Every Bible teacher, preacher, small group leader or any other minister in a Christian church will teach those under his influence that Bible study is important. Methods of study, Scripture memory, and practices such as journaling and word analysis are promoted. Prayer is always recommended, because Bible study is study of God’s revealed truth intended for our guidance in faith and life. All sorts of good outcomes are predicted for those who study the Bible with regularity.
There are many benefits of Bible study, but the longer I live, the more I realize how frequently the stories told in the Bible illuminate my experience in contemporary life. The people of the Bible are utterly and discouragingly human, and the mistakes they make are the very same mistakes people make today. We can learn a lot from the things those Bible characters did wrong.
We can also learn from the things those Bible characters did right.
Recently my daily Bible reading included the story I call “The Crossing.” I have assigned personal titles to a number of Bible stories, because those stories have had exceptional impact in my life, and Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership is one of those stories.
The short version of the story is that when Israel arrived at the Jordan, it was in flood. Crossing the Jordan at any of several well-known fords was no big task, but Jordan in flood was another matter. The people could easily have become whiny and rebellious at this new problem, as they had done repeatedly during the previous forty years. Joshua stopped that trend before it started by telling them to consecrate themselves in prayer. After three days of preparation, it was time to go. The moment the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant set foot in the water of the river, the flow stopped and the waters backed up at a point upstream. While the priests stood in the middle of the dry riverbed, the massive crowd of Israelites crossed the river and assembled on the other side to camp for the night.
When everyone had crossed safely Joshua ordered each tribe to select someone to carry a huge rock out of the riverbed. Each rock represented one of the tribes, and the men piled up those twelve rocks, probably more like boulders. Why? Joshua explained:
“When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Joshua 4:21-24).
Joshua explained that Israel needed to remember the crossing of Jordan and the crossing of the Red Sea, because those moments were important touchpoints in their relationship with God. Those moments demonstrated God’s acts that grew out of his steadfast love for the people of Israel.
It isn’t popular today to remember what God has done for the people of the USA. The culture rejects the phrase, Christian nation as a descriptor for the USA. People in crowds try to shout down the words, “God bless the USA!” There are many voices that declare that the original colonists were hateful racists, that the Founders had no regard for God, that every mention of God in relation to the USA is an act of Christians who simply want to push their religion on people who don’t want it.
The biblical story of “The Crossing” is a reminder that when we look to the history of our nation, as Joshua knew subsequent generations of Israelites would look to the history of their nation, we can see the hand of God at work among us. It is quite true that not every person who colonized this land was a Christian, and not everyone who claimed the name of Christ behaved like Christ, then or now. The same could be said of the people who crossed the Jordan. Yet God loved them and blessed them, and he does the same for the USA.
Then the day came when the people of Israel had willfully scratched God out of their national memory, except as a good-luck charm in battle. The history of Israel began to go downhill as the people abandoned any pretense at serving God and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). This statement precisely sums up the culture of the USA. Many, many people believe that they have the right to decide for themselves what is right. They believe that they have no obligation to serve God or even to believe that he exists. They will say, “This is my truth,” and they don’t care that their personal truth is at odds with reality. Even people who claim to be Christian reject the Bible as God’s truth. They declare the Bible irrelevant in today’s moral conversations because, in their view, God did not know to put today’s problems in the Bible. They believe it is a nice book about “the sacred,” but it has nothing to say to today’s people faced with problems such as sexual orientation, gender identity, racism, and immigration.
There actually is no record that the Israelites ever took their children to see those twelve boulders piled up at Gilgal. If they had done so, the history of Israel might have been different. Instead, the record showed that they tolerated the existence of other cultures and other religions that God had told them to drive out. They failed to set any boundaries around their faith. They mingled with all these cultures and religions, and they found elements of those cultures and religions that were more appealing than God’s teaching.
Our nation is suffering the same problem. Increasingly, our own children do not know the history of our nation. Our own children are growing up to be voters who do not know the responsibilities of citizenship in a free republic. Our children do not know that the limitations imposed on government by the Constitution are blessings that hold back tyranny, and they do not know that godly men who prayed before their meetings and prayed in their own homes about the work they were doing wrote the Constitution under God’s guidance. Our children have not seen other constitutions written in other nations that ignore or pervert God’s guidance, and therefore, they do not know how concise and powerful is the US Constitution’s protection of the liberty and dignity of human beings.
Our nation needs to remember the truth of its history, just as the Israelites needed to remember the truth of their history. They forgot, to their loss, and we are forgetting, to our loss.
One of the benefits of Bible study is to be reminded of things we need to do in our everyday lives. We need to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and raise up the poor, and we need to remember how our country came into being. To do so is not to establish a state religion; it is to remember a fact of the events of our founding. It is to be reminded to seek God’s guidance in the performance of our duties of citizenship, and to seek God’s guidance in the words and content of our public conversations.
That is one of the benefits of Bible study.