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Reading the Bible

 

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Introduction | Basic Old Testament History | The Psalms | Reading the Psalms | Advanced Reading | Practical Commentary

 

MANY Catholics have never made a thorough study of the Bible. If you were to decide to read it carefully, however, you could make the mistake of trying to read it straight through, right from the beginning. You might start eagerly at Genesis, but then, once you get to all the abstract legalism in Leviticus, you will get bogged down and give up, saying it doesn’t make any sense.

Therefore, if you’re a real beginner, you might just begin by reading the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament; it’s the earliest and shortest Gospel, or story of Christ (gospel comes from the Middle English word godspell and means “good news”). Mark’s Gospel should give you a basic sense of what Jesus was all about.

Still, anyone, beginner or not, needs to understand Jewish history, or Jesus Himself can’t be understood. After all, when Jesus talked about Scripture, He was referring to what we now call the Old Testament.

 
Basic Old Testament History

The book of Genesis tells the story of creation, the story of the Fall of Man (“Original Sin”), and the story of the great flood (and Noah’s ark). Then it introduces Abraham, the spiritual grandfather of salvation history. The end of Genesis tells the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob (of the famous ladder to heaven), son of Abraham, who is sold by his brothers into slavery.

The book of Exodus tells the story of how the ancient Hebrews, Joseph’s descendants who had been enslaved in Egypt, were led by Moses out of Egypt into their own land. Here you will find the story of the first Passover (which you need to understand in order to make sense of Christ’s Last Meal, itself a Passover meal). The whole story of the journey through the desert, aside from its historical meaning, is a spiritual metaphor for our own call out of our “slavery to sin,” and our hard journey through the “desert” of our penance and temptations and on toward the “promised land” as we still confront tests of obedience and faith.

The book of Leviticus continues the story of the journey into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. When Leviticus gets legalistic, you can stop reading.

Then turn to reading the story about David son of Jesse (see 1 Samuel 16:1ff through the end of 2 Samuel), You don’t have to pay attention to all the names and battles; just get the basic idea of who David was, because prophesy about his lasting dynasty (the “root of Jesse”) was fulfilled in Christ. You can continue a bit into 1 Kings for the story of Solomon, David’s son, who, despite his great wisdom, fell into impiety.

David and Solomon represented the height of the kingdom, but after them everything started falling apart. People forgot the Law and turned away from God and went off after the customs of the pagan culture around them—much like today; in fact, such is human nature.

Anyway, through all the kingdoms following Solomon all the great prophets kept saying one thing: turn back to God or else. Of course, most everyone ignored the prophets, so the “or else”—the exile—eventually happened.

The two kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell apart. The people were conquered first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians and sent away into captivity. After the fall of Babylon, they came back from captivity and tried as best as possible to re-establish the true religion and rebuild the temple. Then they got conquered by the Greeks under Alexander the Great (the two books of Maccabees tell of the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus against the Greeks). Then, after the Greeks, came the oppression by the Romans.

And that brings us to Jesus Christ. (Jesus lived in the time of Tiberius Caesar, the son of Augustus Caesar; Augustus was the first Roman emperor after the Triumvirate that overthrew Julius Caesar.) Christ gave the gospel message to the Jews, and then, when many of them rejected it, it passed to the gentiles.

So there you have it: a common-sense synopsis of ancient Jewish history.

 
The Psalms

King David himself wrote some of the Psalms (poems meant to be sung) in which he praised God and gave thanks for his victories over his enemies. Other Psalms were written at various times through Jewish history after David, in which the Psalmist speaks from his heart as a man of faith living in exile. The exile is at times spiritual (that is, in the midst of his own people who have fallen into impiety and sacrilege) and at other times literal (that is, in Babylon itself).

As you read the Psalms (and you will read them daily if you keep the Liturgy of the Hours) you will encounter allusions to such things as Meriba and Massah (Psalm 95; see Exodus 17:7), the Jordan turning back on its course (Psalm 114; see Exodus 14:21 ff), and “a priest like Melchizedek of old” (Psalm 110; see Genesis 14:18-20). Therefore, unless you understand the basics of Jewish history you will miss the meaning of such evocative images.

 
Reading the Psalms

Considering all that I have said above, to read the Psalms productively you should read them on three levels:

1.

The historical, human level understands the Psalm as an expression of human joy and suffering in response to its contemporary Biblical world. If you understand Jewish history, you can place the Psalm in its proper context.

2.

The Christian level shows us how Christ took on Himself—and fulfilled—all the human sentiments expressed through Jewish history in the Psalms.

3.

The personal level allows you to experience in your own current life the same sentiments expressed by the Psalmist and fulfilled in Christ. Thus, as you struggle to cope with your own personal trials, the Psalms can be a source of both comfort and inspiration.

 
Advanced Reading

Once you have a basic understanding of the Bible, then you can begin the continuous task of Biblical study. As you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, you will encounter many Biblical references you don’t recognize, so, if you are praying in private recitation, just take a short “time out” from the formal prayer (per General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 203) and look up those references in the Bible. A good Catholic Bible will have an introductory section to each book, so you can set the text in its proper historical context. Meditate on it a bit, and then return to the formal prayer. When you have more time, you can go back to the Bible and read more of the passage in question, and you can explore cross-references through the footnotes. If you do this on a regular basis, through repetition alone you will become very familiar with many Biblical texts.

 
Practical Commentary

A Practical Commentary on Holy ScriptureA Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture, by Bishop Frederick Justus Knecht, D.D., has been reprinted from the Fourth English Edition of a work first published in German in 1893.

This is a truly excellent book combining narrative, explanation, and commentary. It leads the reader through the entire Bible, from the beginning to the end, without the risk of getting lost or bogged down. And it provides brilliant explications of pure Catholic theology along the entire journey. Although the APPLICATIONS sections were originally written for older children, the book is suitable for anyone in today’s world, especially considering that back in 1893 older children had more common sense than most adults in today’s world.
 
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