Lately I've been reading a great deal on the intersection of the Bible and our spiritual growth. Granted, there is a more mystical or meditative part to reading the Bible but today I'd like to deal with the digging in aspect of the Bible. We have to raise our right hand and repeat the following phrase:
"I know the Bible was written over several thousand years and at least 5 major cultural shifts, in several countries, by multiple authors speaking at least three different languages and dialects. I need to meet the Bible halfway, if not 3/4 of the way."
Good, now that we have that little pledge out of the way we can do the good and holy work of unearthing those juicy veins of life that will feed us deeply if we'll just search them out - like prospectors digging for gold.
1. A good study Bible - I can't overestimate this, because the reality is that a good starting point will make everything we do easier. I recommend The Quest Study Bible, The Life Application Bible, or the NIV Study Bible if you're just getting started. However, if you want something more specific there is the Archaeological Study Bible that fills in some gaps regarding what archaeology has discovered in relationship to the story found in Scripture. Start with a simpler study Bible in a readable translation, then work up to some of the more specialized versions. The notes at the bottom in a good study Bible will help answer some of your questions and will provide more questions for you to chase down. If you have a question about translations, the NIV is typically a good place to start but I would say the ESV and NRSV translations are helpful and in some ways more accurate though not as readable.
2. Bible dictionary/Encyclopedia - There are so many words and terms that we simply lose either in translation or in the context in which they are spoken in the Bible. A good Bible dictionary and Bible encyclopedia will give you definitions and histories of words and concepts in the Bible which will open up new insights to understanding what's being said and, more importantly, what's not being said. A benefit of the web is the access we have to sites such as Blue Letter Bible, where you can find the entire International Standard Bible Encyclopedia online and searchable. Also good is the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary or the New Interpreter's Bible Dictionary if you are looking for something you can get in print.
3. Concordance - a concordance is simply a book that goes word-by-word in alphabetical order and shows you where that word appears in a certain translation of the Bible. If you want to know how many times the word "love" appears in the NIV translation of the Bible, an NIV concordance will help tremendously. Many concordances have numbered keys that will help you navigate a simple study of the Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testaments) words behind each word. An affordable option is the NIV Exhaustive Concordance which you can own in print or you can utilize the great resource Bible Gateway and do a "keyword" search that will do the same thing as a concordance.
My hope is that these three tools - which are a beginning, not the complete extent of study tools at your disposal - will get you started on the road to diving deeper into the incredible narrative of "life and life to the full." (John 10:10). Peace.