I recently completed a journey that covered quite a distance. As I drove around the Portland Metro area making deliveries, I also experienced Eden, the Exodus, David’s rule in Israel, Exile in Babylon, the coming of Messiah, and the spread of a small sect of passionate Jews throughout the known world.
How did I accomplish all this? Well, I wish I could tell you I was making my deliveries in a DeLorean, but our flux capacitor burned out a couple months ago. I also wasn’t reading my Bible while driving. I feel like that wouldn’t be the greatest witness when the cops question me about why I ran over an old lady at a crosswalk.
I decided to make use of all the driving time I have while I’m at work, and I invested in the ESV audiobible. I loaded it on my iPod and started to journey through scripture as I drove across Portland. I ended up listening to the whole thing in about six weeks. 33 days of actual listening to get through all 66 books of the Bible. I’m writing about it not to brag (it was super easy, just listening as I drove), but to share what it meant to me and what I learned from it. Several things about this new experience surprised me. I’ve read through the Bible several times, at least a couple of them being required reading for classes, but I’ve never listened to the Bible before. It was a radically different experience, one that I thought might be worth sharing. I probably won’t do it justice, but it’s worth a shot.
Listening to the Bible is like sitting at God’s feet and listening to him tell his story. Reading it is, of course, wonderful too, but hearing it really delivers in a wholly new way for me. While this is not the primary reason for my infatuation with listening to Bible, I love the fact that it is the way most of God’s people throughout the ages encountered Scripture before the last few hundred years.
Listening deprives me of my ability to stop and think about a word or phrase in isolation. Of course, meditating on a small passage has amazing benefits, but there is something about being forced to continue the thought process, about not being able to remove a sentence from its context that highlights new and powerful meaning. It also shows me how much of the Bible I haven’t totally mastered: a lot of it. Books like Matthew, for instance, are so familiar to me that I hardly even notice the details as I read, but when I’m inundated with a huge, unrelenting dose, I realize how much of it is super challenging and how much of it I don’t really know what to do with.
I began at the beginning.
Genesis proved a wondrous tale of faithfulness, intrigue, pain, and redemption. Moving quickly from creation to betrayal, promise and redemption, and with all the bumps in between, it’s an emotional roller coaster that really amazes me at the ridiculousness of how the heroes of faith choose to live and how immense is God’s patience and faithfulness for his children. Moving from there through the rest of Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) one might assume that listening to long lists of rules and genealogical records might be enough to make me want to drive into the Columbia, but instead, I found new beauty in it all. Reading each individual law in Leviticus can be overwhelming—or at least overwhelmingly boring—but quickly moving from one to the other allows you to hear God’s heart. When you encounter the body of what it looked like for Israel to obey God, you see his desire for purity, goodness, order, justice, and right relationships. He cared about his people and wanted their lives to be characterized by wholeness, not violence and betrayal of what should be loving relationships, not sickness and selfishness. The Law reveals God’s love.
Reading books that told the story of Israel further through history provided the opportunity to notice repetition. Listen really allowed me to hear when words, ideas, phrases, events came up over and over again. They caught my attention. I noticed in the prophets how much life and vitality was important to God. Ezekiel in particular is a shining beacon of life in the darkness of sin and death. God really wants to impart life in us, revivify us, taking us from the mundane and destructive and implanting something powerful and new in us that will carry us forward in passion in his grace.
|You can’t see the big picture without all the pieces, each telling its own story|
I also realized how much about Hebrew poetry and rhetoric I don’t get. I don’t know what to do with Proverbs as a whole. I thought I knew, but encountering it again (in one sitting) made me think about what I’m supposed to do with it. The proverbs aren’t promises. In fact, they sometimes seem to suggest values that go against Jesus’ teaching. Should we or shouldn’t we plan ahead, save, provide for our futures? Proverbs says ‘yes.’ It seems like Jesus says we should leave it to God and focus on more important things, like the kingdom of God.
What in the world is Song of Songs talking about? I don’t really know. Do you? Ecclesiastes? Are we supposed to ignore everything but the last chapter? Is there more in there we can learn from? Again, I have no idea.
So much of Hebrew style and technique is simply foreign. It’s just not how people write in current, Western culture. How do I read apocalyptic? There is nothing like it being written now. I’ve learned the basic characteristics: it’s written by communities under oppression, it’s symbolic of battles between good (God and his people) and evil (the oppressing rulers), it’s about struggle, it’s about hope of future liberation.
I don’t get it. I know those things, and I could probably point out the recurring features in whatever text, but it doesn’t resonate with me. It doesn’t touch my soul. I wish I could connect with it, really understand it. Maybe some day I will.
In general, I’m a Hebrew Bible guy (which is why I say “Hebrew Bible” instead of “Old Testament”), but listening to large chunks really began to accentuate the patterns, the larger thought processes of the New Testament (Greek Bible?). I ended up listening to the epistles in a matter of two days. They are really short! The entirety of the New Testament took only about a week and a half, listening to about two and a half hours a day (weekdays only). It’s kinda amazing to hear what James has to say, and within the same half hour, to hear what Paul says about the same thing from a totally different perspective in Romans. It really provides a fullness and richness to these ideas that is almost impossible to pick up if you read a few verses here and a few there over the course of like five years.
I noticed this interesting occurrence because the repetition of words stood out to me so clearly:
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28 ESV).
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).
Ha! What do you do with that? If you read them alone, not in the larger contexts of their books and the whole Bible, they sound entirely contradictory, don’t they? But since I listened to them both in their full contexts in the same day, it made complete sense. They work together beautifully, and if you take one without the other, you have a deficient view of what the Bible says. This was one of the huge encounters I had that was so different and fulfilling about listening to the Bible rather than reading it.
I love the Bible, and I hope to be able to share some of that love with other people. I hope this post has been able to do that, at least a little bit. Maybe you won’t all go out and journey through the whole Bible in a month and a half like I did (not all of you have two to three hours a day to make use of like I do), but I hope you will at least think of the hard parts, the boring parts, the interesting parts, the stories, the letters, and I hope you will find some interest in encountering them and finding the value in them, whether it be by listening or reading, taking on large chunks or diving in to the details, or any way at all. I will continue to read and listen, both to the big picture and studying the minutiae, always expanding my understanding and encountering knew things, and I hope you do too. God has spoken to us, and it would be shame if we never took the time to find out what he said.