This is yet another revision of my “abridged Bible reading challenge,” the previous iteration of which you can read here. This time, I’m writing for inclusion in the book, hence references to “this chapter” and so on.
In this chapter, I’m going to be talking a lot about the Bible. But when I talk about the contents of the Bible, you don’t have to take my word for it. I encourage you to read it for yourself, because I’m confident that doing so will only make you more convinced that everything I say about the Bible is true. As Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) once said of the Bible, “Properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
The Bible does have one weakness as a force for atheism, though: it’s very long and in many parts very boring. I’ve forced myself to read the entire Bible, even the boring parts (three times–*shudder*), but there’s no reason for most people to do this. Whatever benefits might come from reading the Bible, they’re not going to come from reading through all the “begats.”
So what I’ve done is create an abridged Bible-reading challenge, a list of which chapters of which books to read if you want to get most of the benefit of reading the Bible with none of the boring. The list I’ve come up with is, itself, fairly boring, and ended up mostly just matching what parts of the Bible are well-known (I suspect it’s much harder for boring material to become well-known). It’s designed to be doable in less than six months if you read three chapters per day (and don’t spend too much time on the Psalms, which I recommend just skimming).
This isn’t just a challenge to fundamentalists (or “evangelicals”) who believe the Bible is totally without error, whether moral or factual. It’s also a challenge to liberal believers and fence-sitters with vaguely positive notions about the Bible. In fact, they may find such an exercise especially valuable–it’s easy to point a fundamentalist to a few egregiously flawed passages in scripture, but it takes a lot more work to convince someone who recognizes the Bible has some flaws that those flaws are not isolated.
A few other notes are in order for would-be challenge takers. First, I should mention that reading the Bible carefully is one of the most depressing things I have ever done. It contains many, many descriptions of horrific violence, including sexual violence and violence against children. That is something to consider before attempting this challenge.
The chronology of the stories in the Old Testament may get confusing after Deuteronomy, partly because the books are not always in chronological order and partly because of what I’ve omitted from the challenge. So here’s a sketch of the chronology: after Moses’ death, the Israelites invade the land of Canaan, which would later become known as the land of Israel. After the Israelites have settled down, they are governed for a period of time by rulers known as “judges,” of whom Sampson is the most famous example. It’s during this period that the story of Ruth is supposed to have taken place.
Then the Israelites decide they need a king. Their first king is Saul, but Saul disobeys God and is replaced by David, who is then followed by his son Solomon. David and Solomon were great kings, but still disobey God and so God punishes Israel by dividing it into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Then Israel and Judah both go through a long series of kings, some of whom please God and are rewarded, but most of whom don’t and are punished. It’s during this period that many important prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jonah, are supposed to have operated.
Eventually both kingdoms are destroyed and the people of Judah are deported to Babylon. This period, known as the “Babylonian captivity,” is when Ezekiel and Daniel are supposed to have operated. The story of Esther is after the Babyonian captivity, when the Persian empire was ascendant. It’s unclear when the story of Job is supposed to have taken place, or where Job’s homeland (“Uz”) is supposed to have been located.
While I have tried to keep boring material out of this challenge, I’ve sometimes let boring stuff slip in rather than make the instructions overly complicated. Feel free to just skim any genealogies you encounter. I’ve also noted the building of Solomon’s temple as something you should just skim.
If you find anything else to be extremely boring, it’s probably better to skim than to let yourself get slowed down by it, but don’t skim too much. The entire point of this challenge is to get you to read parts of the Bible you’re unlikely to read otherwise, and that’s likely to mean reading quite a bit of stuff you don’t find all that religiously edifying.
Believe it or not, I made no special effort to include the Bible’s most horrifying material. The truth is that the Bible is so full of horrifying material that it would be hard not to include a fair amount of it in any well-rounded reading guide. But if you want to read some of the worst the Bible has to offer, you might read Numbers 5, Judges 19-21, and Psalm 137. Consider it extra credit.
- Genesis; Exodus 1-24 and 31-35; Leviticus 19-27; Numbers 11-31; and Deuteronomy: The first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah. They have a lot of important material, but also some very boring parts that I’ve indicated how to avoid.
- Joshua 1-7: The famous story of the fall of Jericho. The rest of the account of Joshua’s conquests is kind of boring and repetitious. Violent, too, but not that shocking if you’ve read the genocidal commands in the Torah.
- Judges 13-16: The story of Samson.
- 1 Samuel 15-31 and 2 Samuel 1:1-19:8: The story of David, the most famous of the Biblical kings. I’ve omitted some less interesting stuff that happens after the death of Absalom.
- 1 Kings 1-11: The story of Solomon, David’s son. Just skim the stuff about building the temple.
- 1 Kings 16:29-22:53: The story of Ahab, husband of Jezebel and (allegedly) the wickedest of Israel’s (allegedly) very wicked kings. Also covers most of the story of Elijah.
- Job 1-2 and 38-42: Most of Job consists of a series of long speeches in which Job argues with his friends. I recommend reading just the initial narrative and God’s speech at the end.
- Read/skim Psalms until you get bored. It’s got some interesting material, but there are a 150 of them and aside from a few that are especially popular among believers (like the 23rd Psalm), nothing in particular stands out.
- Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon
- Isaiah 1-23; Jeremiah 1-25; and Ezekiel 1-24. Books that are well-known, and with good reason, but which all get boring after awhile.
- Daniel 1-8: Daniel’s story is famous, and the prophecies in Daniel bear interesting similarities to the book of Revelation, but later chapters can be skipped unless you really want to get into debating Biblical prophecy.
- Matthew, Luke, and John: Three of the four gospels. Both Matthew and Luke copied extensively from Mark, so reading Mark would mainly mean re-reading things you’ll also be reading in Matthew and Luke.
- Romans and 1 Corinthians: Two of the most important Pauline epistles.