Choosing a Bible to Pick up and Read

A friend of mine recently got a new Bible. But unlike most printings of God’s word, this Bible does not have any chapter or verse markings whatsoever. It has no footnotes, no cross-references, no headings, and nothing in the margins, and the text is arranged in one column that takes up the entire page. It is also printed in four volumes, each one about the size and thickness of a typical library book.

Picking up a Bible like that might seem pretty strange, until we stop and consider that the chapters, verses, headings, and other study and reference tools in our modern Bibles were indeed put there by man centuries or even millennia after the original works were complete.

As I flipped through one of the volumes of this Bible, I was struck by the way this arrangement of the text altered my perception of it. No longer did the Bible feel like an academic reference book to be squinted at, or digested in little doses. It felt like a powerful story to be read, perhaps even for hours at a time.

There is no doubt that the way any text is arranged, including the Biblical text, can affect the way we respond to it.

Translations are another factor in our experience of God’s word.

One translation might make it a priority to translate the same Greek word into the same English word as consistently as possible, and that might help us to recognize patterns and recurring themes in the text more easily, but in the process it will sacrifice some ability to account for the effect of the context of a word on its meaning.

Another translation might make literalness a top priority, allowing us to focus on the specific role of each word in a sentence, and the specific definition of each word as it relates to the overlying message. Of course, this approach may yield a text that is more difficult to read and comprehend quickly.

Another translation might seek to draw out the ideas in a text using more contemporary styles and expressions in order to make the text easier for our modern minds to understand quickly, but it may give up some of the specificity present in the original language.

Translations lie all across this entire spectrum, from works so literal they are barely readable, to works so liberal in translation technique that they would be more aptly referred to as a paraphrase or a commentary than a legitimate translation.

So how do we decide which text to open?

Here are some tips on selecting a Bible text to read from:

  • Do not choose just one text to use exclusively. We have access to so many different translations and arrangements. Why settle for just one approach when you can consult many?
  • Use a Bible that corresponds to your intended purpose.
    • If you are engaged in a topical study that requires you to jump around frequently and look up various references from commentaries, using a Bible without verse markings could be a nightmare.   On the other hand, if you just want to dive into the narrative without any distractions, the plain uninterrupted text could be perfect.
    • If you are concerned with what the specific grammar in a particular passage can teach us, be sure to use a “word for word” translation.  On the other hand, if you want to listen more passively for the ideas and the flow of a particular work, and idea-for-idea translation or even a paraphrase may be more appropriate.
  • Read the introduction written by the translators. You may have to read between the lines a bit, but this will tell you which principles were most important to the translators for this particular project.
  • Try something new! Getting a new Bible or looking at a translation you do not spend much time in can give you a fresh perspective and a renewed interest. You may notice something that you missed before.

An Ancient Story of Healing with a Powerful Message

The Bible tells us of an ancient army captain named Naaman. He was “a great man with his master, and highly respected,” and “a valiant warrior,” but he also suffered from the painful and debilitating disease of leprosy.

A little girl from Israel, who served as a maid, told Naaman’s wife about a prophet of God in Israel who could help him. So Naaman got permission from the king of his land, Aram, and went to the king of Israel with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes, hoping to use this wealth to buy healing for his disease.

Naaman did not even get to meet the prophet of God who could heal him, but the prophet, Elisha, did send word: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored to you and you will be clean.”

This is how he responded: “Naaman was furious and went away and said, ‘Behold, I thought, “He will surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.” Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”

Naaman almost missed out on the chance to be healed, but luckily his servants came to him and said “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”

Naaman almost missed out on God’s blessings because the means by which they were received seemed too commonplace to him to be taken seriously. Surely it was not by simply dipping in water that he would be healed! Surely it would be a big, meaningful, emotionally charged spectacle, instead!

Are we like Naaman today?

Do we take for granted the amazing opportunity to personally pray to God whenever and wherever we want, simply because it is so easy for us to do? Do we forget that for thousands of years, God’s throne could only be approached once a year, and even then, only by a High Priest? Do we forget that the veil in the old Jewish temple has finally been torn in two, so that now we can boldly come into God’s presence because of the blood of His Son?

Do we take for granted the amazing opportunity to open God’s word and read it whenever we want? Do we forget that these words came to Moses in a thick cloud of smoke and fire on top of a mountain, or to David the great king of Israel by the Inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Do we forget that for thousands of years, the Word of God could only be read by the scribes, while the people stood on their feet for hours at a time, desperate to hear what they could before the sun set and they had to go home? Do we forget that until very recently, scrolls were extremely expensive, and Bibles could not be taken out of the pulpit that they were chained to?

Do we take for granted to power that meets us in the waters of baptism? Do we realize that it is there that we come into contact with Jesus blood, which washes away our sins? That by such a simple and commonplace act as immersion in water, the kingdom of heaven is richly supplied to us?

Naaman failed to recognize the power of healing that was available to him because it came in such seemingly ordinary packaging. May we learn from his story. If the Lord had asked us to climb formidable mountains, practice mysterious rituals, or wear ourselves out in feats of impressive devotion, would we not do it? If therefore He tells us that He will meet us in common prayer, and common Bible study, and immersion in common water, let us go.