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I grew up Catholic but lost my faith in teenage years. Regardless, the Bible has been very influential until this day and it has some pretty neat stories.

I now want to read the Bible seriously. I have never read the whole text and I have no idea how to. But I believe that reading it sequentially from cover to cover is not the standard approach although this is generally how I approach other books.

I realize that Bible reading guidelines may differ depending on the interests of the reader. I want to 1) get the general idea of the stories in the Bible and 2) to understand the internal (perhaps literary?) references in the text. I understand that the Bible has a lot of internal references which I might not pick up on my first reading. Regardless, I am looking for guidelines on how to read the Bible so I can achieve the above 2 goals with just one reading.

By the way, "Do not read the whole text, rather focus on [...]" is also an answer I am willing to consider.

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    If your goal is "to get a general idea of the stories on the bible and understand references (perhaps in literature) to the text," you can also ask questions about the Bible at Literature StackExchange. I'm not sure if this particular question would be considered too broad over there, but questions about specific literary references would definitely be on-topic.
    – DLosc
    Sep 2, 2022 at 16:38
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    I made an edit of your Q so that your request is easier to understand. I tried my best to discern the intention behind your Q, but if I end up distorting it, please edit. Sep 2, 2022 at 16:45
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    Maybe it would be better to just take out the "which order" part of this question than close it as a Dupe,
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 2, 2022 at 18:47
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    My 2 c. DO NOT DO THIS. I recently spent months camped out in the Gospel of John. When I started reading the Bible, I spent months on the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible is too vast to have as a goal to 'read it all' once through. The Bible is actually a library, even though the scrolls and letters in it are divinely connected. Sep 2, 2022 at 21:42
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    For getting a general familiarity with all the stories and understanding (more or less) most of the internal references, why not read it straight through linearly? People do sometimes do that. There are reasons for other orders, but they don't necessarily serve your particular purposes better than a straight-through read. Sep 3, 2022 at 22:16

9 Answers 9

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  • Regularly: Read the Bible frequently, many times a week if you can.
  • Repeatedly: Because the Bible is interconnected, the truths it contains won't all be visible the first time you read a text. Come back to a book of the Bible after some time reading other parts of the Bible and you'll see things you missed the first time.
  • In community: If possible, read the Bible not as an isolated individual, but as part of a community. This includes reading and hearing the Bible taught during formal church services, reading and studying the Bible in small groups, but also just the community aspect to personal at-home reading, meaning that you can take your observations and questions to people in your church community and in turn hear what they've been learning from the scriptures.
  • A book at a time: The main structural unit of the Bible is the 'book'. These are texts that were intended to be read as a whole, so it's best for us to do that too - don't just jump into chapter 14, but start from chapter 1 and continue to the end.
  • A passage at a time: But in each of your reading sessions, it's best to read a passage at a time. The 'chapters' of the Bible are often arbitrary and sometimes poorly divided, as are the verses. So don't think you have to read an entire chapter to be doing it right, and neither should you think you have understood what the text means if you only read a verse at a time. Instead try to identify the natural sections of the text. In one of the New Testament letters this might be only 3-4 verses. In the Old Testament Prophets it could be quite long, even longer than a chapter sometimes.
  • With awareness of genres: The Bible has many genres: history, biography, legal texts, poetry, letters. Be aware of these as you read it. There will be more metaphors in poetry than laws, but that doesn't mean you'll never see metaphors in the legal sections.
  • Promise and fulfillment: The Bible was written over a long time, most Christians believing it covers several millenia of history, focusing particularly on the nation of Israel. In the Bible God makes many promises, and you can see many of those promises fulfilled later in the Bible, though some are still yet to be fulfilled. In particular, a lot of the promises concern the promised messiah who would save Israel. Christians believe those promises are fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
  • Alternating between OT and NT: To help us recognise these promises and fulfillments, I often recommend alternating between an OT book and a NT book. But that's not essential. Just make sure you don't neglect one of the Testaments.
  • To meet God: The Bible was written in order that we could meet God through it. So be prepared to meet God, and be prepared for him to say things you weren't expecting, uncomfortable truths about yourself, and unexpected invitations to you yourself.
  • Joyfully: Reading the Bible is a great privilege, to hear our God speak to us. Try not to feel it as a burden to be undertaken, but a privilege to be enjoyed.
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    Great answer! I suggest adding prayerfully. That which was inspired by the Spirit is interpreted to us by the Spirit. We miss the mark reading with our intellect alone. Sep 2, 2022 at 14:00
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    +1 I would add "Be aware of translational differences." Sep 2, 2022 at 21:44
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    @OneGodtheFather I was rushing when I wrote this, but had been thinking of adding one saying to read a couple of translations (if possible).
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 2, 2022 at 22:46
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    This does not answer the question at all, I don't know why it received so many upvotes. The question asked "What's the best way to do [read the bible once as a non-believer]", and this answer explains how to do y [read the bible many times as a believer]". Sep 5, 2022 at 1:28
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    but it's not applicable to getting a general sense of the stories and the literary references, for someone who's lost their faith, i.e. not applicable to the question. Sep 5, 2022 at 3:46
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If I discern your original question correctly, you are asking (my paraphrase):

What is the best way to read the WHOLE Bible for the FIRST time with just ONE reading that enable me to understand as much as possible its internal references, as well as its external literary references? Because the Bible is special, I doubt that reading sequentially from Genesis to Revelation is the best way, although other books are generally read that way.

@curiousdannii has given you a very good approach on studying the Bible seriously and prayerfully if you are willing to do MULTIPLE readings (which is actually the best way). So my answer focuses on getting the most out of a SINGLE (but complete) reading with only limited familiarity of major stories from your childhood.

Strategies you can try (use more than one)

  1. Use one of these 15 reading plans which gives you a sequence based on various criteria. For your purpose, plan #8 (Chronologically Thematic Whole Bible Plan) seems to be best (reading plan here):

    This unique plan put the Old Testament in Chronological order and then breaks up the New Testament books according to themes in the Old Testament and connects them to the OT daily reading. The result is that you are reading New Testament and Old Testament passages every day. This plan is a six day a week plan, so you have one day to catch up each week if you get behind. The only big disadvantage to this plan is how the NT gets all broken up. Many books of the Bible get scattered throughout the year making it impossible to capture the flow of the New Testament books. Even though this plan might not be for everyone, it does offer a truly unique experience reading through the Old Testament show very deeply how the New Testament fulfills it.

  2. Since this is your first time, use the dynamic NLT translation so it's as close as possible to current English yet doesn't compromise accuracy much.

  3. MY TOP RECOMMENDATION: Use the Chronological Life Application Study Bible NLT which breaks down the chronology in 10 sections, each with short introduction, people & culture, books of this period, mega themes, detailed timeline, map, and complete passages of the Bible arranged by time (so you don't have to jump around):

    Because the Chronological Life Application Study Bible is designed to give you the experience of reading through God’s redemptive story in historical order, it isn’t arranged in sixty-six books like a traditional canonically arranged Bible.

    ...

    Some books cover the exact same events from different perspectives, like the books of Kings and Chronicles. Others, like the Psalms, are spread over hundreds of years by many different authors. It is often difficult for ordinary readers to put together the little clues throughout the Bible that show how a particular book or chapter fits into the larger story of the Bible. But seeing that larger story is often the key that unlocks understanding for some parts of the Bible that seem obscure.

    The Chronological Life Application Study Bible helps the reader see the larger story by breaking up the traditional books of the Bible into 10 major eras of biblical history, intermingling the Scriptures into a single, unified story from Creation to the end. This provides readers with a unique viewpoint on the biblical story, and it can give fresh and exciting insight into books of the Bible that might have been difficult to understand apart from knowing where they fall chronologically. For example, see the way the prophets Haggai and Zechariah are interacting with what is happening in the book of Ezra . Intermingling the prophets with the historical books can give us a new perspective on the issues they were dealing with. In this case, it shows how the people responded to God’s call on their life through the prophets: The Temple was rebuilt and proper worship in Jerusalem was restored! This is only one of many examples. In the Chronological Life Application Study Bible, you will notice that the prophets are an integral part of the story of Israel, and their writings will pop up right in the middle of the story when they confronted a king or the people. You will read Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians right when he wrote them, during a stay in Corinth a few months after his visit to Thessalonica. This new view on the text of Scripture will give you surprising and valuable insights.

    Another excellent chronological study bible is from Thomas Nelson with the NIV (slightly less dynamic) translation, organizing the history into 9 epochs and also intersperses passages according to time. For example:

    • Ps 59 (prayer of David) is inserted between 1 Sam 19:17 and 1 Sam 19:18 at the very point Saul confronted Michal to let David escaped when Saul tries to Kill David
    • Ps 90 (prayer of Moses) is just after Deut 34:12 (death of Moses)
  4. Use a traditional study Bible that includes introductory essays for the whole Bible, an introductory & background article for each Bible book, charts, maps, timelines, glossary of key Bible terms, etc. Example: the NLT Study Bible has this feature:

    85 introductory articles set the stage for each Bible section, book and time period. The articles give background information in three layers. First, Old and New Testament articles give a broad overview of each testament. Second, section and chronology articles help orient you to the kind of literature and timeframe of the writings included, giving information on setting, genre, and more. Third, book introductions give more detailed setting and message information as well as an outline, timelines, maps, author information, and a focus on the overall meaning and message of that book. Additional articles include a harmony of the Gospels, the intertestamental period, and the time after the apostles.

    Another study Bible with the above features is the ESV Study Bible which has excellent articles geared toward intermediate reader, with the downside of a much more formal translation.

    Although articles in a study Bible can necessarily be biased to a certain denomination, for first reading it's not that important because the big picture should be the same (Jesus Christ centered).

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"and I want to get as much out of it on just one read"

I've been reading this book daily for some 20 years and I am still finding treasure. Don't expect to get it all in one go.

My 2 cents? Read the Gospel of John a few times, slowly. Make a note of questions that come up. You can search here for lots of answers that already exist or ask your own.

Be alert for references made such as "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of Man be lifted up" and then find and read those stories.

Above all read prayerfully, asking God to reveal what He knows you need and believing that He will do so; he promises to give wisdom when it is asked for in faith.

Have a great trip!

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    can you expound why John (why not Matt, Luke, or Mark...what specifically about John do you see helping a new reader that others don't?)
    – depperm
    Sep 2, 2022 at 17:36
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    @depperm John is much more rich in a personal portrait of Jesus, and less about the public teachings of Jesus. John referred to himself in it as the disciple Jesus loved, and his intimacy with Jesus is apparent in his Gospel. If you want the most comprehensive look at the teachings of Jesus, Luke is the Gospel for you. Sep 2, 2022 at 18:46
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    @depperm The purpose statement of John's Gospel ... John 20:31 ... makes it a good starting place, generally speaking. Sep 2, 2022 at 19:31
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    My point is for a new reader, expounding why to start a reading a random book in the New Testament might require a better reason in the answer
    – depperm
    Sep 4, 2022 at 12:57
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There are lots of great answers here about how to read the Bible generally. But to answer your specific question:

I want to 1) get the general idea of the stories in the Bible and 2) to understand the internal (perhaps literary?) references in the text....I am looking for guidelines on how to read the Bible so I can achieve the above 2 goals with just one reading

I would recommend the following reading plan as the fastest way to read through just the stories of the Bible and building context for later events in the Bible.

Old Testament

I often recommend that new readers start with the New Testament, but doing so immediately puts you into in media res territory. Reading the Old Testament helps to see God's dealings with humanity in context and helps to understand why God had to take the drastic measures of sending his own son to live and die in order for humanity to be saved.

Genesis to Numbers

This constitutes the bulk of the law/Torah/Pentateuch. I've left Deuteronomy off this list as the stories it contains are largely repeated from events from Genesis to Numbers.

Genesis

Contains stories about God creating everything, man's earliest dealings with God, and the how and why of God making the nation of Israel his special people.

Exodus

Contains stories about God rescuing the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of their journey toward having their own land.

There are some dry spells of reading between Exodus 21-40 (second half of this book) that don't explicitly contain stories, but reading through it is useful anyway as the stories contained here help to provide some context for events that happen later in the Bible.

Leviticus

This is probably the most borderline book in your reading plan, but it does contain some stories about how a holy God deals with his wayward people in the middle of the Sinai wilderness.

Numbers

Contains stories about the nation of Israel struggling to realize God's promises of a forever home.

Joshua to Esther

All of the books contained here (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles1, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther) contain the bulk of the stories of the history of the nation/kingdom of Israel, from their early days in possessing the land of Canaan to being thrown out of it to being restored to it once again, so these would be must reads in your plan.

11 and 2 Chronicles is largely a repeat of the narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, so I'd call it optional reading, but there are some unique stories contained only in these books.

Job

A standalone story, but wonderful to read. A good study to address the age-old question "why do bad things happen to good people".

Jeremiah

Jeremiah is the longest book of the Bible, but there are some stories only contained here that address the reasons why God began doing his "strange work" of punishing his own people (Israel) via the armies of Babylon (also covered in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles).

Daniel

A bit of a standalone book, but it contains some of the more famous stories of the Bible and lays the groundwork for why God ultimately does restore Israel to their land in the late 500s BC.

Jonah

Also a standalone book, but contains another famous story of the Bible.

New Testament

With everything you've read before, you'll have an excellent context for the ground covered in the New Testament. One note: many Bibles have a system of noting references to other related passages as you read through various passages. The goal is to help provide context for the events/sayings for that particular passage. I'd recommend following these references as they should help to connect the passages you've read in the Old Testament to the truths of the New Testament.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

These are what's called "The Gospels", or "good news". These books contain the good news that God has for all of us: there's hope for us in the person of Jesus Christ to be rescued from all our sins. All of these stories surround the wonder of Jesus being miraculously born, his short and intense ministry in Israel, and his death/resurrection in power.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Matthew 4:17

I will call out that you'll find many stories repeated between these four books, especially between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are some unique stories found in each of these books, but the story here is so wonderful it's worth reading four times (and more!).

Acts

Contains the stories of how a ragtag group of disciples got the power they needed to form the church that we know to this day.

Revelation

Contains the stories of God's final dealings with the devil and the hope that he's prepared for all of humanity.


Good luck in your reading! Reading all of these stories of course can't be read in one sitting. I've found success in setting aside 15 minutes each day in reading 3-4 chapters a day. I'd suspect with this plan, you'd be done in about 6 months at this pace, if not faster.

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    +1, This is the only answer that actually answers the question! The only thing I might add is that I would suggest adding Isaiah to this list as while it doesn't have well-known bible stories in it, it lays a lot of the groundwork for the role of Christ as the messiah. Wikipedia for example notes that both Jesus and St Paul quote Isaiah extensively, and it is important link between the OT and the NT Sep 5, 2022 at 1:41
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@curiousdannii has a great answer. Specifically to your case:

I want to get a general idea of the stories on the bible and understand references

Reading from cover to cover at least once is a good idea and IMO is a good place to start. This will give you a general idea of the stories and where books are in relation to each other.

Understanding references is a more complex aspect and can take a lifetime to get all of them. There are Jewish traditions, ancient history, places, etc that can make reading and understanding everything difficult in modern times. Once you've read it and have a general idea I would focus on passages you have interest in or didn't understand very well the first time through. There are literally thousands of resources to help in studying the bible, depending on how in depth you want to go (a concordance can help with understanding individual words). Reading regularly and in a group (see curiousdannii's answer) can greatly help your understanding.

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Like you, I tend to start at the beginning of a book and plough my way through to the end. However, the Bible is not just one book, although I guess you could say it does have a beginning, a middle and an end. Also, it’s 66 individual books split between two major sections – Old and New Testaments.

Essentially, the Bible is about God’s plans and purposes to redeem fallen and sinful humanity and for the people He created (who are made in His image) to enter into fellowship with Him. The link below gives a concise overview of all the books in the Bible and what they are about. This is a great place to start!

Since everything in the Old Testament (the history of God’s dealings with His chosen people and prophecies regarding future events) point to the coming of Christ Jesus, you might want to begin by reading the New Testament Gospels.

The Gospel of Mark is quick and fast-paced and is a good place to start. Then you might want to go on to the Gospel of John, which focuses on the things Jesus claimed about Himself. Mark tells about what Jesus did, while John tells about what Jesus said and who Jesus was. In John are some of the simplest and clearest passages, but also some of the deepest and most profound passages. Reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) will familiarize you with Christ’s life and ministry.

Remember, the key to understanding the Bible is asking God for wisdom (James 1:5). God is the author of the Bible, and He wants you to understand His Word. You can be sure that God will bless your efforts to know Him and His Word, no matter where you start and no matter what your method of study. We need the Word of God: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God’s Word is “perfect, refreshing the soul . . . trustworthy, making wise the simple . . . right, giving joy to the heart . . . radiant, giving light to the eyes . . . pure, enduring forever . . . firm . . . righteous . . . more precious than gold . . . [and] sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:7–11). God’s Word is truth, and the truth will change your life (John 17:17).

Source: Where is a good place to start reading the Bible?

An important consideration is the Bible translation you select to read. I have found it helpful to use Study Bibles – where they provide explanations, commentaries, maps and charts and give cross-references to other relevant Bible texts. But whichever way you go about it, if you truly desire to know about God and His plans for humanity, if you do so prayerfully and ask for God’s wisdom, then your eyes will be opened. Be patient, though. It takes decades of study to get the most out of God’s Word, the Bible.

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There are simply not enough hours in the day to read the Bible in one reading. Even if you have a system of selective 'bits', all that will give you is a headache because of the enormous scope, time-frame, and prophetic nature of the 66 smaller books that make up the one Bible.

To get the most out of the Bible requires an approach to it that the Holy Spirit will bless. A sincere, heart-felt desire to learn what God has communicated to humanity in writing, starting with creation and going through all of history into the future, is essential. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the many writers to write what they did, will give the understanding, as Jesus promised. See John 16:7-15 & 15:26. But be warned - Holy Spirit understanding is to see your sinfulness as God sees you, and the need for you to repent before God and to trust only in what Jesus did to get right with God. Read the Bible merely as another book, and you will be wasting your time. Read the Bible merely to sort out a form of religiosity that you suppose will get you right with God, and you will end up deceived. Read the Bible merely to discover more "neat stories", and you will get nothing out of it.

Christians are told in the scriptures to rightly handle the word of God, which is the word of truth - with reverence and awe, as instruction from God himself. See 2 Timothy 2:14-19.

I provide this link merely to show that there are courses for those who want an over-view of the Bible in order to approach it wisely. For those who know very little about the Bible, such a one-day course can be helpful. It is not applicable to you as this one is for people to attend in person, and different denominations may have their own similar courses, but there are such one-day courses, and in your instance that might be the best starting point. May God bless you in your endeavours, and don't think 'good luck' comes into it. Without the Holy Spirit coming into this, you will get nowhere meaningful.

http://www.edinburghbiblecollege.co.uk/bible-in-a-day-2/

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Thanks for your question. The vulnerability is good and sets the stage for your growth.

These are practices I would recommend for reading the Bible:

Pick 3 books - Pick 3 books at a time that you have an interest in reading. Reading through the Bible in a year is a good thing, but it needs to be a part of a broader set of strategies in my opinion. Spend time just reading and re reading each of the 3 you choose until you feel like you have satisfied your hunger to understand it. As a pretext - understand who the author is, who the audience is and as much of the context you can. There are a lot of resources to wade through when it comes to this. Keep in mind Acts 17:11.

Ask the Holy Spirit questions - Out loud, ask God specific questions while your Bible is open. Wait to hear if He may say something in response. Often He can direct us to scripture with an answer. The Bible is our framework for determining which spirit is the Holy Spirit and which ones are not, so there is a bit of an up front period where things can be precarious and having people to bounce things off of is helpful.

Every time you have a question, find the answer to that question - I cannot emphasize this enough. So much of the Bible knowledge I have is due to allowing my natural motivations move me toward understanding. Google can make this easier, but I'd recommend buying a physical copy or a hard copy of an exhaustive concordance.

Every day read 10 Psalms - Reading the Bible pertains to relationship with God, and not just knowledge. The Psalms teach us how to talk about our feelings with God and how to praise God, and how to do those 2 things at the same time. Monks in the Middle Ages had the practice of reading the entire book of Psalms every 15 days, and 10 Psalms per day is something God has instructed me to do.

Focus on the Gospels - A large part of your reading should be focused on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The life and teachings of Jesus are our extremely delicious, rich, highest-quality bread and butter. Additionally, everything in scripture should be interpreted in light of Jesus' authority to interpret scripture. He does not overturn the OT, regardless of what some people may say.

Understand Acts 17:11 - The Bereans were very eager to listen to reputable Bible teachers. Do that. The Bereans also did not take Paul, himself, as the final authority. Instead they compared everything he said with scripture. Do that. In general, I'd recommend reading the Bible on your own and while asking the Holy Spirit questions before getting outside input, but outside input is also important.

Understand the Old Testament - Missionaries have found throughout the years that when cultures don't have a very basic understanding of the Old Testament, the life of Jesus doesn't make sense to them. We don't want to read the OT as much as we do the Gospels, but there is a lot of value there. This topic would deserve its own thread. But people that throw out the OT are throwing away the words of God Himself. They are also throwing away the context of God's Covenant with humanity that began with His covenant with Abraham. We are a part of a long story of God's redemption. There's a lot to understand there. Find people, blogs, podcasts and books to help you understand the background. I can send you my email address if you want.

Read Proverbs - If you want to be good at life, read Proverbs. All over Wall Street people that aren't Christian and aren't Jewish read the book of Proverbs because it's known to work.

Do topical studies - find out what the Bible, in its entirety, has to say about a subject.

Do word studies - use a concordance to look at every use of an English word. Do that across translations. Also do this with words in the original language. John's use of the word 'cosmos' for example is interesting to me.

Memorize CHAPTERS - I have lots of Bible verses memorized, but when my first child was born I asked God about scripture memory. He said the word "chapters". Jewish tradition is to memorize the first 5 books of the Bible between ages 5 and 10. Their minds and lives traditionally have been dominated by God's Word. I recommend following this (memorizing chapters, not necessarily the Pentatuch) if you actually want to live a life of discipleship.

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Bible reading is a lifelong endeavor. That being said, there are several tips for getting the most out of it.

  • Prepare your heart (Ezra 7:10)
    In order to get the most out of the Bible, one must have both an open mind and an open heart. The best way to achieve this is to approach Jehovah God in prayer asking for guidance.
  • Meditate on what you read (Nehemiah 8:8)
    The Bible is not a novel that you read for entertainment. It is read in order to understand our purpose as humans. The meditation required for reading the Bible is not the common idea of sitting cross-legged with eyes closed. Biblical meditation is reading a passage and then asking the important questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
  • Asking for help from others (Acts 8:31)
    Some of what we read in the Bible may be foreign to us. We may need to look to other reference works, commentaries, or individuals for help to grasp the passages we read.

While others have mentioned several other points that are beneficial, you as the reader will be the only one to sort out what works best for you.

For additional help on Bible reading:

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  • Dear faceless down-voter, please explain why my answer gets your negative vote.
    – agarza
    Sep 5, 2022 at 22:08
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    The question wanted help to "1) get the general idea of the stories in the Bible and 2) to understand the internal (perhaps literary?) references in the text". Your answer is about how you feel somebody ought to read the bible, from the point of view of a particular denomination that the querent isn't part of. I downvoted because this answer is unlikely to be helpful. Sep 6, 2022 at 4:56

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