Magazine | January 28, 2019, Issue

Shalt Thou?

(Pixabay)
On reading the Bible for the first time

I read the Bible last year: the whole thing, front to back, cover to cover.

It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s resolution. But in the second week of January, I visited a gift shop attached to a church. On a shelf sat My Daily Catholic Bible, which splits the Old and New Testaments into 365 dated readings.

I picked it up, riffled its pages, and put it back. One of these days, I thought to myself. Then another idea entered my mind: You do not know when the time will come.

That sounded familiar. So I went back and bought the book. The next day I started it, embarking on a year-long project. The time had come.

For most of my life, I’d been thinking about reading the Bible straight through. Like many people, I’d studied a few of the good book’s greatest hits, such as Genesis and the gospels. I’d also listened to loads of passages recited from the pulpit. But the Book of Habakkuk? I didn’t even know there was a Book of Habakkuk.

I was a biblical illiterate — or, at best, a semi-literate. I thought I knew the highlights: Adam and Eve misbehaved in the Garden, Joseph owned a fancy coat, and Jesus died on a cross. Yet a lot of my limited knowledge didn’t even draw from the source text. Most of what I knew about the Ark of the Covenant came from Professor Indiana Jones. My acquaintance with Ecclesiastes stemmed from “Turn! Turn! Turn!” — a folk-rock song popularized by the Byrds. As for the nativity, I owed a big debt to Christmas carols. That’s not a bad way to start, especially for kids, but it can also mislead: The Bible neglects to mention a little drummer boy.

Sometimes my understanding of the Bible was just plain backwards. Years ago, I came across a famous passage in Mark’s gospel: “And if a house is divided against itself that house will not be able to stand.” For a brief moment, I wondered: “Why is Mark quoting Lincoln?”

The American Bible Society reports that 82 percent of Americans have a copy of the Bible in their homes. Yet most of us aren’t reading it with care. Six of ten people can’t name five of the Ten Commandments, according to other data. Some think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another famous married couple: Sodom and Gomorrah.

One of the reasons we don’t read the Bible more often is that it’s so darn long. The scriptures encourage concision: “Be brief, say much in few words” (Sirach 32:8). Yet they don’t follow their own editorial advice. The King James Bible — a version renowned for its pithiness — contains more than 783,000 words. That’s a good deal longer than War and Peace. In fact, it’s almost the length of War and Peace plus Moby-Dick.

Another problem is that most public schools don’t even try to teach the Bible. They worry about the separation of church and state, which many people wrongly regard as a mandate to eliminate all vestiges of religion from the public square. There’s actually no law against teaching the Bible in public schools, provided that the instruction doesn’t turn into evangelization. The Bible Literacy Project publishes a guide that distinguishes between academic and devotional approaches. Teachers are free to treat the Bible as a literary and historical text rather than as a sacred one.

Even so, many are anxious to avoid the inevitable headaches. When I was in high school back in the 1980s, my tenth-grade English teacher assigned the Book of Job. This is probably one of the best books for public-school study: It’s an essential text, it provides a lesson in rhetoric, and it introduces the problem of theodicy. Bonus: Because it’s in the Old Testament, it doesn’t even mention Jesus!

Controversy nevertheless erupted. Students who are probably lawyers today raised earnest objections. Parents barked at the principal. We went ahead and read Job’s story, but it turned into an ordeal for our patient teacher. I don’t recall whether she gave up the practice in later years. I do remember thinking that I wouldn’t blame her if she did.

I also realized that if I were ever to read the Bible, it probably would have to be on my own. Nobody was going to make me do it. For decades, though, I didn’t bother. I kept putting it off.

Occasionally I’d try to fake my knowledge. A few semesters ago, I was teaching a college course and asked the students to read a text from the early 1800s. It wasn’t religious, but a key part alluded to a biblical verse — an obscure one, in my view. I knew about the connection only because a historian had pointed it out to me. In class, I read the line and asked: “Who can explain what it means?” I paused, enjoying the silence and preparing to impress my charges with my command of the material. (Ecclesiastes 1:2: “All things are vanity!”) From the back of the room came a voice: “Isn’t that from the Book of Esther?” It sure was. The pastor’s daughter knew.

I wanted to know, too, or at least to have a chance of knowing such things. I aspired to join the remnant of people who could claim biblical literacy. There was only one way to begin and that was, to borrow a phrase, in the beginning.

The cover of My Daily Catholic Bible promises “20-minute daily readings.” It turns out that this is an approximation — or, to put it less charitably, a broken covenant. I found that I couldn’t just rip through these daily excerpts. I wanted to pronounce every word, at least in my mind, including the bizarre ones, such as the name of the prophet Isaiah’s son: “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” Some of the sections that took the greatest effort were the ones that are the most tempting to skim, which the Bible itself calls those “endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:3). At least I’ve earned my way to opinions on the Bible’s best and worse proper nouns: They are, respectively, “Zamzummim” (a race of giants in Deuteronomy) and “Shittim” (a place name).

A separate problem is that reading begets reading. The Bible is full of minor mysteries. (What the heck is a race of giants doing in Deuteronomy?) Then there are the bigger ones: Every parable is a puzzle of metaphor and meaning. So I began to consult study Bibles, with their extensive footnotes about Hebrew customs and Greek etymologies. My daily readings often stretched to an hour, as I looked up schematics of the original temple in Jerusalem, pondered the length of a cubit, and investigated the symptoms of leprosy.

Sheer determination drove me forward, but so did the joy of discovery. Some bits were trivial: I hadn’t realized that Alexander the Great makes a cameo (1 Maccabees). Others were head-scratchers. I’d known that David kills Goliath (1 Samuel 17:49), but not about a guy called Elhanan who apparently does the same thing (2 Samuel 21:19). I was amused to see that swords can be beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) and then beaten back into swords (Joel 4:10).

Other encounters came steeped in nostalgia, such as when I arrived at the passage that the late Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell recited at the start of each spring training: “The winter is past . . .” (Song of Songs 2:11–12). I also appreciated the Bible’s self-help sections: “Stop drinking only water, but have a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). It even offered Twitter advice: “Avoid foolish arguments” (Titus 3:9). And it encouraged a sense of humor, through the words of Sarah: “God has given me cause to laugh, and all who hear of it will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).

One day, I flipped through a book that shows how Christian art depicts demons. In many cases, I noticed, the fiends in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere are to the left of Jesus. I wondered why but promptly forgot to pursue the matter. The very next day, however, My Daily Catholic Bible brought me to Matthew 25:41: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” Jesus warned us about seeking “signs and wonders” (John 4:48) — but this experience felt like more than a mere coincidence.

As I passed the Bible’s midpoint last summer, I was feeling pretty good about my pending accomplishment. (Spoiler alert, from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”) On a Sunday after Mass, I sat in my parish hall, sipping coffee and eating a doughnut. My Daily Catholic Bible rested on a table in front of me. A woman approached and pointed to the book’s bright green cover. “You’re reading this?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, starting to anticipate her praise and admiration, followed by questions on what it’s like, whether it’s worth doing, and the personal discipline it must require. She said something else: “I’ve been reading the same edition for the last five years.”

That’s another thing about reading the Bible: Not only is it never too late to start, but also you don’t ever finish.

Editor’s note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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