Tag Archives: Genesis

Learning from history (III)

11 Mar

BVD_Stories_8-1100x722Let’s take a final look at the Bible’s historical books. There is one more key characteristic that can help us get the most from this set of “theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history”.

Narrative theology. 40% of the Bible, including the historical books almost in their entirety, are written as narratives. We are used to reading narrative – from Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings – and understand the concept of “historical novel”, that is, fiction based round real events. But surely, we say, that’s not what we have in the Bible? The leap from historical narrative to inspired Word of God is just too great for our concept of biblical inerrancy.

But the biblical narratives must be read as such, and not as New Testament epistles or any other biblical genre. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs. The existence of “conflicting” versions or accounts must surely help us to avoid an overly simplistic view or to treat them (as if that were possible) as “history”.

Narrative is not allegory nor indirect teaching but rather contains examples of God’s dealings with his people over a period of time. Despite this, it is not the story of those individuals, but the story of God, through people. The narratives are not history, but story, collectively the story of God’s work in and through his people, or Heilsgeschichte as theologians like to call this concept. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs.

Lights, camera, action!

priceofegyotBiblical narratives are action-based – not necessarily action-packed, Bourne Trilogy style, but their main focus is the action involved. There is zero pyschological introspection – that we love these days, and which is perhaps why, if we are honest, we can be prone to find the Bible boring – and any feelings involved are only mentioned inasmuch as they fuel the action. Long descriptive passages that create a backdrop to the action are notable by their absence. Again, details only make an appearance as needed to explain the action and the “set” is built with only what is necessary to situate the central action.

Characters are limited to those involved, usually two with an occasional third. A main character, an antagonist, and the odd sidekick, like Lot with Abraham, is the usual quota, with occasional extras to connect the scenes. Even these few characters are generally “flat” in the sense that we only really see one side of them, that which illustrates the behaviour the narrator wants us to see. So Esau is stupid, Absalom is wicked, Esther is noble. Only a very few such as David or Joseph are worthy of any deeper treatment. Dialogues between protagonists reveal their character and support the main thrust of the action.

So, these few key players act out their roles against a sparse backdrop that provides just enough to know what is going on. In this idealised world, social distance is telescoped, so we find midwives talking to Pharaoh, and language is never a problem. There are no interwoven currents as the action flows in short, often disconnected scenes, from the presentation of a character through their experience to sharp conclusions. Together with the protagonists we experience what their action meant in terms of relationship with God and others. Whether humble peasants or imperial rulers, their stories combine to portray the truth of human existence and how we live our lives before God.

first+finally+next+after+then+lastThe action is often presented as stories of intrigue and suspense, where the repetition of key words and themes lead us to towards the inevitable climax. Pay attention, though, or you might miss it – we are used to a build up of tension that focuses on the characters’ inner world, but with their impoverished interest in feelings and motives, biblical narrative develops through action and can reach its resolution in what for us appears to be merely setting the scene. You will also struggle to find the kind of details that we like to see; the narratives are short and sharp, constantly seeking to bring the reader back to the actions and reactions of the central character. “How” questions are often left unanswered. Flashbacks and “missing years” are common, so be careful also to not always expect everything to be neatly arrayed in chronological order.

All these narratives have a narrator, who may or may not be the author themselves. Usually anonymous, often omnipresent as well as omniscient, and always totally reliable (in their own estimation at least!) they strive to portray to the reader just how God sees the events in question. Whilst they can – and do – emit their own moral judgements, narrative is normally presented “as is”, and the reader is brought into the process of evaluation, having to provide for ourselves the assumed motives and inner workings of the action portrayed. (That’s actually part of the fun of reading these stories – we are not told what to think but are left to draw our own conclusions.)

The narrator is writing for someone – us, the readers. They assume that the reader knows how to interpret their narrative and is capable of drawing out inferences and the implicit elements of the story. The process of communication from the narrator to the reader is a complex one, relying much like any other communication on shared understanding. So, awareness of the cultural background of the Scriptural narratives is vital, second-to-none really, for correct understanding. Anything we can do to better understand that background will be hugely helpful in finding out what is really going on in the text.

So, narrative theology. There is so much in there, if we can only learn how to draw it out. Do read these books as literature, which is what they are, as well as revelation. Identify what the narrator is wanting to communicate. Recognize and enjoy the literary techniques used and understand how they contribute to the picture of God at work in and through his people. You won’t regret it.

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More from the Pentateuch…

5 Nov

I must admit, teaching is something that I enjoy. Walking alongside others as we together look to understand and apply God’s word is an unparalleled privilege – albeit a mite stressful at times as we get to grips with new concepts or ways of relating to how God reveals himself in and through Scripture. Thank-you to the dozen CSTAD students for the week together :-) A week in the Pentateuch – most of it in the book of Genesis – provided a great opportunity to stretch minds and hearts and understand the foundations that God has given us for our faith.

The Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible, the Torah of the Jews – really is the foundation of everything else that follows. Genesis traces history from God’s original creation through the calling of the patriarchs to their entry into Egypt. It is the book of beginnings, written to help Israel understand where they had come from – and thus also where they were headed. The first part of Exodus describes the miraculous intervention of God in history to free the descendants of Jacob from slavery and set them on a road to new life. Exodus continues through Leviticus and Numbers giving them ethics for living, basic laws to govern their life together and their worship of God, all in the context of God’s dealings with the people over their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. And Deuteronomy concludes the Torah with a much needed repetition of the essence of God’s laws before they entered the promised land, calling the people to commitment to God and his purposes for them.

All very interesting, you say, but what immediate relevance does all this have for us? Detailed instructions about priests’ ephods and sacrifices, mildew in houses and leather belts or what to do if you find your neighbour’s donkey wandering down your road hardly seem the most important things for today’s Christian to know about. No wonder most of us skip over these sections of the Old Testament and stick to the more familiar ground of the Psalms, stories of the like of David and Goliath, or some of the more comforting passages from Isaiah.

This is understandable, but we need foundations for our faith just as much as the people of Israel did then. As they were leaving Egypt and making their way into the promised land, Moses was looking to provide a solid base for the new nation. He needed to give the Israelites a framework which would enable them to develop their new national identity, an identity rooted in their purpose as the people of God.

Identity. Israel needed to know its identity in God, and so do we. Like them, our identity is rooted in our purpose in God; unless we are clear on our purpose – where we come from and where we are headed – we will not really know our identity. Just who are we as the people of God? What does God want of us? What is life about? Is our time on earth merely a waiting room for heaven? Or does God have something more for us? Understanding purpose is basic to knowing our identity in God.

Like Israel at that time, we need to know that our life is not about mere survival or even enjoying God’s blessing during our time on earth. More, so much more than this, we are heirs of the promise given to Abraham, the father of all those who believe: “I’ll bless you … so that you will be a blessing… and through you all the people of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). Our identity is rooted in this promise: we too are to receive God’s blessing, but not as an end in itself. We are to be channels of blessing to others, from our next-door-neighbour to the most distant nations of this world. We are blessed to be a blessing.

This promise applies to all of us as individuals, but we are also called to serve God together. Like Israel, we too are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – a people that belong to God. Created by him, we have been freed to serve him. Our “Exodus” was not from physical slavery in Egypt but from slavery to sin. And like Israel, we now live “to proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

This is who we are in God: blessed to be a blessing, called to live out the good things that God gives us in such a way that others can see who he is and find him too. This is our identity; don’t settle for anything less.

Babel

25 Oct

Today, together with the students on the course on the Pentateuch that I am teaching this week, we have been looking at Babel. Fascinating. Four days in, we are still battling through the world of mystery that surrounds the beginnings of history as recorded in the opening chapters of Genesis. And it seems that some of the battles are more to do with our own pre-conceived ideas than the initially perceived irreconcilable conflicts between science and faith.

I love the best theories of the origin of language. All of these place language into a social context, the interaction of humanity with one another or the world around them, but none are able to offer an even remotely satisfactory or convincing explanation of how language began. Grunts as people worked together on prehistoric projects of all kinds – ho heave ho – becoming full-blown speech; onomatopoeic mimicry of animal noises – buzz buzz – gradually expanding to cover the full-range of human experience; natural emotion – ouch and boo hoo – slowly finding means of expressing feelings in non-instinctive reactions; attempts to say hello – huh – when stumbling across another lone wanderer taking shape in greetings; humming and singing – lah di lah – finding identification with the world around; and even “oral-greetings”, mouthing shapes and other oral gymnastics then emerging into fully fledged language. That’s maybe OK if all you want to do is wave goodbye with your tongue, but just try telling someone that your brother is convinced he is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan with a few quick licks of the lips…

Note the “white lie” in this image — all the world’s language families are connected into one big family tree, from the same trunk. A nice idea, and a logical necessity without Babel, but one for which there is currently no empirical evidence whatsoever.

And that, believe it or not, is about as much as we can come up with. The origin of language is, quite simply, a complete mystery. Babel remains as acceptable a theory as any other, and fits perfectly with the evolution of today’s languages in a limited number of separate language families with no traceable connection between them.

Add to this the physiological adaptation that humanity exhibits for language, our natural capacity that makes speech not only possible but a logical companion, and the plot thickens: complex muscle structures around our mouths, small mouths (yes, believe it or not…) that can move quickly, a vertical larynx (good for speech, but unfortunately bad for choking on pen tops), and teeth ideally positioned to create a variety of sounds. And controlling all this we have our brains, with not only their huge capacity but also right and left hemispheres which allow for both analytical processing of language – the separation of sound from meaning and the creation of speech – and the appreciation for the social and conceptual content in communication. Then place language-learning into its natural context, transmitted to children over a period of years by parents and the wider community, and we have something without parallel in the animal world.

Along with all the other cultural capacities that make us human, language has always been there. Wherever and whenever people are found, so is language. There would appear to have never been a time when we were unable to communicate, and certainly no record either of how we acquired this ability, or how it emerged in a random evolutionary manner from our posited pre-human ancestors.

I am sure the theologians would disagree, but as much as any other single aspect, to me language represents one of the greatest facets of the image of God in humanity. To be able to communicate, to formulate thought, to express that whole gamut of human experience, from hard fact to powerful emotion, through the vehicle of language, is just priceless. All I need to do now is go and learn how to say all this in the rest of the world’s six thousand or so languages that I don’t know…

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