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Reading Scripture Recursively

Posted by M.Ferris on

I’m a programmer by trade and so the idea of recursion or looping is something I use all the time. It’s the technique of repeatedly passing through a set of data, usually doing some process on each bit of data as you read it; counting, summing or sorting. The thought of applying that to the Bible isn’t immediately apparent, but there are some parallels. Many Christians set of goal of reading through the entire Bible in a year. That’s a valuable goal that yields real benefits. For one, you maintain a familiarity with all of Scripture that’s important to an understand biblical theology. Such an overview of the grand themes of the Bible is necessary and sadly lacking for many readers of Scripture.

But there’s another kind of reading that is likewise necessary, to more deeply explore a particular book of the Bible. I refer to this as recursive reading, because you pass over the same material repeatedly. Reading in this fashion isn’t a head-banging exercise to simply do it again and again. Rather, as you read, you are looking for themes to emerge, you note the writing style of the author of a book, or what words are repeated in the book. You get an understanding of the book that only comes by more or less soaking in it.

A couple of years ago, I read through Ezekiel in this way and noted that the phrase “And they shall know that I am the LORD” kept coming up.  That phrase occurs over a dozen times, demonstrating that a key purpose in the prophecy given of Ezekiel was to call the people back to the One they had forgotten. If I hadn’t read and re-read the book, that detail may not have struck me. This method works best, particularly with the Old Testament, if you read larger chunks of Scripture in one sitting. To get through the Bible in a year, you need to read about 3.5 chapters per day. I’ve found that to pick up the sort of themes and other details I’m talking about, 10-12 chapters at a time is a better amount. Doing that, you’d get through the book of Exodus in 4 days. After that, you flip back to chapter 1 and do it again. And then do it again after that. Repeat till saturated. You’ll begin to notice things and to understand in a far different way than you would by visiting a book of the Bible only once a year.

The other aid in recursive reading is to write. I’ve used a wide margin Bible for several years, and would not part with it, but if you don’t have one, or don’t want to use one, a notebook at the ready will do. I also think it’s very important to write, not type your notes.  The research around cognitive science bears out that retention and learning are simply much better when you are dealing with physical media of pen and paper, rather than electronic. My own experience, anecdotal though it may be, affirms this as well. I remember things better if I write in longhand.

Coming to the New Testament, this method is no less beneficial. The gospels are longer books, narrative in many places, and so a similar technique applies as with Old Testament books.  A concordance is a great tool, and here too, this is another area where I go old school and not electronic. If you look up a word online, it’s rare to see a list of all occurrences in a single list. If you do, there is still pagination involved.  I still use Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance quite often, and seeing the words and their occurrences shows what an online concordance doesn’t. Look at the number of times Mark uses the word “straightway” or immediately compared to the other gospel writers.

Mark is the gospel of action, and his repeated use of this word demonstrates this theme. Could you have read that in a commentary? Sure, but don’t reach for the commentary first. Go to it last, after you’ve exhausted your own reading, written what you’ve learned, and then you can compare your thoughts with someone else’s.

In the epistles, you’re dealing with much shorter books, but the benefit of going over the same ground, again and again, is no less true for these letters. Material in the epistles is concentrated theology, like a sponge that is full, but repeated wringing will bring forth more. In a book such as Ephesians, reading it through once a day for 30 days, writing, sifting, ruminating on the text – this gives you an understanding that a once a year pass through will simply not provide. What modifiers or adjectives does Paul uses when he talks about grace? Can you arrive at a definition of ‘mystery’ as Paul uses it in Ephesians? Those are a couple of examples of the sort of questions recursive reading helps you with. It’s impossible to know the Bible too well. God’s Word continues to yield treasure to the one who reads, and mining the Scriptures in this way will bring eternal wealth.