By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
--Psalm 137:1 NRSV
Living during the Coronavirus pandemic is frustrating and stressful. Our normal routines are disrupted, and our carefully made plans are scuttled. For some us, this time is filled with monotony, while others of us struggle with fear and grief. The world as we know it has been upended to one degree or another.
The Bible as we know it was formed during times of disruption. The Hebrew Bible (what Christians mislabel the “Old Testament”) was put largely in its present form in response to the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE). The Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, the remaining part of what had been a united Israel under kings David and Solomon, and took its best and brightest into captivity in Babylon. Others stayed behind with no king, temple or capital. This upending of the world caused a crisis of faith and raised questions about whether Israel’s God could be trusted to keep divine promises.
The Christian scriptures (or the “New Testament”) were written in response to another disruption of the world as it had been known. According to Jesus’ followers, God had sent a messiah unlike anyone expected, rather than a great military leader this messiah was executed. Furthermore, this messiah rose from the dead. What could this possibly mean? For the early Christians, further crises of faith developed in response to its eventual separation from Judaism and the delay of the expected return of Christ. All of these disruptions raised similar questions to those faced by their Jewish forebears centuries before—namely, can God be trusted to keep divine promises?
In her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late Rachel Held Evans does a great job explaining how these crises of faith due to disruptions in the world formed the Bible. The context that produced scripture helps explain why the Bible resists simplistic categorization by rationalists and fundamentalists alike. She notes “it’s a bible that so rarely behaves.”
Evans states that the chief problem with how faithful people and those without faith approach the Bible is that we make it all about us. (This seems to be a central problem we humans struggle with.) She writes,
Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.
Evans goes on to say, “. . . our present squabbles over science, politics and public school textbooks were not on the minds of those Jewish scribes seeking to assure an oppressed and scattered people.” What? It’s not all about me and my politics?
Similarly, on the other end of the spectrum (and in more progressive churches I’d add), the Bible is dismissed as irrational and unscientific.
We’ve been instructed to reject any trace of poetry, myth hyperbole, or symbolism . . . God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. Speaking to ancient people using their own language, literary structures, and cosmological assumptions would be beneath God, it is said, for only our modern categories of science and history can convey the truth in a meaningful way.
Yet, Evans points out, “one of the most central themes of Scripture itself” is “God stoops.” From walking with Adam and Eve in the garden to journeying with the freed Israelite slaves through the wilderness to dying on a cross, God stoops to be with God’s people. (Read Philippians 2!)
The stories, songs and poetry of the Bible need not be “true” in the same way a laboratory test is “true” to speak to the most pressing concerns of humanity. It is not stooping for God to use the things that most shape our identities in communicating divine love and presence. Evans writes,
It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.
No, the Bible is not about us and our 21st century worldview, but its ancient writers and editors were human just like us. The questions they asked are the ones we ask. Can God be trusted to keep God’s promises? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God present with us during moments of pain? Is death the final word?
To answer these questions, Israel and the first Christians went back to their stories, traditions, songs and poetry. To understand who they were and why they were where they were, they went back to their origins. We do the same thing, Evans writes:
Today we still return to our roots in times of crisis; we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are. The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned the story of how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
The reasons the Bible resists the categories of systematic theologians and scientific studies is because it is a response to crisis rather than an encyclopedia set or a biology textbook. It is a deeply human collection of writings that respond to our deepest longings for connection with the Divine.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851