We are trained as children to pluck out Bible stories and learn a lesson. Let’s try to fix that as adults.
You know the routine. You select a story, such as Abraham and Isaac on the mountains of Moriah. You tell the story. You offer a lesson…be willing to obey God whatever He asks. Job done. And the children go away thinking that that is how to handle the Bible. Pluck the story, point to a life lesson.
Then as adults we can easily do the same thing. You select a story, such as Jacob wrestling with the stranger at night. You tell the story. You offer a lesson…or maybe several (adults can cope with more): three top tips for handling complex threats. (I’m making this up, although it is true that preaching this way doesn’t require much time.) Be careful what situations you put yourself in. The dark is dangerous. Fight hard because God doesn’t let anything happen to you that you can’t cope with. (Forget that last one, it is problematic on so many levels!)
God did not give us a compendium of life lessons dressed up as character stories. The Bible writers were masterful in crafting the historical accounts into literary masterpieces. The brevity of individual stories woven together into epics of grand proportions. So what to do?
1. Study stories in the context of the bigger stories. Abraham and Isaac heading to the mountains of Moriah is the climax of a twelve chapter, decades long faith journey for Abraham and God. It wasn’t a random test coming out of nowhere. It was a heartbreaking and confusing test in the context of a story that had stretched as long as many of us live on earth. Promise, travel, gradual response, family separation, land assignment, further travel, false starts, wrong-headed plans, bizarre marital failures, repeated promises, eventual faith, later covenant sign, divine protection over the marriage and very late promise fulfillment.
2. Study bigger stories in the context of the bigger stories. So don’t just make sense of Jacob’s wrestling in the context of Jacob’s bigger story, see it as part of the sweeping story from Abraham’s promise down through the generations. Jacob was a deceiver, as was Laban, and the threat of Esau was massive . . . but was God a deceiver? Could He be taken at His word? Was Jacob’s big issue really his problematic relatives? Or was it himself and his own view of God?
3. Study bigger stories in the context of the biggest story. While this shouldn’t override the passage and completely change its meaning from what it could have originally meant, we have to be sensitive to the whole Bible epic of God’s dealings with humanity.
Tomorrow I’ll poke at this issue from another angle.