Guest post by my sister, Yising.
When I was 12, I attended a Bible study in which we read about a group of teenage boys who were mauled by bears as punishment for mocking the prophet Elisha’s bald head. The story only takes up two verses at the end of 2 Kings Chapter 2, concluding an overall brief and bizarre chapter. In the space of a few paragraphs, Elijah ascends into heaven on a flaming chariot, leaves his prophetic power with Elisha, who then parts the Jordan river, purifies a polluted spring, and finally summons the bears to slay the ill-mannered teens.
The youth pastor asked if we had any questions about the story. The group was silent. We clutched printed handouts with discussion questions and a “Life Application” derived from the text. This particular handout gave an exhortation reminding us to honor our elders and avoid the fate of the boys in this chapter. We prayed that God would help us do so.
Since childhood, I have read the Bible and heard its stories interpreted through youth groups and Sunday school and sermons. In every setting, the goal of our reading was to extract a moral from the passage, effectively translating each story and poem into a fable. I’ve watched countless animated movies produced specifically for Sunday School curriculum where anthropomorphized animals and inanimate objects retold Bible stories as didactic tales, always concluding with a reminder to obey our parents or share our toys or work hard.
The lessons worked. I obeyed my parents and shared my toys and worked hard. And as I grew older, the stories of the Bible generated the paradigms through which I learned to interpret the narrative of my own life. I developed an impulse to compare my life to those of Biblical characters, and used their stories to validate and explain my own experiences. If I was doubting God and in need of a sign – it was fine, it was Biblical, for I was like Gideon asking the Lord to keep the wool dry in the morning dew. If I was in a moment of deferred hope, perhaps I could consider myself like the Israelites searching for the Promised Land, experiencing a similarly Biblical sense of disappointment
I’m thankful for my childhood steeped in scripture; I want my readings of scripture to have consequence for how I live. But through my childhood, I mistook my familiarity with the Bible, my ability to extract morals from its stories, and my appropriation of its narratives as allegories for my own life to mean that I understood it. I didn’t know that I was actually a stranger to the text, ill-equipped to approach something so ancient and other from me.
Last year, a friend gave me a Bible printed without numbered chapters and verses. Without numbers breaking up the text, I read large chunks at a time, reading from Genesis to Revelations. I read for the novelty of the format; I read for the sake of reading. For the first time, I read the Bible as a longer, connected narrative.
As I read, I grew to love the strangest and most gruesome stories of the Bible, the ones left out of Sunday School curriculums, for which I had no precedent leading me to to read and interpret them in search of a moral lesson. These stories confront me with my otherness to the text. They challenge my arrogance in assuming that I can read these stories as an address towards me and my individual life. But most of all, they move me.
One of the stories I love is that of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, in Genesis 34. Dinah is kidnapped and raped by the prince of a neighboring town after her family settles nearby. Her rapist asks her family for permission to marry Dinah, and her brothers say that Dinah will be given in marriage only if the prince and every man in his town is circumcised. The prince agrees and carries out the circumcisions. While the men of the town are recovering from the circumcisions, Dinah’s brothers enter the town, slaughter the men, plunder the city, take all the women and children of the town for slaves, and bring Dinah home.
History teaches us that ancient life is more brutal than anyone in the contemporary west can fathom. The Bible does not shrink away from this. Here, we are presented with kidnapping and rape, genital mutilation, merciless massacre, plundering – this is a world in which the threat of death ever on the horizon. The conclusion of Genesis 34 is almost a shrug towards the violence of it all:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.”
But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?”
The narrative moves on. Soon after, we are given the story of one of the most significant promises of God in the Old Testament:
Then God appeared to Jacob again…And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name.” So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: “I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land.” Then God went up from him in the place where He talked with him. So Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Bethel.
The Bible records the brutality of Israel’s history without flinching, recounting the stories of generations given to astonishing violence. What draws me to these stories is this: that even within a world that shocks and repulses me, God abides with his people. God meets Jacob right after a moment of trauma and violence in his family and opens the door to an alternate reality. While Jacob saw himself as a foreigner in the land, God says that the land is his. While Jacob feared that his family would be destroyed, God tells him that his lineage will continue and produce powerful nations. Whereas Jacob was given to plundering, God invites him to give a sacrifice. Whereas Jacob was dwelling in sin, God invited him into communion. Instead of death, life will begin to spring forth.
These are not Aesop’s Fables, I have come to realize. The Bible does not consist of parables ready to offer lessons for the modern world. It is a story about specific people, in specific times and places, struggling to understand their place in the cosmos, and God reaching out to meet them wherever they are. In every generation, the startling goodness of God cuts through the sin of the world to meet His people. There is a mystery in that reality which cannot be distilled into a pat moral. Instead, it demands meditation on the character of God. It demands worship.
I am not a trained Biblical scholar; I know very little about the culture and conditions of ancient Mesopotamia; I cannot read Hebrew. I will never be able to create the perfect framework with which to read and interpret scripture, but that isn’t what I am looking for. Solomon proclaimed upon hearing the promise of God’s presence dwelling in his temple, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” The miracle of the story is that God’s presence does fill the temple, and so He does with the temples we build. I think that this is the ultimate message of Christ’s incarnation, that somehow the God who cannot be contained by heaven comes to dwell on earth and commune with man. Somehow, He reveals Himself to us in the stories we record and retell, limited and fractured as they may be.