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Did God Really Command Genocide?: An Interview with Drs. Paul Copan & Matthew Flannagan

Dr. Paul CopanWould a good, kind, and loving deity ever command the wholesale slaughter of nations? We often avoid reading difficult Old Testament passages that make us squeamish and quickly jump to the enemy-loving, forgiving Jesus of the New Testament. And yet, the question remains. How can we understand the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical implications of Old Testament warfare passages?

Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Paul Copan (@PaulCopan) and Dr. Matthew Flannagan (@_MandM_) about their book, Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Baker Books, 2014).

Dr. Matthew Flannagan

[Also see our blogpost: Is God a Moral Monster?]

Lay the groundwork of the book for us. What are some of the primary arguments you’re addressing in Did God Really Command Genocide?

Dr. Flannagan: Skeptics claim that a person who believes both that God exists and that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word is rationally committed to four claims:

      We ought to obey God
      The Bible is God’s Word
      The Bible teaches that God commands genocide
      Genocide is morally wrong.

Click to buy your copy of Did God Really Command Genocide? in the Bible Gateway StoreThese claims are inconsistent. As formulated, a Christian who believes the Bible is God’s Word must deny that genocide is wrong. This is the primary argument we address. We also discuss broader questions of whether religion causes violence as well as arguments invoking the Crusades and jihad.

In Chapter 2 you write, “In the Bible (God’s Word), God appropriates the writing of a human being with the writer’s own personality, character, and writing style.” How does this affect how we interpret the Bible, and particularly in regards to the stories where God seems to command genocide?

Dr. Flannagan: It means that God’s Word comes to us mediated by a human author who uses language, figures of speech, and illustrations of his own time, place, and culture to convey God’s message. When we read the text, we’re not just interested in what the historical human author has to say but, more importantly, what God says by way of appropriating that author’s text as part of a bigger narrative of Scripture.

It can seem like the God of the Old Testament is different than the loving, compassionate God spoken of by Jesus. How do we reconcile these two pictures of God?

Dr. Copan: God is both kind and severe (Rom. 11:22), which is what the Old Testament (OT) affirms: he’s both gracious and compassionate but will not leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:6-7). Jesus aligns himself with the OT prophetic tradition. Although he speaks about loving and praying for our enemies (which the OT does as well [Prov. 25:21-22]), he’s severe with hypocrites and those resisting God’s claim upon them. Jesus drives out moneychangers from the temple (Jn. 2:13-17); pronounces severe judgment on cities that witnessed his miracles but refused to repent (Mt. 11:21) and on those who lead Jesus’ followers astray (Mt. 18:6); and affirms the justice of OT judgments (Mt. 15:4; 24:38-39; Lk. 17:29).

What are some of the unique issues to consider when we look specifically at the story of the Israelites driving out the Canaanites?

Dr. Copan: First, like God’s command to Abram to leave Ur, the command to drive out the Canaanites is unique and unrepeatable—not universal. Second, the “utterly destroy” language was common hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts; so where peoples are “utterly destroyed,” survivors are often abundant (see the oft-repeated line “they could not drive them out” in Judg. 1-2). Third, these divine commands are given reluctantly and because of human hardheartedness (compare Mt. 19:8). Fourth, these commands aren’t private revelations to Moses and Joshua (unlike Muhammad’s or Joseph Smith’s “revelations”); they’re accompanied by public, powerful signs and wonders (Egypt plagues, Red Sea crossing, pillar of cloud/fire, manna), which Canaanites recognized (Josh 2:8-11; 5:1; compare 1 Sam. 4:7-8).

Tell us about “hagiographic hyperbole.”

Dr. Flannagan: The basic idea is that the accounts of Israel’s early battles in Canaan are narrated in a particular style, which is not intended to be literal in all of its details, as it contains a lot of hyperbole, formulaic language, and literary tropes (expressions) for rhetorical effect.

When biblical authors use phrases such as “They totally destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed” (Josh. 11:11), which are later followed by passages that presuppose that the same areas are still inhabited by the same peoples, they cannot be affirming that literally every man, woman, and child was killed at God’s command. It’s a mistake to take them as affirming that Israel literally engaged in complete annihilation at God’s command. They’re exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

How is emphasizing God as both loving and just important in discussing these difficult biblical texts?

Dr. Copan: On the justice side, remember that these reluctantly-given commands are less-than-ideal (compare Ezek. 18:31). Also, God patiently waited over 400 years until judgment was ripe (Gen. 15:16) so that Israel could finally enter the promised land. Further, God is ever-willing to relent from threatened punishment upon repentance (Jonah; Jer. 18:7-8). Additionally, Canaanites engaged in what we’d consider criminal activities (infant sacrifice, ritual sex, bestiality, incest), and Israel’s calling would be harmed through their influence. Finally, in a supreme emergency, a good God would have moral justification for commanding something severe, though involving innocent lives lost (for example, fighter jets shooting down a hijacked commercial airliner to prevent extensive harm). On the love side, see the just war question below.

You devote an entire section of the book to the question “Is it always wrong to kill innocent people?” How do you address such a large, complex question?

Dr. Flannagan: First, we defend the view that our moral duties or obligations are identical with what God commands us to do. Then we argue that while a loving and just God would, in normal circumstances, prohibit killing innocent people in highly unusual cases, God could, for the sake of some greater good, command an individual to kill. If the latter applied, then the individual in question would be exempted from a moral principle that otherwise would be binding upon him.
This entails that the moral prohibition on killing the innocent is not absolute. It’s more accurate to say that there’s a strong presumption that applies in most cases but can, in highly unusual circumstances, be overridden by a divine command.

When discussing just war, you write “A war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor.” Tell us about that statement.

Dr. Copan: The Mosaic Law commanded love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18), but this didn’t stand in opposition to capital punishment in the Law; indeed, such punishment could also serve to protect innocent Israelites from further harm. Likewise, just wars (for example, stopping Hitler in World War II) show concern for the victims of unjust aggression. And while perpetrators of harm are our neighbors and should be prayed for, love—not to mention justice—typically requires removing the source of harm to protect the innocent. In Romans 13:1–7, the God-ordained minister of the state bears “the sword” (an image of lethal force) to protect and punish. This is true with a police force (domestic) as well as an army (international).

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when we talk with Christians and non-Christians about the violence of God?

Dr. Flannagan: People tend to approach this issue with broader concerns about groups like ISIS and events like 9/11 as well as recent atrocities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, whose attempts were allegedly justified because they were done “in the name of God (Allah).” So they often have perceptions (not always accurate) of historical events such as the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, and so on, being allegedly based on God’s commands, and they often believe religion is the root cause of most wars.

It’s important to emphasize that if we accept God did command violence on unique occasions in the past, we’re not saying that he commands us or anyone else to do so today. Nor are we committed to supporting or endorsing groups who claim that he does.

Bio:

Paul Copan (PhD, Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. He’s the author of several popular apologetics books, including Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and lives with his wife and five children in Florida.

Matthew Flannagan (PhD, University of Otago) is a researcher and a teaching pastor at Takanini Community Church in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s also a contributing author to several books.

What Is Important About the Land of the Bible?

howtounderstandthebible

If you want to understand the Bible, you have to understand the land of the Bible. It is not only central to the covenant of God, it is the geographical stage on which the magnificent drama of the people of God is played out. You may be surprised when you take a closer look. After you read this, consider going here to watch a 9-minute video giving you a visual understanding.


One of the ways we know that the truth of the Bible is rooted in reality is that the story of the Bible—the drama of God’s interaction with humanity—unfolds in a real place. This is a real God engaging with real people across a timeline that goes for thousands of years in a specific part of the world. The Bible is not detached philosophy. It tells us what happened (in history) so that we can understand what happens (in life).

After the Pentateuch (the first five books of Scripture), there is a major transition as the wandering Israelites entered the ancient land of Canaan. Under Joshua, the Israelite armies conquered this territory promised to them by God as an inheritance (Josh. 1:1-6). The small land of Israel, just 200 miles long and 100 miles wide, would be the main stage for the drama of redemption until the world-changing mission of the apostles—altogether a span of two millennia.

What is it like, this “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8)? To the Hebrews who had left slavery in Egypt 40 years earlier, it was a true blessing. It wasn’t paradise, but the plains and hills were a good land for farmers who grew crops of wheat and barley, who developed groves of olive and fig trees, and tended vineyards. The coastal climate is similar to that of Southern California.

In the Old Testament, we find the connecting points between land, life, and theology. The three great festivals (Passover, Firstfruits, and Ingathering) corresponded to the beginning and end of harvests. Rain is the grace of God. Food on the table is the blessing of God. Drought is a time of testing. The land also supported the herding of sheep and goats. So it was easy to describe God’s care as his shepherding (Ps. 23), and Jesus as “the good shepherd.” Real land, real life, real people, real God.

But Israel was a difficult land to live in from a political point of view. The surrounding kingdoms were an almost continual threat, and part of that has to do with the geography of the land of Israel. If you look at a map of the region, what you will see is that this small strip of land is hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Arabian Desert to the east. Then, to make things even more complicated, the region to the north and east—known as Mesopotamia—was home to a succession of aggressive empires: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. To the south and west of Israel lay the great land of Egypt. So Israel is a small bridge of land between sea and desert, standing in the way of superpowers to the northeast and the southwest. This explains much of the history of the Old Testament. It is amazing, actually, that there were even brief times when Israel was strong enough to have security and stability.

To understand more about this place and the events that transpired there, picture this bird’s-eye view of the land. Going across the land from west to east, there are five main regions (picture them like strips running north to south). First, is the coastal plain. Flat, fertile, and lush, this is a desirable part of the land, and thus contested by people like the Philistines who occupied the southern coast for centuries. Chariot battles happened here—not so in the central mountainous region of the land.

IsraelTopographical

To the east of the coastal plain are the foothills known as the Shephelah, which slope upwards to about 1,300 feet. The gentle hills of this region are also fertile, crisscrossed with olive groves and fig trees. It is also the battleground for many fights in the eras of Joshua and the Judges, and it’s the region where David famously stood up to the Philistine champion Goliath.

Moving east again, we come to the central mountainous region including Judea and Samaria. These low mountains—rising to just 3,500 feet—are rocky limestone hills, undulating across the landscape. Jerusalem sits on a set of such hills, as does Bethlehem.

The fourth region is the Jordan River Valley, which drops dramatically from the central mountains to below sea level.

And finally, to the east again, the high plateau region known as Transjordan rises. From here Moses viewed the Promised Land he was not allowed to enter.

In the north is the fertile plain and productive sea known as Galilee. More about that when we get to the New Testament.

This is “the land.” More than geography or a patch on a map, it is central to the covenant promise of God. Yet by the time we get to the new covenant, we find that God’s geography and the mission of his people extends to the whole world, just as he promised to Abraham, the man from Mesopotamia who walked across the chalky hills—“all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3).

Get a visual understanding of all this: Watch a 9-minute video here.


Next time: “How Should We Interpret What the Prophets Had to Say?”

Care to offer feedback this week?

Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Discover God’s Heart: An Interview with Laurin Greco

Laurin Makohon GrecoAnother way to read the Bible, other than as an instruction manual or history lesson, is as a love letter. What would it mean to read the Old and New Testaments while focusing on God’s good heart communicating with yours at the closest relational level; encountering a deeper, fuller picture of the Jesus you thought you knew?

Bible Gateway interviewed Laurin Makohon Greco about her devotional notes in the NIV Discover God’s Heart Devotional Bible (Zondervan, 2014).

Why did you want to write the NIV Discover God’s Heart Devotional Bible?

Laurin Greco: I remember holding my Bible in my college dorm room, staring at it and thinking, “I really wish I knew what this was all about.” I could recite a couple of Bible verses and tell a couple of stories, but I didn’t understand how they fit together—or that they even did.Click to buy your copy of NIV Discover God's Heart Devotional Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

The Bible is God saying, “Here is My heart. This is who I am. Get to know Me.” But I thought the Bible was a bunch of principles I was supposed to follow—that Christianity was just following a “be good” checklist. I had no idea that the Bible is God sharing who He is with us.

So I wrote this Bible project for people like me. I wanted it to accomplish two things—to serve as a tour guide as people read God’s Word from cover to cover, and to help people get to know its Author and His good heart.

How is the NIV Discover God’s Heart Devotional Bible different from other Bibles?

Laurin Greco: Well, it’s the full NIV Bible text with 312 devotions throughout it to help people read God’s Word from cover to cover. Each of the 312 devotions in the Bible has a “God’s Story” section—it explains what’s going on in the chapters to be read that day and how they fit into God’s great story. And the second section, “The King’s Heart,” focuses on what that portion of Scripture reveals about who God is and what His heart is like.

Why did you want to write a Bible project that focused on God’s heart?

Laurin Greco: I can’t think of anything that’s more important to know. By God’s heart I mean who He is—His character, His essence.

God is the eternal, sovereign Inventor of the universe. He could have kept Himself a mystery forever, leaving us to guess at who He is, or to never know Him at all. But God didn’t do that—He wants us to know Him. He wants us to live in His great love.

The Bible is the God of the universe opening Himself up to share who He is and what His heart is like. It’s an invitation to intimacy. Reading His Word is one of the ways we accept His invitation.

What’s the main thing you learned about who God is as you wrote the devotions?

Laurin Greco: Oh, that He is so good. I mean, I know that. A lot of us know that. But then to see it in every section of Scripture, every single one, was nearly overwhelming. The Bible is filled with accounts of God pursuing people who snub Him…then pursuing and pursuing and pursuing some more. He chases after people, spurred on by His great love for them. Sometimes He loves undeserving people so much that it’s uncomfortable. But God is ludicrously good.

Did anything surprise you as you journeyed through the Bible?

Laurin Greco: For me, the main surprise is how simple God’s story is. Basically it’s this: God is good and worth loving, and Satan and the forces of darkness spend the bulk of human history declaring that He isn’t. But history will ultimately show what’s true—God is good. He most definitely is.

There is a cosmic trial going on in God’s great story—and God’s heart is what’s on trial. From creation (Gen. 1), God’s good inventions declare, “God is good!” But shortly afterward (Gen. 3), Satan sneaks into the Garden of Eden and makes the cosmic counterargument, “Is He really?”

That same trial takes place on a smaller level in every human heart—in every insecurity, in every hard time. But ultimately, God’s story will show what has always been true: God is good. And He’s very much worth loving.

One of the devotionals is titled, “The Divine Hug.” What does that title mean?

Laurin Greco: That portion of Scripture includes Aaron speaking God’s blessing over His people. “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).

In Jewish culture, a spoken blessing is considered a tangible gift. It’s an impartation of something. As Aaron stood before God’s people, he would raise his hands and speak this blessing over them. God’s people, in turn, would bow their heads. They were receiving the blessing.

God, who wrote the blessing that Aaron spoke, was speaking these realities to His people, realities of His face shining upon them, of being gracious to them. God was pushing His love into His people’s hearts. The blessing is a divine hug.

How was your personal Christian faith affected by writing the 312 devotions in this Bible?

Laurin Greco: I was writing this project during a critical time in my life—when I was walking my sweet mama home to Jesus. As I would dive into God’s Word during the day, He would tenderly remind me of His goodness and love. He’d speak through His living and active Word (Heb. 4:12). His precious goodness would give me the strength to be by her bedside—I could practically feel His arms around us; He was so close. Mama didn’t walk through the valley of death alone, and I didn’t either.

What do you hope will be the result for readers of this Bible and its devotions?

Laurin Greco: Because God speaks through His living and active Word (Heb. 4:12) and because He knows us completely (Ps. 139:6), I know that readers will meet with God through His Word. And He’ll speak to them—just like He did with me in the writing. And I hope, as God speaks tenderly to His people whom He loves so much, that readers will see His good heart, feel His deep love for them, experience His infinite goodness, and fall in love with Him more than they ever imagined possible. Because He is good, good, good.

Bio: Laurin Makohon Greco is an author, editor, and mommy who lives in the Atlanta area with her author/editor husband, John, and her not quite author/editor newborn son, Jonah. For 11 years, Laurin served as the editor of YW magazine, a monthly devotional published by Walk Thru the Bible Ministries designed to help students get to know God through His Word. Under Laurin’s editorship, YW garnered eight Evangelical Press Association awards of excellence.

New Bible Addresses Men’s 3 Problem Areas: An Interview with Brian Doyle

Brian DoyleRecent studies indicate men statistically fall below the national averages of both Bible ownership and readership. The National Coalition Of Ministries to Men (@ncmm_org) wants to demonstrate the relevance of the Bible to a man’s life through its publishing partnership with American Bible Society, hoping men will increase their engagement with the Bible and experience its life-changing message.

Bible Gateway interviewed Brian Doyle (@ironshrpnsiron) about The Men’s Bible (American Bible Society, 2014).

What is NCMM and its objectives?

Click to buy your copy of The Men's Bible in the Bible Gateway Store

Brian Doyle: The National Coalition Of Ministries to Men is a collaborative organization of Christ centered ministries that are specifically focused on reaching and equipping men and serving churches toward that end.

What are trends among Christian men, good or bad, that NCMM has observed?

Brian Doyle: That’s a good question and I’ll give you a little of both:

  • A good trend is that Christian men are more engaged in their priority relationships within their family than ever before. The quantity and quality of time men invest with their wives, children, and grandchildren continues to increase.
  • A bad trend is that this investment of time rarely includes any type of spiritual leadership in the home. Men continue to depend on the local church for this and the church does little to build into men. One significant reason for this is that men are not reading the Bible and don’t feel equipped to be the spiritual leader of anyone.

Why did NCMM feel it needed to publish its own edition of the Bible?

Brian Doyle: American Bible Society is the publisher of The Men’s Bible (website) (@themensbible). The additions that members of the NCMM made to create The Men’s Bible are contributions and devotions that are specific to men. We want the average man to know that the Bible is written to him and has extremely relevant content for him in his unique season of life.

Explain the Good News Translation (GNT) that this Bible uses.

Brian Doyle: The Good News Translation is a clear and simple modern translation that’s faithful to the original texts, and is known as a “common language” translation. It’s straight-forward and easy to understand, and was the natural choice for The Men’s Bible.

What are the 3 problem areas for men that the notes in this Bible address and how did you arrive at those particular three?

Brian Doyle: We developed a ‘challenge’ section that includes 3 areas that men consistently communicate that they struggle with on an ongoing basis. These areas are:

  • Friendships. Men have friends in the years as a student and when they are single but it is rare for a man above the age of 30 to have someone he would call a ‘best friend’. The implication is that men have acquaintances but not real friends.
  • Marriage. There is very little mentoring and training for men to learn to ‘love their wife as Christ loves the church’. The command is clear but women are different and complex.
  • Pornography. God has created men to be visual and to desire sex but the mix of technology and a highly charged sexualized culture has created a dangerous environment.

How is the Bible formatted and meant to be read?

Brian Doyle: The Men’s Bible is formatted in the same way as most any Bible, but the glossary of devotions allows a man to quickly open the Bible and find something he can read and meditate on immediately that relates to him personally.

The Men’s Bible is divided into 3 sections: The Tool Kit, The Battle, and The Challenge. The Tool Kit serves as a concordance, providing Scripture references for topical study. The Battle contains 60 devotionals, written by NCMM men’s ministry experts, focusing on Christian purpose, priorities, and living. The Challenge provides additional devotional content focusing on marriage, pornography, and friendship.

What does NCMM hope will be achieved with this Bible?

Brian Doyle: We hope men will get their hands on this Bible and see very quickly that Almighty God has a lot to say in His Word that’s directly to men. We know this will help create a hunger for God and deepen a man’s faith.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Brian Doyle: We’re so honored to partner with American Bible Society on this important project. American Bible Society exists to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message. This includes men!

Bio: Brian Doyle, NCMM Board of Directors Vice President, Director of Men’s Bible Project, Founder of Iron Sharpens Iron Men’s Ministries


DEVOTION EXCERPT from The Men’s Bible:

A MAN’S IDENTITY

PRAY: Father, you are the designer and creator of life and all that is good! Guide me now as I read and reflect upon your written Word to be more tully gripped by who I really am as you define me, explain me and identity me. Build me into the man who knows what it means to be a man, the man you intended tor me to be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

READ: Genesis 1:26-31

Key Verse: Then God said, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds, and all animals, domestic and wild, large and small.” (Genesis 1:26)

As the introductory book of the Bible, Genesis thankfully answers life’s biggest questions with which all men wrestle: Who Am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning? We learn in these verses that God created people to be like and to resemble him, to be in his image. We are not God but are like God in some ways. Throughout the Bible, we see that God thinks, feels and acts, the core elements of personhood. People also think, feel and act, and in this way we are like God. Adam was created with original righteousness and placed in Eden as a leader/worker and guard, and so in the totality of his person, he could relate to God. Who are we as men? We are special creations of a sovereign God; at our core we are his sons. Why are we here? To be in a relationship with God who is intensely relational, who is intent on being our Father. Where are we going? On a great adventure to know our Creator and to spread his glory and fame in the world as leaders, workers, providers, warriors and lovers. Does life have any meaning? For the man who walks with his God and enjoys him, it absolutely does!

REFLECT:

  • What does it mean to resemble God?
  • Do you define yourself as a son, leader, warrior and lover? What other identities define and drive you?

RESPOND:

  • What three words would God use to describe you?
  • Write them down, keep them in your Bible and review them in one month.

PRAY: Holy God, thank you that I can call you Father, Abba! Thank you that because of Jesus I am
your son forever loved, forgiven and tree from guilt and shame. Thank you that my high status with
you will never change. Help me to be productive, fruitful and faithful in my life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

How Should We Understand the Law?

howtounderstandthebible

In this series in “How to Understand the Bible” we are focussing on how to understand the Old Testament. Many people find parts of the Old Testament daunting and challenging to understand. One such part is that portion in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along with this series, encourage them to learn more and sign up to receive the series via email.


Most people who start to read the Bible from the beginning for the first time will typically have this experience: Genesis is fascinating with the story of creation, Babel, the flood, and the epic stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The exodus story is gripping. And then comes the law. Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments are familiar. Next come the flurry of laws and stipulations, many of which are so far removed from our culture and hard to understand that the Bible reader can get bogged down. Mid-Leviticus, typically.

law

What is “the law”? What is the purpose of the more than 600 regulations? And, very importantly, how much of this applies to our lives? Why do we believe that “You shall not commit adultery” in the Ten Commandments applies to us but “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” does not?

In Scripture “the law” may refer to the more than 600 regulations Moses passed on to the people in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, or it may refer to the first five books of the Bible, or as shorthand for the entire pattern of religious life and rituals in the Old Testament. Law is a way for any society to define the proper bounds of behavior both for protection and for flourishing. But the law of the Old Testament is unique in that it was God’s way of shaping his relationship with a covenant people.

This will help us understand the sometimes bewildering array of laws, some of which seem strange to us. The Hebrews were chosen to live in a distinctive way by how they dressed, what they ate, and how they worshipped. Most of these laws do not carry over after the coming of Christ, when the old covenant gave way to the new covenant, and the way of living in obedience to God comes via a higher kind of law.

In Exodus through Deuteronomy there are three kinds of laws. First, there are civil regulations, for instance, property rights; marriage and divorce standards; laws sanctioning theft, murder, and other crimes; health regulations; etc. Then there are ritual instructions that define the sacrificial system, the festivals, the role of the Levites, and the specific physical features of the tabernacle. Finally, there are moral principles, which include sexual ethics, the major themes of the Ten Commandments, and more. These three types are sometimes called the civil law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law.

So how do we know which of the 600 laws in the Old Testament apply to Christians today? Should we avoid eating shellfish? Ought we to observe Passover? Is it wrong to steal? Do we have to observe the Sabbath (i.e., rest on the seventh day of the week, Saturday)? Are sexual relations between blood relatives wrong? Is tithing (i.e., giving 10 percent of your income) an eternal commandment?

We have to answer this question on something better than our intuitions. The terms of the new covenant must guide us here, and what we find in the New Testament is that the civil law was God’s way of shaping Hebrew society; it’s not binding today. The ritual law used sacrifice and festivals and the tabernacle to teach lessons about sin and atonement, but it has now been superseded by the work of Christ. (See the teaching in the New Testament book of Hebrews.) Moral laws have ongoing validity, but mostly because they are repeated in one form or another in the New Testament.

But lest we repeat the legalism and self-righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law of Jesus’ day, we are guided in the new covenant by this one transcendent principle: the law of love or “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Jesus said the whole old covenant law can be summed up by “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul put it this way: “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14), and “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

It would be reasonable to ask: “So if most of the Law in the first five books of the Bible does not apply to us today, in what sense is it part of the word of God for us?” Here is where we need to set aside all self-centeredness. The whole sweep of the biblical narrative is the story of God moving among and within people in order to bring salvation to humanity, but that doesn’t mean every verse is about us. The law of the Old Testament is the word of God for all people for all time, but given to specific people groups in the context of God’s dynamic, upward development of a covenant relationship with human beings. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “The law was our guardian [custodian, tutor] until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).

So the law stands as a true expression of the will and the ways of God, expressed in a particular era, subject to modification, providing the basis for ever higher revelations of what it means to be the covenant people of God. Jesus summed it up when he said: “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).


Next time: “What Is Important About the Land of the Bible?”

Care to offer feedback this week?

Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.

Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.

Is Your Definition of Joy Too Narrow?: An Interview with Margaret Feinberg

Margaret Feinberg“God is an unconventional teacher. He uses paradox to imbue us with common sense, propels healing through pain, and hauls clarity into our lives through the most confusing circumstances.” Margaret Feinberg used joy as a weapon against her cancer diagnosis to discover God’s fierce love for her, reignite her laughter, release her regrets, overcome her fears, and find the strength she desperately needed.

Bible Gateway interviewed Margaret Feinberg (@mafeinberg) about her book, Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears (Worthy Publishing, 2015) and corresponding 6-session DVD Bible Study (LifeWay Christian Resources, 2015).

Click to buy your copy of Fight Back With Joy in the Bible Gateway Store

Talk about your personal context of challenge in which you wrote this book about joy.

Margaret Feinberg: Several years ago, I felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on a personal journey to lay hold of more joy in my life. I dug into Scripture researching the hundreds of passages on joy, happiness, rejoicing, merriment, and more.

Thrilled about all I was learning, I was putting the finishing touches on a book when I received the news of cancer. Plunged into a world of greater pain and suffering than I’d ever known, I had to scrap the project. Up until then, I had been searching for joy in the relatively good times of life, now I had to find joy amidst darkness and agony.

No one signs up for that assignment. No one.

Against all odds, I’ve found my capacity for joy expanding, and I’ve discovered something quite startling: Joy is far more than I ever thought or been taught. It’s a more dynamic, forceful weapon than most of us realize. When we fight back with joy, we lean into the very presence of God—the one who fill us with joy, even on our most deflated todays.

What’s your understanding of the biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what happens?

Margaret Feinberg: I think using the phrase “biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what happens” has a tendency to create plasticky Christians who feel forced to fake it a lot. This kind of terminology encourages us to hide our pain, our grief, our losses—the very things God often uses to showcase His goodness and glory.

A “biblical mandate to be joyful no matter what” is like telling a child you must have fun. Any sense of play is instantly vacuumed out of the room. The Bible never makes feeling joy a legal matter. Ecclesiastes 3:4 informs us that all of humanity will experience moments of tears as well as laughter. God knows these moments well in advance, but they often come as a surprise to us.

Perhaps you’re referring to, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). And yes, when as we live in tune with Christ, we’re endowed by grace with the ability to reverberate the joy of God. The Greek root for “rejoice” is chairo meaning “full of cheer” or “calmly happy.”

When all the lights go off in life, when everything is stripped away, we can still find a sense of deep shalom in who God is, his character, his ability to hold things together when our world has fallen apart. That’s always available to us. “Rejoice in the Lord always” isn’t a mandate—as in the Eleventh Commandment—as much as an invitation to reorient ourselves toward God—on the best and worst of days.

You say, “If you’re not experiencing joy, your definition of joy is too narrow.” What do you mean by that?

Margaret Feinberg: I think a lot of people have such a narrow understanding of joy that it becomes unattainable. If you look at the more than 400 references to joy, happiness, delight, merriment, and rejoicing in the Bible, you’ll begin to see a broad spectrum of joy emerging.

If we want to walk in the fullness of joy that God has for us then we need to understand that within the Scripture joy is found in a spectrum of emotions, actions, and responses that include mirth, glee, gladness, cheer, happiness, merriment, delighting, shouting, exulting, rejoicing, laughing, playing, brightening, blessing and being blessed, taking pleasure in and being well pleased.

It’s been noted that Hebrew has more words for joyful expressions than any other language. We’re meant to be a people who experience joy in many ways.

Was Job joyful?

Margaret Feinberg: Job was a man in mourning. His world shattered. His children dead. His possessions robbed. His body betrayed. Natural disasters targeted his property. Job’s most precious possession—his relationship with God—seemed mysteriously ripped away. For seven days, Job sat shiva [week-long mourning period in Judaism] in the wake of such breathtaking losses. He mourned. His friends entered into the silence with him. When they spoke, they shifted from providing comfort to becoming a source of confusion and contempt.

For thousands of years, Job’s story has been a source of strength and hope to those who have experienced grief, mourning, and loss. Was Job joyful? No more than you and I would be if we walked the same path. That said, I have a hunch that when we recognize Job in heaven, he’ll have a big, loopy grin on his face for all that God has done to bring solace to generation after generation through his story.

What have you learned about joy from the biblical phrase “but if not”?

Margaret Feinberg: In Daniel 3:16-18, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow to King Nebuchadnezzar’s demands. “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (NRSV, italics added)

These three faithful servants unlock the joy that comes with asking, “What if God?” and declaring “But if not.” This is the tension we must live in as followers of Jesus. It’s the tension Christ faces before His own arrest when he asked God to take the cup from Him. In that moment, Jesus asked, “What if God?” but declared “But if not.” Those words represented the hope of God breaking in, now, today, and rescuing us, but recognizing that if he does not respond in the way we hope or desire we will still follow him in everything. This is the portrait of the surrendered life—and the joy that comes through it.

Offer at least one suggestion that a person could use today to fight back with joy.

Margaret Feinberg: Whatever challenge, trial, difficulty you’re facing wants to absorb all of your attention, all of your energy, all of your emotional bandwidth, all of your freetime and free thoughts. It’s so easy to sink into a place where the adversity is all you see; all you think about. That’s why it’s important to throw anchors into the future.

Place something on the calendar that you can begin looking forward to. A catch-up coffee date with an old friend. Start dreaming about a holiday you can spend with family. Hope is a powerful courier of joy. And one practical way you can fight back with joy is to begin to throw anchors into the future.

Bio: A popular speaker at churches and leading conferences such as Catalyst and Thrive, Margaret Feinberg was recently named one of the “30 Voices” who will help lead the church in the next decade, according to Christian Retailing magazine. Her books have received national media coverage from CNN, the Associated Press, and USA TODAY. She lives in Morrison, Colorado, with her husband, Leif, and her superpup, Hershey.

The 100 Crucial Bible Passages to Know

Here’s a basic approach to reading through the Bible during the year.

Read two passages a week for 50 weeks and in a year you’ll see the “big picture” of the Bible. Bookmark and return to this post weekly as a guide to help you study from your own Bible, or click the selected passage to open the reading online in a new window. Click on the links below to read each passage.

1. Creation—Genesis 1:1-2:25
2. The Fall—Genesis 3:1-24
3. The Flood—Genesis 6:5-7:24
4. God’s Covenant With Noah—Genesis 8:1-9:17
5. Tower of Babel—Genesis 11:1-9
6. The Call of Abram—Genesis 12:1-20
7. God’s Covenant with Abram—Genesis 15:1-21
8. Isaac’s Birth and ‘Sacrifice’—Genesis 21:1-22:19
9. Jacob and Esau Compete—Genesis 27:1-28:22

10. Jacob and Esau Reconcile—Genesis 32:1-33:20
11. Joseph Sold Into Slavery—Genesis 37:1-36
12. Prison and a Promotion—Genesis 39:1-41:57
13. Ten Brothers Go To Egypt—Genesis 42:1-38
14. The Brothers Return—Genesis 43:1-44:34
15. Joseph Reveals His Identity—Genesis 45:1-46:7
16. Birth of Moses—Exodus 1:1-2:25
17. Moses and the Burning Bush—Exodus 3:1-22
18. The Ten Plagues—Exodus 6:28-11:10
19. Passover and Exodus—Exodus 12:1-42
20. Crossing the Red Sea—Exodus 13:17-14:31
21. The Ten Commandments—Exodus 19:1-20:21
22. The Golden Calf—Exodus 32:1-34:35
23. Joshua Succeeds Moses—Joshua 1:1-18
24. Crossing the Jordan—Joshua 3:1-4:24
25. The Fall of Jericho—Joshua 5:13-6:27
26. Israel’s Disobedience—Judges 2:6-3:6
27. Deborah Leads Israel—Judges 4:1-5:31
28. Gideon Defeats the Midianites—Judges 6:1-7:25
29. Samson Defeats the Philistines—Judges 13:1-16:31
30. The Story of Ruth—Ruth 1:1-4:22
31. Samuel Listens to God—1 Samuel 1:1-3:21
32. King Saul—1 Samuel 8:1-10:27
33. David and Goliath—1 Samuel 16:1-18:16
34. David and Saul—1 Samuel 23:7-24:22
35. David Becomes King—2 Samuel 5:1-7:29
36. David and Bathsheba—2 Samuel 11:1-12:25
37. King Solomon—1 Kings 2:1-3:28
38. Solomon’s Temple—1 Kings 8:1-9:9
39. Elijah and the Prophets of Baal—1 Kings 16:29-19:18
40. The Fall of Jerusalem—2 Kings 25:1-30
41. A Psalm of David—Psalm 23:1-6
42. A Psalm of Repentance—Psalm 51:1-19
43. A Psalm of David—Psalm 103:1-22
44. Words on Wisdom—Proverbs 1:1-4:27
45. Proverbs of Solomon—Proverbs 16:1-18:24
46. The Suffering Servant—Isaiah 51:1-53:12
47. Jeremiah the Prophet—Jeremiah 1:1-3:5
48. Daniel in the Den of Lions—Daniel 6:1-28
49. The Story of Jonah—Jonah 1:1-4:11
50. The Day of Judgment—Malachi 1:1-4:6
51. The Word Became Flesh—John 1:1-18
52. Gabriel’s Messages—Luke 1:1-80
53. The Birth of Jesus—Luke 2:1-40
54. John the Baptist—Luke 3:1-20
55. Baptism and Temptation—Matthew 3:13-4:17
56. Sermon on the Mount-Part 1—Matthew 5:1-6:4
57. Sermon on the Mount-Part 2—Matthew 6:5-7:29
58. The Kingdom of Heaven—Matthew 13:1-58
59. The Parable of the Good Samaritan—Luke 10:25-37
60. Parables of the Lost—Luke 15:1-32
61. Feeding the Five Thousand—Luke 9:1-36
62. Walking on Water—Matthew 14:22-36
63. Jesus Heals a Blind Man—John 9:1-41
64. Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man—Mark 5:1-20
65. Raising Lazarus from the Dead—John 11:1-57
66. The Last Supper—Luke 22:1-46
67. Arrest and Trial—John 18:1-40
68. The Crucifixion of Jesus—John 19:1-42
69. The Resurrection and Appearing to the Disciples—John 20:1-21:25
70. Jesus Taken Up To Heaven—Acts 1:1-11
71. The Gift of the Holy Spirit—Acts 2:1-47
72. Peter’s Ministry—Acts 3:1-4:37
73. The Testimony of Stephen—Acts 6:8-8:8
74. Philip and the Ethiopian—Acts 8:26-40
75. Cornelius and Peter—Acts 10:1-11:18
76. Saul’s Conversion—Acts 9:1-31
77. Barnabus and Saul—Acts 13:1-14:28
78. The Council at Jerusalem—Acts 15:1-41
79. Paul’s Journey Continues—Acts 16:1-20:38
80. Paul’s Trial and Continued Journey—Acts 25:1-28:31
81. Life Through the Spirit—Romans 8:1-39
82. Fruit of the Spirit—Galatians 5:16-6:10
83. The Armor of God—Ephesians 6:10-20
84. Rejoice In The Lord—Philippians 4:4-9
85. The Supremacy of Christ—Colossians 1:1-23
86. Instructions from Paul—1 Timothy 3:1-16
87. Final Instructions to Timothy—1 Timothy 6:3-21
88. Good Soldiers of Christ—2 Timothy 2:1-26
89. All Scripture is God-breathed—2 Timothy 3:10-4:8
90. The Day of the Lord—1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
91. Love—1 Corinthians 13:1-13
92. Treasures in Jars of Clay—2 Corinthians 4:1-6:2
93. A Chosen People—1 Peter 1:1-2:12
94. James on Trials and Temptations—James 1:1-2:26
95. John on Love—1 John 3:11-4:21
96. John’s Vision of Christ—Revelation 1:1-20
97. Words to the Seven Churches—Revelation 2:1-3:22
98. The Throne in Heaven—Revelation 4:1-7:17
99. The Defeat of Satan—Revelation 19:1-20:15
100. A New Heaven and a New Earth—Revelation 21:1-22:21

Also see our complete Bible Reading Plans page. It’s now more flexible: you’re able to subscribe to reading plans, set a start date, mark days as read, and pause your plan as needed. Try it and see!

Happy New Year!

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

In our world of murky uncertainty, the stars of the night remind us of God’s incredible handiwork and we can take consolation in these words from the Bible:

Psalm 139

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Adoration of the Baby by Gerrit van Honthorst

And as we begin the new year, let’s remember the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Start the new year by committing to read through the Bible. See all our flexible and customizable Bible Reading Plans and decide which one is right for you.

Happy New Year from your friends at Bible Gateway!

The NIV 365-Day Devotional Reading Plan

NIV Bible website

With the start of the new year Bible Gateway is offering several new Bible Reading Plans and Devotionals. One of them is The NIV 365-Day Devotional Reading Plan. Sign up to get it in your email inbox every day.

This year-long reading plan is comprised of inspirational Bible passages and devotions from the following Bibles to help you gain knowledge and wisdom as you explore the Word of God each day:

  1. The Case for Christ Study Bible (NIV): Investigating the Evidence for Belief
  2. Fulfilled: The NIV Devotional Bible for the Single Woman
  3. The Game Plan for Life Bible (NIV): Notes by Joe Gibbs
  4. The Great Rescue (NIV): Discover Your Part in God’s Plan
  5. NIV Busy Dad’s Bible: Daily Inspiration Even If You Only Have One Minute
  6. NIV Busy Mom’s Bible: Daily Inspiration Even If You Only Have One Minute
  7. NIV Celebrate Recovery Bible
  8. NIV Couples’ Devotional Bible
  9. NIV Discover God’s Heart Devotional Bible: Explore the King’s Love for His People on a Cover-to-Cover Journey Through the Bible
  10. NIV Essentials of the Christian Faith New Testament: Knowing Jesus and Living the Christian Faith
  11. NIV Essentials Study Bible
  12. NIV Fast Facts Bible: Fascinating Trivia from the Most Read Book in History
  13. NIV First-Century Study Bible
  14. NIV Life Journey Bible: Find the Answers for Your Whole Life
  15. NIV Integrated Study Bible: A Chronological Approach for Exploring Scripture
  16. NIV Leadership Bible: Leading by The Book
  17. NIV Life Application Study Bible
  18. NIV MacArthur Study Bible
  19. NIV Men’s Devotional Bible
  20. NIV Once-A-Day: 25 Days of Advent
  21. NIV Once-A-Day: 31 Days of Wisdom
  22. NIV Once-A-Day: 40 Days of Easter
  23. NIV Once-A-Day at the Table Family Devotional
  24. NIV Once-A-Day Morning and Evening Bible
  25. NIV Once-A-Day Devotional for Nurturing Great Kids
  26. NIV Once-A-Day Bible Promises
  27. NIV Once A Day: Why Did I Lose My Job If God Loves Me—Help and Hope for Those in Career Transition
  28. NIV Quest Study Bible: The Question and Answer Bible
  29. NIV Ragamuffin Bible: Meditations for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Brokenhearted
  30. The NIV Spiritual Renewal Bible
  31. NIV Student Bible
  32. NIV Study Bible
  33. NIV The Journey Bible: Revealing God and How You Fit into His Plan
  34. NIV Women’s Devotional Bible
  35. NIV The Woman’s Study Bible
  36. NIV Worship Together Bible: Discover Scripture through Classic and Contemporary Music

Here’s a sample devotional, taken from Once a Day Bible Promises:

God Is Bigger Than Your Worldly Troubles (John 16:33)

Have you ever stopped to think how different life would be if we were still living in Eden? No broken relationships. No difficult pregnancies. No squabbles with spouses. No financial woes. No cancer. No feeling far away from God. (And this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface!)

Instead we live in a world marred by the effects of sin. We daily face all kinds of pain, trouble, suffering, weeping, loss and despair.

The temptation is to blame our woes on God, but let’s be honest: The human race did this to itself. All God ever did was love us, and—when we rebelled—implement a plan to rescue us.

The promise above—a statement by Jesus to his followers—is a sobering assessment of the way things are. But it is also a hopeful reminder of the once and future Paradise for which we were created.

In light of such truth, author Elisabeth Elliot counsels us: “Refuse self-pity. Refuse it absolutely. It is a deadly thing with power to destroy you. Turn your thoughts to Christ who has already carried your griefs and sorrows.”

God’s Promise to Me

  • Trials and sorrows are part of living in a fallen world.
  • I am bigger and more powerful than any worldly troubles you face.

My Prayer to God
Heavenly Father, trials and sorrows are a normal part of life. I don’t like this truth, but it reminds me of my need for you, God. I can take heart in the fact that you will have the final word. I praise you because you are powerful and sovereign over my life—even the hard times. Always keep me looking to you.

So take a look at all our email devotionals and customizable reading plans, and sign up for as many as you’d like. Happy New Year!
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Try Our New Bible Reading Plan Functionality!


(Photo courtesy: Glenn Leatherman)

One of the most well used sections of the Bible Gateway website is our Bible Reading Plans page. We’ve now improved its functionality to give it more flexibility and user customization. You’re now able to subscribe to reading plans, set a start date, mark days as read, and pause your plan as needed.

Two plans that were recently added are the Revised Common Lectionary (Complementary) and Revised Common Lectionary (Semicontinuous). Each are Bible readings that follow the church liturgical year; the Complementary edition offers thematically matched Old and New Testament readings and the Semicontinuous edition offers sequential stories told across multiple weeks.

Reading through the Bible is a rewarding experience, and these plans can help you do it! The start of the new year is a great time to begin a reading plan. But that’s not the only time. Select your reading plan whenever the time is right for you!

For the best experience, create an account or log in and subscribe to the reading plan of your choice. Then you can track your progress, receive daily reading reminder emails, and print monthly lists of readings for offline use. You can start, pause, or end a reading plan at any time—at your own pace.

So, choose a reading plan and get ready for the incredible journey of reading through the Bible, at your own pace!

Here’s a list of our current plans, which we’re adding to all the time:

  • Old/New Testament
  • Chronological
  • The Bible from Genesis to Revelation
  • Historical
  • The Bible in 90 Days
  • The Gospels in 40 Days
  • New Testament in a Year
  • The Daily Audio Bible
  • The Book of Common Prayer
  • Readings for Lent and Easter
  • Daily Reading for Personal Growth, 40 Days with God
  • Readings for Celebrating Advent
  • Read the New Testament in 24 Weeks
  • The Verse of the Day
  • Revised Common Lectionary (Complementary)
  • Revised Common Lectionary (Semicontinuous)
  • M’Cheyne Bible Reading Plan
  • Proverbs Monthly

Try one today!