The Bible Tells Me So, Chapter 3: God Likes Stories

What Happened?

  • Stories of the past differ because storytellers are human beings. Recalling the past is actually never simply a process or remembering but of creating a narrative.
  • The biblical storytellers recall the past, often the very distant past, not “objectively” but purposefully.
  • Four Gospels and two different stories about Israel’s past.
  • What drove the Bible’s storytellers to recall the past the way they did was the quest to experience God in the present, a sometimes volatile and catastrophic present.

The Stories of Jesus

  • Even though Matthew, Mark, and Luke are clearly consciously connected to one another somehow, each Gospel writer clearly has no problem whatsoever going off and telling the story of Jesus in his own unique way.
  • Luke’s Gospel even begins by mentioning that “many” have written their own accounts of Jesus.
  • John’s version of Jesus “cleansing the temple” is in the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have it at the end.
  • More than the other three Gospel writers, John is big on Jesus’s divine authority over the religious leaders.

Little Baby Jesuses

  • Mark and John don’t even have birth stories.
  • Matthew’s portrait of Jesus serves his purpose: he drops into his Gospel images of Jesus that remind you of Moses and the exodus story. In this way the writer is saying Jesus needs to be understood not at a distance from Israel’s story, but as God’s way of taking Israel’s story to the next, climatic stage with Jesus at the center rather than Moses.
  • Luke’s Jesus is very “kingly” right from the start.

Who Saw the Big Moment?

  • The end of Jesus’s story, namely what happens Easter morning, is reported very differently by the Gospel writers.
  • Matthew’s is the only one that has Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” are the ones who find the tomb empty.
  • Luke’s has a veritable women’s club at the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the “other women.” They see “two men”, run off to tell the disciples, and Peter comes back to see for himself.
  • Mark has Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Solome going to the tomb. They are frightened, run away and tell no one. (Note that there are two endings to Mark, with the second, longer one added a couple of centuries later to reconcile it with Matthew and Luke.)
  • John’s story has Mary Magdalene going to the tomb alone, she runs back to get Peter and “the other disciple” and they race to the tomb, and “the other disciple” gets there first.
  • If we are fixed on the Bible as a book that has to get history “right,” the Gospels become a crippling problem.

The Stories of Israel

  • Israel’s period of the monarchy, six hundred years from Israel’s first king, Saul (around 1100 BCE) to the end of the monarchy when the Babylonians sacked the capital city of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
  • The Old Testament has two stories of this period of the monarchy The first is found in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings and the second is in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
  • The Christian bible places Chronicles immediately after 2 Kings, but in the Jewish bible it is at the end of the Old Testament.
  • Chronicles was intentionally crafted to give a very different take on Israel’s past. The two stories differ because they were written at different times to answer different questions.
  • Samuel/Kings written during the exile in Bablyon. “How did we end up in Bablyon? What did we do to deserve it?”
  • Chronicles was written about 200 years later, after the Israelites were back from exile for generations. “After all this time, are we still the people of God? Is God ever going to show up and fix this mess? What is our future?”
  • Around 930 BCE the northern kingdom of Israel (capital Samaria) and the southern kingdom of Judah (capital Jersusalem) split
  • Each kingdom had its own line of kings. 1 and 2 Kings deals with all of them, Chronicles leaves the northern kings out because by then the northern kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians.
  • In 2 Samuel, God makes David a promise that his house and dynasty will last for a very long time.
  • In 1 Chronicles the house and dynasty is God’s not David’s.
  • Why does it matter? At the time of 2 Samuel its possible for David’s line to continue, but by the time of 2 Chronicles that line of David had been broken for many generations. The Judahites might have wondered whether it was a sign that God had given up on them. But the writer of Chronicles says, “No, You see, it’s not really David’s dynasty, anyway. It’s God’s.” (location 1327)

The Past Serves the Present

  • In 2 Samuel Solomon alone builds the temple, in 1 Chronicles David has a major role in building the temple.
  • These two portraits of David and Solomon aren’t “basically the same” with some minor details shifted around. They tell two irreconcilably different stories of Israel’s founding kings. Why? Each writer was speaking to his time.
  • For the writer of 2 Samuel, bad leadership is why the kingdom split and carried off to captivity. God is just and they deserved it.
  • David and Solomon of 1 and 2 Chronicles are a blueprint for the future, where a king would arise to lead them again to political independence.

A Warm-Up for the Main Event

  • The plight of Israel’s kings is the heart and center of Israel’s story.
  • 34 of the 39 books of the Old Testament deal with Israel’s storyline. 27 of the 34 deal with the period of the monarchy, exile and the return
  • The other 7, the first seven (Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; and Joshua and Judges) are stories of Israel’s deep past or “origins stories.” They explain how things came to be, why things are the way they are, and most important, how Israel got to be Israel — a kingdom with a land of its own.
  • The period of the monarchy is not only the meat of the Old Testament narrative of Israel. It’s also the period when Israel’s grand narrative was written.
  • Israel’s stories of kings and exile are the most historically verifiable of all the Old Testament books.They match up well with historical records from other nations like Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.
  • Little archaeological evidence for the origin stories. “If Israel’s storytellers took the recent past, like stories of David and Solomon, and shaped them creatively to speak to the present, we can bet good money they shaped the distant past with the same creative and present mind-set.” (location 1478)
  • When you read the origins stories you see embedded in them previews of coming attractions.

A Sneak Peek at the Political Map

  • Israel’s entire national political map is already laid out in the origins stories.
  • In the late nineteenth century archaeologists found a Babylonian story known as Enuma Elish that includes a section on the creation of the cosmos. It looks similar to the creation story in Genesis.
  • Babylonian culture is much older than Israelite culture, so it seems the Israelites modeled their creation story along the lines of the Babylonian story to do it one better. Israel’s God is superior to all the gods of Babylon because he is the true creator
  • The overlap between Israel’s ancestors and the political realities of the monarchy is not a coincidence. Genesis previews what’s ahead, the meat of the Old Testament — Israel’s life in the land.

Playing Favorites with Little Brother

  • All through Israel’s origins stories, God has this unexpected habit of favoring younger brothers over their elder brothers.
  • Able over Cain; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Joseph over his older brothers; Moses over Aaron
  • After the nation of Israel splits into northern and southern kingdoms, the one to survive, the one to return from exile and reclaim the land, is the southern kingdom, the “younger” of the two.
  • Note that the kingdom that came out on top is the one that compiled and composed Israel’s story in the wake of the crisis of exile
  • Israel’s origins stories, with God’s preferential treatment of the younger sibling, were written to explain why the southern kingdom, the “younger brother,” survived Babylonian exile whereas the elder (and larger and more powerful) northern “brother” was wiped off the pages of history by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. (location 1576)
  • Israel’s stories of the deep past were not written to “talk about what happened back then.” They were written to explain what is. The past is shaped to speak to the present.

Adam, Who Art Thou?

  • The story of Adam previews Israel’s entire story from beginning to end.
  • Obey and you stay; disobey and be exiled. Israel’s story follows the same pattern.
  • The story of Adam, from life with God to death in exile, is an abbreviated version of Israel’s story. Rabbis have noticed this since at least the medieval period.

The Exodus Story

  • Modern historians are puzzled that no ancient source, including Egyptian ones, even hint at an event of the scope of the exodus.
  • Stories of Israel’s monarchy have no problem mentioning names of hostile kings, but the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites and who ruled for four hundred years is not named.
  • As history, the exodus story has some challenges. But as story, it carries serious punch that we will miss if focus on the historical angle. Through this story, Israel’s storytellers are tying their people not simply back to Adam but to the first moments of creation itself.

When Gods Fight

  • Back to the Enuma Elish. In this story we read of the god Marduk winning a cosmic battle at the dan of time by slaying Tiamat, who is Marduk’s great-great-grandmother and the symbol of watery chaos. But cutting Tiamat in half, Marduk made the chaos a habitable place.
  • Marduk is the god who handpicked Hammurabi, who was king of a new Babylonian dynasty. Since Marduk handpicked Hammurabi, to contend against Hammurabi was to contend against Marduk himself.
  • Exodus is a story of Israel’s beginnings, rooted too, in a battle between the gods: Yahweh versus the Egyptian gods.
  • The story of Moses throwing his staff before Pharaoh and it turns into a serpent. Pharaoh’s advisers do the same but then Moses’s serpent eats the others.
  • The ten plagues:
    • The Nile turned into blood; the Nile was worshiped as a god
    • Second plague, frogs multiple all over Egypt. The Egyptian goddess of fertility, Heqet, was supposed to have control over that and was depicted by the head of a frog.
    • In the ninth plague, Yahweh darkens the sun. the high god of Egyptians and the patron god of Pharaoh is the sun god Ra.
  • The plagues aren’t random tricks. They are a “one-sided cage match” of Israel’s God, Yahweh, versus the Gods of Egypt.
  • The knock-out blow is the parting of the Red Sea. Israelites march to freedom and a nation is born, which echos the story of creation in Genesis chapter one.

What’s with All the Water?

  • Biblical scholars relying on geological findings believe that a great deluge in Mesopotamia around 2900 BCE was the trigger for the many flood stories that circulated the ancient world.
  • The stories reflect the belief that the flood was divine punishment. In the Atrahasis epic the flood was divine punishment for humans making too much noise and so keeping the gods from their rest.
  • The biblical story takes a different approach by not placing the blame on gods but on human wickedness and evil.
  • The Hebrew word for ark is tevah (TAY-vah), and it occurs in only one other place in the entire Old Testament: the story of Moses
  • In all of these stories God is in full control of water

Stories Work

  • Did what the Bible says happened really happen?
  • The Bible and history is a polarizing issue resulting in two sides: the “now we know the Bible is a pack of lies” side and the “Bible has to be historically accurate to be the Word of God” side.
  • Both start from the premise that any book worthy of being called “scripture” has to, if anything, get history “right.”
  • Both sides have painted themselves into the same corner.
  • Ironically, the passionate defense of the Bible as a “history book” among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us.
  • Over the years I’ve grown more and more convinced that “storytelling” is a better way of understanding what the Bible is doing with the past than “history writing.”
  • Maybe God likes stories
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