A recent survey suggested that 90 percent of Americans own Bible, but only 20 percent read and study the bible on a regular basis. This suggests to me a discomfort. We think only pastors and rabbis should study the bible.
But the Bible is not just for clergy. It is for everyone. To study the bible is to enrich our lives. Doing so connects us with our past, present and future. “Knowledge,” Rabbi Arnold Wolf once said, “isn’t everything. It is, profoundly, the only thing.”
If we want to study the bible and gain knowledge from it, we can find the time. How do make that time more meaningful and exciting?
1. Use commentary: In Jewish tradition, we never study only the biblical text itself. We study with the interpretations of the great teachers of Jewish history. Some might say this prejudices our point of view. Shouldn’t we encounter the text with fresh eyes?
I would argue that we benefit from the wisdom and insights of generations past. We can and will arrive at our own interpretations and conclusions. Yet, rather than prejudice us, the insights of great teachers will spark our own ideas and lead us to a deeper encounter with the text.
2. Study the Bible with a partner: Good partners will not only hold us accountable for taking the time to study. They will engage us in conversation and debate. They will notice things we did not. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “Two is better than one.”
3. Set a fixed time for study: What gets scheduled is more likely to get done. If we find a consistent time for study, we can fall into a regular pattern. In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath has always been a time for study of the weekly biblical reading, and I lead a regular Saturday morning study group. My new book emerged out of this kind of group study.
4. Use a good translation: Every translation is an interpretation. When we study the Old Testament in Hebrew or the New Testament in Greek, we can better appreciate the poetry and literary beauty of the text. Yet, unless we went to Divinity school, we probably do not read or write in either language. Thus, a good translation is critical.
Aim for one that seeks to preserve the cadence and character of the original. One of the best Hebrew Bible translations was done by Everett Fox, who sought to preserve much of the wordplay and poetry of the original.
5. Say a prayer before you begin: Studying the Bible is not like studying Shakespeare. It begins and ends with faith. It is part of our search for truth and wisdom. Rather than just sit down and begin reading, I prefer to say a prayer to put myself in the proper state of mind.
In Jewish tradition, the prayer reads, “Blessed Are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who Commands Us To Immerse Ourselves in Learning. Amen.”
6. Listen to the text: In the original Hebrew, the Bible reads with a rhythm. To study the Bible in ancient times meant to memorize its words because parchment was expensive. Often the rhythm of the text conveys a message.
The Song of the Sea, for example, which tells the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea as Pharaoh and his troops drown, feels like a military hymn. Listening for the rhymn yields insight about the message.
7. Slow down and savor the words: I teach a weekly Bible study, and so often we find ourselves rushing through to finish the weekly section of the text. I understand the desire to read as much as we can.
But to study the bible takes time. Each word has rich meaning. Each word brims, as Rabbi Akiva said, with potential sparks of insight. But sometimes we have to pause so we have the opportunity to grasp them. The effort is always worth it.
How Do You Study?