Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.

9 min. to read.

February is a month of frustration across Church world. Why? Because that’s about the time when all the people who made a New year’s resolution to read through the Bible from cover to cover get bogged down in the swamp of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Ever had that experience?

You started with such good intentions. You wanted to know your Bible better. You wanted to be intentional about your spiritual journey. You hoped to hear from God. But then you got lost amid the measurements for the tabernacle, how to present your grain offerings (do you even have grain?) and the geographical survey of which tribe’s land started at the edge of which river.

The good intentions run thin. Stuck in the mire, people in this situation often set the project aside. (Or maybe worse, grit their teeth and power through it, getting the job done, but taking nothing of meaning from it.)

That kind of experience creates the belief that the Bible is too hard to read and confusing.

That’s a reasonable perspective. Why? Well, honestly, because the Bible isn’t like any other book. I don’t mean different because it’s inspired. It’s different in a much more practical way. The Bible isn’t actually a book.

I know. That may sound strange, but it’s the truth. That leather-bound volume on your dresser printed on gold-edged onion skin paper, it’s not a book at all. So what is it?

Not just a book. A bunch of books!

It’s a library.

The Bible that you’re holding is a collection. There are 66 books in most of our Bibles.[note Some editions are just the New Testament, or just the Psalms and the Gospel of John. Some include a set of books written between the time of the Old and New Testaments, called the Deuterocanonical books and the Apocrypha. Not all Christian groups recognize these books as scriptural.] Trying to read it from cover to cover is sort of like walking into your public library and, because you don’t know where to start, deciding to start at the A’s and read until you reach the Z’s.

You’d never do that, right? It you were a voracious reader it might work in certain sections—like fiction, or history. But the Library has all kinds of books. It has magazines. It has encyclopedias and dictionaries, poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

If you didn’t know this, and you tried to read the Library from A to Z, you’d be lost, confused, bored, and overwhelmed. That’s exactly what happens for most people when they try reading the Bible from cover to cover.

They have no idea they are actually reading different books, written by different people from different cultures and times. They don’t know that the books have different genres, written in different styles with different purposes.

  • There are history books that tell about the experiences of the nation of Israel. There are sections that are editorial history, where events in the past are recounted to make a certain point.
  • There are prophetic books, which are collections of sermons delivered to specific people in their circumstances, bringing God’s truth to those people in their situation.
  • There are collections of civil and religious law for the ancient nation of Israel.
  • There are books of wisdom like Proverbs, where poems and sayings are collected to convey practical guidance for living. The Psalms is a book of songs and poetry, written for gathered worship.
  • Some of the books are letters. Some were written to an individual; others were written to a particular group, addressing their unique issues.
  • The Gospels seem like biographies, but they aren’t strict modern-day biographies, concerned with just the facts. They were written to teach something.
  • There are even a couple books that are a kind of literature called Apocalyptic. This is an ancient, symbolic literature meant to convey hidden sacred knowledge about what God is up to, often in the face of persecution.

Some books even have a variety of kinds of literature within them! There are factual historical accounts of events that happened. There are also ancient stylized stories that originated as oral tales, more concerned with big-picture truth than specific details. There are parables, a nice religious word that really means a fictional story meant to communicate spiritual truth. There are prayers and hymns. There are personal notes. There’s at least one grocery list.

Quote - Bible Library

You read different kinds of books differently.

Think about going into the public library again. Think of all the different sections. If you go into the fiction section and try to read those books like they are encyclopedias, you’re going to get confused. You’ll probably end up with inaccurate information.

If you pick up an almanac and try to read it like a novel, you’ll struggle to find the plot. But this isn’t news. You already know intuitively that you have to read each of those kinds of books differently.

The Bible is exactly like this.

To get the intended meaning, you have to come to that part of the Bible, reading it for what it is. You have to see that there are different kinds of writing in the Bible and that each requires a different type of listening and reading.

Here are four ways you can respond to this information.

1. Start by Being Aware.

The starting point is to simply be aware of this fact. When you read the Bible, don’t expect it to all read the same. Expect to bring different reading skills to different parts of the Bible. Without doing anything else, this awareness will help you let go of any guilt or baggage you might have around not loving every, single part of Bible.

That’s OK. You’re not supposed to love a list of instructions for constructing a building, or a geographical survey of the land. You’re not a bad person for noticing that different parts of the Bible impact you differently. This awareness will help you begin to read the Bible more carefully.

2. Notice the Genre.

When you read, try to notice the genre. Genre is the technical term for all these different kinds of writings. A genre is a certain form of literature with its own assumptions, conventions, and style. Think about writing letters. A personal letter has different style markers from a job application cover letter. Those are two different genres of letters.

Even if you don’t know much about the genres in the Bible, you can tell some basics. Is this text in a letter? (If so, who wrote it, and who was the audience?) Is this text in a book of poetry?
Very often, your edition of the Bible will have an introduction page before each book that will give you some background information. If they don’t tell you the genre outright, you can often find clues here.

You can discern clues in the text itself. When you read a verse, look at the verses around it. Is someone telling a story? Are they reciting history? Does it seem to be a sermon or a poem? Just noticing these things will begin to shift how you read the Bible.

3. Learn a bit more about the Library.

You don’t need to become a Biblical scholar in order to read these different genres. Just knowing that they exist puts you miles ahead. But you will often find that learning about the genres in the Bible will help you connect more deeply with parts of the Bible, and will help you see meaning that you might not have noticed before.

If you’re ready to go a bit deeper, an excellent starting point is Gordon Fee’s excellent book Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth. It’s easy to read, and will introduce you to the different genres and how they read differently.

4. Relate to the Bible as a Library.

You’ll commonly hear someone in church say, “Well, the Bible says…” This statement is always misleading. This statement subtly implies that every part of the Bible is the same, speaking with exactly the same voice, and carrying the same weight.

This just isn’t true. The words of Jesus are not exactly the same in meaning and significance as the geographical survey in Deuteronomy. It’s more accurate to say things like, “In the book of Hebrews we find…” or “The Apostle John wrote…” or even “Jesus said…” when you are quoting the actual words of Jesus in the Gospels.

This doesn’t mean that God didn’t inspire scripture. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear themes and messages that come through the whole Bible. But it does requires us to shift our viewpoint.

God is big enough to have used different people in different times and cultures, writing in different genres, to communicate truth to us. Learning this isn’t an obstacle to faith. It doesn’t have to undermine our belief in the Bible as inspired.

In fact, it’s more in keeping with God’s character. God worked through broken people in a broken world, gracefully navigating through our human tools—like diverse literary genres—in order to reach us, change us, and draw us to Jesus. That’s a stunning act of mercy and grace.

This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.

  1. Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
  2. Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
  3. 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
  4. Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
  5. New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
  6. Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
  7. When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.

5 thoughts on “Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.

  1. I’m reading the Bible through this year and am still on track (total #pages divided by 365 = target #pages per day). Well aware of the “library” nature of the Bible, I did some guilt-free skimming in those tedious books you mentioned… but would back away a little to consider what general principles or ideas the Lord might be conveying through the lists and recipes and such.
    Thanks for the book recommendations!
    –Jan (heard you speak at Faith & Culture in April)

    1. Hey Janice, I love the idea of “guilt free skimming.” I great up in a church environment where the picture painted for us was about deeply studying and meditating on every verse. And man, did that create havoc for me in some places. I think what you’re doing is right on the mark. Remain open for God to speak through any part of scripture, but feel no guilt if it doesn’t happen.

      N.T. Write wrote a really useful piece on thinking about the Bible’s authority like a play. In a play, some of the information is just there to create the setting, to give a context. Not every thing is crucial dialogue.

      Glad to reconnect after FCWC! I hope what you heard was helpful.

      1. Thanks; the whole conference was helpful!
        If I could have edited my comment above after posting, I would have said “…conveying by including the lists…” Like those long lists of names (the ones that all sound alike, especially after the first 30 or so)? Their inclusion told me that God values each individual.

        1. The church that led the “Jesus movement” of the 60’s and 70’s grew from 45 people to about 1,500 (some very large) nondenominational churches. This is because it was led by the Holy Spirit. They agreed unanimously that the Bible was God’s literal word, and that the Bible was inerrant. And they agreed to teach the entire Bible from cover to cover, line by line and precept by precept. Why? Because the Old Testament in scriptures such as Jeremiah 26:2 said, (God speaking) when you stand in my courtyard to teach to the people, do not leave out one word. And in the New Testament, Acts 20:27 Teach the whole council of God. What about those “boring books” like Leviticus and Numbers? God wouldn’t give us a command to do something unimportant, or boring. He gave us teachers for that reason. Get a good commentary to help them come alive to you. Try Jon Courson’s Comprehensive Commentary (Amazon used books) or, don’t like so much reading? Listen to Chuck Smith daily on Christian radio, or J Vernon McGee, or Jon Courson, etc. They will impart just what God gave us in a way you will be excited with. May God richly bless you. Chaplain Bill Devin

          1. Hey Bill, there is no question that the Holy Spirit was in the Jesus Movement. I have many friends who were there, right in the middle of it. But the movement God worked there wasn’t predicated on an Inerrantist hermeneutic, or a commitment to read the whole Bible through from cover to cover. There were Jesus Movement communities that did nothing but preach the gospel of John! And I’m personally friends with the son of a former preacher who lived in Russia during the oppression of the Soviet Union. His church grew enormously even though it was illegal to meet, his was often jailed, and most of his church members didn’t even own Bibles. After the government seized his Bible, he only had a torn section of a Bible that included the last 3 books of the Old Testament and the book of Matthew. That was the only Bible he had for more than 5 years. And of course, you’ll remember, that the largest explosion in church history happened between 33CE and 50CE, and most of what we have today as the New Testament didn’t even exist yet! No. The Spirit doesn’t need the Bible to work.

            The Bible is important, no question. When an open heart reads scripture with an invitation for the Spirit to speak, amazing and life-changing things happen. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. And your counsel to get a quality commentary is good.

            For a great reflection on the Jesus Movement from someone who was embedded in the hart of it, and who led one of those churches that grew quite large, read this article by Brian Zahnd: https://brianzahnd.com/2020/10/the-jesus-movement-revisted/

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