Listen. If you're going to supposedly base your life off an ancient collection of writings, you should probably, you know, read them.
Such is my relationship with the Bible. Although I've always identified as a Christian, I'm only recently making the faith my own and figuring out what being a follower of Christ actually looks like. As part of my Turning Thirty Bucket List, I'm working my way through the Bible for the first time.
A few weeks back, I finished the Old Testament. It's impossible to read something like that and not have thoughts and feelings about it. I'm attempting to harness and record what I've learned here. I feel a little silly doing this. I mean. If there's one thing that people have dissected into meaninglessness and everyone has to throw their two cents in about, it's the Bible. And it's not like I'm a seminary student or scholar or priest. But what the heck, right? The Bible was written for and by regular people, too. And God wants me to care and think of him and his word. So there.
In the beginning, I considered the Old Testament the part of the Bible where all the weird stuff happens and assumed none of it is all that important or applicable to our present day lives. The OT is like a George R. R. Martin penned prequel to The Happy Jesus Story and, really, it's just best if we pick out the fun parts, make movies loosely based off them, and ignore all the mass bloodshed and endless rules about mold.
However, simply put, I was wrong. Yes, there is some weird stuff. But the OT is deep and rich and beautiful. It is a love story of redemption. The God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament and he repeats over and over that he does not change.
If you're going to read this, then read it like you mean it. Make time. Make space. Mornings before work are my Bible Reading Times. I sit with a cup of coffee in one hand and a highlighter in the other. I highly recommend you use a highlighter! Light that thing up! Have a pen and notebook on hand. Take notes. Write question marks and exclamation marks in the margins of your Bible. You want to read this like the epic romance it is but you also want to study and learn. Personally, I looked for certain things: verses of affirmation, animal metaphors, the power and majesty of God, prophesies about Jesus, phrases that would make cool tattoos or quotes in a book, and verses about women.
Keep a present mind. Don't let your brain fall asleep while you're reading. Read actively. Highlighting helps with this. Think about why you are reading the Bible. Aside from the reading to generally learn what it says, I was looking out, specifically, for what it says about women. Women are important to me and I know many believe the Bible and Christianity are very much not good for women. I was looking for verses that would say otherwise.
Pay attention to your inner voice. I mean, the voice you use in your head when you're reading verses which are God speaking. I realized that, whenever God would step up to the mic, the voice I had for him was that of an angry, flustered old man. God would spit with rage at the Israelites! He was like Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life and I never felt very warm towards him. Catch yourself if you do this and change that voice. Wrap your mind around the fact that everything in this book is about him trying to save us. And then let him speak like Morgan Freeman or Liam Neeson or Judi Dench or like a dove or a soft breeze.
Understand the cast. We've heard so much, especially if you've grown up going to Sunday School, about the Biblical heroes of Abraham, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Jonah, Daniel, etc. When you arrive at their stories, understand that they are real people. Understand that they were scared and confused. That they failed. A lot. That they were no different from us and we share similar struggles. It's easy to put them on a pedestal and remove from them normal human doubts and mistakes. Or to fly by them, ignoring the incredibleness because you've heard it one too many times. Slow down. See yourself in these characters. See them as people. When you read that Joseph spent seven years in prison without word from God, with nothing but his faith to sustain him, think about the long arduous times that we don't hear from God. How abandoned and angry we feel. Just because Joseph's experience is summed up in one quick sentence doesn't mean that he did not possess these same feelings. These people probably felt lost, too.
Oh man, guys… Israel. God's Chosen People might drive you crazy. They seemed to drive God crazy. Or maybe you're super self-aware enough to say, "Hey man, I am just like them. With all their wandering and complaining and questioning." And that's cool of you. We should all recognize that. But we also need to recognize the scope of what God is doing with this motley crew. It's easy to overlook his mission. God handpicks Mr. Abram Average Joe Nobody for no particular reason to be the Father of All Nations. (mind blown) Then, through many years of whacky events, we end up with this huge hodgepodge of people who are all referred to as Israelites despite the many differences between them and they are all enslaved by another culture. They are enslaved forever and have lost all hope. Then suddenly! Miracles, plagues, and Charlton Heston, and they are freed! Now God must take all their randomness and make a culture. He must take generations of slaves and make them an army. He must raise them out of all the pagan practices they have absorbed over the years and teach them what it means to Follow The Lord. No wonder there are so many rules! No wonder they must wander the desert for 40 years! No wonder God takes them from hardship to hardship, pushes them onward and upward! Guys. There are what seems like a million verses about how to get rid of mold and you will hate it. God is like, "If you enter a house and there is mold, burn that thing down, man." Over and over again. Why? Because these people were traveling through areas of the ancient world where other cultures would sacrifice their babies and build them into their houses. And mold would form around the rotting carcasses. And we just skim over that like, "Ugh, again with the mold, God?" Which leads into my next point...
Remember the times. The world of the Bible is our world and these people are like us, yes, but it is totally different, too. There are so many standards and practices that were super run-of-the-mill normal back then but are shocking and horrifying to us. Keep this in mind. And, even more importantly, keep in mind that God created man and woman to be intelligent, wise, wonderful, completely equal vegetarians living in paradise with all the animals and himself. God did not create Patriarchy. Man created Patriarchy. But God gave man rules concerning Patriarchy. If you look at these rules as God affirming Patriarchy, you will be like me and hate God for a very long time. If you look at these rules as God reaching down to protect women within a dysfunctional and harmful system that he did not desire or originate, you will be ok. The same goes for slavery, war, murder, genocide, adultery, disease, mold, and all the other lovely things that we get pissy about.
Let God speak to you. The Bible is God speaking to us, through many authors, in many languages, across many years, between many translations. God created the universe and mankind. He made all these things already knowing about sin and Jesus and Hitler and iPhones and you. He knew certain verses would be taken out of context. He knew certain verses would be used to control and hurt people. He knew certain verses would change lives. And he knew certain verses would be turned into bumper stickers and tattoos. He knew you would be reading this book and finding things you don't like or things you disagree with. He knew certain verses would hit me with such force that I would recite them to myself for days afterward. He knew that certain stories would disgust me so completely that I would cry and mourn for a person who lived thousands of years ago. He knew I would run a set of highlighters dry on his letter to me. That's pretty freaking remarkable.
Keep going. Learn more. Dig. Read commentaries. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Talk to friends. Go to church. Ask the Pastor. Have questions. Ask God. Get angry. Feel passionate. Be confused. Foster doubts. Doubt your doubts. Continue reading the Bible.
Unless, of course, you don't want to read the Bible. Which is understandable, too.
But I cannot express how revolutionary it has been for me to know what this book says. How challenging and enlightening this journey has been. How much I have grown. Your experience with the Bible will be similar but different from mine and that is good. We can learn from each other!