So. I'm part of a women's Bible study that meets weekly at church, and last week, we took some time to share some of our favorite devotionals and books with one another. The whole session got me to thinking about what books I would recommend to someone who wants to study the Bible a bit more seriously than the average church-goer.
I grew up in church, and though I'm incredibly grateful for that background, for the most part, I was biblically illiterate by the time I got to college. Don't get me wrong. I knew the stories, and I even knew tons of verses by heart, but I didn't know a thing about Israel's history or how it played into the Bible's overall message. I didn't know anything about the exile, or the divided kingdom, or even the patriarchs for that matter. I knew the Roman Road, but I couldn't see the Big Picture of the Bible. I had never even heard the word covenant. I was clueless.
It was sitting in an Old Testament class at Mississippi State that Israel's story was first broken down for me. And it was in the New Testament class the next semester that I formed a picture of what the early church may have looked like. Those classes ignited within me a passion and hunger for reading, understanding, and teaching the Word of God to believers who may be a little on the clueless side (just like I was).
Studying the Bible can be intimidating, to say the least. First of all, you have to figure out where to start, and once you get started, there's the problem of deciphering what in the world the text is saying. I promise that you don't have to go to seminary to understand what the Bible says—there are tons of books to help you with that. A good study Bible is always a helpful tool to help you understand what's going on, but if you want to go a little deeper, then you're in luck. Here are five books to help you get started.
1. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fee & Stuart). I really can't recommend this book enough. It covers everything from the differences between translations to the various genres of literary forms used throughout the Bible. You wouldn't interpret the poetry of the Psalms in the same way that you would one of Paul's letters. This book teaches you the difference between the two and how to rightly handle each one. I highly, highly recommend this book.
2. A Survey of the Old Testament (Hill & Walton). We used this book in my Old Testament Survey classes at Beeson. It's not a book that you would read cover to cover, but it's a great reference tool. Let's say you're following a Bible reading plan that has you reading Ezekiel this month. That's a tough nut to crack, to say the least. So, you pull this book off the shelf and read the chapter on Ezekiel to give some context to your reading. It will give you a general idea of when the book was written and what was going on in Israel at that point in time. It will also give you an outline and introduce major themes that you'll find in the book. It's a super handy tool to keep on your shelf.
3. Old Testament Theology (House). Y'all. This book is a treasure. And I'm not just saying that because the author, Dr. Paul House, was one of my favorite professors in seminary. I'm saying it because it's the truth. If you want to learn more about the character of God as it is revealed in the Old Testament, this book is for you. In each chapter, Dr. House demonstrates how we can see a different aspect of God's character in the separate books of the the Old Testament. In Ezekiel, he is the God Who Is Present. In Isaiah, he is the God Who Saves. In Ecclesiastes, he is the God Who Defines Meaningful Living. You get the picture. Seriously. So good.
4. Encountering the New Testament (Elwell & Yarbrough). This is a great introductory text on the New Testament. We didn't use it in my seminary classes, but my New Testament professor referred to it often, and I purchased the book after I finished her class to keep for reference. This one is similar to the Hill & Walton book above, except it covers the New Testament. You'll learn about the authors of each book and when exactly it was written, as well as the major themes of each book and a basic outline. If you're studying 1 Corinthians, you can turn to the corresponding chapter and learn what the city of Corinth was like at the time Paul wrote the letter. And, bonus, this one is full of pretty pictures and maps. Great reference book to add to your collection.
5. Theology of the New Testament (Thielman). This one was written by another one of my favorite professors, Dr. Frank Thielman, and it's priceless. He does a fantastic job of looking at the historical situation of each book and then interpreting the theology of each one accordingly. It's a great theological introduction to the various books of the New Testament, as it highlights the major concerns of each book and helps you understand why it matters. It's a keeper, for sure.
Now that you have the lowdown on the books, there are a couple of things I want you to keep in mind. These books use big words sometimes. Words that aren't used very often outside of theological education. If it makes you feel any better, I spent my first semester of seminary looking up all sorts of words I didn't understand. So even though a dictionary isn't officially part of this list, I'd say you should keep one at hand to look up words like hermeneutics and exegesis and eschatology. Don't let the big words scare you off. You can do this. I promise.
Aside from the big words, some of these books also have big price tags. I wouldn't want to go out and buy them all at one time. Feel free to build your library slowly. If you're working your way through the Old Testament, just spring for the Old Testament books. But at the very least, please buy How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It's a game changer. I promise.
Until next time, grace and peace.