Reading the Bible Year

Published:
February 16, 2022

Keisha and Alex both began reading through the Bible on January 1. 

This is Alex’s first time reading the Bible Year, and he’s following a chronological reading plan. Keisha’s reading through for the fourth time, this time in parallel with #BibleYear2022 on Twitter and following a 20 chapters/week plan—an average of 3 chapters on weekdays and 5 chapters over weekends.

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K: Why are you reading the Bible this year, Alex? 

A: I’ve never done it before. I saw you were doing it and it inspired me to try. But I don’t like rules, even my own. And I try to stay away from stating lofty goals. I’m more of a plodder. I prefer to just do something. Survive. And then do it again and then look back and realize I made it to the gym more than once! 

I told myself that each day I’m just going to open the great Our Bible app you recommended. Thus far, it’s working—I just finished Genesis but got some Job in the middle to break it up. 

I’m reading the King James Version. I debated this because I’d also like to read an updated scholarly translation, but I settled on the KJV because it’s been a rich source of allusions in literature and I wanted to see them in their original context. For instance, when I was cruising along through the family drama in Genesis 4 and I read, “and Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden,” I paused. I sat for a moment in the moody space where two books meet, remembering Steinbeck’s existence-before-essence take on the brotherly narrative and the sense of moral alienation. Thinking of the novel enriched that Bible story for me. 

K: East of Eden is one of my all-time favorites! When we talked recently, you mentioned you’ve been studying the Sabbath School lessons as well. Is this Bible-reading practice an intentional complement? 

A: Yes, the study project literally started out because the person in charge of coordinating the commentary on the weekly Adventist Adult Bible Study Guide [at Spectrum] quit. I looked at our budget and realized if I just wrote them it would save Spectrum a chunk of money. That was seven months ago! Now on my third Sabbath school quarterly and I’m a month into Hebrews which I am loving, in part because I get to share outside scholarship including historical criticism with an Adventist audience. 

I grew up in a traditionalist home and I would listen to hundreds of hours of lightly animated cassettes telling most of the kid-appropriate stories from Genesis to Revelation. Hearing another sermon or lesson repeat the same point from the Bible started boring me in my teens and continues today. Understanding the structure of books, authorship and intent, and source and historical criticism makes it actually interesting and spiritually meaningful to me. So yeah, Hebrews is fascinating. But let’s save that for around December. At least that’s when I hope to get there. But you’re a pro at reading through the Bible. Tell me your ways!  

K: The last time I read the Bible all the way through (2020), I also started with a KJV—that’s the version I grew up on before the NIV became popular in churches. But then I switched to an audio version called The Bible Experience. The production quality is really high and it gave me a sense for how early audiences might have heard these texts: out loud and not on the page. Some of the rhythms, the poetry, the repetition in the language becomes more vivid when you hear it. 

We’re five weeks into the new year now. What have you read so far? 

A: The chronological method took me from the troubled waters of Noah and a dark reflection on a genocidal YHWH and saved my soul by dumping me into Job early. 

Check out this incredible graphic retelling of the Noah-God relationship from a recent New Yorker

K: That’s lovely. Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah was my first time facing the levels of trauma the cataclysm of a Flood would have had to extract from survivors. We could talk about that all day. 

A: No doubt. For me, going from Noah to Job was a great character pairing because both (kind of) Byronic heroes have their lives disrupted by a divine actor that just really messes around hard with humanity. 

I had a Hebrew teacher who was more poet than professor and had done his dissertation on the book of Job. A conservative, he still emphasized the deep ancient consciousness of the story and I still remember how he would intone the Hebrew word ha-satan, which is literally translated as “the adversary.” Not a proper name for the devil, the satan is an ambiguous figure in the cosmology of the Ancient Near East. Now reading the story of Job for fun, not for a grade, and less literally on my own, made me appreciate the mysterium tremendum that acts on Job and surrounds his search for meaning. The book is beautifully beyond reason. 

Where are you in the Bible now? I’m just starting Exodus. What am I in for? Has hearing these stories changed any meanings for you? 

K: I just finished Exodus and have started the sacrifice instructions at the start of Leviticus. The version I’m reading this year, at least for Genesis to Malachi, is Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, The Hebrew Bible

Alter is every bit the lover of words and seems intentional about not trying to settle doctrinal arguments through the translation process. Instead he tries to preserve the linguistic features and tone present in Hebrew, even when the result is a little awkward or repetitious. The integrity and richness of the text comes first for him. Our collective struggle over meanings and implications comes later.  

For example, in Genesis where God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Laban, and as Jacob is on his way back home, he has a murky middle-of-the-night wrestling match that leaves him limping. That section of the text (Genesis 32) has some ambiguous pronouns, and Alter doesn’t clean them up for English readers. 

So as I read that chapter this time round, the fact that it’s not crisp and tidy brings me more deeply into the experience. I’m turning the pages, groping through the mystery, just as Jacob groped and gripped his antagonist in the dark.

You asked what’s ahead of you in Exodus. One surprise for me over the last five weeks has been how much lying people do in the first two books of the Bible. They get worse at lying as the chapters pass, too! I don’t remember being confronted by that before, and maybe I’ve been sensitized by the Disinformation Age we’re living through now.

Abraham lies for reasons I can squint at and rationalize: he’s insecure. He’s around people with more power than him and in places suspicious of strangers. There’s a background hum of sexual violence that breaks into the foreground in every generation, and it’s almost like he’s anticipating that. Isaac's lies mimic Abraham’s. Jacob and Rebekah turn their lying into a stage production, with a set, and a costume, and lines.

But by Sinai, Aaron gets caught out orchestrating mayhem, and he sounds absolutely absurd explaining himself when Moses comes down the mountain. You can’t help but laugh: there’s no onward-and-upward progress myth there!

There’s something about the pace we’re reading at this time that’s given me access to these parallels that run through the generations of the family of Eve and Adam: patterns in life experiences, wrong turns, symbols repeated, character flaws, slow learners, reconciliations, and doubts. 

The patterns feel real to me. As I said on Twitter the other night, “If you ever want to be grateful about your own siblings, read Genesis!” So the stories are majestic in scope and they stretch centuries and centuries, yes, but at the same time these characters are all people I can recognize. 

They’re familiar in the sense of “Ah, yes, this is still what families are like.” We’re removed by culture and tradition and technology, but we’re also still the slow learners who take the wrong turns our ancestors did, and sometimes like Isaac or Jacob add a little flourish to our falls into the archetypal ditch. We too take the wrong turn in new locations, with new characters; we update the family errors, and we extend the inherited story, sometimes with only the hope of thwarting what feels inevitable.

There’s humility ready and waiting for us in all of that.

Alex, I'm really looking forward to reflecting on these stories and sources with you. I love the spirit of “Survive… And then do it again, and again.” That's the human experiment right there.

Let's see how we do! 

 

This article originally appeared in On Tomorrow’s Edge, where Alex and Keisha will trade monthly responses on their previous month's reading in 2022. You can also follow along here on Spectrum. 

 


Keisha E. McKenzie is senior vice president of programs at Auburn Seminary and principal at McKenzie Consulting Group, MD.

Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Photo by Ron Fung on Unsplash

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