Reading the Bible as a story

The books of the Bible are a strangely miscellaneous lot. Some have names attached to them but many, particularly the narrative books, are completely anonymous. Nobody knows who wrote the continuous history of Israel that is covered by the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. An old tradition says it was the prophet Jeremiah, but it probably wasn’t. The Five Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) don’t claim to have been written by anyone in particular; the name of Moses got attached to them much later. Likewise the traditional names of the four gospels, though quite old, are not included anywhere in the text. Moreover some books that are attributed to a particular author include passages that seem to have been written by somebody else, often clearly at a much later date. And some books show signs of having been repeatedly rewritten. Yet in spite of this, the Bible as a whole and the Old and New Testaments separately seem to tell an overarching story into which all the individual books can be fitted.

Story is an art form that is rather sniffed at by intellectuals but loved by the uneducated. The first stories we ever heard were told to us by our mothers, long before we learned to read (though in the house where I grew up, my father was the story teller as my mother had no talent for it). When we went to school later on, our teachers taught us much, but they did not usually tell us stories. So a division was gradually established in our minds between serious books which were a source of knowledge, and stories which were a source mainly of entertainment. Yet for much of human history, most people remained illiterate, and most of what they knew came from stories. It has even been suggested that gossiping, and therefore story-telling, developed as a human replacement for social grooming after our ancestors had lost their hairy coats.

Theologians have been trying for centuries to turn the Bible into a theological textbook, but it remains basically a story. Actually it contains two major story arcs, one Jewish (covering the Tanakh only), and one Christian (covering both the Old and the New Testament). Within these are innumerable lesser stories together with a lot of other material. Both the major arcs tell basically the same story but on different levels. The Jewish version tells of the sin and redemption of their nation, the Christian one of the sin and redemption of mankind.

For Jews, the Eden and Flood stories are a prelude. Their history starts with the call of Abraham into a unique dual relationship which is simultaneously with God and with an as-yet-unspecified “land that I will show you”. The call expands to include Abraham’s family and eventually the twelve tribes descended from them. The land is found but soon lost again. The tribes evolve into a nation but they do so in slavery in another country. They are liberated and allowed to settle in the promised land, but almost from the beginning everything goes wrong. The people sin and are alienated from God. Brief periods of repentance and restoration alternate with worse and worse corruption. Eventually Israel suffers the ultimate punishment: their land is taken from them and they are carried away into exile.

That should have been the end of the story. History tells us that a nation that has lost its land is dead. Where are the Amorites or the Hittites now? But Israel uniquely rises again from the dead. The Jewish people redeem themselves by their patient acceptance of their punishment and their decision, never afterwards altered, to be faithful to God henceforward. The Tanakh, unlike the Christian Old Testament, ends with the two books of Chronicles and its last words are from the proclamation of Cyrus: “If anyone will go up to the Land of Israel, may his God be with him and let him go up!” The word for “go up” is aliyah, which is the word still used today for the decision of a Jew to return to Israel, the promised land. “Going up” also of course suggests the idea of resurrection, the resurrection of a nation that has effectively become its own Messiah. Interestingly, there is no role for a separate redeemer in this story as there is in the more familiar Christian version.

Christians derive their Old Testament not from the Tanakh directly but from the Septuagint, the Greek translation that was used by diaspora Jews. This has its books in a different order, which our Bible still uses, ending with a sequence of prophetic books from Isaiah to Malachi. Malachi ends with the promise of the return of Elijah as the herald of the coming Messiah, and the book that immediately follows it in the Christian Bible is Matthew’s Gospel, which acts as a further bridge between the Old and New Testaments. It quotes frequently from the former and starts by presenting the Abrahamic and Davidic ancestry of Jesus, who is both the expected Messiah and the very unexpected Second Adam. Because, for Christians, the Eden story describing the origin and fall of mankind is not a mere prelude but the true beginning of the tale. If anything, it is the history of Israel that becomes the prelude to and foreshadowing of the coming, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I believe that everything in the Bible is either part of this story, or a smaller self-contained story that riffs on it and illuminates some aspect of it, or some kind of teaching or meditation on its meaning.

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