My brother, who attended a Bible college during a very smart-alecky phase in his life, enjoyed shocking groups of believers by sharing his life verse. After listening to others quote pious phrases from Proverbs, Romans, or Ephesians, he would stand and with a perfectly straight face recite very rapidly this verse from 1 Chronicles 26:18: At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar. Other students would screw up their faces and wonder what deep spiritual insight they were missing. Perhaps he was speaking another language?
If my brother felt in a particularly ornery mood, he would quote an alternative verse: ;Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones; (Ps. 137:9).
In his sassiness my brother had, quite ingeniously, identified the two main barriers to reading the Old Testament: It doesn't always make sense, and what sense it does make can offend modern ears. Why, we wonder, does the Bible spend so much time on temples, priest, and rules governing sacrifices that no longer exist? Why does God care about defective sacrificial animals-limping lambs and bent-winged doves-or about a young goat cooked in its mother's milk, and yet apparently not about people like the Amalekites? Jesus we identify with, the apostle Paul we think we understand; but what of those barbaric people living in the Middle East several thousand years ago?
Because of this, most people simply avoid the Old Testament entirely, leaving three-fourths of the Bible unread, while others extract nuggets of truth from it like plucking diamonds from a vein of coal. That technique can backfire, however-remember my brother's life verses.
Like reading Shakespeare
For a long time I also avoided the Old Testament. Only gradually, once I started reading it in earnest, did I learn to love it. I confess that I began with ignoble motives: I read the Old Testament because I was paid to, as part of my editorial assignment to produce the Student Bible. But long after the Student Bible had been published and stocked on bookstore shelves, I kept returning to the Old Testament on my own. My reading experience parallels one I had with William Shakespeare. In a moment of idealism, I made a New Year's resolution to real all 38 of Shakespeare's plays in one year. To my surprise, fulfilling the task (though I had to extend the deadline) seemed far more like entertainment than work. At first I would have to look up archaic words, concentrate on keeping the characters straight, and adjust to the sheer awkwardness of reading plays. I found, though, that as I kept at it and got accustomed to the rhythm and language, these distractions faded and I felt myself being swept up in the play. Without fail I looked forward to the designated Shakespeare evenings.
I expected to learn about Shakespeare's world and the people who inhabited it. I found, though, that Shakespeare mainly taught me about my world. He endures as a playwright because of his genius in probing the hidden recesses of humanity, a skill that gives him appeal in places as varied as the United States, Japan, and Peru several centuries after his death. We find ourselves in his plays.
I went through precisely that same process in encountering the Old Testament. From initial resistance, I moved to a reluctant sense that I ought to read the neglected three-quarters of the Bible. As I worked past some of the barriers, I came to feel a need to read, because of what it was teaching me. Eventually, I found myself wanting to read it. Those 39 books satisfied in me some hunger that nothing else had-not even, I must say, the New Testament. They taught me about life with God: not how it is supposed to work, but how it actually does work.
The rewards offered by the Old Testament do not come easily, I admit. Learning to feel at home in its pages will take time and effort. All achievements-climbing mountains, mastering the guitar, competing in a triathlon-require a similar process of hard work; we persevere because we believe rewards will come.
A reader of the Old Testament confronts obstacles not present in other books. For example, I was put off at first by its disarray. The Old Testament does not read like a cohesive novel; it consists of poetry, history, sermons, and short stories written by various authors and mixed up together. In its time, of course, no one conceived the Old Testament as one book. Each book had its own scroll, and a long book like Jeremiah would occupy a scroll 20 or 30 feet long. A Jewish person entering a synagogue would see stacks of scrolls, not a single book, and, aware of their differences, would choose accordingly.
Yet I find it remarkable that this diverse collection of manuscripts written over a period of a millennium by several dozen authors possesses as much unity as it does. To appreciate this feat, imagine a book begun 500 years before Columbus and just now completed. The Bible's striking unity is one strong sign that God directed its composition. By using a variety of authors and cultural situations, God developed a complete record of what he wants us to know; amazingly, the parts fit together in such a way that a single story does emerge.
The more I persevered, the more passages I came to understand. And the more I understood, the more I found myself in those passages. Even in a culture as secular as the United States, bestsellers such as The Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore, and The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris, reveal a deep spiritual hunger. The Old Testament speaks to that hunger like no other book. It does not give us a lesson in theology, with abstract concepts neatly arranged in logical order. Quite the opposite: it gives an advanced course in Life with God, expressed in a style at once personal and passionate.