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If you’re riding a sinking ship, which is what the world can feel like, the last thing you may need is the book of Joshua. The day’s battles—from Congo to Sri Lanka to Washington to the dinner table—can be dismal enough without adding in Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
Day 72 in my reading, Joshua 9: The enemies of Israel are conspiring to attack. The next passages are a relentless parade of striking with the sword and leaving none alive. Joshua 11 ends with “the land had rest from war,” only to begin again in the very next verse of Joshua 12 recounting the preceding battles all over again.
I confess to dabbling in Old Testament reading for years. That changed as reporting in the Middle East—and a lengthy book project set in the land of Ur—forced me to dive more deeply into Biblical history.
Then a moment of conviction gripped me on New Year’s Eve 2015: I had not in more than three decades of being a born-again believer in Christ actually, truly, and faithfully read the Bible straight through in a disciplined, systematic way. I asked several people who had to tell me how. One answer came more than any other: Follow the reading plan of Scottish Pastor Robert Murray McCheyne (or M’Cheyne).
We need patience for an impatient world. The long view, even the tedium of the Old Testament, cultivates a deeper, steadier rhythm.
The M’Cheyne plan covers four chapters of the Bible per day, completing the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice in one year. I followed it in 2016 and again in 2017. I found it life-changing, revitalizing, essential.
In 2018 I used another plan to mix things up. In 2019 I wanted to simplify, no chart or phone app. So I am reading Genesis to Revelation straight through with the help of videos put out by the Bible Project. The videos combine original illustration with solid, fast-paced exegesis. They are my saving grace because on this plan I don’t reach the New Testament until mid-October.
The Bible Project videos cut through genealogies and war chronologies, summing up the Old Testament this way: “God wants to rule the world through humans. Humans are the problem! We need a new kind of human.”
It’s in the vein of Homer Simpson, who paged a Bible, saying, “Talk about a preachy book, everybody’s a sinner, except for this guy.”
But it doesn’t fully answer the question: Why so much Old Testament and so little New? Why 1,034 pages of sinners before we meet this guy Jesus on Page 1035? I don’t have that answer. But approaching the midyear slump in Bible reading, here are a few things to keep you (and me) immersed.
First, we read the Old Testament because Jesus did. He said, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
Second, we read the Old Testament to slow down. We need patience for an impatient world. The long view, even the tedium of the Old Testament, cultivates a deeper, steadier rhythm. We learn how others coped, or didn’t, through its history, stories, poetry, and song. We learn how God’s people cultivated hope. We learn how they persevered when the world was against them. We learn how God rescued them, time and again.
Author and editor Joe Carter wrote recently, “I truly believe that a weak view of/faith in providence is the primary reason U.S. Christians have made an idol out of politics and become cultish in their devotion and defense of favored politicians.”
That leads to my third reason: to build muscle. “It takes strength to enjoy the world, and we must exercise a kind of muscle to revel and delight,” writes Tish Harrison Warren in Liturgy of the Ordinary. Slogging through the plagues of Exodus gets us to the redemption, rescue, and healing of Chapters 12 through 15.
Other disciplines—and delights—flow from steady Bible reading that includes all the Old Testament. It’s helped me to think of it not as something I check off each day, like a 10,000-steps-a-day routine, but as the project of a lifetime.