Cover Story
James Allen Walker for WORLD

Book of the year

2009 Books Issue | It's based on the best-selling book of all time, but WORLD's 2009 winner takes Bible study to new levels

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Among the excellent books of the past 12 months one stands out: Crossway's English Standard Version Study Bible. To the accuracy and readability of the ESV, it adds 20,000 notes based on top evangelical scholarship, 80,000 cross-references, 400 maps and charts, and much more, all under the supervision of two splendid theologians, Wayne Grudem and J.I. Packer.

Thus far this year, during morning Bible reading and study, the ESVSB guided me through the New Testament, Psalms, and the Old Testament up to 2 Kings. It's informative throughout and spectacular in parts. For example, if you're reading in chapter 2 of Luke about young Jesus staying in the temple, you turn the page-and behold, an illustrated spread shows the impressive structure. A story that might be trivialized comes alive.

Also included are articles in the back that unite the right subjects with the right experts: "Reading the Bible in Prayer and Communion with God" by John Piper, "Reading the Bible as Literature" by Leland Ryken, and so on. We learn more about finding Jesus in the Old Testament and speaking with Muslims about how they use and sometimes abuse the Bible. Last July WORLD chose Tim Keller's The Reason for God as its book of the year ("Anti-moralist Christianity," June 28, 2008); this year the ESV Study Bible convincingly shows the reasons for owning a good study Bible.

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While we're not supposed to put God to the test, study Bibles are different-so I road-tested the ESVSB by seeing how it guides readers through one of the hardest of the Bible's 66 books, Leviticus. The third book of Moses is tough because no one today has firsthand experience with the rituals Leviticus commands-and some of us just possibly may not be up to speed on the distinctions among burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings. Happily, the ESVSB has a handy chart that shows how everyone was to eat of the peace offering but no one could eat the burnt offering, and so forth.

Similarly, the ESVSB leads us through three basic states-unclean, clean, and holy-and explains well that folks deemed ritually "clean" were not necessarily closer to holiness than their "unclean" counterparts. Like a good teacher it explains things we don't know in terms of things we do, and in this case offers an analogy based on voting registration: "A person who is 'registered' may vote, whereas a person who is 'unregistered' may not; a person who is 'registered' to vote is not necessarily more righteous than a person who is not."

But Leviticus, as writers of the notes for the book-John Currid of Reformed Theological Seminary, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi of Tokyo Christian University, and Jay Sklar of Covenant Theological Seminary-point out, is more than the sum of its verses: "Though on the surface Leviticus is a handbook of laws and regulations, it is actually much more than this. Composed as Israel was preparing to become a settled nation in a promised land, the book has affinities with utopian literature. Literary utopias both describe how people live in an ideal society and also offer an explanation of the institutions and practices that produce the society that is pictured. Leviticus outlines how people should live in God's ideal commonwealth."

Part of living in a holy land was showing compassion. Lots of ancient cultures killed people who were despised by the high priests or witch doctors, but in ancient Israel they were sequestered yet still allowed to live. Leviticus establishes rules for handling disease that protected the community but did not dehumanize individuals by labeling them as evil: "Modern readers should not confuse this kind of 'uncleanness' with 'under God's condemnation,' or even with 'excluded from the love of the community.'" The same understanding pertained to all of God's creatures: "Classifying an animal as 'unclean' is not the same as declaring that animal 'evil.'"

Christians understand that Christ's good-for-all-time sacrifice replaced the ceremonial law that so much of Leviticus describes. Some Christians, though, contend that the civil law of ancient Israel should still be in effect, so the distinction drawn by the ESVSB between Old Testament understandings and New Testament teaching is important: "The NT envisions a people of God that transcends national boundaries, and thus it dissolves the bond between the specifically theocratic system of government that was OT Israel. Therefore, current civil governments need not replicate the civil laws specific to the Mosaic theocracy."

The ESVSB clearly explains that laws about bodily discharges are not suggesting that sex within marriage is "evil; this is part of the original good creation (even though human nature is severely damaged by the fall of Adam)." But when things are unclear, the ESVSB is not Mr. Know-It-All. Why those particular laws in chapter 22 concerning the killing of oxen and sheep? "The rationale for these laws is uncertain."

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