To make a long story short, recently I dug my Keil-Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament out of its place in the deeply unused portions of my library.
Why did I do this? Well, Vine of David is publishing the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels in Hebrew and English. I have had a chance to read a lot of this translation in advance. I sort of rediscovered Franz Delitzsch, the Christian Hebraist who lived from 1813-1890 and taught at the University of Leipzig.
And my renewed interest in Franz Delitzsch only increased when I saw a blog post on John Hobbins’ Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog. Hobbins writes beautifully about the importance of Delitzsch’s work. See the post here: http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2007/05/keil_and_delitz.html
Now I had long ago written Keil and Delitzsch off as a quaint, old-fashioned, and not-very-useful set of commentaries.
In my early days of Bible education, having obtained a “Christian Book Distributors” (known in the trade as CBD) catalogue, I ordered Keil and Delitzsch on a sale. I tried to use them in those early days and understood very little (especially since they incorporate some Hebrew along with the English).
But now, with two decade of Hebrew Bible studies under my belt, as I read their commentaries, I find they are incredibly perceptive and balanced. I am a new-found fan of a commentary from the 1800’s!
My experience with the Keil and Delitzsch commentary is like a lot of people’s experience with the Bible as noobs. And many people never get past the noob stage because the learning curve is high.
It is possible to remain a noob for life with the Bible, because you can, as so many do, just read the inspirational and relatively easy verses and enjoy them. You don’t have to penetrate the ancient Israelite culture to enjoy isolated parts here and there, the verses that show up on posters in places of worship (often out of context). You can enjoy the stories told in church Sunday Schools and synagogue Hebrew Schools even into adulthood.
But if many people think the Bible is barely relevant to life, it may be precisely because they never moved beyond “Daniel and the Lions Den” to a more complete education in the Bible.
The problem for the beginner is that all the Bible’s ideas are interrelated, even dependent on one another. When you are new to concepts like transcendence versus immanence, purity and defilement, Temple and sacrifice, covenant and compassion, legislation versus the ideal, and so on, the Hebrew Bible is a difficult book. So is the New Testament, especially the gospels. Many Christians stick to the easy sections of Paul’s letters, some of the more straightforward verses of scrupture.
But like any other field, as you begin cracking the code, more and more it all becomes readable.
You might compare it to any hobby or interest when you pick up a magazine at the store. What is the job of a hobby magazine: to catch the beginner up or to keep the enthusiast going? I like table-top wargames. But if you pick up a trade magazine, and you are thinking of getting into the hobby, you can barely read the magazine. What is flanking all about? What is the difference between a cover save, an armor save, or an invulnerable save? And there are a lot of jargon terms and acronyms and shorthand abbreviations.
So, my own experience of learning the Bible proceeded in stages. The process requires patience.
You have to be willing to read and learn when you don’t yet understand. And you can’t quit. You have to live with unanswered questions. Over time, the learning is mutually reinforcing.
The greatest breakthroughs for me in learning the Bible were learning to find good commentaries (something well-meaning Christian teachers early on told me not to do–since the commentaries would bias my reading and I shouldn’t need them anyway since the-Bible-is-all-we-need) and the practice of reading the Chumash (the five books of Torah, Genesis – Deuteronomy) over and over each year with the cycle of Judaism.
And I would now add that reading the gospels and Acts along with the five books of Chumash, over and over again, each year, is also an essential practice.
After two years of reading, light began to shine through.
After four years of reading, I remembered concepts that occurred in different places and I began to see relationships and structures in the text.
After eight years of reading the Torah cycle, it makes a lot more sense.
I highly commend patience, consistency, and perseverance in Torah and Bible study. Keep reading. Read strategically. And find good commentary as you go.