Studying the Bible without chapters and verses

A commenter on this post wrote that The Books of the Bible was “great for just reading,” but that a “regular Bible” was “almost necessary to study.”

In response, I insisted that The Books of the Bible, which takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms, actually makes a great “study Bible” as well.  That’s how this series of study guides could be created to be used with it (although the guides can be used with any version of the Bible, as this post explains.)

I also promised to share a real-life experience that illustrated what “studying the Bible without chapters and verses” looks like, as related in my book After Chapters and Verses.  Here’s the story.

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was going through the book of Daniel.  When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar had made a statue ninety feet high out of gold.  Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand why he’d done this.

One note suggested that using gold for a huge statue was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire.  A note in another Bible observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling.  But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar had made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the previous week.  They remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue.  Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay.  Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and then another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue entirely out of gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God.  He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God had sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced.  And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead.  No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

Our group wouldn’t have found such satisfying answers to its questions, and we’d have missed an essential dynamic within the book, if we’d simply “read the study notes” and moved on.  We got a much greater insight into the passage when we understood how it functioned within the book of Daniel.

But we haven’t been trained to study the Bible this way.  We haven’t been taught that we need to read first in order to be able to study afterwards.  In fact, we haven’t been encouraged to “read” at all, not in a continuous way.  We’ve more often been  asked to consider isolated parts of larger works (“chapters” or “verses”) without being shown how they fit within a whole book and how we can appreciate the meaning they have there.  We’ve been encouraged to try to understand them instead by looking at other isolated biblical passages in series of cross-references, or by consulting the notes in our Bibles, study guides and commentaries, or asking our pastors, teachers and group leaders.

In other words, our definition of “studying the Bible” has been moving back and forth between the text and explanatory resources.  This approach to Bible “study” isn’t effective.  The units it engages typically aren’t the structurally and thematically meaningful ones within a book.  Even when they are, we don’t appreciate the meaning they receive from their place within the book as a whole.  This kind of studying can easily devolve into a running commentary on interesting or puzzling features of an ill-defined stretch of text.  It depends on people having an implicit trust in the knowledge and trustworthiness of group leaders and the authors of notes and guides.

We really need to adopt a new definition of what it means to “study the Bible”:  considering the natural parts of a biblical book to recognize how they work within the book as a whole.  This means that studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading.

It also means that the best “study Bible” is one like The Books of the Bible that first makes a great “reading Bible.”