Old Stories, New Ears Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Bible stories. Some of the greatest stories ever told are Bible Stories. Bible stories are famous throughout world, specifically the world that has been settled by Christians.
For thirty-some years I taught literature to high school students. One of the terms I taught them was allusion. There were literary allusions—-references to other great works of literature, like Shakespeare and Dickens. Everybody knew something about Romeo and Juliet before I made them actually read it word for word. Other literary allusions included Scrooge and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were mythological allusions—-everyone had heard of Pandora’s Box and Zeus; everyone knew what an Achilles’ heel was.
And then there were Biblical allusions. When I shared a poem about Noah’s wife, my students knew the story of Noah and the Ark. One of the stories in our textbook was “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. In that story are references to Delilah, King Solomon, and the Wisemen. They all explained in a few words what was important in the story, simply by mentioning those names. Beautiful hair was an important part of the story, as were wealth and gifts. Biblical allusions are common in Western European and American Literature (both continents) because Christianity is widespread on those continents.
One of my favorite tricks, when we tackled a Shakespearean play for the first time, was to have students recite the Lord’s Prayer together. We weren’t praying, though; we were speaking the same language, the same style of English, used in all of Shakespeare’s plays. That was because King James I was inspired to gather up sixty scholars to translate the Bible into modern English in the same century in which Shakespeare wrote his plays: the 17th Century. The King James Version was published in 16ll; Shakespeare died in 1616. In the 17th Century, modern was what we now think of as out of date. Language changed, but the Bible used in most of our churches did not change until the middle of the twentieth century. And the KJV is still the most poetic translation.
So we all grew up with some familiarity with Shakespearean language, only we thought it was Biblical language. For instance: Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
So, as a little kid, I heard some Bible stories in the language of 17th Century Shakespearean actors and I heard some in everyday langue as printed on the little Sunday School papers we got each Sunday.
I heard the same Bible stories over and over again, from the time I was three years old until the time I went away to college. When I think about how my school stories changed over the years, how the reading got harder, how I went from Dick and Jane to Great Expectations and MacBeth, it makes me wonder why I never learned anything new about those Bible stories past fourth grade. Even in confirmation, I don’t recall a whole lot that shocked or amazed me. Every story, once told, remained the same. It was as if we were all limited to a fourth grade education when it came to Biblical knowledge.
Eventually, somehow, I was introduced to some of the deeper, more complicate studies of Bible stories and I was eager to study even more. Yet, when I’d sit in church on Sunday morning and listen to the sermon, it was as if the sermons were meant for fourth graders It made me mad; I’d silently cuss out the preacher—-“You went to seminary, didn’t you? Didn’t you learn anything? Are we too dumb to appreciate what you learned?”
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Eventually, I solved part of my frustration by teaching adult Sunday School classes, so I could both learn and teach. And I found that other adults also wanted more than a fourth grade Sunday School education. It wasn’t because they were intellectual giants; it was because they were adults who like to think like adults. They had already moved from the Weekly Reader to the New York Times. They wanted to do the same with Biblical reading.
A few years after that, I started preaching, and I’ve tried to keep that spirit of challenge and education and revelation in my preaching. Every sermon I write is a learning experience for me and I hope I’ve shared my learning with you. It is not private property.
The risky thing about sharing what I learn is that sometimes it challenges the traditional telling of stories.
I went to a Christian college, Wartburg College. One of the requirements of going to a religious college is that students have to take religion classes. One of the first classes I took was Introduction to Old and New Testament. I learned that God did not personally write Scripture with a ball point pen and I learned that it was heavily influenced by the ideas of the men who actually transcribed the words. Some people found this to be too upsetting—they wanted to believe that the Bible was totally divinely inspired and written. They were disillusioned, to say the least. I, on the other hand, loved discovering that there was more to the Bible than Jesus loves me.
As you know, I’ve been studying more seriously at Wartburg Theological Seminary—more seriously than I’ve ever studied in my life. I think you should learn some of what I’m learning.
What did I learn in my last class? I learned why Genesis Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were written and when they were first written down.
Those five books are based on stories told over generations; they were finally written down during a low point in the history of the Hebrew people. The stories in those five books weren’t written as they happened, like a cosmic diary. The information in the first five books was about 600 years old before it was written down. Up to that time, the stories were passed from person to person, from generation to generation, by word of mouth, just as we tell family stories around the dining room table on holidays and at funerals and weddings.
Maybe you’ve noticed that the details in those family stories change over time. When Bim and I tell the same story, there are some differences in who said what or where we were. Both of us are right, of course. The same thing is true of the stories in the Bible. And the great thing is that multiple versions were included in the final collection. So we read in Genesis 1 that God created woman and man at the same time, but in Genesis 3, we read that God created Eve from a chunk of Adam. (I’d like to point out that the only time a man gave birth, he slept through the whole thing.) And if you read the story of Noah and the Ark, in Genesis 6, God instructs Noah to take two of each animal, male and female, (19-20 Bring into the boat with you a male and a female of every kind of animal and bird, as well as a male and a female of every reptile. I don’t want them to be destroyed.), 21but when the ark is finally loaded, God suggests taking seven pairs of some animals: Genesis 7: 2 Take seven pairs of every kind of animal that can be used for sacrifice and one pair of all others. 3 Also take seven pairs of every kind of bird with you.
The stories were recorded to cheer up the Hebrew people at a time when they had lost everything. They had been overrun by the Babylonians, they had been hauled off to a foreign land, they had lost all their property and they had lost the one place that was central to their existence as a culture and a nation: their temple. The temple that King David had dreamed about and that his son, King Solomon had built in Jerusalem, was destroyed.
Those five books brought together everything the Hebrew people knew about themselves. It included the stories that they had learned about their ancestors and it included the stories their ancestors had told that explained their relationship to God.
The stories answered important questions: How did we get here? Where did we come from? Who is God? How did God choose us?
The order of the stories is chronological. Genesis 1 starts with how the earth and people and animals came into existence. It is not scientific. Among Bible scholars, the term used to describe the stories in the Pentateuch is “myth.” But we have to define “myth” carefully.
In modern English usage, “myth” is often opposed to factual truth, but this is unfortunate, as it makes it difficult to take myths seriously. The ancient myths are serious but imaginative attempts to explain life in this world. [Collins, John J.. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Third Edition (p. 23). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. ]
Our ancient forebears were just as intellectually curious as we are, and so, like us, they observed the world around them, and based on their best intelligence, they came to the conclusions that are shared in our Bible.
So, does that make the Bible seem like just a bunch of creative writing on the part of a small group of men? Not at all.
The writers of Genesis and Exodus were seeking to make meaning based on their knowledge of who God was and how God interacted with God’s people. Every story in the Bible is about the relationship between God and God’s creation.
The first five books confirm that God is active in the lives of all people. When we read those stories, we learn of a loving God, of an angry God, of a disappointed God, of a forgiving God. Over and over, God decides to give up on the people who turn away from him through sin or idolatry. And yet, God gives them a second chance.
For instance, God tells Adam and Eve, Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Adam and Eve eat from the tree, but they do not drop dead after the first bite. Instead God moves them to a new location, and they go on to have babies and live for a good many years. Next Sunday, we’ll hear the story of Cain and Abel. Again, God has mercy on the sinner. Eventually, God was so upset with his grand experiment that God decided to destroy the whole creation, including human beings. But, he decided instead to make a fresh start with Noah. Time after time, human beings betrayed God, and time after time, God, out of God’s infinite love, had mercy on the sinner and gave them a second chance to stay in relationship with God.
You see, that’s what the Bible is about. It is about our relationship with God, starting with creation and with God’s favorite part of creation, human beings.
It doesn’t matter if you believe that the earth was created in seven days or evolved over millions of years. That’s not important. What is important is that we know the story of a God who created us and who has maintained and supported and nurtured a relationship with us during all that time.
We tell stories to explain ourselves, who we are, why we are the way we are. The Bible explains who we are, not as scientific fact, not even as history, but as the truth of who we are: the children of God.
That story didn’t end with the fall of the kingdom of Israel. That story did not end when the Hebrew nation was conquered by the Persians or the Romans. That story continued because God never quits. God kept forgiving and inspiring and loving God’s people. The most glorious gift God gave us was to God-self, to become exactly like us, so that God could die exactly like us—-and then—conquer death through Jesus’ resurrection.
When Babylonia conquered Israel, they thought they had lost everything. They no longer had any land. They no longer had a king or a government. They no longer had the dwelling place of God: the Temple. But they found out that those physical manifestations of their nation were not necessary. God was present with them, even when they were prisoners of war, even when they were homeless. Even when they turned away from God.
That’s the same God who is revealed to us in Scripture. That same God is our God, every faithful, every merciful, ever loving. The Bible is not a history book or a science book. It is a book about us, God’s children. May we read with open eyes and hear with open ears and follow with open minds the God who walks with us. Amen.