The Bible in Thirty Chapters

What If…

The Bible is a pretty large book. Although we might not immediately think of it as such, how many other 2,128-page1 books do you have laying around your home? Or which reader has four different versions of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare on their bookshelf? The Bible is unique, not only for its contents, but also for its construction and history.

Though rightly regarded as the most important book you could ever own or read, modern Christians often fail to recognize the unique place in history we inhabit when it comes to accessing and understanding the Bible. For much of history, most Christians did not have access to the entire Bible. The first pandect (Bible in one book) was produced in the 8th century.2 Even after the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of Bibles in vernacular languages, many Christians only had access to particular books or collections of books in the Bible.


This reality got me thinking: what if I only had access to a couple of biblical books? Which ones would I want to have? My particular fondness for Luke and John would make those gospels priorities for me. Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy are vital for understanding God’s covenant with Israel, so those would be useful too. I might be a terrible theologian if I did not have a copy of Romans and a terrible 21st century Christian if I did not at least consider having Revelation. Simply imagining life without the whole canon serves as an important reminder of how blessed and privileged we are to live with access to multiple copies and versions of the entire Bible.

Thinking Smaller

However, as anyone who has read extensively in the biblical text knows, no biblical book contains within its scope the entire story of God’s People, the whole history of salvation, or even every key doctrinal point.3 Having access to certain books, therefore, might still leave a reader relatively uninformed about the biblical metanarrative, the overarching story of the Bible. This reality led me to reflect further: what if, instead of whole books, we only had access to certain chapters of the Bible? What if we only had access to, say, thirty chapters of the Bible: which ones would we want to have?

Before proceeding, I want to note a couple of things about what follows. First, this is an exercise in theological reflection. Far be it from me to suggest stripping the Bible down for parts or ignoring chapters which do not appear on this list. Second, I hasten to note the importance of reading all portions of the Bible in their literary contexts. Chapters in the Bible were not original to the text, having only been added in the 13th century.4 Even though this exercise is somewhat arbitrary, then, the process of focusing and limiting the Biblical text does reveal much about our theological commitments.

Finally, this list arises from my own concerns and contexts. The foci of these chapters are the biblical metanarrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration), the history of Israel, the life and work of Jesus, and the message of the Church. Of course, there are plenty of other themes and messages to be highlighted by this type of exercise. Without further preparation, these are the thirty chapters I would use to summarize the Bible:

The Bible in Thirty Chapters

Genesis 1-3: Creation, Fall, and Curse

Genesis 12, 15: Call and Covenant with Abram

Exodus 12: Passover Initiated

Exodus 14: Crossing of the Red Sea

Deuteronomy 5-6: Ten Commandments and Heart of the Torah

Psalm 23: The Good Shepherd

Psalm 106: Summary of Israel’s History

Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones and Restoration of Israel

Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount

Luke 22-24: Lord’s Supper, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus

John 3-4: Born Again of Living Water

Acts 7: Summary of Israel’s Rebellion and Stoning of Stephen

Acts 26: Life of the Apostle Paul

Romans 9: God’s Continuing Covenant with Israel and Inclusion of the Gentiles

1 Corinthians 11(17)-12: Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, and Ecclesiology

Galatians 3: Abraham, the Law, and Faith in Christ

Hebrews 1: Christology and Superiority of Jesus

1 John 3: Children of God and Law of Love

Revelation 21: New Heavens and New Earth

What do you think of this list? Which chapters would you remove? What other chapters would you include?


1 The number of pages the in NRSV Bible on my desk.
2 Codex Amiantinus, a Vulgate edition prepared as a gift for Pope Gregory II.
3 Arguments for a Protestant reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or a liturgically-informed reading of the Gospel of John fail to entirely convince me here, as both of these approaches present considerable contextual problems and often neglect important components of Israel’s story.
4 Alternative systems were devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro, with modern Biblical chapters deriving primarily from Langton’s system.

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The Wilderness and Early Christian Monasticism

st-antony-agains-the-demonsIn the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

Book Review: The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel

Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Boer)In The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel, Roland Boer offers an economic study intended to bring contemporary social science into dialogue with the world of Ancient Israel. Focusing on the allocation and extraction economic patterns in ancient Israel and the historic interplay between these institutional systems, Boer argues that a Marxist analysis of the economic and social world of ancient Israel reveals a sacred complexity of economic institutions and activities which existed in tension with one another. As correlative arguments, Boer pushes back against postclassical assumptions of a proto-market economy in ancient Israel, advocates for a broader application of social scientific research to biblical studies, argues for an integrated understanding of the sacred and secular in Israel, and in contrast to numerous contemporary studies contends that a complexity of institutions formed the basis of ancient Israel’s economy. Central to this study are the five building blocks of ancient Israel’s religiously regulated sacred economy—subsistence survival, kinship households, patronage, estates, and tribute exchanges—and the three regimes in which these foundational institutions developed—systems of subsistence, palatine, and booty. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part VI)

This is the final post in a series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

A Way Forward

Fall of JerichoGiven Ancient Near East warfare terminology, “driving out” language, and an emphasis on the destruction of the heads of state, it seems that the vast majority of Israel’s wars recorded in Joshua are non-genocidal wars against the wicked tribes of Canaan who are being punished in order to stop their crimes. This is not to suggest that God did not command the people of Israel to fight against the Canaanites. Nor is it to advocate that God did not use language of total destruction when telling the people of Israel how to conquer the land. Nor does it mean that the people of Israel always appropriately followed God’s commands during the conquest. And finally, it does not mean that it is not possible that God actually deemed total destruction appropriate in some instances. What I really want to emphasis from this study is that when trying to understand the Israelite Conquest of Canaan, we must consider the warring context of the Ancient Near East and carefully examine the biblical record before coming to conclusions about the possibility of genocide recorded in Joshua. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part V)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

The Total Destruction of Ai

Ancient Ai

Ancient Ai

What about those instances where near-total destruction—including women, children, and non-combatants—does seem to be ordered by Yahweh? As an example of this, let’s consider Joshua 8 and Israel’s battle against the inhabitants of Ai. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part IV)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

The Context of Conquest

Lego MosesSeveral texts can be submitted as examples of where Yahweh seems to have commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide. One such place is Exodus 23:23, which reads: “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out….” Here the implication seems to be that Israel and Yahweh will wipe out these nations. But let’s step back and read the wider context of this passage, beginning in verse 20: Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

Ancient Near East Warfare Terminology

Relief of Assurnasirpal II Killing LionsMost important for our purposes is considering the language of the conquest narratives in Deuteronomy and Joshua, especially in light of other passages which can be interpreted as a command to wipe out everything that breathes. When reading passages such as this, I would argue that it is especially important to situate oneself in the context of the original audience. As Paul Copan argues in numerous places[1], it is of the utmost importance to recognize that in the Ancient Near East context, especially when discussing war and military conquest, language of total domination was the norm. For example, there are ancient military records that, if not read in the milieu of ANE warfare language, would suggest that after a conquest no one was living and no brick stood on top of another, whereas historical and archeological records suggest that this was not at all the case, that people were left alive in these locations and cities remained. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide in the conquest of the Promised Land.

How Do We Read the Bible? : The Importance of Context

Context is EverythingMany Protestant Christians talk about reading the Bible “literally.” But I often don’t understand exactly what that means. Webster’s defines “literally” as “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” When applied to the interpretation of a written text, this type of reading would seem to indicate that you take the text at its simple face value. But there are many portions of the Bible that even those advocating a “literal” reading of the Bible do not suggest should be interpreted woodenly. Consider, for example, the parables of Jesus. Is it possible that the Parable of the Sower or the Good Samaritan were actual events that Jesus was merely repeating for his followers? Possibly. But most people who have read or heard these stories have understood them as parables–stories that Jesus told to make a point and teach a truth–and not as historical narrative. But parables are not the only parts of scripture that should caution our desire to read the Bible “literally.” The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (the central portion of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) and the Psalms are two additional chunks of Christian scripture that most people are hesitant to interpret “literally.” Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide? (Part I)

Fall of JerichoThe Rock Church of Saint Louis–our church home–is in the midst of reading through the entire Bible narrative as a church community. The past two weeks we have been reading the book of Joshua, which is all about Israel’s conquest of the promised land of Canaan. One feature of this conquest that contemporary Christians are often hesitant to discuss (or that they are curious about) is whether or not Yahweh commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide as they entered the land. This question often rears its head after reading passages like Exodus 23:23, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, and Joshua 6:17-18. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be running a series reflecting on whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide as they took possession of the Promised Land. But before considering whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide, we must first begin to answer two important questions: How was the Bible written? And how do we read the Bible? Continue reading

Scripture in Ephrem’s Madrashe

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem the Syrian

While most analysis of Syrian madrashe has focused on its metrical form, authorship, origins, and liturgical setting, comparatively little attention has been paid to the contents of the madrashe. To form a fully contextualized understanding of Syrian madrashe, additional attention should be paid to the theological nature and contents of madrashe, especially its relationship to scripture. Finally, the particular manner in which Ephrem “rewrites” scripture for his community of faith is worthy of additional attention, as this feature of his writing points to the need for study on how madrashe employ and co-opt scripture. The essay which follows reflects on the place and function of scripture in Ephrem’s madrashe. Continue reading