Last week, we began a worship series titled “Why the Bible?” inspired by the worship team and their questions about the Bible. One of the questions that came up was a thoughtful one: “what was happening while the Bible was happening?” In other words, when we learn in World Civ class about something happening in the world, how does that relate to the world of the Bible? And vice versa – when we read about Moses or David, what was happening in the rest of the world that might have had an impact on what was written and how it was heard?
In one way, that question is impossible to answer in 20 minutes because, of course, A LOT was happening. Kings and Empires. Wars and Battles. Developments and Societies. And I cannot hope to answer everything in one setting.
Plus, we have to remember that the Bible is not a newsfeed. We are so used to hearing things immediately after or as they are happening. News is instant now, and we are so used to cable news updates, Twitter feeds, and facebook newsfeeds that we think that when we see something in print, it must have just happened. Not so with the Bible. So much of this was oral history first, and so when we see something reported from this second movement, for example, it was probably not written down in this form until the fourth movement – centuries later. The book we know as Genesis is actually a compilation of a lot of different perspectives, trying to make sense of their world. Much of the Bible was written during the Exile, when the Israelites were trying to ask “what now?” and harkening back to their history to answer that question. We cannot read the Bible as though it were an instantaneous newsfeed. We have to ask what is happening in the context of the text AND the context of the writers of the text! The Bible is a complex book and not to be understood as a single source or simple work.
Yet, we can see the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we usually call the Old Testament, as a work generally consisting of four movements. The Bible is not that simple, but it helps to divide the eras of the Hebrew Scriptures into these movements to see the big picture of what is going on.
Movement One: God Chooses a Family.
The book of Genesis more or less tells the story of this couple named Abram and Sarai and their extended family. There is more in there, but for the most part, it is about a couple and their kids and their kids and their kids. It ends with the great grandkids – who will comprise the 12 tribes of Israel – and their family dynamics and moves throughout the Middle East. Commonly known as the Age of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, it tells how these mothers and fathers of the faith – eventually three significant faiths – had their humble beginnings. If we were studying this era in World Civ, we would be talking about the power of the Egyptian Empire, the practice of nomadic nation states, early examples of agricultural stockpiling on a national scale.
But Genesis tells a different version of the story. It tells it as a story about God and the ways that God moved through the life of this family. It tells it as a story about God choosing Abram and his family to be a special covenant people – that they would enjoy a relationship with God that gave them both special rights and responsibilities. It tells the story about a God who moved through Empire and wandering nation states and historical context to create a special and called people. And at the end of this movement, it is God who is the hero, saving the people from death and destruction and giving them a place to call home.
Movement Two: The Family Goes for a Walk.
In the next movement, this family has grown significantly, and has become a pain in the side of the Egyptian government. The Egyptians tried enslaving them, even population control and genocide, but they kept getting bigger and more powerful. Again, in the historical context of this time period, we would study in World Civ various nations who had begun to spend less time wandering and more time gathering a place and contextual identity. The Canaanites, Hittites, and others started to do things like draw borders and build fortified cities. Protecting themselves from other small nation-states, as well as the big boys like Egypt, became more and more important. Meanwhile, they created governments and law codes and ways to organize themselves. I name this movement in perhaps a flippant way, but the reality is that the next several books of the Bible tell the story of the Exodus: the escape of this extended family from the slavery of the Egyptian overlords and the long process required to find their own place, and draw their own borders, and their own fortified cities. And their own government.
But again, the Bible tells it as a story of God paving the way. God giving them the basics of their government and law in the Torah. God bringing them to the Holy Land. The Israelites’ disobedience of God, resulting in 40 years of wandering. Instead of a nice, tidy jaunt into their own land and space, they end up wandering for 40 years.
Movement Three: The Family Builds A Kingdom.
This third movement of the Hebrew Scriptures is sometimes called the Monarchy. Again, from a World Civ perspective, this is the era of kings. Kings grew their territory, amassing larger and larger kingdoms, eventually empires, growing beyond their borders. Around the Israelites were the big boys: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians. As well as smaller kingdoms variously aligned with these powerhouses. In Israel, this dynamic played out as a united monarchy under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, and then when that fell apart, a divided monarchy (north and south) with a string of mostly unhealthy and unfair kings.
But, the Bible tells the story differently. It tells the story of a nation-wide game of “me, too!” The Israelites saw everyone else with a king and even though God warned them that it was not a good idea to have a king – that a king would take their money and their land and their children to fight their wars – the Israelites played “me, too!” and wanted a king. Who, in fact, took their money and their land and their children to fight their wars. And in the end, it all led to…
Movement Four: The Family Loses Its Home
Again, the historic context of this time is simple. The empires of the day: Egypt to the South, Assyria to the North, Babylon to the East, wanted to enlarge their territory and their power, and so they used their armies and advanced weapons to grow their empires and their holdings. Like a real-life game of Risk, these borders shifted over time, and the relative strength of each of these Empires grew and shrunk with different leaders and strategies and battles. Meanwhile, the Hebrew people were stuck in the middle of this game of Risk, and if you have ever played the game, you realize why you can never hold onto the Middle East for very long. The Israelite people were beaten by one empire and then another, finding themselves beholden to leaders in various parts of the world. First, the northern kingdom was defeated and its identity obliterated by the Assyrians. Then, a couple hundred years later, the Babylonians had become the bully on the block and so the southern kingdom was defeated and its leadership and power structure was exiled to Babylon where they were re-trained on how to be good Babylonians. Eventually, the Israelites were allowed to return to their home, but they never enjoyed the same power or prestige that they had had with David and Solomon, and were more or less at the mercy of others.
But again, the Bible tells the story in a very different context. It tells it as the story of God and God’s people, not just battles and borders. And the books of the prophets by and large tell of those who spoke against the kings, challenged them to remember God in the midst of their power hungry wars, and brought the people back to God.
As we read the Hebrew Scriptures, everything in happening in both of these contexts. There is the historic context – things happening in the world and in the Middle East. And then the divine context – what is God doing in the midst of those happenings.
So, one thing that we must make clear is that the Bible is not a World Civ book! Just because it speaks of historical events does not mean it is a history book. If you open a World Civ book today, there is at least an assumption of objectivity. “We are just giving you the facts.” Of course one can argue that even those facts come from some subjective place. But authors of the Bible don’t even presume objectivity. They are not writing a World Civ textbook. They are writing a sermon – an interpretation of events in the context of God. Just like we can look at each of these historic movements and see both contexts, we can step back and see the whole Bible in that way. Even parts written as history are interpretations of God’s story. And the poetry and prophetic sermons and other stuff doesn’t even look like history. If we read the Bible as a World Civ textbook, we are missing the point of what the Bible is supposed to be!
But that is a good thing! Because there is something powerful in seeing the Bible as more than a reporting of facts. There is power in realizing that there are two contexts: that of the events described AND the world of those recording those events. Because I think that the power of the Bible is not just to know how in AN historic place and time, God was at work. But it is to know that in ALL historic places and ALL historic times, God has been at work. And that in THIS historic place and THIS historic time, God is still at work. In my life. In this church. In our world. That God did not stop showing up as soon as the ink dried, but to the contrary, God has been at work long before the story was told, and long after it was written down, and in fact the Story of God’s love is still being written today! Just like each of these movements have a historic version and a divine version, we could say the same thing about the events of our world and our lives!
So, when we talk about the Hebrew Scriptures, we start to open the door to some significant questions:
• God, how have you chosen me? Who is my family?
• God, where am I in my Exodus? In my journey? Where are you leading me?
• God, where am I obedient and disobedient to your desire for my life?
• God, how am in Exile and how are you faithful in the midst of that? Are there others in my world that are in Exile, too?
• God, what is your version of what is happening today? What would you have us to be and to do here and now?
And so our role is to hear that story, to celebrate that story, to engage in that story, and to ask how that story spills over into ours. For the God of the matriarchs and patriarchs, the God of the Exodus, the God of the Monarchy, and the God of the Exile…is also the God of 1330 Kasold Drive in Lawrence, Kansas in the year 2014. And the God of your house and my house and our schools and our workplaces and our streets. May we celebrate the eternity of God throughout the Story and the eternity of this moment and the God of our here and now!