For some, the very words evoke feelings of warmth and wisdom, but for many Catholics today, the Bible can be chronologically confusing and its meaning hard to grasp. How tragic this is in light of the fact that as Pope Leo XIII said, the "Scripture is a Letter written by our Heavenly Father" to his children for the purpose of revealing Himself to them.
Those who come to the Holy Bible for the first time could expect to open at the beginning of Genesis and read on through to Revelation with the same ease and excitement as reading the novel Gone With The Wind. But it doesn't take the novice long to figure out that the Bible doesn't read like a popular novel. In fact, it isn't put together as a sequential narrative, rather the books are grouped by literature types. Consequently, the once excited inquirer puts the untapped treasure back down on the coffee table with a sigh of "what's the use?"
God Reveals Himself To Man Gradually
An important challenge facing the reader is to find and understand the basic story line of salvation history within the Bible's pages. We are not talking at this stage about understanding detail, rather grasping the scope of the divine story, the "big picture."
The Bible, although made up of many stories, contains a single story. In a nutshell, it is about God and His relationship with mankind, the most complex of His creation and the true object of His love and affection. It is mankind that would betray God, and yet God in turn would die for them.
Starting with the first chapters of Genesis on through the book of Revelation, God gradually reveals His plan to re-establish the broken relationship between Himself and His treasured creation. It is only in God's revealed plan that mankind once again finds its intended purpose for being "because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for" (CCC #27).
It is important for the modern Catholic to understand that, although the Bible is a mystery on one level, it is also a book of history. There should be no misunderstanding--it is true history as opposed to cleverly devised tales. Pope Paul VI said in Directorium Catechisticum Generale, "the history of salvation is being accomplished in the midst of the history of the world." The Bible gives a wide range of examples of how through word and deed God has entered the life of His people.
God's strategy to redeem all of humanity was to start with one family first and then progressively influence more and more people to the point where all of mankind would have the opportunity to be a part of His family.
The Catholic Church is the culmination of salvation history and the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants with Israel.
God established His first covenant, the marriage covenant, between Adam and Eve, one couple. The story progresses to Noah and his three sons totaling four marriages, making one holy family with Noah as the mediator of the household. In Genesis 9, God makes a covenant with Noah, but it extends beyond Noah, for God said that this covenant is "with you and with your descendants after you" (Genesis 9:9, RSV).
Next we find the number of people included in the covenant expanding to one holy tribe with Abraham acting as the tribal chieftain. God makes a three-part covenant with Abraham, promising him a land, a royal dynasty and world-wide blessing through his descendants. "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you" (Genesis 12:2-3, NAB).
Abraham's grandson Jacob, whose name was later changed to "Israel" had twelve sons. These twelve tribes of Israel spent four hundred years in Egyptian bondage where the covenantal expansion plan silently progressed. It was in Egypt that God raised up Moses of the tribe of Levi to lead Israel out of bondage to become one holy nation. Genesis 24 describes the dramatic scene as the nation of Israel is gathered around Mt. Sinai after leaving Egypt through a miraculous deliverance. There at Mt. Sinai Moses spoke to the Israelites the words of the covenant he had received directly from God, and they agreed to enter into a national covenant with Yahweh.
God's covenantal plan takes a major leap several hundred years later as God begins to draw other nations together under the leadership of King David. Through God's covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:5-16), this new conglomerate blossoms into one holy kingdom where Israel mediates the divine revelation of God to other nations.
Finally, all of the Old Testament covenants find full expression in the New Covenant which was made between Jesus Christ and His Church. This New Covenant is the grandest of them all for it is a world-wide covenant where God rules and reigns as the head of His one holy Church.
The Bible Becomes A Catholic History and Book
One may ask how the ancient Hebrew Scriptures relate to the modern Church? Though the divine history recorded in the Old Testament focuses primarily on the nation of Israel, the history and truth that the Hebrews passed on to their children would one day become the history of a people they knew not. Their history with all its triumphs and disgraces would one day become our history as twentieth century Roman Catholics. So with the dawn of the New Covenant, Jesus integrated the nations into His universal kingdom, opening wide the gates to Yahweh's covenantal family. Those who enter through that gate, Jesus, take on a new identity, including a new personal history. Suddenly, all that went before us in that small land of Canaan becomes intimate and important for us today.
Understanding The Big Picture
The difficulty facing Bible readers is how to make this personal yet ancient story of salvation history come alive. They must discover the critical plot and, through the guidance of the Church, understand its meaning in order to make it their own story.
The first step to understanding the Bible chronologically is to identify which of the seventy-three books are of historical nature. The term "historical" refers simply to those books that keep the story moving from one event to another. The historical books provide us with continuity, or give us an ordered account of connected events from Genesis to Revelation.
There are twelve historical books in the Old Testament and, for the sake of simplicity, two historical books in the New Testament. (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Macc, Luke & Acts.) By contiguously reading through these fourteen books, the reader will cover the entire Bible historically with a sense of continuity. The books placed above and below the fourteen historical books indicate where the remaining fifty-nine books fit chronologically. These books read within the context of the historical books. For example, the book of Psalms should be read in the context of 2 Samuel, and the prophet Malachi should be read in the context of Nehemiah.
By reading about four chapters per day, the reader can go through the historical books in about three months. The chart below outlines the order in which to read the fourteen historical books. After the reader has finished, he or she should go back through them again but this time incorporate a few of the non-historical books.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church is the perfect companion to read along with the Bible because sacred Scripture along with the sacred Tradition make up the full deposit of faith. When questions of faith or morality come up, the index of the Catechism is valuable for finding official Church doctrine.
Once readers familiarize themselves with the "big picture" of salvation history, they can build upon this framework for the rest of their lives. This will result in a more profound appreciation for Scripture and a deeper understanding of the master plan contained within it.