The Bible is surprisingly easy to make sense of. There’s no mystery to it, really. And since it’s one of the “100 Most Influential Books ever Written” (separated into two books, the first being the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures of the Jewish Torah, and the second being the New Testament, written in Greek), it’s not a bad idea to have some inkling of what it’s about.
I’ve read excerpts from Buddha’s teachings and from the Qur’an in my quest for both spirituality and knowledge – you know, just to have an informed view. I love to learn! I am not a theologian, and my only expertise in giving this rundown here is 18 years of personal study, plus whatever I’ve learned in sermons and classes. As such, I’m happy to receive corrections in the comment section if I’m in error.
I’ve only read the Bible straight through once, although I’m reading it again now in French. However, I don’t think that’s a prerequisite in order to understand it. I think you just need to have a framework in place, and then everything you read will knit itself onto the framework until the story starts to appear.
So shall we give it a go? Want a quick rundown? It’s pretty cool, actually.
Genesis contains most of the famous stories – Adam and Eve, and their kids Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, Abraham who almost sacrificed his son Isaac, Joseph (and the technicolor dream coat) – whose father was Israel. This is the story of God calling out one nation from the rest to show humanity what it was like to have a relationship with God.
Exodus is about Moses. The Israelites had moved to Egypt because of a famine, but over the centuries they went from being a privileged people to becoming slaves. This book is about their flight from Egypt and the ten plagues it took for Pharaoh to be willing to let them go.
The tradition of the Passover is also found in this book. The Israelites were instructed to put the blood of a lamb over their door frames so that the spirit of death would pass over their houses and take only the first-born sons from the houses that had no protective, sacrifical blood over their doors. This was the final straw for Pharaoh, and he allowed the Israelites to leave, although … he ended up changing his mind and getting swallowed up the Red Sea, which had parted for the Israelites but closed back over their pursuers.
An interesting tie-in to the New Testament is the fact that Jesus was killed on Passover.
Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are about the Ten Commandments, about wandering around the desert for 40 years before entering the promised land, about manna falling from heaven – stuff like that. Moses is most commonly accepted as the author of those first 5 books.
Next section – the books Joshua, Judges and Ruth are about the Israelites claiming the promised land, and how the walls of Jericho fell from their simply marching around it for six days, and blowing trumpets on the seventh. It’s about how the people begged God to appoint a ruler over them, once established in their new land, so they could be like the other nations. God gave them 14 judges, some of whom were good and some not. This is where you see Samson, whose strength was in his long hair, until he told Dalilah the secret of his strength and she cut it.
Ruth was not an Israelite, but this is where you get a glimpse of God’s plan to include other nations in his salvation, because both she and the prostitute Rahab (in the book of Joshua) were part of Jesus’ lineage. Ruth was also the grandmother of King David, the kid who killed Goliath with a sling.
1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles do contain some overlap – some of the stories are told with different angles and separate details for the same account. It’s about the prophet Samuel and the first king of Israel who was a dud (his name was Saul).
It’s about David, who killed Goliath and became king for many years. And then 1 Kings is about his son Solomon who was the wisest man who ever lived, and who wrote Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and likely, Ecclesiastes. Kings and Chronicles are about the other Israelite kings, most of whom were disasters and not at all obedient to God. As a result the Israelite people suffered a lot. They were taken captive by the Babylonians around 580 BC.
Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are about that period of exile where the Israelites were slaves to the Babylonians, and taken away from their homeland. There are also stories about their return from exile.
Job is stuck in the middle of the Bible, but it’s disputed to be the oldest book written (although some place it during the exile). It’s about a man who suffered a LOT. And his friends tried to tell them it was his fault for being a sinner. And God rebuked his friends, teaching that suffering is not always a direct result of sin.
The Psalms were written by lots of people, but many of them are by King David. They’re songs and hymns of praise and sorrow.
Proverbs was written by Solomon, and contains (often humorously) wise sayings. And then Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is about love and SEX – yes! There’s sex in the Bible!
Finally Ecclesiastes is about the meaningless of life and worldly pursuits. If Solomon really did write it, then it was later on in life when he had lost his naiveté and quest for righteousness, floundering as he did in concubines and debauchery.
Now we get to the major prophets – not major because they were more important, but because they had more to say: Isaiah, Jeremiah (Lamentations was also written by him) and Ezekiel. They’re warning the Israelites to give up idolatry and worship God.
And then the minor prophets, of whom there were 13. Most of these books were written by the prophets, themselves, although there are a few whose authorship is unknown. There was Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and Daniel, who was thrown in the lion’s den, and then ones you’ve probably never heard of like Habakkuk.
During this time, the Israelites were warned by the prophets time and again to stop turning to idolatry, but the end result was that they disobeyed and spent most of this time period in Babylon, with Jerusalem sacked and the walls torn down.
There were some small steps of hope, where people like Nehemiah were able to go back and rebuild the wall for his people, but mainly lots of pain.
After the last minor prophet, Malachi, there were about 400 years of silence. God did not reveal anything at all to his people through prophets or any other means. And that ends the Old Testament.
The New Testament opens with the four gospels, which recount Jesus’ life and death from four different perspectives – three eye-witnesses, and one (I believe to be) second hand.
Matthew, the first gospel, is written by a Jew (and one of Jesus’ disciples), so he quotes a lot of prophecy from the Old Testament that proves Jesus was the promised Messiah. It also has a genealogy that links Jesus to Abraham, the father of the Jews.
Mark was written by a Roman, and so he focuses more on the actions of Jesus – precise and to the point, only 16 chapters. Jesus was born in the time of the Greeks and Romans – the Greek’s power on the decline, and the Roman power increasing. But both cultures are prevalent in the New Testament Scriptures.
Luke was written by a Greek doctor, and he also wrote Acts. His focus is on what would interest Greeks (like … angels). It’s only in this gospel that you see the angels visiting Mary and the Shepherds – the famous nativity story.
John was written by Jesus’ disciple, and he focuses on the humanity and love of Jesus. It’s the gospel where you can read the lengthiest passages of Jesus talking.
Acts is about the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples after being resurrected, and then it’s about the early years of the church. It’s about the persecution, which scattered the Christians to different parts of the world. It speaks of Saul’s conversion (who was renamed Paul). He had been murdering the Christians until he was converted. It also includes the acceptance of non-Jews in God’s plan of salvation.
And then the rest, or nearly the rest, of the Bible is made up of letters (epistles) written predominantly by Paul to the churches scattered in various cities – Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Galatia, Thessalonica – you get the picture.
He exhorts them on how to live. He also writes letters to Timothy on how to lead a church. And there are a couple of books, thought to be written by Jesus’ brothers (who, along with their mom, thought he was crazy at first and went to take charge of him), but then who became disciples after the resurrection – James and Jude. And Peter wrote two books – you know, the disciple who denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed? I like that, even though he was fearful, he was not a lost cause.
It’s not known who wrote Hebrews, but it’s commonly accepted that Paul did, and it explains why Jesus’ sacrifice replaces the ritual animal sacrifice. And then there are the extra books that John, the disciple, wrote called 1 John, 2 John and 3 John. They appear right before Revelations, another book of his, which he wrote when he was like 80 years old.
Some say Revelations (or Apocalypse) is about Jesus’ coming back and about heaven, but there is also evidence of it being about an event that has already happened – the persecution of the Christians under Nero and the resulting siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
And that’s it. Once you have a framework, it’s super easy to find stuff. If you’re interested in reading it, perhaps you can start with 1 & 2 Samuel, which reads like a narrative. Or you can read John if you’re curious about the kind of stuff Jesus said.
Even if you have no interest in the Bible as a religious book, it’s really awesome as a historical one.