to others that he should not be killed. Adam and Eve as the first and only human beings on the face of the earth doesn’t jive with the early parts of the story where there are other communities mentioned. In Genesis Chapter 6 Verse 2, it talks about sons of God taking daughters of men as their wives. The Bible also says there are giants in the earth (Verse 4). Interesting!
I had known the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorah, with Lot’s wife being turned into salt. The part I didn’t hear was how the father and two daughters settled in a different land and the girls thought it was a good idea to get dad drunk and sleep with him as a way to get pregnant. How messed up is that? As I read through the “Old Testament” books, I kept feeling like there had been so much left out in my past Bible lessons. Now the characters were coming to life, real people with feeling, difficulties, making good choices at times and sometimes making big mistakes.
In the first three books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus) people make some pretty bad choices. What surprised me is how the individuals may still end up leaders. For example, Genesis Chapter 27, Jacob conspires with his mother, Rebekah, to steal his brother’s birthright from his father Isaac. Pretty bad behavior I’d say. Later we hear about Jacob’s sons, one being Joseph. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph as a slave. They want their father to think Joseph is dead, so they show Jacob the multi-colored coat with goat’s blood on it. What family drama! Yet these brothers eventually become the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. The theme of God’s forgiveness for past wrongs when people change the attitude of their heart is weaved in early.
In Exodus Chapter 20, there are seventeen verses that provide the Ten Commandments. In contrast, it shocked me how the verses went on and on about other topics and general do’s and don’ts. In Exodus 32:27-28, God had just told Moses “Thou shalt not kill” and yet Moses leads some of the people to slay their brothers, companions and neighbors because of the Golden Calf incident. Three thousand of their brothers, companions and neighbors were slayed. Moses said the Lord told them to do it. How does this work now? Do not kill unless it is justified? I didn’t read any of God’s conditions for when and where He thinks killing is acceptable. So Moses didn’t follow those ten simple rules after hearing the covenant from the Big Guy Himself. In Chapter 34 through 40, the Lord “spake unto Moses” all kinds of commands about the tabernacle, the ark, the garments for Aaron, etc. There are over one hundred verses where God is an interior decorator and fashion designer. Then in Leviticus, you have God-the Food Safety Officer. All the rules about animal sacrifice seem to be guides to protect the people from food borne pathogens and other risks. Next up is God-the Doctor. Verses give guidance on diagnosing leprosy and preventing it from spreading. God also provides expert Real Estate advice and the rules for proper slave ownership. Some of the text goes into great details about jewels, colors, cloth, dimensions, number of items, burnt offerings, fat, blood and on, and on. As I read through these sections, I cannot help but ask if maybe more emphasis on the Ten Commandments would have really been God’s point.
As I read through the Bible, I revisited many stories that I had heard before, but now they were in context with what occurred before and after. It wasn’t just the story of David and Goliath from Sunday School. That story was followed up by tales about David’s sins and the years he hid away when King Saul wanted him dead. A generation later, there is trouble with David’s children. One son raped David’s daughter, the guy’s sister. David’s son tries to kill David, his father. There is so much hatred, jealousy and so many evil acts.
I questioned the meaning behind the story. I don’t want to only hear what others have to say about the stories but what do they say to me? The books of Proverbs and Psalms contain familiar and cherished words. Books by Solomon contain wisdom. But when I read commentary about the Song of Solomon that say this is a book about God’s love for Israel or relating to the church as the bride of Christ, give me a break! This reads like erotic literature to me. The guy had 700 wives and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:1-11) for heaven’s sake! Although Solomon had some high points in his life, women were his weakness and they got in the way of Solomon’s relationship with God. Apparently, it has been stated that anyone who quotes Song of Solomon giving the section a literal meaning and not a symbolic one should be declared a heretic and will forfeit their spot in paradise. So we are supposed to literally interpret Genesis but not Song of Solomon? Who is making up these rules? I say it is a bunch of men who want to tell people how to think. Not God!
Some parts of the Bible really tick me off. For example, read Judges Chapter 19. What a man allows happened to a woman is disgusting. What a sick bastard! In following chapters, huge wars start with many dead started by this one man’s actions. Horrible! There are stories in the Old Testament about towns being wiped out but the warriors take the virgins to be their wives. The use and abuse of women seems to be condoned in the patriarchic text. Even early on in the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah sending off poor Hagar and Ishmeal out into the desert. In Ezra, Chapter 10, there are a number of men who “put away” their wives and children since they were considered foreign. It irks me! These women and children were apparently polluting God’s people. The actions seem to not give consideration for any of the wives who worship their husband’s God.
There are other parts of the Bible that I find helpful and intriguing. Like Ezekiel, especially Chapter 33:13-20. These eight verses speak to me about the point of it all, that the Lord “will judge you every one after his ways.” Then there are about two hundred sixty verses in Chapters 40-48 that talk about the design of the temple and a lot about the division of land. To me these verses are hardly the point. Daniel was interesting. I knew about the Lion’s Den, I didn’t know about all of Daniel’s visions. He talks of prophesies and admits that he doesn’t understand what they mean. It foretells a lot about what was to happen between nations with kings rising and falling. Historians have compared the statements with events that took place between countries from the north, south and east. Did the vision describe those days or days yet to occur? Daniel was told this would befall his people in latter days. In Daniel 12:10, it says “Many shall be purified and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand.”
Micah 6:6-8 includes a comment that made sense to me regarding some of the Old Testament religious practices.
6Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old.
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
Some words in the “Old Testament” books allude to the coming of a savior who will bear the iniquities of many. Some of these books were written ~700 BC or further back. The time gap between the Old Testament and New is about 500 years. The continuity of the books of the Bible, written at different times, by different authors, but painting the same big picture is pretty amazing.
Once I finished reading the Bible, did I feel it proved to me that there is a God? I’ll be honest here, “No”. My personal conclusion was that there were significant realities within the Bible that came to be written because of God’s divine inspiration and that there is a bit that was written by stupid men. I gained a new appreciation for what the Bible shares about the depths of the human condition. It surprised me how generation after generation, the pull to do evil is so strong. The stark contrast is seen in Christ, with Jesus coming more alive to me in the reading of the Bible as a whole. We see how he is too smart to be tricked and what angers him. The power of his teachings come into light. I hoped I was understanding the intended meaning behind the parables. There is a lot to take in. So I can now see why people would read the Bible over and over to get the most out of it. I can see how different messages could ring more true depending on what life was throwing your way at the time.
All in all, the most concise guide for how best to live can be found in Matthew 22:37-40.
37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38This is the first and great commandment.
39And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
In our complicated world and our confusing lives, I enjoy reminders to “keep it simple”. This advice from Jesus is just right. No one could go wrong by following those words as their guide. So in the end, the Bible is a lot like the fictional tales of Harry Potter and Twilight. There is conflict and emotional struggles, tragedies and triumphs. People are torn between good and bad as they make decisions on what to do and on which leaders they will follow. The main theme shows us that actions driven by love can overcome evil and that LOVE is the greatest power of all. Any of us can tap into this superpower and heart filled with love gives us guidance on the right choices to make for our lives. You gotta love that!