This past Thursday I finished listening through the Bible using my 90-day reading plan from last year. I began on Saturday, February 12. The audio Bible I listened to was The Bible Experience, which I highly recommend. I don’t remember exactly why I began listening when I did, maybe because I felt I needed more spiritual input, but as I progressed I found more reasons to be doing it.
Once in college I tried reading the Bible in large chunks, and it was much easier to observe the large scale themes that way. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far before giving up, probably somewhere in the Kings, which is where I usually stop. This time I knew I could finish the whole Bible, because I’d done it before, and I wanted to see how well the themes emerged at this rapid rate.
I also wanted to see if it was a reasonable reading plan. I found that it was, in the sense that I didn’t feel too burdened by it. It helped that I was listening rather than reading. I’m sure I would have gotten behind if I’d had to set aside time to read, but I typically have the listening time I needed, about half an hour per day. I listened at twice the normal speed, since this production was read slowly, at about half the rate of normal speech. I actually could have finished the Bible in fewer than 90 days, because some days I could have listened a lot longer, but I wanted to stick to the schedule to get a true sense of the reading plan.
Another reason for trying out this reading plan is that I wanted to get a better handle on the overall structure and contents of the Bible. I grew up in the church, and so I knew the basics and a lot of the details, but the Bible still had plenty of parts I didn’t know well because I hadn’t spent much time in them.
The only other time I’d gotten through the whole Bible, I was listening to the NIV Audio Bible Dramatized, which I do not recommend. I had arranged the chapters in roughly chronological order, which I also don’t recommend, because it was jarring and confusing to flip between books and time frames without warning or explanation. This time I wanted to listen in plain vanilla canonical order in hopes that it would make more sense, which it did.
When I first created my reading plan, one or two people said they’d rather read the Bible slowly and take time to reflect on it. Normally I would too, and whipping through it definitely had disadvantages to go along with the benefits. The litany of kings got confusing, and I certainly didn’t have time to ponder all the proverbs.
Listening to the Bible rather than reading it also gave mixed results. On one hand, hearing each word spoken gives them all an emphasis they don’t have when your eyes are flying across them on the page, so I noticed things that had escaped my attention before. For example, I had never noticed Jacob’s angel sighting in Genesis 32:1.
On the other hand, if your attention strays during a recording or a public reading and you miss things, it’s harder to go back and pick them up than if your eyes can freely wander the passage. People sometimes say the Bible was written to be heard rather than read, and that may be true in some ways, but surely the more intricate parts of the Bible, such as Paul’s letters, need to be seen and studied in written form.
Some other random things I noticed:
- The OT is even more violent than I remembered. The sound effects helped there. The Bible Experience doesn’t hold back.
- I had my epistemology glasses on, paying attention to how knowledge happened in the Bible. I was surprised to hear how often God’s chosen leaders and prophets turned out to be wrong in their disputes with other people (e.g., Lev. 10:16-20). I always assumed they were supposed to have all the answers.
- Isaiah is very confusing because it jumps from topic to topic and doesn’t give much context, but the other prophets are much less confusing.
- I don’t know what it’s like for Jewish readers, but to me Isaiah 53 stuck out like a rose bed in a field of grass. My immediate reaction was to ask myself why we needed the NT at all after that. The foreshadowing of Christian theology in that chapter is striking.
- Before this run through the Bible, I didn’t remember the whole section of Jeremiah devoted to the people who returned from the exile.
- I didn’t remember just how much measuring Ezekiel’s prophecy of the future temple involved.
- Among the prophets, I especially liked Daniel because it was directed at Israel’s oppressors for a change rather than Israel itself, on top of being interesting, weird, and largely narrative.
- I found that I was less familiar with Luke’s accounts than with Matthew and Mark’s versions of the same events. It was refreshing to hear his “new” take on things.
- The epistles really are a different animal from the rest of the Bible. They’re more personal and open up a lot of new themes.
- Balaam, Cain, and Sodom seem to have been turned into the early church’s symbols for everything that’s wrong with the world. They show up as warnings in several of the epistles.
- Hebrews, James, and 1 John form a nice almost-bookend to the Bible. Hebrews: All those sacrifices in the old covenant? Jesus is better. James: All those things Scripture’s been telling you to do? Do them. 1 John: Love–it’s what it’s all about. And of course, it’s hard to imagine a better bookend than Revelation.
I found the prophets depressing, because Israel and Judah were so stubborn and because I felt the prophets’ threats of doom overwhelmed any hope they offered. I worried that God might not have really been just and that he had no qualms about sweeping away the righteous with the wicked. Thank goodness for Malachi 3:16-18, where God specifically addresses this question. Still, I struggled. This is one place where reading more slowly might have served me better, because I could have lingered on the prophecies of restoration.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the Gospels. I breathed a bigger one when I got to the epistles. They encouraged me. The prophets were writing to stiff-necked people who were headed for judgment. But with the Gospels at last I was back to a message written for people who actually wanted to follow God. Jesus had plenty of harsh things to say, but the balance between that and the messages of restoration was greater. And the epistles were even more encouraging, because more than any other books, they dealt with how to handle suffering, and they injected it with hope and dignity.