Hobo: “What exactly is…is your persuasion on the Big Man, since you brought him up?”
The Boy: “Well, I… I want to believe… but…”
Hobo: “But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded!”
-The Polar Express
Commit to the bit.
I love a good laugh. I’ll also shamelessly admit I love a good cry. Christmas movies (or even commercials) have been known to make me shed a tear or two. There’s something about the stories we tell at Christmas time: reconciliation, generosity, hope. They strike a chord.
Great comedy and great drama share a number of things in common. One of them is commitment. When someone commits to a character, that character (and the story they’re telling) becomes believable. Even when bits or sketches are absurd, a committed comic or actor entertains us because they’re all the more determined to deliver an outlandish character and story.
Actors like Will Ferrell and Daniel Day Lewis are known for their commitment. I recently saw an interview wherein an actor shared an embarrassing story. While collaborating on a movie, he thought losing some clothing at a particular moment might ramp up the humour in a scene. When the time came to shoot the scene, however, he wavered. The film’s director thought the original idea was funny and wanted to use it, so he challenged the actor by telling him, “Will Ferrell would do it.” The actor begrudgingly stripped down.
Never breaking character is important because dramatic and comedic actors alike are shooting for the same goal: believability. An actor should make us believe they are the character. One moment of inconsistency can ruin the audience’s whole experience. When a character is funny, we laugh. When a character is scary, we hide beneath blankets on the couch. Part of good acting is about thoroughly knowing and committing to your character. Part of producing a great overall performance is consistently committing to said character in every scene, and in every moment. Is the actor believable as a self-absorbed broadcaster in the seventies, or an oil man dominating the American west in the 1880s, or a blind girl fleeing monsters in a forest? If so, we call it good acting.
Character is what an actor puts on to entertain us. But, everyone has character, too. It’s what we’re made of. The question is, what’s our character like? Do we have good character, and if so, is it consistent?
The biblical book of Exodus tells of another baby who lived well over a thousand years before Jesus. The story picks up with the Israelite people enslaved in Egypt. As you can imagine, this wasn’t a good situation for them. Held captive against their will, they suffered through life as Pharaoh’s cheap labour force.
Pharaoh had a problem, however. The Israelites were gifted procreators. The swelling population concerned Egypt’s leader (perhaps he feared an uprising) and so he ordered that all male children be slaughtered upon birth. A certain Israelite priest and his wife were expecting, and the soon-to-be mother couldn’t bear to see her newborn son skewered upon arrival. Unable to keep her secret (after managing to hide him for three months), she eventually placed him in a basket and sent him down the Nile. She must have thought this a better option than certain death for the boy. We’re not told of the mother’s intentions in the narrative, but apparently the child was dropped in near a royal bathing spot. Pharaoh’s daughter spotted the basket, heard the crying baby, and eventually adopted him.
She named the boy Moses. One of the reasons she may have named him as she did was because “Moses” sounded like the Hebrew word for “draw out.” This was fitting since she “drew him from the water.” Moses grew up as an Egyptian prince, and life looked good for him. One day, however, he got himself into trouble. He had a traumatic identity crisis and ended up murdering an Egyptian who was beating on a Hebrew slave. Moses buried the body in the sand, and hoped no one would notice. People noticed.
Fearing for his life, he fled Egypt, got married and became a shepherd. Moses thought he’d live out his days in relative anonymity. He was able to for about forty years, until one day a bush started speaking to him. The bush got his attention, obviously. Let’s press pause and pick back up with Moses in a few pages. His story gets more interesting.
Why we shouldn’t give up on God so easily.
In part two we empathized with Ricky Bobby who “likes baby Jesus the best.” Baby Jesus is the version of Jesus he most naturally relates to. It’s easy to see where Ricky Bobby’s coming from. We might like baby Jesus better than the other perspectives of God found in the Bible, especially when we consider the whole book. Isn’t the God of the Old Testament a tyrant? Who wants to get to know or serve a tyrannical God?
A struggle some people have in buying into and trusting the God of the Bible is rooted in doubt about his character. They’ve read, or heard, that he’s mean and nasty in the Old Testament, but sweet and cuddly in the New Testament. This trips some of us up, so much so that we give up before doing any further exploration and toss the baby out with the bathwater. Inconsistent character is a problem for us, especially when some people claim “God is good.” The world was a harsh place back then, it still can be today. God’s good character might seem incongruent with how much pain and suffering we see around us. As my best friend’s three year-old exclaimed after tripping and hitting his head on a door frame the other day, “Why did God make hard things?!”
God’s good character, however, is consistent throughout the entire biblical narrative. We simply may need some help in discovering it through various and specific biblical stories. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.
Learning how to read and understand the Bible is a process. It’s a book of depth, genre variation, and was written by a host of authors over hundreds of years. We’re taking a rather abbreviated look, but allow me to highlight some important approaches when reading the Bible in hopes of discovering God’s consistent character within it.
Do you see what I see?
Everyone looks at the world through a particular lens. This lens is shaped by our culture, upbringing, personality, and whether or not we were exposed to Justin Bieber at age thirteen or age thirty-five. Our age is a lens because it roots us in time. Culture changes over time. Your chances of liking Justin Bieber’s music may (and I emphasize may to all those thirty-five-year-old Bieber fans) depend on how old you are. We view life through a lens shaped by our culture and the time we live in.
The people who wrote the Bible also had lenses, having also lived in particular times and cultures. This is true of the first biblical audience as well. Books of the Bible weren’t written to sit on the shelf and collect dust. They are letters, poetic books, historical documents, biographies, sermons, laments, and even ancient forms of legislation. They were read aloud, memorized, sung and studied. They still are.
When we read the Bible we must consider the lens of the writer, the lens of the reader, the time it was written in, the culture it was written in, the events surrounding its writing, the genre it’s written in, and many other factors. It’s remarkable that the Bible still carries such immediate, profound and comforting truth for today’s average reader considering its complexity and depth.
Simple and complex.
The Bible is complex in nature. Understanding this is part of reading it properly. Part of the beauty of the Bible, however, is that we can still read it and simply be inspired, encouraged, or morally challenged. Mark, for example, wrote this passage almost two millennia ago:
“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
This is a simple story. Parents wanted the miracle-man to bless their children, but Jesus’ friends shooed them away. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t tell the kids off for getting his robes dirty. Instead, he put his friends in their place. Kids matter! Can’t you see that? Then, Jesus took the kids in his arms and blessed them.
We won’t spend time unpacking the ancient world’s view of and treatment of children. We won’t spend time getting into the dramatic theological importance this has on understanding Jesus’ mission and message. Doing both these things, however, would give us profound insight into the importance of Jesus’ actions that day. It’s clear from his life that he believed kids were whole human beings with rights, and needs, and were deserving of love. This passage, all on its lonesome, is simply moving, encouraging and humbling. It’s a simple message, but it has a complex background.
The Bible has depth to be explored, but also speaks with simplicity, immediacy and conviction. It has lovely bits and nasty bits. The lovely bits of the Bible are just as complex as the nasty bits; we’re just more comfortable with them, so we don’t ask as many questions. So, what do we do with the nasty and complex bits of the Bible, the ones we’re not so comfortable with? What about the ones surrounding God’s actions in the Old Testament? How do they line up with nice-guy Jesus? Do they line up at all?
What’s God’s first impression?
As we saw in part three, the first impression someone makes on us can be a lasting one. Journalists put the most important information at the top of the article. The opening scene of a play will set the tone of the production. We dress up for job interviews. First impressions matter. Our first impression of God in the Bible is important. It’s also a good one.
The first thing we learn about God in the book of Genesis is that he’s creative and generous. Some read Genesis 1 as an ancient poem, and some read it literally. Regardless of your interpretation, God comes across in a positive light. In Genesis 1 God makes everything and gives everything life. He calls creation good, and blesses humanity with the task of stewarding it. He creates man and woman in his image, establishing the basis for our need of community, and places them in a garden. Enter God, stage right. He’s looking pretty good for a mighty, cosmic superpower.
This is the stage the Bible sets, and how the author of Genesis introduces us to God. Interestingly, it’s also how the Bible ends, with God renewing the world and blessing humanity. We read all about gardens, trees and rivers in Revelation too.
When asking if Jesus is different than the God of the Old Testament, are we considering our first impression of God in Genesis? When Jesus is renewing people’s sight, calming the waves, and healing lepers, are we comparing these actions to Genesis 1 and 2? God makes the world in Genesis. Jesus brings renewal to it in the gospels.
Life and death. Lost and found.
The story starts out well in Genesis, but it goes south soon enough. Humans mistrust this creative, generous God, and rebel. They mistrust God, the life-giver, and begin to trust solely in themselves. When faced with a choice, they choose something other than the God who made them.
In the biblical narrative this means they’ve chosen death. When they step away from the giver-of-life, what are they stepping towards? This is why, as many have noted, the Bible’s main message isn’t about goodness or badness. It’s about life and death. Jesus didn’t come to turn bad people into good people but to bring dead people back to life, back to God. Through Jesus, God is giving us back the life we previously discarded.
In Genesis the world gets messy, fast, and humans end up learning the hard way. This means they end up lying to, stealing from, abusing and killing one another. The world can be a nasty place. God, however, endeavours throughout the biblical story to reconcile us back to himself, to bring us back to life. But time and again humans reject God, and end up getting themselves into more and more trouble. God kept reaching out. Humans kept running away.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells two stories of loss and redemption. In the first, a man loses one out of a hundred of his sheep. Jesus says he searches for it high and low, finds it, and returns home with great joy. In the second, a woman loses one out of ten coins, but values it so greatly she scours the house until it is found. In both stories, both characters invite their friends over to celebrate the recovery of what they obviously felt was so precious.
Jesus’ final story in chapter 15 is about two brothers and their father. One of them rejects the father, demands an early inheritance, leaves home, squanders all the money, and ends up living with pigs. One day he remembers how much better he had it at home, so he decides to make his way back. Jesus tells us that when the father sees him coming “from a long way off” he got up, ran to his son, and embraced him. Guess what he did next? You guessed it. He throws a big party.
This story is an illustrated and simplified version of the entire biblical narrative. Notice the physical action of the main characters in all three stories. In every circumstance (one out of a hundred sheep, one out of ten coins, and one out of two sons) all three characters move toward, or go in search of, what has been lost. Jesus’ stories tell us much about how he thinks God operates and what his character is like. It would seem Jesus thinks God is determined to recover what was lost, and desperate to hold it near again.
An old hymn, written by twenty-year-old Robert Robinson in 1757, wrestles with this narrative from one man’s perspective beautifully:
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
What about all the nasty bits?
It’s easy to read about bloody battles, animal sacrifices, and slave treatment laws, and then make unfair judgements on ancient cultures. First of all, we in the twenty-first century don’t exactly have it all together ourselves. Our criticism should be tempered.
If we think we can divorce ourselves from the reality that the world is a nasty place, we’re wrong. Even if you don’t own slaves, you likely contribute to some form of slavery based on the items you purchase every week. This is a sobering thought, but it reminds us that our highly prized Western individualism is false. We’re a human family, and are all connected.
Second, are we considering the time and culture the Bible was written in? How was the way the Israelites did things (under God’s instruction) different than how other cultures did them? Few of us are experts in ancient Near Eastern culture, so perhaps we should admit our ignorance and investigate further. Biblical laws about marriage, slavery, child rearing, farming, theft, murder and adultery are rooted in a time different from our own. We live thousands of years later, and are far more evolved—at least we’re supposed to be.
The Israelite God was, like Jesus, morally and ethically progressive, just and generous in many ways other culture’s deities were not. There are many examples we could point to. We see in Genesis and Exodus, for example, that God invented weekends. People needed to take a break after working for six days. God commands this.
There are some stories wherein God instructs the Israelites to do things we might find horrendous today. These actions, we must remember, are rooted in a certain time and culture. Conflict, peace, and cultural and moral progression looked differently than it may look now.
Why is God angry?
I’ve seen parents get angry for no reason. I recently saw a caregiver act so impatiently (borderline abusive) that I nearly stepped in and did something about it. My heart began to race, and my palms began to sweat. You shouldn’t treat children that way. I’ve also seen parents get justifiably angry. Perhaps Jimmy hit Sally with a ruler in the face. No parent should stand for that. Sally needs to be protected, and Jimmy needs to be disciplined. Children need patience and lots of love. Disciplining a child is part of loving a child. Discipline must be carried out in correct measure and mode, however.
A child’s growth and development depends on discipline. The Bible calls humans God’s children, his creation. He wants what’s best for us, and that kind of parenting takes time, energy, commitment and love. It takes an extra-long time when you give the beings you create free will, and commit to honouring it.
When considering God’s anger and actions in the Old Testament, we should always ask why he is angry and what his response is in light of humanity’s actions. If we are his creation (his children), how is he parenting us? What’s the overall journey? An overwhelming sense of patience and love emerges from the Biblical picture of God when we consider his character over thousands and thousands of years.
Please hear me. I’m not saying that biblical hardships (from war, to hunger, to slavery) is God’s way of teaching humanity a lesson. That’s far too simplistic and ultimately the opposite of the biblical message. As we already established, the world is a broken place, and humans have free will. We must take responsibility for our actions, and the consequences of them. The Bible would teach that God is, however, in the middle of all this and working things out for the good. He’s involved, he’s in the thick of it. From time to time in the Bible we see God bring correction and discipline, but any good parent would agree this is necessary for the growth of a child.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but as much as humanity could use a swift kick in the pants now and then, how does God ultimately react to our rebellion? What is his big solution to the problem? We see how ancient kings and emperors dealt with rebellion. Rebellions will be brutally crushed, said the Persians, Babylonians and Romans.
The biblical narrative tells us God ultimately fixes the world’s problem of evil. He does so not by punishing it, but by absorbing evil through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Through Jesus, God inhaled death, and exhaled life. As one of my old professors used to say: grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what you deserve. The Bible says that through Jesus, humanity receives both grace and mercy.
Time is of the essence.
God spoke to and acted in ways that the people of that time understood. He functioned within culture. Some argue the best way to read the Bible is to look for the redemptive movement within each book or story. Is God trying to move humanity forward on issues of morality, justice and peace? What is the direction in each story, and time? What’s the direction in the broader biblical narrative? Paul sees it this way in a letter to a group of people called the Galatians:
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
This phrase “fullness of time” is important. It means, amongst other things, “just the right time.” It means the God of the Bible had a plan, and humanity was on a journey. Jesus came when the time was right. There were a lot of humans who lived before Jesus, more have lived since and still more are being born every day. The biblical story says we’re all part of one giant journey.
Growth takes time. As a young man I often get frustrated with how slow life seems to progress. When will real life kick in? When will I get there? Because I’m a Christian I believe God is deeply invested in my life. I often have to remind myself that God is usually more like a slow cooker than a microwave. How long does it usually take for you to grow or progress? I’m certainly not a quick learner. Paul wrote this to a group of Christians living in Rome as he shared his struggle to learn and grow:
“I don’t understand what I do. I don’t do what I want to do. In- stead, I do what I hate to do. I do what I don’t want to do.”
Does Paul sound a little turned around? Have you ever felt this way? My journey will take time. Your journey will take time. Humanity’s collective journey will take time.
Was Jesus always cuddly?
Jesus was warm, kind and servant-hearted, but he wasn’t made of cotton candy. The Bible tells us Jesus got angry with self-righteous people, trashed the Temple in Jerusalem, and allowed himself to be tortured and killed for the good of humankind. Jesus also began his life on the run from a mass murderer. Both the Old Testament and the New showcase how brutal life can be. Jesus wasn’t as cuddly as some have made him out to be. Jesus lived in the real world, faced real problems, and confronted real issues. As warm and inviting as he was, he wouldn’t stand for hate or exploitation, either. Jesus got his hands dirty. He got angry because he cared about people, and cared about justice. He turned the other cheek, but when the occasion called for it (usually when people were being mistreated), he stood his ground.
Recently, a movie about the biblical story of Noah’s ark was released. The writer/director emphasized a strong theme in the Noah story: the tension between justice and mercy. This is God’s dilemma throughout the Bible. Justice matters—the wrong in the world needs to be dealt with. God acts, however, with great patience and mercy. God balances justice and mercy. This is no easy task.
In Jesus we see this tension resolved. The Bible teaches that Jesus loved us enough to die on a cross and therefore, we’ve received mercy. God takes death upon himself, on our behalf, and gifts us with life instead.
What’s the big picture?
Sometimes biblical stories can seem harsh or unreasonable. One reason they might seem this way is because we choose to read them in a vacuum. This would be like watching the scene in Home Alone when Kevin’s mom sends him to bed without any dinner, and then neglecting to watch the rest of the movie. We are in danger of missing the main point if we overemphasize a singular scene.
We ignore the whole narrative when we pick out individual stories and base entire world views, or God-views, on them. When we investigate the entire Bible, what’s the big picture? Perhaps God’s character throughout is overwhelmingly generous and patient, considering how unruly humankind has been throughout the ages.
Through all of the war, struggle, brokenness and pain, what’s the resounding call we hear from God? What’s his overarching posture toward the human race? What’s the main point?
These are just a few considerations we should make while reading the Bible, and especially the Old Testament. Back to Moses.
Water baby, part II.
We left Moses herding sheep and living in exile after fleeing Egypt. One day he was tending to his flock when he came across a bush. The bush was on fire, but wasn’t disintegrating. Exodus tells us God spoke to Moses through the bush and told him to go back to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage.
A friend of mine recently made me aware of something in this story I hadn’t yet considered. He noted that God chose to speak through a bush. A bush, not a giant tree or a mighty thunderstorm. A bush doesn’t seem too impressive, does it? He thought it telling that the Israelite’s entire narrative depended on Moses saying, Hmm, what’s that over there? Think I’ll check it out. In the words of Mr. Dryden, in Lawrence of Arabia: “Big things have small beginnings.”
God says go. Go and lead the people in a divinely ordained libera- tion. Moses protests. He does so for a number of reasons. First, he’s an exiled murderer. Moses may be worried he isn’t likely to receive a warm welcome back in Egypt. Second, he’s concerned the Israelites won’t follow him as their leader. Third, he’s not convinced simply ordering Pharaoh to release the slaves will mean Pharaoh will do so. These three excuses are understandable, but God persists. Moses is the man for the job, and God will help him. Finally, Moses gets desperate and tells God he’s simply not good at public speaking. That didn’t fly either. Moses ends up going back to Egypt.
You may have heard the rest of the story. God gives little old Moses the ability to lead the people, perform miracles, and even part a giant body of water. God ultimately delivers the Israelites from Egypt, an unexpected Exodus.
Moses didn’t look impressive, and maybe that’s the point. God works through him. Moses’ life is dramatic and famous. His origins are humble, however. So is what he seemed to bring to the table as a leader. The key was that God was with him.
A man named Abraham lived hundreds of years before Moses. God promised him he’d be the father of a great nation. The problem was that Abraham and his wife were pushing one hundred years old when God promised this. Even so, they miraculously had a son. The key, again, was that God was with them. He was also with their son when he grew up.
David was a shepherd boy. When an army led by a man who stood over eight feet tall threatened the Israelites, David volunteered to kill him. Because David was just a kid, and not even enrolled in the military, people laughed at the idea. David’s conversation with his king (named Saul) reveals to us his confidence despite his position, experience or size.
“The LORD saved me from the paw of the lion. He saved me from the paw of the bear. And he’ll save me from the powerful hand of this Philistine too.”
Saul said to David, “Go. And may the LORD be with you.”
David strutted out onto the battlefield with little more than a slingshot, and the rest is history. He became David the giant slayer. In part three we looked at the story of an angelic invitation to the shepherds to visit the newborn baby Jesus. The shepherd’s presence at the manger actually has some layers: David once wrote a poem about how God is like a shepherd. People still memorize it today:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
David lived about a thousand years before Jesus and hailed from the same town Jesus did: Bethlehem.
The poem shows us that David had a fairly personal, intimate view of God. David sees God in a good, even humble, light. Good shepherds reminded David of his good God. David felt that God was very much with him. Just as in the Christmas narrative, story after story in the Bible’s Old Testament embodies the balance of the spectacular coupled with the un- spectacular. The unimpressive infused with the impressive. The big and the small. The powerful and the meek.
As we saw in part three, Luke’s gospel tells us Mary was instructed to name her son Immanuel, meaning God with us. In Jesus we meet a familiar face. A God who defines himself by his love toward us. His desire to be near and his passion to help us are unavoidable themes throughout the entire biblical narrative.
Considering God’s action through the lives of many ordinary Old Testament personalities like Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Hannah, David, Jonah, Rahab, Gideon, Elijah, and many more, why are we surprised when we meet Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover the perfect balance of humility and power in the baby lying in the manger. This God has been with us before. Now he’s with us in the person of Jesus. God’s story is consistent, and he never breaks character.