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Book of the year

It's based on the best-selling book of all time, but WORLD's 2009 winner takes Bible study to new levels

Book of the year

Among the excellent books of the past 12 months one stands out: Crossway's English Standard Version Study Bible. To the accuracy and readability of the ESV, it adds 20,000 notes based on top evangelical scholarship, 80,000 cross-references, 400 maps and charts, and much more, all under the supervision of two splendid theologians, Wayne Grudem and J.I. Packer.

Thus far this year, during morning Bible reading and study, the ESVSB guided me through the New Testament, Psalms, and the Old Testament up to 2 Kings. It's informative throughout and spectacular in parts. For example, if you're reading in chapter 2 of Luke about young Jesus staying in the temple, you turn the page-and behold, an illustrated spread shows the impressive structure. A story that might be trivialized comes alive.

Also included are articles in the back that unite the right subjects with the right experts: "Reading the Bible in Prayer and Communion with God" by John Piper, "Reading the Bible as Literature" by Leland Ryken, and so on. We learn more about finding Jesus in the Old Testament and speaking with Muslims about how they use and sometimes abuse the Bible. Last July WORLD chose Tim Keller's The Reason for God as its book of the year ("Anti-moralist Christianity," June 28, 2008); this year the ESV Study Bible convincingly shows the reasons for owning a good study Bible.

While we're not supposed to put God to the test, study Bibles are different-so I road-tested the ESVSB by seeing how it guides readers through one of the hardest of the Bible's 66 books, Leviticus. The third book of Moses is tough because no one today has firsthand experience with the rituals Leviticus commands-and some of us just possibly may not be up to speed on the distinctions among burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings. Happily, the ESVSB has a handy chart that shows how everyone was to eat of the peace offering but no one could eat the burnt offering, and so forth.

Similarly, the ESVSB leads us through three basic states-unclean, clean, and holy-and explains well that folks deemed ritually "clean" were not necessarily closer to holiness than their "unclean" counterparts. Like a good teacher it explains things we don't know in terms of things we do, and in this case offers an analogy based on voting registration: "A person who is 'registered' may vote, whereas a person who is 'unregistered' may not; a person who is 'registered' to vote is not necessarily more righteous than a person who is not."

But Leviticus, as writers of the notes for the book-John Currid of Reformed Theological Seminary, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi of Tokyo Christian University, and Jay Sklar of Covenant Theological Seminary-point out, is more than the sum of its verses: "Though on the surface Leviticus is a handbook of laws and regulations, it is actually much more than this. Composed as Israel was preparing to become a settled nation in a promised land, the book has affinities with utopian literature. Literary utopias both describe how people live in an ideal society and also offer an explanation of the institutions and practices that produce the society that is pictured. Leviticus outlines how people should live in God's ideal commonwealth."

Part of living in a holy land was showing compassion. Lots of ancient cultures killed people who were despised by the high priests or witch doctors, but in ancient Israel they were sequestered yet still allowed to live. Leviticus establishes rules for handling disease that protected the community but did not dehumanize individuals by labeling them as evil: "Modern readers should not confuse this kind of 'uncleanness' with 'under God's condemnation,' or even with 'excluded from the love of the community.'" The same understanding pertained to all of God's creatures: "Classifying an animal as 'unclean' is not the same as declaring that animal 'evil.'"

Christians understand that Christ's good-for-all-time sacrifice replaced the ceremonial law that so much of Leviticus describes. Some Christians, though, contend that the civil law of ancient Israel should still be in effect, so the distinction drawn by the ESVSB between Old Testament understandings and New Testament teaching is important: "The NT envisions a people of God that transcends national boundaries, and thus it dissolves the bond between the specifically theocratic system of government that was OT Israel. Therefore, current civil governments need not replicate the civil laws specific to the Mosaic theocracy."

The ESVSB clearly explains that laws about bodily discharges are not suggesting that sex within marriage is "evil; this is part of the original good creation (even though human nature is severely damaged by the fall of Adam)." But when things are unclear, the ESVSB is not Mr. Know-It-All. Why those particular laws in chapter 22 concerning the killing of oxen and sheep? "The rationale for these laws is uncertain."

Similarly, if an unclean carcass (like that of a mouse, a gecko, or a chameleon) touches a garment, a bowl, or just about anything else, that object is unclean-but if the carcass falls into a spring or a cistern, the water is still clean. Why? "It is uncertain. Perhaps it is because water in them is naturally flowing and is continuously refreshed and renewed. It may also be an exception because water is in such short supply in Palestine." Or maybe something else: The Bible is not a smooth piece of toast but an English muffin, full of nooks and crannies.

Such mysteries, though, don't excuse us from following ethical standards such as Leviticus 19:17: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him." An ESVSB note explains, "Scholars debate the relationship between reproof and incurring sin, but this probably has to do with a situation in which one who refuses to 'reason frankly with his neighbor,' helping him to see his sin, would share in the guilt of the neighbor's sin when it is committed."

And what's most important is the next verse: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." It's not only in the New Testament that "neighbor" has a broad definition; The notes that accompany Leviticus 19:33-34 explain, "Since the Israelites had been strangers in Egypt and knew what it was like, they ought to treat the strangers living among them just like themselves."

The only Leviticus lines quoted as often as "Love your neighbor as yourself" are those in chapter 24 suggesting "fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth." The ESVSB points out that this is not "mutilation as the punishment for the offender; rather, the value of the injured member will be the imposed fine. This law, when properly applied, guides the judges in assessing damages and sets a limit on the thirst for revenge. Since this is a rule for judges to follow, it should not be invoked in ordinary daily relationships."

The ESVSB thus passes my test-and I haven't even mentioned other articles by Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary, Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Timothy Tennent of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and many others that add to its usefulness. The Bible is the book for all years; this study Bible is a particular winner in the Year of Our Lord 2009.

The top 40

Here's a list (in alphabetical order by author) of 39 books that join with this year's winner to constitute a top 40, with publication dates from 2006 through 2008, that I've reviewed over the past two years.

Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (InterVarsity, 2008)

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006)

Alain Besancon, A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah (ISI, 2007)

Phillipp Blom, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 (Basic, 2008)

Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Perseus, 2006)

John Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited (ISI, 2008)

Caroline Cox and John Marks, This Immoral Trade: Slavery in the 21st Century (Monarch, 2006)

Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (InterVarsity, 2008)

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Grand New Party: Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008)

Eric E. Ericson Jr. and R. Alexis Klimoff, The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn (ISI, 2008)

Thomas Farr, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Robert George and Chris Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008)

Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian (InterVarsity, 2008)

Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Random House, 2008)

Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker, 2008)

Al Janssen and Brother Andrew, Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ (Revell, 2007)

Michael Jones, Leningrad: State of Siege (Basic, 2008)

John Kekes, The Art of Politics: The New Betrayal of America and How to Resist It (Encounter, 2008)

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Dutton, 2008)

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008)

Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (HarperOne, 2007)

Gerald McDermott, God's Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? (InterVarsity, 2007)

Steven Mosher, Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits (Transaction, 2008)

R. Albert Mohler Jr., Desire and Deceit: The Real Outcome of the New Sexual Tolerance (Multnomah, 2008)

Charles Murray, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality (Crown Forum, 2008)

Patrick Nachtigall, Faith in the Future: Christianity's Interface with Globalization (Warner, 2008)

Michael O'Brien, Island of the World (Ignatius, 2007)

Tom Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (InterVarsity, 2008)

Meic Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (InterVarsity, 2007)

Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Baker, 2008)

Herman Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life (InterVarsity, 2009)

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins, 2007)

Sun Shuyun, The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth (Doubleday, 2006)

Harry Stout, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006)

Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Mark Tabb, How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen? (NavPress, 2008)

Robert Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals (InterVarsity, 2008)

David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Eerdmans, 2008)

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008)

For a list of top books reviewed from July 2000 through June 2007, see WORLD, June 30, 2007.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.