What sort of Bible reference materials do you have in your home?
As with many rabbis and pastors, I am a shameless collector of books on Biblical studies and theology. Many of the books in my library are more for the specialist, though a non-specialist could certainly enjoy some of them. They involve detailed studies of detailed topics. There is not a widespread need for Bible students to have a book on the history of methods for studying the Hebrew Bible or a book on literary approaches to interpretation.
But sometimes a new reference book becomes available that I think could benefit any library.
Jewish and Christian Ideas About Reading
I take it as a general truth that in both Judaism and Christianity, too few people read and study Biblical texts. Part of the reason this is true is that many people find these texts, though they’d be pained to admit it, either boring and pedestrian or obscure and difficult. Another reason might be that too few religious communities really encourage Bible reading. Let the professional do it. The people shouldn’t think too hard.
I appreciate in the Jewish tradition the idea of Torah lishma, “Torah for its own sake,” or “Torah for the sake of the Name.” The simplest definition of this concept is, “Read the Torah because it is God’s will.” In this tradition you read as a discipline or habit. You do not read to gain status as a scholar or looking to get something for yourself. You read out of faithfulness and in this way you actually get more for yourself, a lifetime of learning. And the whole thing is not motivated by a desire to find nuggets of inspiration in every reading. You will read whether you find those or not.
I appreciate in the Christian tradition something similar, lecto divina, which is very similar to Torah lishma. Lecto divina, or Divine reading, is about reading the text slowly, prayerfully, and meditating on God’s presence in our interaction with the words. You might call it reading with faith and prayer.
I believe that reading and studying God’s Torah (instruction, it can mean all of the Biblical literature) is the missing ingredient in most contemporary religion. This might see an inadequate diagnosis. You might say, “But love and living the ways of God is more important.” However, in my experience, it is reading and study that ultimately leads most people, not all, to living and doing. (I could write a blog about the tragedy of those who read and study for the wrong reasons and therefore do not produce deeds from their study).
The Kinds of Tools Every Reader Can Use
If you read the Bible much, you will find you need some tools and references.
There are some who disdain references and commentaries. They accept unquestioningly the dubious notion that the meaning of the Bible is plain and self-evident. There are some doctrines in some corners of Christianity that seem to be saying this (the perspicuity of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the illumination of the Holy Spirit, etc.), but closer examination of these Christian ideas will reveal that they do not mean what many think they mean (note that the Reformers of Protestantism were scholars who used more reference materials than most modern pastors).
The first tool every reader needs is a search tool. You are going to want to find things you have read before. Where is that thing about the mustard seed or about Jacob wrestling an angel (or God)? For this, you will want a computer Bible program. And there are many available. You can also do searched online on various online Bibles. You can search phrases and not just words.
The second tool every reader needs is some way to compare translations. Again, a computer Bible is the best and easiest way to do this. Jewish translations such as the JPS (or New JPS or NJPS) and Christian translations such as (in the order of my preference): RSV, ESV, NET, NRSV, and NIV should be consulted regularly.
The third tool, often overlooked, is reference material about people, places, and background. A good Bible dictionary (not Smith’s or Easton’s or one of the free ones on computer Bibles). For most people I could recommend the New Bible Dictionary or the New International Bible Dictionary. I now have something new to recommend in this category, which I will describe below, which will complement and take a reader light years beyond what is in a Bible dictionary.
The fourth tool is a good commentary on a given book of the Bible. This is a subject deserving its own series of blog posts. Commentaries are hit and miss. Many are not worth the paper used to print them on. And most Bible readers only buy the kind that are next to useless. There are several types of commentaries I find useful, including rabbinic commentaries and academic commentaries. I need to blog about commentaries in the future.
A New Reference Work of Immensely Useful Proportions
Okay, disclosure time. Zondervan sent me the set I am about to discuss for free. It arrived in Friday’s mail and is hot off the press. I am a bit peaved that Scot McKnight got his copy earlier than me (blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed). But I was thrilled when the rather heavy box came with all five colorful volumes of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, edited by a former professor of mine, John Walton of Wheaton University.
But although I got this set for free, let me say at $157.47 on amazon.com, this set is a bargain. Every page is full color. There are no pages of just text. Every page has sidebars, charts, and most importantly images of artifacts and places relevant to the Biblical text. And this is a five-volume set with each volume running in excess of 500 color pages.
Apparently the New Testament set came out in 2002, though somehow I did not know about it ($100.79 on amazon). But the set on the Hebrew Bible was just released.
The ZIBBC puts at your fingertips, for any passage of the Bible, information about dates, things going on in the nations around Israel, photos of artifacts, maps, charts, and explanations about the customs and history behind the Biblical story.
For example, I am looking at the pages related to this week’s Torah reading (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). The Biblical story is about the birth of Esau and Jacob, the selling of the birthright, the confirmation of the covenant with Isaac, troubles with Abimelech, Esau’s unfortunate marriages, the stolen blessing, Jacob fleeing to Haran, and Esau’s poignant attempt too late to ingratiate himself to his father.
At quick glance, I see in the ZIBBC a photo of a standing stone (a la Genesis 28), a map showing the route of Jacob to Haran, a picture of Nuzi tablets illustrating customs such as inheritance rights, and a picture of a ziggurat illustrating the context of Jacob’s ladder vision.
A quick skimming of the text shows me the ZIBBC on this passage discusses:
–What it meant in ancient Mesopotamia to inquire of a deity.
–Ancient beliefs about names and their significance.
–An explanation of primogeniture and birthright issues.
–An explanation about Abimelech as a Philistine king before Philistines existed.
–The meaning of patriarchal blessings in nomadic clans.
–Information about Jacob’s ladder vision in the terms and ideas of his time.
The ZIBBC gives the reader the kind of information that is usually not found in commentaries, or which is mentioned with too little information to give a sense of the history and background behind the Biblical story.
The kind of information this puts in the hands of Bible readers is bound to mature understanding. The primary obstacle in understanding the Bible is the distance in time and customs between them and us. The ZIBBC gives you quick, easy to read, illustrated information.
I will be blogging often about the ZIBBC, sharing with readers highlights and information from each of the Biblical books.