Tag Archives: Nehemiah

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.


Learning from history (II)

2 Mar

DeadSeaScrollsSo… if the Old Testament “historical” books are not “history”, at least not in the way we would understand the term, what are they? How about this for a starting point:

Theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history

The Old Testament historical books were written to witness to the God of history, fulfilling his purposes through the ebb and flow of the story of his people. The writers’ concern was not so much to record “accurate” history, but to record accurately just what it meant to be the people of God through their history. Their agenda was primarily theological, not historical.

Stories of events drawn from oral tradition or written down in the various annals that were kept – the Old Testament mentions around twenty of these, writings that were used by the biblical writers as the source material for their own works – were knit together at key times in Israel’s history to create the books that we know today. These significant moments probably included the revival under Josiah as well as the return to Judea from Babylonian exile. As such, they were motivated by profound spiritual concern, a desire to point towards the God who had been with his people through thick and thin and thus call current readers to faithful worship.

They did this by drawing on the literary forms current at their time and shaping the story of God’s work around these. It may be useful to highlight a few of these – though do remember that rigid distinctions between these types cannot be made which are found intertwined throughout the historical books.

SamsonHardest for us to relate to, perhaps, are the sacred epics, sagas of the “heroes of old”. Formed from songs to be sung round the evening fire, poetry and dramatic celebrations of successes in war, these narratives are characterized by God’s constant and clear intervention, pointing to him as the real hero of the story. Data or numbers may appear exaggerated and hyperbole is often used to communicate the great victories God’s people were led into. Characters like Samson stand out, very human heroes, painted “warts and all”, but whose life allows us to see God beyond Samson’s evident failings. With undoubted historical value, the hero sagas were never written with a concern for “history” as such, and it is unfair to read then in that way.

Much more accessible for the modern reader are the “secular” narratives. Through passions and intrigues, ambition and power struggles, the story seems to flow with precious little intervention from God. The whole retelling of David’s ascent to the throne and his conflict with the house of Saul, for example, makes little mention of God, focusing instead on the will and desires of men (and the occasional woman!). But these writings nevertheless follow a theological agenda and call us to find that thread of God’s dealings with his people through the “ordinary” events of human life, stamped with the strength of human self-centredness to their very core.

JezebelFinally, and most predominantly in the Old Testament, we find the clearly religious and theological retelling of history. Written by a succession of seers, prophets, priests and other religious specialists, these offer the markedly theological perspective of teachers who wanted to communicate a religious message through their work. They aim to build faith and are not impartial in any sense of the word, nor do they claim to be. Decidedly biased when viewed from a modern perspective, they annoyingly – for us – leave out details that we would love to know, but which were not important in their own scheme of things and hone in on narrow details that help them communicate their message. So, for example, the huge battle of Qarqar in which Israel under Ahab faced the Assyrian army doesn’t even get a mention whereas pages and pages are devoted to the confrontation between Elijah and Jezebel’s idolatrous influence. It must also be said that they can be particularly “creative” with events. Again, though, this should not be seen as a “distortion of history”, for they wrote within the confines of their own concept of history and must not be judged by our criteria.

History, in a very real sense, can only be understood with hindsight. Just like any modern historian, all the biblical writers reinterpret history in the light of their own circumstances but then go beyond this to draw out lessons to stimulate the faith of their contemporaries. We too will gain most by making that stimulus to faith the focus of our own reading of their “histories”.



Learning from history (I)

21 Feb


Why is it that so much teaching seems to involve destruction before (re)building, the unlearning of wrong concepts in order to be able to see anew? This last week, whilst teaching at the Assemblies of God theological seminary in Cordova, Spain, on the historical books of the Old Testament, was no different. Hard work too, though a lot of fun in the process.

The first obstacle to be overcome is quite simply the name we give to this section of our Bibles from Joshua to Esther – the “historical books”. It’s a bit of a misnomer really and automatically projects into our minds a twentieth century concept of history – yes, twentieth century, not twenty first, but we’ll come to that later – along with illusions of historical accuracy and the objective reporting of facts. To demand that the biblical writers worked under the same concerns as modern historians for objectivity and detachment in recounting events is as anachronistic as expecting them to have understood special relativity and quantum physics, been concerned about women getting the vote or been aware of the bacterial causes of disease. Like every other area of life, the biblical writers were people of their time and worked within the confines of that worldview.

As a slight aside, let us be clear that this in no way devalues the biblical record. As the incarnation so eloquently shows us, God is able to inhabit our humanity with all of its limitations without in any way compromising his Word-became-flesh self-revelation. In the same way, biblical writers do not have to hold to current historiographical tenets in order to reveal God’s word to us. It is rather our responsibility to learn to read these writings in a different way and to not impose modern conceptions on texts that grew out of very different mindsets to our own. To not do so is as absurd as reading the poetry of the Psalms as if it were scientific description and then attack its inaccuracies – whoever heard of the trees of the fields having hands to clap with?!

“Historical inaccuracies” in Scripture – i.e. conflicts with secular understandings of history – or contradictions within Scripture – different versions of the same event – need to be dealt with in the same way. It does no good to resort to theological gymnastics or creative interpretations to try and make them go away; we simply set ourselves up for ridicule or create the kind of schizophrenic thinking that has led more than one to eventually give up and abandon ship altogether, throwing the baby of faith out with the bathwater of our own version of “inerrancy”. It is much more productive, as well as in keeping with the nature of biblical revelation, to accept these historical documents as records forged within their own tradition with the aim of communicating God’s mind to us rather than “history” as such, whatever we understand that to be.

historiographyAll this inevitably raises the question of just what we mean by “history”. In popular understanding, history is just “what happened”, no more and no less. In one sense this is true. But the question then becomes “How do we know what happened?”, and that is where “history” becomes historiography, the process by which we know what we know about what happened. Yes, I know that sounds somewhat convoluted, but the point is that in an absolute sense we will never know what happened. Once an event has been and gone, all that is left is collective memory, material artefacts, eye-witness reports and documents that allege to portray information relating to the event. The historian’s task is to sift through all this and draw up her own version of what may our may not have really happened.

Most of us still live under an illusion about what this can hope to achieve. Raised on the scientific certainties that modernity offered we would like to think that we can in fact establish historical truth. Postmodern historiography, which has come of age in this century even though its roots go back well into the twentieth century, would dispute this and has come to accept that an objective retelling of history is humanly impossible. All historians will bring their own bias to the task. The selection of events, the interpretation of events, the relative importance given to these events and the relationship between events – in particular the determination of cause and effect – are all a product of the historian’s inner world, the convictions and prejudices she brings, vastly removed in time and space from the events being portrayed.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the contrast between a Marxist and a liberal reading of modern history. Even with the advantage of such close proximity to events and huge archives of material to draw upon, conclusions and even the very portrayal of events could not be more different.

320px-TargumSo, if the holy grail of historical objectivity is seen as unattainable today, maybe we need to be a little more lenient on the biblical “historians”. And as a result, perhaps we will also start to read them as they are meant to be read, as theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history rather than the simple retelling of historical events. (Which, as we have seen, is in any case quite impossible.) That’s why I for one prefer the designation given to the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings in the Hebrew Bible – the “former prophets” -, so much more apt than our confusing “historical books”.

And that, I believe, is enough for today. We’ll delve deeper into that concept of the historical books being a place to hear the prophetic word of God rather than a record of past events in the next post.

P.S. I know it has been a while since I wrote here. Establishing adequate rhythms in life whilst embracing new roles and responsibilities has been a challenge. Thanks for your patience :-)

%d bloggers like this: