I have a friend who just about lost faith in the Bible when he first heard the tale of Elisha being taunted by a gang of disrespectful boys. “In the name of the Lord,” the book of 2 Kings tells us, Elisha cursed them. And what do you know – his Sunday School teacher insisted – two she-bears came from the forest and ate up those rude and foolish boys.
“They should have watched their words and been kind, shouldn’t they?” a popular children’s Bible lesson plan states. “There were consequences for being disrespectful.”
My friend nearly lost his temper. Almost lost his faith. “I just don’t believe that,” he insisted back to his teacher.
What on earth is this weird story doing in our Holy Scriptures anyway!?
This is one of the reasons I took on this read-and-blog-through-the-Bible project in the first place; here is just one example of why it’s important to understand the genres of Scripture, the different kinds of parables and fables and history-like stories that make up our Scriptures. This friend’s confusion reminds us why it’s critical to understand what kind of book this Bible is. And what kind of book it is not.
As I write these Living in The Story blogs throughout the year, I talk a lot about how to read and re-read, how to interpret and re-interpret Scripture. I hope you can tell that the Bible is precious to me. I hope you can see how much I respect its power to reveal truth about who we are as humans on our journey of faith; how much I believe that God continues to speak a current word through this odd and ancient word.
I believe the Bible is true. But then we still have these stories that are just flat weird. What can it mean that this story about the bears can be “true” ?
My favorite professor at my seminary used to tell us: “when you don’t understand something, just put it on a shelf in your mind. Don’t try to force it to make sense to you. It’s okay. Give it time.” You have no idea how helpful that advice has been to me over the years. I pass on his wisdom; maybe it will be helpful to you as well.
In our modern era, since the Enlightenment, there have been many different hermeneutical approaches, many different ways to interpret Scripture. For a long while, the “Liberal way” was to de-mythologize the Bible; to understand its truths as only spiritual, moral or ethical. This approach rejected the supernatural, rejected the miracles. “Making sense” meant it had to make sense according to current scientific understands and modern ways of reasoning.
The “Conservative way” was a sort of backlash against this Liberal approach. The Conservative way insisted every word of Scripture was the literal word of God, delivered flawlessly to faithful men. If there were inconsistencies in the Bible, it was because of human error in the scribal transmissions and translations over the years. “True” meant factually accurate.
Interestingly, both extremes judged the veracity of the Bible based on modern scientific method. Liberals dismissed Moses’ parting of the Red Sea because of course that couldn’t have really happened in our world of natural laws and gravity. Some would explain it away by theorizing that Israel passed through the Sea of Reeds at a particularly shallow crossing.
Conservatives wanted to prove that Noah really built an ark and populated it with pairs of all the known animals – even dinosaurs! The recent Noah’s Ark Park in Kentucky attempts to use science to prove how all the animals could have fit on the boat and survived. Many people also keep looking for the archeological remains of a wooden boat on the heights of the mountains in Turkey.
Both Liberals and Conservatives in these scenarios completely misunderstand the concept of “truth” as we find it in the Bible.
The ancients who wrote these documents did not work within our modern understanding of science. They did not conceive of history in the same way we do. They did not present their arguments in line with Enlightenment standards of rationality.
The ancients were storytellers.
“Story” – in this understanding – is the best way to make sense of who we are as humans, where we come from, why we’re here, what is the meaning of life. Story is how we humans probe for the truth of our existence. It’s how we discover and discern what is real about our humanity. And it’s how we watch for intersections with the Holy.
As Jerry Coyle so wisely says:
Sometimes folk tales–what we call in another context, fairy tales–have been incorporated into the text of the Bible. No one ever thought or intended that these folk tales should be taken as factual. They’re morality fables: a talking snake, a talking donkey, a great fish that swallows and then spits out a man unharmed, rude boys getting their come-uppance from two mama bears, two thousand pigs rushing headlong over a cliff because a demon named Legion has been sent into them (don’t you know the people who first heard this tale chuckled at the similarity of the pigs to their hated Roman oppressors?).
Different genres are embedded within other stories in the texts making up the Bible. These are stories bearing witness to a people’s living faith in a living God. They are human stories, one and all. Our common mistake has been the notion that these human stories somehow have been dictated by God, that they are God’s Word in a literal and primary sense. Instead, these stories point to, bear witness to, God.
In the ancients’ understandings, heaven and earth were separated only by a breath, by a thin veil, by a whisper. There were no categories: “supernatural” and “natural.” Everything existed and all things functioned within the intersection of heaven and earth, gods and mortals.
The gods sent or withheld rain, caused the crops to grow and held human life in their power. When the gods were pleased, the harvest was bountiful. When they were angry, they sent punishment of floods and earthquakes, disease and pestilence.
Ancient Israel shared many of these assumptions and interpreted their lives in light of these pervasive understandings. Even as they developed their monotheistic theology of One God, they continued to believe the experiences of their lives were interconnected to The Holy by a thin veil.
If she-bears came out of the woods and devoured insolent children, then God must have sent them to punish. If a flood or a drought devastated an area, then God must have been angry. It’s a way of thinking, believing, explaining the world that attempts to honor the power and sovereignty of God.
We still see people of faith who understand the world this way. If a child dies too young, then God must have taken them.
“God only takes the best.”
“God needed another rose in his garden.”
“God must have been saving them from some terrible future.”
“It was God’s will.”
We’ve all heard those cold comforts.
After America emerged from World War Two, there was a strong pendulum swing back to piety. “Maybe God was punishing us. Maybe America is not Christian enough, good enough.” The 1950’s was an era of “reclaiming” America and returning to its divine call to be a “city on a hill” and God’s “chosen people.”
If we were attacked and plunged into a war, then God must have been judging us.
Cause and Effect.
Actions have Consequences.
Unfaithfulness brings God’s Punishment.
Piety brings God’s Reward.
I understand this way of making sense of the Bible, theology and the world. But I’m grateful to have worked my way out of such a simplistic understanding.
All of us are living in a story, The Story, God’s overarching Story of compassion and grace and reconciliation.
But woven into God’s Story is our own human story of self-justification, self-protection and self-gratification.
Sometimes our actions create natural consequences.
Sometimes we reap what we sow.
Sometimes someone else’s actions affect our lives.
Sometimes air and water temperature cause hurricanes.
Sometimes bears kill children.
Sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Sometimes things happen that are not God’s will.
And always, God weeps.
I can believe in the Creator’s overarching interconnection and intersection with creation without believing that God personally creates a consequence for every action.
I can believe in the Creator’s overarching power at the same time I believe in the power of human choices.
I can believe in the Creator’s overarching movement for reconciliation and ultimate justice within creation while enduring the reality of brokenness and injustice so prevalent in our world.
I can watch where God is moving, watch for the movements of peace, love and hope and I can step up, join in and just maybe, make a difference in my own little corner of the world.
If you are interested in the American understanding of itself as God’s chosen people and a city on a hill, I recommend the works of Christian historian Richard Hughes. His books Myths America Lives By and Illusions of Innocence are especially insightful.
Image Bears savaging the youths from French Manuscript