This is the third in a series of articles on common excuses for not reading through the Bible.
I’ve spent the last 40+ years studying the Bible, but not necessarily trying to read each word from cover to cover. Several years ago I began setting aside time each day just to read the Bible, with the goal of getting through the whole thing over the course of a year. Having spent many years coming up with excuses not to read the Bible this way, I thought I’d record them here for you. But take note: I’ll be shooting them down in the end, so don’t get your hopes up.
Excuse #3: The events in the Old Testament are out-of-order and confusing.
Christianity and the Jewish faith from which it sprang are somewhat unique among the belief systems of the world in that they have a rich connection to human history that is essential to understanding them. Christianity isn’t a philosophical system that suddenly developed in the mind of the Apostle Paul some 2000 years ago. It claims to have started in the very creation of space and time. Its details were revealed in God’s work of creation, in direct revelation to selected humans over thousands of years, and in an historical, first-person manifestation of God to humans in the person of Jesus Christ.
We could choose to ignore the gospels and just read the New Testament epistles to discover Christian doctrine, but our understanding is immensely enhanced when we understand the life and teachings of Jesus from the gospels. We could read just the New Testament, but we won’t understand the work of Jesus on the cross without some knowledge of the job of the Levitical priesthood from the Old Testament. We could try to live lives without sin, but won’t understand the futility of that goal if don’t know about the Mosaic law from the Old Testament. We could simply accept God’s choosing of Abraham, but won’t understand the motivation of this choice unless we have read about antediluvian life and the Noahic flood. We would be bewildered by the expectations of some arbitrary deity that destroyed all life in the flood unless we also understand who that deity is and what he did in the first chapters of Genesis.
How Are the Books of the Bible Arranged?
When we sit down to read the Bible, it appears to begin at the beginning of time in Genesis and end with the eternal state that follows the destruction and recreation of the known universe in Revelation. But once we know the Bible, we realize that everything in between is a jumbled mess.
The books of the Bible are arranged by genre, not by chronology. The Old Testament begins with the Pentateuch, or the books of the Law. Next are books of history, then books of wisdom and poetry, then the prophets. The New Testament starts with the gospels — 4 different accounts of the life of Jesus — then an historical book, Acts, followed by various letters written to churches and individuals, then the record of a revelation given to the Apostle John.
The Messed-Up Chronology of Kings and Chronicles
The Old Testament starts out in chronological order, but fairly quickly gets confusing. The books of Kings and Chronicles cover much of the same material. If you’re reading through the Bible in a year, cover-to-cover, you’ll read 1 Kings in April and 2 Chronicles in May. As a result you’ll be re-reading the same events twice. On top of that, the order of events described within a single book is often not correct. For example, Rehoboam is king in Judah in 1 Kings 12, but isn’t actually crowned king until two chapters later. Then (a month later in your reading plan), he becomes king again in 2 Chronicles 10 before becoming king again two chapters later.
The Messed-Up Chronology of Job
The biblical character Job is among the most ancient persons in the Bible. He is believed to be a contemporary of Abraham (circa 2000 BCE). In the traditional 66-book Bible, the story of Job is found after the book of Esther and before the book of Psalms. The book of Esther describes events in Persia around 480 BCE, around the time that the first remnants of the Jews were returning to Judah after being deported. Most of the Psalms date to the time of King David, 500 years earlier (around 1000 BCE). Based on what you read before and after Job, it would be easy to get the impression that Job was a Jew (he was not), or that he was a contemporary of Saul, David, and Solomon (he was not), or that he lived after the deportation and captivity of Israel and Judah (he did not).
This isn’t just a matter of dating Job correctly. Reading about Job before meeting Abraham helps us better understand God’s relationship with humans at this point in history. Job didn’t have the benefit of God’s direct revelation to Abraham, nor of the Mosaic Law. But he still had an understanding of God’s character and holiness. Like Melchizadek (who may have been a contemporary of Job), he was a worshiper of Yahweh at a time when we traditionally picture humanity in darkness, awaiting the more well-known revelation of Yahweh to Abraham and eventually to Moses. His story challenges us to come to a better understanding of how God’s relationship with his creation morphed over time.
To Whom Did the Prophets Prophecy?
All of the prophets are lumped together at the end of the Old Testament, even though much of their work happened before the captivity of Israel and Judah, and certainly before the return of a remnant of the people to the land.
All of this confusion leads to a paradoxical conclusion: It’s necessary to understand the whole Bible before you can read and understand any of it. You need an historical framework when reading the Bible “out of order” (that is, reading it “in order”) so that you can reorganize it in your head as you read it.
I would strongly recommend finding a chronological reading plan for PocketBible and reading through the Bible in calendar order. You’ll be surprised how much your understanding of God improves when you can put his relationship with his creation in historical order.