May 26, 2020

NIV First-Century Study Bible

The NIV First-Century Study Bible from Zondervan gives us an edition of the New International Version which broadens present-day understanding of the Bible by including “Ancient Texts Relating to the Old Testament,” Hebrew words studies, “Day in the Life Articles,” and other study notes, sidebars, timelines, and illustrations meant to introduce us to biblical times, places, and peoples.

For example, the word study for Genesis 16:13 says:

el roi    אל-רועי
"This has a double meaning: 'God of seeing” and “God of my seeing'.”

In Ruth 4:1, the word study sidebar offers this description of a word familiar to Christians yet perhaps not with the full understanding of the original biblical perspective:

goel     גואל
"The goel fulfilled the legal obligation of reacquiring property lost by family members because of difficult times."

Most Christians who have read the books of the Hebrew prophets see the connection between Isaiah 40:3 and John the Baptist who was likened to “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord…” The footnote for that verse tells us, “This was an important passage for both the Dead Sea Scrolls community and John the Baptist…” Then the opposite page has a photograph of “The Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found,” which helps us to envision that place.

Just prior to this illumination of the text, however, the footnote for 40:1-2 refers to “The consolation of Israel,” which brings to mind the fulfillment acknowledged in Luke. As that footnote states:

“The idea that Israel had served its time of hard service and would be restored and comforted seems to have influenced a man named Simeon who recognized Jesus as the coming Messiah (see note on Luke 2:25-35).

Turning, then, to that footnote in Luke 2, we read:

"The ‘consolation of Israel’ (v. 25) probably alludes to Isa 40:1-2, which not only has Messianic implications but also inspired the Dead Sea Scrolls community to flee to the desert to await the consolation, or salvation, expected in the Messianic age. Simeon’s words in verse 32 went further than predicting the salvation of Israel; they included the salvation of Gentiles….”

Looking for an example of the “Day in the Life,” my Bible opened to an article on the “Galilean Fisherman,” relevantly placed alongside John’s account of the apostles’ fishing after Jesus’ Resurrection. The article details the many aspects of a fisherman’s day, while the adjacent page illustrates “An artist’s reconstruction of a first-century fishing boat.” The article also informs us that Bethsaida “where at least three of the disciples were from…” means “house of fishing.”

In the back matter of this edition, the “Study Helps” section lists a “Topical Index to Articles” as well as a glossary, concordance, index to the maps that were scattered throughout the text, and full-page maps of world empires and the travels of God’s people.

Those travels come full circle in Revelation 22, when Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” (v. 13.) The footnote for that verse goes on to tell us:

Here Jesus takes on the title used for God at the beginning of the book…. This appears to be a culmination of John’s revelation, not an afterthought. Jesus is synonymous with the one Lord and God.”


May 18, 2020

Catholic Family Connection Bible

The Catholic Family Connection Bible
, which Saint Mary’s Press kindly sent me to review, aims to be “Where family, faith, and life connect” with God’s word. Since the edition has a Catholic emphasis, the translation used is the highly acclaimed New American Bible Revised Edition, which I, too, acclaim for its thoroughness and accuracy, especially if you want to read, as I did, the intertestament books.

The word “Catholic,” of course, means universal, wide-reaching, and all-embracing, so you can be confident it includes you. Nevertheless, you can expect to find pages with “Catholic Practices and Prayers,” which I also recommend regardless of your denominational preference simply because the more we understand where each other is coming from, the more apt we are to show respect and appreciation for fellow Christians with views we might not have considered.

As stated in an opening page, “The Bible Is Multicultural”:

In the Bible, God is revealed as the God of all nations and all cultures….” and since we “live in a multicultural word,” this edition “includes additional articles representing cultural perspectives from around the world” – namely, African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American.

For example, a “Cultural Connection” sidebar on Mark 1 tells us:

Most Native American peoples would not be surprised by all the angels and spirits in the first chapter of Mark. Many Native American cultures believe in the presence of good and bad spirits in the world. They view good spirits as personal helpers and message bearers, like the angels who take care of Jesus in verse 13.”

The “Cultural Connection” alongside Mark 4 reminds us how “Jesus teaches about God’s Reign through parables” or stories. Then,

In some Hispanic families, it is customary for young people to hear their abuelita (grandmother) tell stories about their family history, traditions, and faith. Many of the stories are true; others may be created to give a moral teaching, like the parables.”

Still in Mark, the “Cultural Connection” for chapter 15 says:

According to Mark 15:21, the Roman soldiers compelled a North African black man from Cyrene by the name of Simon, a passerby, to carry the cross of Jesus. We do not know anything more about Simon of Cyrene, except that Mark identifies him as the father of Alexander and Rufus. The reference to Simon’s sons by name and the possibility that Rufus is the same person Paul greets in Romans 16:13 indicate that they were known among the early Christians. This is significant for African Americans because it is evidence of the prominence and influence of African people in the early Christian Church.”

Each of those cultural references came in sidebars only from the Gospel of Mark, but such perceptive jewels have been scattered throughout the entire edition.

Other unique articles and sidebars encourage us to “Pray It!,” “Study It!,” and “Live It! Additionally, inserts such as “Praying with the Bible” go into more detail:

As Catholics we believe that God speaks to us in the words of the Bible. The words are not just human words but rather God’s own communication of love to us. When we pray with the Bible, God speaks to our hearts and can deeply touch us and change our lives.

The next two pages of that insert instruct us in the ancient prayer practice of Lectio Divina – “a prayer technique for reading the Bible slowly and contemplatively, allowing God’s word to shed insights on your life. It cultivates the ability to listen deeply, to hear the word of God with the ear of your heart.

Another insert focuses on “Family Faith Conversations” that provide:

  • thematic Bible passages to help start family faith conversations
  • prayer ideas for dealing with the death of a family member
  • ideas for family service activities

Can you see why I’m so impressed with this edition? And I haven’t even mentioned the helpful introductions to each book, the pages in the back matter that help readers find a wealth of topics, an explanation of “The Church Year,” a glossary, a timeline, and maps including one I always like to find (but rarely do) “The Holy Land in Modern Times.”

Like a good mother, this edition gives us almost everything a family might need!

Mary HarwellSayler, poet-writer, Bible reviewer, ©2020

April 21, 2020

Literary Study Bible, ESV

As a poet and writer, I’m just naturally interested in the effects literary forms have on readers. For instance, narratives draw us into stories with which we can relate, while poetry expresses for us the praise, laments, thoughts, and feelings we have in common.

In other words, poems and stories help us to connect with God, one another, and ourselves. It’s not surprising then that the Bible consists primarily of two main genres or types of literature: narratives and poetry.

In the Introduction to the Literary Study Bible, which Crossway kindly sent me to review, we learn that biblical narratives come in sub-types such as the “hero story, Gospel, epic, tragedy, comedy (a U-shaped plot with a happy ending), and parable. Specific poetic genres keep multiplying as well: lyric, lament psalm, praise psalm, love poem, nature poem, epithalamion (wedding poem) and many others.”

The Introduction goes on to say, “In addition to narrative and poetry, we find prophecy, visionary writing, apocalypse, pastoral, encomium, oratory, drama (the book of Job), satire, and epistle. Then if we start adding more specific forms like travel story, dramatic monologue, doom song, and Christ hymn, the number of literary genres in the Bible readily exceeds one hundred.

Since we might not be familiar with all of these literary terms, the publisher included a Glossary in the back of the book, explaining, for example, that encomium is “A work of literature that praises either a general character type (e.g., Psalm 1 on the godly person and Prov. 31:10-31 on the virtuous wife) or abstract quality (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13 on love and Hebrews 11 on faith).”

Does any of this matter? I think so. For example, if you know I’m a fairly well-traveled Southerner who grew up believing in God’s love for all people, in Jesus as the full embodiment of God’s Word, and in Christian fellowship as vital for up-building the church, you’ll have a better idea of where I’m coming from and, therefore, more likely to connect. Similarly, the literary forms in the Bible help us to know where the writers were coming from and what they hoped we, the readers, would relate to, hear, and heed as they bring us God’s message in a particular way. Or, as the Introduction puts it:

Whereas history and the daily news tell us what happened, literature tells us what happens – what is true for all people in all places and times…. The goal of literature is to prompt a reader to share or relive an experience. The truth that literature imparts is not simply ideas that are true but truthfulness to human experience.”

To give you a better idea of the features in this edition, let’s begin in the beginning with Genesis, “The Book at a Glance.”

As its title signals, the book of Genesis is the Bible’s book of beginnings. It is a foundational book that informs us about the first principles of the biblical faith – such first principles as how the world came into being, how sin entered the world, how God began to unfold his plan of salvation, and what people and human institutions (especially the family) are like. Although Genesis is a history book, its history is packed in highly literary forms, the most dominant of which is hero story. Because the history that is recounted in the book of Genesis reaches back to the primitive origins of the human race, it is particularly rich in universal, elemental human experience. Despite the seeming remoteness of the world of Genesis, the experiences are actually very close to our everyday lives.”

In one example of the timelessness of these experiences, we read how the serpent in the Garden of Eden cast doubt on whether God meant what He said – a question that troubles many people today. (Unnecessarily, I must add! If God said it, God means it!)  Another example of a common experience is the sibling rivalry Cain felt for Able (though we pray it doesn’t have the same tragic ending in our families!) Or what about Abraham’s lying to protect himself or Jacob’s learning the hard way that deceitfulness is apt to boomerang?

“The Book at a Glance” for Job has its own theme and purpose as “It raises the question not simply of why people in general suffer but specifically of why the righteous suffer. Philosophers and theologians call this ‘the problem of evil’ and the attempt to offer a satisfactory solution to the problem is called theodicy.”

Regarding the genres used in Job, “The story begins and ends with a narrative frame in which the author tells the story of the fall and restoration of the protagonist Job. Within these bookends, though, the primary form is drama, as we are presented with the speeches and dialogues of the actors in the story. The form in which these speeches are cast is poetry.”

Before reading The Psalms, its “Theological Themes” introduce us to “(1) The nature of God: no book of the Bible offers a more comprehensive survey of the acts and attributes of God. (2) The nature of people: because every psalm is at some level a personal statement by a poet. Psalms is also an index to what people are like, both good and bad. (3) Nature and the physical creation: the psalms say and imply many things about the external world that God made and sustains. (4) Worship: the psalms are used in worship, and many of them talk about worship. (5) Suffering: the many lament psalms yield a theology of suffering.

Skipping ahead to the New Testament, a footnote on Matthew 5 points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount “has the nature of an inauguration speech.”

The footnote goes on to say, “The beatitudes are one of the most patterned passages in the entire New Testament. They follow the Hebrew verse form of parallelism: In each beatitude, Jesus (a) pronounces a blessing on a group of people, (b) names the group according to their essential trait, and (c) offers a reason (which is at the same time a promise) for their condition of blessedness.”

A distinctive feature in the Gospel of John “is the linking of a sign or other great symbol with a corresponding statement made by Jesus in the form of either a conversation or a full-fledged discourse. For example, Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink from the well (4:7-8) and then pursues a conversation with the woman about water that climaxes in Jesus’ claim to be the source of living water that wells up to eternal life (4:9-15). To cite another example, Jesus feeds five thousand (6:1-14), and a few verses later we read his discourse on Jesus’ being the bread of life (6:25-40).”

Symbolism reaches great height in the book of Revelation as the author uses narrative story and poetic imagery, metaphor, and simile in presenting its “pageant of visions.”

With these unique aids and insights into studying the highly acclaimed English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible,I look forward to sharing this excellent resource in my Sunday School and mid-week Bible discussion groups, which, Lord willing, will begin again soon, even if we need masks to accompany our prayers.

March 31, 2020

God’s promises in God’s Word reveal God’s will

As you have surely heard – and, hopefully, sung – the hymn “Standing on the Promises” of God encourages us to stand firm in our faith as we live our lives and interact with the world. But what if we kneel on those promises?

Claiming God’s promises and praying in agreement with God's vows to us ensures that we’re praying in God’s will.

Regardless of the translation we choose from the many editions reviewed on this blog over the years, our belief in the Bible as God’s Word lets us know we have God’s word on matters crucial to our lives! By claiming those promises, we strengthen our faith and empower our prayers.

As God-incidence would have it, the Lord put this timely subject on my mind months ago! And thankfully, the Bible Gateway blog eased the research, enabling me to collect and paraphrase over 250 of countless Bible promises into the new book, Kneeling on the Promises of God.

Each page begins with the next timely promise, found according to the typical arrangement of the books of the Bible then divided into two sections of Old Testament Promises and New. (Interestingly, those turned out to be about the same length!)

A conversational prayer in everyday language follows each Bible verse with space at the bottom of the page for you to write down prayers that come to you as you claim God’s word and agree with God’s will in prayer.

To give you an example, here's the first page:

Genesis 28:15 – “Look! I Am with you. I watch over you as you come and go. I will not leave you before I have done everything I promised.”

What joy we have in Your presence, Lord! What empowering promises You have given us to claim!

You, our Heavenly Father, our Loving God, and the Creator of all life in heaven and on earth, have given Your word to be with us. No matter where we are, You are there.

We need You now, Lord.

We need You now.

At present the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic has slowed shipping of nonessential items, but Kneeling on thePromises of God is essential! Therefore, you can also find it in an  e-book. Whether you prefer electronic or snail mail, there’s rarely been a more crucial time for the whole world to pray with power and conviction.

Seriously! Let’s take God at His Word!

©2020, MaryHarwell Sayler, poet-writer, and lifelong believer in the Bible and prayer

March 14, 2020

ESV Seek and Find Bible

When Crossway kindly sent me a review copy of the ESV Seek and Find Bible for children, its many features made me regret the categorization for kids 5-9. This hardback edition of the English Standard Version is so sturdy and well-done, older kids might want to read it -- and I do too!

Consider these features listed on the inside fold of the slick, attractive cover:

The complete ESV Bible text
provides a reliable translation in a readable font.

130 full-page, full-color illustrations
depict Bible people and scenes realistically in full color.

A simplified Bible story retelling for each illustration
For example, “Deborah’s Message from God” depicts the story found in Judges 4-5, with an era-friendly illustration and the words in this excerpt:

After twenty years of living under the mean King Jabin, the people of Israel cried out to God for help. God listened to their prayers and sent them help through a judge named Deborah. Every day Deborah sat near a palm tree in the desert and helped the people of Israel with their problems.
God told Deborah exactly what to do.”

Reflection questions for each story to help kids understand and apply God’s Word
In the story “Jesus Calms the Storm” from Mark 4:35-41, “Key Questions” include:

Why were the disciples afraid when the storm was raging?
What did Jesus say, and what happened when he said it?
Why should Jesus’ miracles fill us with faith?

Related Bible readings for each of the 130 stories
For the story of Jesus’ calming the storm, readers are encouraged to look up relevant scriptures in Luke 8:22-25 and John 6:16-21.

50+ illustrated profiles of major Bible characters from Adam and Eve to Timothy
For example, a side bar in the Gospel of John introduces readers to Andrew:

“Andrew was a fisherman who listened eagerly to the teaching of John the Baptist. John told people that they must repent and get ready for the promised Messiah. When John called Jesus the Lamb of God, Andrew knew that he must now follow Jesus the Messiah. Andrew found his brother, Simon Peter, and brought him to Jesus, too. So Andrew and his brother Simon Peter became two of the 12 disciples, who were Jesus’ closest friends and helpers.”

Introductions to each book of the Bible
The Introduction to Psalms, for example, lets readers know the book, “written by different authors over a period of centuries” became the hymnal of God’s people.

“…Some psalms praise God with great joy for victory (Psalm 18); others for his acts of creation (Psalm 104) or for his provision and care ((Psalm 105). Others are laments, songs of mourning that praise God by bringing to him deep feelings of sadness (Psalm 88). Many psalms are cries for protection against persecuting enemies (Psalm 7). Other psalms confess sin and pray for forgiveness (Psalm 51). Still others express deep longings to know God better and follow him more closely (Psalm 27). The longest psalm praises the Word of God from many different perspective (Psalm 119). Several psalms look ahead to the Messiah in his sufferings (Psalm 22) and in his glory (Psalm 110). The book of Psalms is one of the best loved books of the entire Bible, having something for every believer, no matter what their specific circumstances or feelings.

Alongside that Introduction (as with all the others intros), each page briefly includes information on:

  • Author(s)
  • Date
  • People
  • Purpose
  • Central Themes
  • Memory Verses

20+ illustrated facts about Bible objects, structures, and places
including the Jerusalem Temple, its main contents, and the city at various times. As children see what these look like, the Bible text becomes more real to them. One picture, for example, is of a “Galilean Fishing Boat” with these words beside the illustration:

“Jesus and his disciples probably used a boat like this one that fishermen typically used. It could have held 15 men and was 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high.

Key verses to memorize
has a little key drawn within a circle and placed next to verses such as this one from John 8:12:

…Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.

A few pages later, the Bible story of “Jesus Heals the Blind Man” includes that verse, so the above key verse shows the page number to that event. The problem I had, however, was finding that and other pages by number – ironically because the generous illustrations and other fine features utilize the same space in this highly recommended edition of God’s Word.

Reviewed by Mary Harwell Sayler, ©2020.

March 3, 2020

Conversing with God’s Word

We’ve talked about the God’s Word (GW) translation of the Bible before, but recently God’s Word to the Nations Mission Society sent me two newer editions attractively covered in flexible Duravella – one a two-tone gray and the other a two-tone burgundy and gray.

Both editions have large print, but the latter also has wide margins, which encourage us to respond to God’s Word with whatever thoughts or prayers come to mind. This “conversation” becomes a spiritual diary of sorts as we claim a Bible verse or prayer, especially if we add the date as a reminder. And, it can become a private study edition as we jot down insights and relevant notes, making this a priceless heirloom to hand down to the next generation.

The most important feature of the GW translation, however, is its readability. In an accompanying brochure, the “Word Choice” column says: “The translation team chose words that were natural in context and as easily understood as possible without sacrificing accuracy or faithfulness to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.”

When it comes to “Gender References,” the brochure explains that “GW avoids using words like man and he if the Hebrew of Greek is speaking about people regardless of gender.” If, however, the text refers to a specific group such as the Jewish council, which consisted exclusively of men, the text will reflect that.

As a poet and writer, I particularly appreciate GW's “Translation Philosophy,” which does not “attempt to make all books or passages function on the same level. The more difficult books of the Bible are translated to the same level of difficulty as the original languages. In addition, abstract concepts in Greek and Hebrew are translated into abstract concepts in English, and concrete concepts remain concrete in translation.

Both of these editions include an A to Z topical reference to scriptures on “The Teachings of Jesus,” providing an excellent resource for Bible study. Both also contain A to Z topics with their biblical references for “Life Applications.”

If you consider the Lenten season leading up to Easter as a time of intense reflection, you might turn to Psalm 51 as a memory-booster prior to corporate or private confession. Many churches refer to that psalm during Lent, but one of my favorite guides into reflection or meditation is The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, which helps to align our attitudes with the ones the Lord wants us to have. Thanks to the high readable GW translation, the Beatitudes become even more accessible:

Blessed are those who recognize they are
spiritually helpless.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blesses are those who mourn.
They will be comforted.

Blessed are those who are gentle.
They will inherit the earth.

Blesses are those who hunger and thirst for
God’s approval.
They will be satisfied.

Blessed are those who show mercy.
They will be treated mercifully.

Blessed are those whose thoughts are pure.
They will see God.

Blessed are those who make peace.
They will be called God’s children.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing
what God approves of.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you,
persecute you,
lie, and say all kinds of evil things about you
because of me.
Rejoice and be glad because you have a great reward
in heaven!
The prophets who lived before you were persecuted
in these ways,” (Matthew 5:3-12.)

May God help us to take God’s Word to heart, soul, mind, and spirit in Jesus’ Name.

Mary Sayler, ©2020

February 10, 2020

My Favorite Study Bibles

Whenever I prepare for the Bible discussion groups I lead, I turn to the footnotes and articles from several study editions lining my desk, especially:

Amplified Study Bible from Zondervan
The NIV Study Bible from Zondervan
NKJV Study Bible published by Thomas Nelson
ESV Study Bible published by Crossway
Thompson Chain Reference Bible from Kirkbride

However, I'm sad to say I gave away the HCSB Study Bible from Holman to another Bible discussion leader, who needed one reliable resource instead of the many I prefer.

Each of those excellent editions gives a broad understanding of Bible people and their religious views, cultures, and geographical locations. But almost every time, I discover a little something more in my all-time favorite Bible - The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which I just learned has been released in a 5th edition in a leather cover currently on Amazon at half-price! 

Mary Sayler, ©2020