An abridged Bible reading challenge (quasi-finalized)

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.

Old Testament:

  • 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.
  • Ruth
  • 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.
  • Esther
  • 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.
  • Jonah

New Testament:

  • 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.
  • Acts
  • Romans and 1 Corinthians: Two of the most important Pauline epistles.
  • Revelation
  • eric

    What, no Philemon? The whole book is less than a page and consists of Paul sending a letter to a christian slave-owner saying, in essence, I’m going to send your slave back to you but treat him nicely because he’s christian now.

    I only partially kid. Its not a very important part of the NT, but since it only runs a couple hundred words and has such an ironic moral lesson, it always struck me as a good example of NT quixoticness.

    • hf

      Now, now, from what I understand of Roman law, Paul was doing his best to help the slave (given that he supposedly wrote from jail). He knew his God wouldn’t lift a finger.

  • baal

    Just the summary reads like bad fan fiction. I’m seriously considering the challenge because I’ve tried to read the bible a few times and always give up due to the plain unreadability of the translations and scads of irrelevant crap that I can’t believe they bothered to preserve.

  • M

    Wow, Christians put the books in a funny order. Jews actually order the Tanakh (Old Testament) in chronological order- for the purpose of this Bible challenge, that’d be a useful thing. Plus the different translations could make for fun comparisons.

    Why DO Christians put the books “out of order”, so to speak?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Actually, it’s impossible to really put the books in chronological order, because they overlap. I’m not sure one is more chronological than the other. For example, Christians put Ruth right after Judges, which makes chronological sense, whereas Ruth is placed much later in the Jewish ordering.

      • Ray

        “For example, Christians put Ruth right after Judges, which makes chronological sense, whereas Ruth is placed much later in the Jewish ordering.”

        Depends which chronology you find more important, the purported time of the events or the most likely date the stories were composed. Generally speaking, the Jewish order is more chronological in the latter sense, although by no means perfect. (You can usually at least rely on books from the Ketuvim, like Ruth, being younger than books from the Neviim, like Judges and Samuel.)

        Indeed mainstream dating contends that Judges and Samuel are most likely Exilic and written by the same author, while Ruth is most likely Hellenistic.

  • Greg G

    I’m glad you included Ezekiel 23. That will reduce the boredom.

    Galatians 2 presents an argument between Paul and Peter. Paul only gives his side but reading between the lines, it looks like Peter won. Ironically, Paul has basically taken gospel Jesus’ side from Mark 7 yet Peter opposes the position.

  • A Hermit

    I was taught that the Bible can only be properly understood in the original German…

    • The Other Weirdo

      That’s not how you spell Klingon.

  • Chris Hallquist

    Note to self: include advice on picking a translation.

  • MNb

    “Note to self: include advice on picking a translation.”
    In Dutch: (catholic) (orthodox protestant)

    From my atheist point they don’t differ too much.
    Don’t skip Revelation indeed! It’s my favourite. Don’t buy the “oh, that one is so difficult” nonsense. It isn’t if you read it as a cheap early 20th Century fantasy novel written on LSD (anachronistic, but whatever). Just a random quote:

    “And I heard the angel of the waters say, Thou art righteous, O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be, because thou hast judged thus. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them blood to drink; for they are worthy.”
    The book is ridden with absurdisms like this – even Monty Python couldn’t surpass it.

    I once asked a young catholic theologian what kind of mushroom the author might have eaten. His counterquestion was if I could prove that the author actually had eaten mushrooms. That made clear that this religious scholar himself has problems to recognize and interpret metaphors.

  • MNb

    Ah, I read on a bit and I just have to give another brilliant quote:

    “And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.”
    No contemporary cheap failure of a horror movie could present anything funnier. Just picture it: a dragon opens its mouth and hop, three ugly frogs jump out. Instead of croaking we hear some unclean sounds (farting perhaps?).

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  • JohnH

    I can’t believe you have skipped Hosea.

  • Alice

    When you are reading Psalms, pay special attention to the revenge fantasies such as “O Lord, bash their babies’ heads against the rocks.”

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