When reading the Bible do you see only trees and no forest? This Bible teacher explains how to step back and see Scripture’s single basic theme.
The Holy Bible – for some, the very words evoke feelings of warmth and wisdom, but for many Catholics today, the Bible’s chronology can be confusing and its meaning hard to grasp. How tragic this is in light of the fact that, as Pope Leo XIII said, the “Scripture is a letter written by our Heavenly Father to his children for the purpose of revealing Himself to them.”
Many who open the Holy Bible for their first serious attempt to read and study it expect to start at the beginning of Genesis and read on through to Revelation with the same ease and excitement as if they were reading Gone With The Wind or a Tom Clancy novel. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that the Bible doesn’t read like a popular novel. In fact, it isn’t even arranged as a sequential narrative. Rather, the books are generally grouped by literature types. Consequently, many become discouraged, losing their excitement about studying the Bible, and put this untapped treasure back on the coffee table with a sigh of, “What’s the use?”
God Reveals Himself To Man Gradually
To avoid this frustration, let’s first stand back and look at the “big picture.” What is the overarching message of the Bible? It’s the story of salvation history. Although it’s made up of many stories, the Bible is really a single story: It’s about God and His relationship with mankind, the most complex of His creation and the true object of His love and affection. This epic story of God’s love for mankind has all the elements of intrigue, passion, violence, romance, and redemption you’d expect to find in the most exciting secular novel: God loves mankind, mankind spurns that love, God pursues, mankind is fickle and vacillating and ultimately treacherous in its betrayal of His love, the Hero of the story dies a dramatic death, and then comes the surprise happy ending.
The whole plot of the Bible’s message is laid out in the first chapters of Genesis, and it builds to its dizzying conclusion in the Book of Revelation. Here’s the basic plot: God gradually reveals His plan to reestablish the broken relationship between Himself and His treasured creation. It is only in God’s revealed plan that mankind can once again find its intended purpose for being “because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC 27).
It is important for the modern Catholic to understand that, although the Bible is a mystery on one level, it is also a book of history. There should be no misunderstanding – it is true history as opposed to cleverly devised tales. Pope Paul VI said in Directorium Catechisticum Generale, “The history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world.” The Bible gives a wide range of examples of how through word and deed God has entered the life of His people.
God’s central strategy to redeem humanity was to start with one family first, then progressively influence more and more people to the point where all of mankind would have the opportunity to be a part of His family.
Dr. Scott Hahn often refers to this covenantal evolution in his lectures on salvation history. He explains how the Catholic Church is the culmination of salvation history and the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants with Israel. He develops this theme by pointing out that God established His first covenant, the marriage covenant, between Adam and Eve, one couple. The story progresses to Noah and his three sons totaling four marriages, making one holy family with Noah as the mediator of the household. In Genesis 9, God makes a covenant with Noah, but it extends beyond Noah, for God said that this covenant is “with you and with your descendants after you” (Gen. 9:9).
Next we find the number of people included in the covenant expanding to one holy tribe with Abraham acting as the tribal chieftain. God makes a three-part covenant with Abraham, promising him a land, a royal dynasty and worldwide blessing through his descendants. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Gen. 12:2-3).
Abraham’s grandson Jacob, whose name was later changed to “Israel,” had 12 sons. These 12 tribes of Israel spent 400 years in Egyptian bondage where the covenantal expansion plan silently progressed. It was in Egypt that God raised up Moses of the tribe of Levi to lead Israel out of bondage to become one holy nation. Genesis 24 describes the dramatic scene as the nation of Israel is gathered around Mt. Sinai after leaving Egyptthrough a miraculous deliverance. There at Mt. Sinai Moses spoke to the Israelites the words of the covenant he had received directly from God, and they agreed to enter into a national covenant with Yahweh.
God’s covenantal plan takes a major leap several hundred years later as God begins to draw other nations together under the leadership of King David. Through His covenant with David (2 Sam. 7:5-16), this new conglomerate blossoms into one holy kingdom where Israelmediates the divine revelation of God to other nations.
Finally, all of the Old Testament covenants find full expression in the New Covenant which was made between Jesus Christ and His Church. This New Covenant is the grandest of them all for it is a worldwide covenant where God rules and reigns as the head of His one holy Church.
The Bible as a Catholic History Book
One might ask how it is the ancient Hebrew Scriptures can be relevant to the life of the New Testament Christian Church (and Christians through the ages down to our own day). Though the divine history recorded in the Old Testament focuses primarily on the nation ofIsrael, the history and truth that the Hebrews passed on to their children would one day become the history of a people they knew not. Their history with all its triumphs and disgraces would one day become our history as 20th century Roman Catholics. So with the dawn of the New Covenant, Jesus integrated the nations into His universal kingdom, opening wide the gates to Yahweh’s covenantal family. Those who enter through that gate, Jesus, take on a new identity, including a new personal history. Suddenly, all that went before us in that small land of Canaan becomes intimate and important for us today.
Understanding The Big Picture
The difficulty facing Bible readers is how to make this personal yet ancient story of salvation history come alive. They must discover the critical plot and, through the guidance of the Church, understand its meaning in order to make it their own story.
The first step to understanding the Bible chronologically is to identify which of the 73 books are of historical nature. The term “historical” refers simply to those books that keep the story moving from one event to another. The historical books provide us with continuity, or give us an ordered account of connected events from Genesis to Revelation.
There are 12 historical books in the Old Testament and, for the sake of simplicity, two historical books in the New Testament. By contiguously reading through these 14 books, you’ll cover the entire Bible historically with a sense of continuity. The books placed above and below the 14 historical books indicate where the remaining 59 books fit chronologically. These books read within the context of the historical books. For example, the book of Psalms should be read in the context of 2 Samuel, and the prophet Malachi should be read in the context of Nehemiah.
By reading about four chapters a day (about 15-20 minutes worth or reading), you can go through all the historical books in about three months. The chart outlines the order in which to read the 14 historical books. After the reader has finished, he or she should go back through them again but this time incorporate a few of the non-historical books.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the perfect companion to read along with the Bible because sacred Scripture along with the sacred Tradition make up the full deposit of faith. When questions of faith or morality come up, the index of the Catechism is valuable for finding official Church doctrine.
Once we see the “big picture” of salvation history in Scripture, we can build upon this framework for the rest of our lives. This will result in a profound appreciation for Scripture and a deeper understanding of the Lord’s master plan for us that it contains.
This article by Jeff Cavins originally appeared in Envoy Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.