So you’ve selected a Bible that is right for you (that’s a different post), and you’re ready to start reading! But where to even begin? When I first read the Bible, I started with chapter one of Genesis and read through. This took me a little under a year and I learned a lot, but I do NOT recommend this approach. The Bible is not a novel, but more like a collection of novels, poetry anthologies, journal entries (including by some people who are boring and seemingly obsessed with genealogy), letters, argumentative essays, and dreams people wrote down while they were still groggy. Then, it’s been curated over centuries by a weird assortment of mostly male people. The miracle is, God speaks through it still, in the stories, the questions, the poems, and what they all mean to us.
I have been asked many times where to start or how to plan for reading the Bible. This is my recommendation for reading the Bible for devotion, inspiration, and reflection as a Christian (you’d take a different approach for scholarship, history, literary criticism, or to say “I’ve read the whole Bible!”).
First, how to navigate this massive anthology, assuming not everyone is a biblical scholar, knows all the lingo, or memorized chapters and verses in Bible Camp as a kid? The Bible is divided into books with (usually) one-word titles. Each book is divided into chapters, helpfully numbered, and then each chapter is divided into verses (so you’ll see something like John 3:16; that’s the book John, chapter 3, verse 16). The table of contents is your friend. It’s okay to need it to look up where a book is, and which ones are Gospels, Letters, and so on. I’ve been a pastor for over 16 years, and I do not have the books of the Bible memorized in order.
Read at your own pace; it’s not a race! Is something boring or frustrating? Skip ahead and come back to it later (or not). Read the whole thing or read the things that interest you. Make sure you read things like introductions to books, to get a sense of the context and when the book was written– it’s important!
Here is how I’d recommend reading your way through the Bible:
1. Gospel of Luke, then
2. Acts (this gives you a two-part story by the same author, first about the life of Jesus, then about the early church).
3. Next choose your own adventure!
(a) More about Jesus? Read Matthew, then Mark, then John, completing the Gospels (note similarities and differences in how they tell the story of Jesus, what they saw as important, etc. Which sound the most like Jesus to you and why?).
OR, jump back to the beginning to get a good foundation:
(b) read Genesis and Exodus (familiar stories like Adam & Eve, Noah’s Arc, Joseph and his many-colored garment, Moses aka “Prince of Egypt”… What themes do you notice? How are these stories different from what you expected when you heard snippets of them? Note: you can skip the long lists of people and their genealogy and a lot of the loooong rules).
4. Read whichever one you didn’t read for 3 (Gospels or Genesis/Exodus).
5. About this time, you can also read Psalms as you read through other books of the Bible. Think of it like throwing in a daily poem. Aim for one a day. When you finish Psalms, you can continue with Proverbs– little sayings and stuff, a chapter or less at a time.
6. Joshua, then Judges (this is mostly set up for the next part, but watch out in Judges for some of the coolest women in the Bible. Looking at you, Jael).
7. Ruth (one of the best books in the Bible. Seriously. Love, loss, cunning, loyalty, and the resilience of women. And it’s short!).
8. 1 and 2 Samuel (story of King Saul and King David).
9. Esther (another of the awesomest women in the Bible).
— Now, if you’re following along in your table of contents, you’ll notice that I’ve skipped: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (books of law– lots of repeat from Exodus and pretty dry), and: 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah (books of history– lots of genealogy and records of who was king when). There’s some good stuff in these, and also some stuff that’s good to know (look for Solomon in 1 Kings, and I like a lot of the story of return from exile in Ezra), but honestly, it’s not great devotional reading. Read it when you’re feeling like a little history, or even not at all. Once you’ve finished the rest of the Bible, you may see these come up in places, like a quote somewhere. Then, go to the quote you’re curious about, go back a chapter or two for context, and start reading for understanding there. —
10. That was a lot of story about the people of Israel and God’s relationship to them through time! Let’s go back and check on the early church. Read the letters in the New Testament: Romans through Jude (not Revelation– that’s not a letter, so we’ll come back to that).
11. Now, let’s get philosophical: Job (an interesting reflection on why “bad things happen to good people”).
12. Ecclesiastes (what’s the point of it all, anyway?).
13. Song of Songs (This one is just fun. Love and sensuousness are sacred, too).
14. Dive into the prophets; start with Isaiah.
15. Read Jeremiah and Lamentations (if you need some context for this exile stuff, that’s when you might look back at Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and so on).
16. Skip Ezekiel and Daniel for now!
17. Read Hosea through Malachi (Pause and enjoy Jonah, which is short and uses humor and reverse psychology to take a look at what it really means for God to love ALL people, even the mean ones. You’ve completed the prophets! What did you notice about how God speaks to and through people? What still speaks to us today?).
— If your Bible has “apocryphal books” or “deuterocanonical books,” read those now (or after Daniel– see below). In doing so, you’ll probably be able to imagine why they are included in some traditions and not others. —
You’re into the last section, and this is boss level Bible reading. Remember to read the introductions, and take your time with these. Maybe jump back to a psalm or favorite story now and then to remind you why you (by now, hopefully) love the Bible.
18. Ezekiel. Yes, he’s a prophet, but I’ve separated him out because of the difficulty of both his writing and content. Some rabbis advocated that no one under 30 read the book of Ezekiel, and you don’t have to read it either. He begins with strange, symbolic visions that tip toward apocalyptic (more on this in a second), and ends with detailed descriptions of the measurements of the temple. And in the middle are graphic descriptions of sexual violence and instances of using women’s bodies as metaphors for disgusting uncleanness. I am unfortunately not kidding and not overstating. I use these passages to help reflect on an important lesson: not everything in the Bible is beautiful, helpful, or even holy. God gave you a mind and a heart, and when they say to you that sexual violence is wrong and should never be used to illustrate punishment, no not even as a literary device, no not even in the Bible, you can listen to your heart and mind.
19. Daniel. This book is considered both a book of a prophet and an example of apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse/apocalyptic does NOT mean “the end of the world.” Rather, it means “revelation,” uncovering, making something plain. Apocalyptic literature reveals not what will be, but what IS, pulling back the layers of the world’s oppression or harm or lie to show where God is at work. Ironically, it does not make things plain, but uses metaphor and vision to speak about the present situation. In Daniel, there are some stories and prophesies like other parts of the Bible, and then there are visions of strange creatures and things. Imagine that you are living under an oppressive and dangerous government, and you are trying to record the horrors that are happening and send warnings to others, but you’re worried the government will intercept them, so you use coded metaphors to make your point. That’s Daniel. The oppressors of the author’s day are the Greeks, but he writes as if he’s talking about the Babylonians a couple hundred years earlier, because if the Greeks read what he really thought, they’d probably execute him. In fact, that’s where a lot of those “apocryphal books” come in; if you have Maccabees in your Bible, take a look at that. That’s about the Greek treatment of the Jewish people and it ain’t pretty– or safe to circulate. Why again are these books excluded in some traditions?
20. And finally, Revelation. The book of Revelation (or its Greek name, Apocalypse) is the most misunderstood book of the Bible. It is NOT a book of prophesy about the future end of the world. Like Daniel, it is apocalyptic literature– uncovering, revealing. The entire book is an extended vision or series of visions, none of which promise to be what will happen, but promise to reveal something true about God, God’s people, and the world. Daniel couldn’t write about how awful the Greeks were, so he wrote about the Babylonians– bad guys from the past– and used them as a metaphor. Likewise, the author of Revelation can’t write about the current oppressors, the Romans, so he writes about visions and bad guys from the future as a metaphor for how the Roman Empire is corrupt and is slaughtering Christians. It’s weird, it’s bloody, it’s exciting, but it’s not supposed to be a plot line for the Left Behind series. When all is said and done, it contains beautiful promise: God wins, love wins, and “the curse” is wiped away. In fact for me the only benefit to reading the Bible cover to cover was coming to the end of Revelation and finding the tree of life– taken from humanity’s presence as a curse back at the beginning of the story– restored and offered in abundance, a perfect bookend. It took my breath away.
And there it is! You did it! You went on a journey through the Bible– a book of books, a collection of history, philosophy, poetry, prophesy, sacred story, and divine word.
I hope you find in this journey stories and characters that speak to you, insights about the history of humanity and of Christianity that give you richer context, and questions and reflections that challenge you and impact your life today. I hope you find parts that you want to revisit again and again. And most of all, I hope that you can feel, reaching out to you through and despite the failing of human authors, seeping around litanies of kings and gory battles and outdated gender assumptions, a God who is present as Creator, as Spirit, and as a person in Jesus, and that this God desires nothing less than complete justice, dignity, and love for all the world. Including and especially, you.