As I was doing my morning devotion, which was about generosity, I wrote down the phrase that a dear friend often says: “Obey the generous impulse.” Next I thought: “Uh oh, what is God asking me to do today?”
I completed my morning routine and went to Bible Study. We started a new book called Seemless by Angie Smith: Understanding the Bible as One Complete Story. We were asked to rate ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10 how well we understand the general story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. In the discussion that followed, I shared “that’s just how I’ve always read it”. I’ve listened to Bible stories from wonderful Sunday school teachers for as long as I can remember; I’ve been so blessed. Then I said: “That’s why I blog, to share some of what I’ve been given.” Then I said, “Oh, I know what I need to do today.” Everyone looked at me funny. Sometimes the generous impulse is no problem! The Bible story is filled with wonderful riches, and so easy for me to share. Years ago, I wrote an essay and shared it with a writing instructor at my school who was from India. After reading my essay, she looked at me puzzled and said: “I cannot access what you have written since I do not know the stories of the Bible.” Undeterred, I just wrote down a brief sketch of the Bible Story to bridge that gap. What follows is what I wrote for her many years ago as part of the writing class. It’s personal retelling, but the Bible story is one that is meant to be told and retold! I hope it helps bring the long love story that is woven throughout the Bible into focus.
PRIOR KNOWLEDGE: THE STORY I LOVE TO HEAR AND TELL
The events recorded in the Bible have always been part of my life. Before I could read, I learned of the Bible orally. As an adult, I have learned that the Bible is much richer and more colorful than my Sunday School memories. Lack of knowledge about the Bible should not get in the way of knowing God’s love, but will definitely prevent people from understanding Christian perspective.
Since my goal in writing this chapter was simply to share knowledge common to most young Presbyterians, I read the following to my fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class, asking questions as I went along. It was incredibly rewarding to listen to the students eagerly fill in the missing details. The stories of the Bible are definitely better when they are shared and discussed. My students became most animated when I arrived at the story of Joseph and his brothers; apparently they all understood the desire to find creative ways to dispose of a brother. What is harder to understand is Joseph’s willingness to forgive. Thinking about the stories in the Bible and placing myself in them has given me a moral compass in life and deepened my appreciation for the struggles humans have with God, one another, and ourselves.
Here is the startling claim the Bible makes: God is real; God is one; God created the world; and God is involved in history. Through the incredible story that unfolds in the Bible we can come to know God, who is revealed and yet remains always a mystery: “How unsearchable are his judgments and inscrutable his way!”
The Bible starts with the story of creation, which tells us that God brings form to chaos, fills emptiness with life, and creates humans in God’s own image. God puts the first man in a garden and gives him work and freedom and finally a companion. When Adam, the first man, sees Eve, the first woman, he cherishes her: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Love at first sight inspires the first human words recorded in the Bible. A serpent enters this blissful picture and encourages Eve to eat from a tree, which God commanded Adam to avoid upon penalty of death. The serpent promises her that eating the fruit would make her like God, knowing good and evil. She succumbs to the temptation, and Adam quickly follows her example. Instead of becoming like God, as the serpent promised, the couple becomes estranged from God, cast out of the garden.
In the generations that follow, God sees the increasing evil of humankind and it grieves God’s heart. Following an enormous flood over the entire earth, all of creation receives the chance to begin again with Noah and his family, and God promises: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.” God puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this promise.
A few generations later, God decides to start over once again, not with destruction, but by reaching out to a man named Abraham. God says to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” He promises to make Abraham’s descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham’s wife, however, is already old and without child. Hagar, a slave who becomes a wife and later a free woman, has a son with Abraham at Sarah’s impatient request, and then a miracle happens: Sarah has a baby, too, when she is very, very, very old. Abraham is known as a man of great faith, but I have always wondered about him as a father. He sends one son to the wilderness with his mother to be taken care of by God, and leads the other son up a mountain with the idea of sacrificing him. Ultimately, God takes care of the older son Ishmael, and the angel of God promises Hagar in the wilderness to make a great nation of him, too: “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” God also provides a lamb as a substitute for the sacrifice of Isaac.
Understandably Ishmael and Isaac are not close, but they do not kill each other as Cain kills Able, the first brothers in the Bible story. When Abraham dies, both of his sons come back to bury him. Ishmael’s decedents become Muslims, and Isaac’s descendents become Jews. One of Isaac’s descendents is Jesus, and Jesus brings the rest of us into the same family as his adopted brothers and sisters.
The Bible continues with the story of Isaac, who has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau gives up his birthright to his younger brother for a bowl of lentil soup, and Jacob surreptitiously receives Isaac’s blessing. Later, Jacob unknowingly wrestles all night with God, and afterwards his name is changed to Israel, which has a double meaning: “God has striven, God has saved.” Wrestling with and being saved by God is part of the story of being God’s people.
Israel has twelve sons. Joseph is the favorite son and he is a dreamer. The other brothers, jealous and irritated by him, sell him as a slave and tell their father that he has died. It is not part of God’s plan, however, for Joseph to be a slave. Through a series of extraordinary events, he becomes head advisor to the Pharaoh of Egypt. When a famine comes, he is able to help his brothers. The brothers come to him fearful because of what they have done, and Joseph responds with these incredible words: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” His brothers end up in Egypt, too. The children of Joseph’s brothers become slaves there for 430 long, dark years.
God starts over again, this time with a baby placed in a basket and floated down a river. His name is Moses, which means “drawn out” since he is drawn from the water. He is raised as a son of Pharaoh, but he can never shake his sense of oneness with the Hebrews who are being oppressed. Eventually, Moses leads the Hebrews to freedom with God’s help, but it is not an easy journey. It involves ten terrible plagues, a dramatic parting of the Red Sea followed by Egyptian horses and riders being thrown into the water, and forty years of wandering in the desert. During this time, God establishes a covenant with the Hebrews and writes the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets so that they will know how to love God and each other.
God eventually brings the Hebrews into the Promised Land. They are led by a man named Joshua, a name that means “Yahweh delivered.” (“Jesus” is the Greek form of the same name.)
After the Hebrews have been in the Promised Land many years, they decide that they want a king. God consents and gives them kings, but unlike their heavenly king, the human kings are not perfect. One king stands out above the others: King David. He starts out as simple shepherd boy and rises to fame when he kills the giant Goliath with a sling shot. Many beautiful Psalms are attributed to King David, and I imagine that much of early scripture was written and read in his court. David is also an outstanding military leader. In his personal life, however, he makes some serious mistakes.
During the roughly 400 years following David’s reign, the temple is built in Jerusalem; the kingdom splits in two; both kingdoms fall; the Hebrews are exiled to Babylon; the Hebrews return to Jerusalem almost seventy years later; and the temple is rebuilt. During this time, God keeps sending prophets. The word prophet is often associated with predicting future events, but the main purpose of a Biblical prophet is to speak for God. In general, the prophets remind the people to worship the one true God, to follow God’s law, and to care for the poor. There is also an ongoing theme: no matter how bad things become, God will bring restoration.
For about 400 years, the story of the Bible is quiet. Then on a silent night in Bethlehem, the story starts over again. This time it begins with a baby named Jesus in the loving arms of Mary his mother. A carpenter named Joseph is at their side.
When Jesus is about thirty years old, he is baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit descends onto Jesus like a dove and the voice of the Father is heard from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” Since the voice said “I am well-pleased,” we know that Jesus did everything well up until this point, and after his baptism, things really begin happening. He calls people to follow him; he teaches lessons that change lives; he performs miracles; he feeds crowds; he heals many; he forgives sins; he looks into hearts; and he has compassion. Jesus does not only come to teach and or to perform miracles to the glory of God. He comes to deliver humanity from sin and death and to restore humans to God, which he accomplishes by his death on the cross and his resurrection.
When Jesus died, all of our sins—those things that keep us estranged from God—were taken away from us, once and for all, and if we believe Jesus, we live as forgiven people. This forgiveness allows us to live in relationship with God and each other. Forgiveness means that friendship is more important than any mistake we might make. We are blessed to know God as a friend and to know that we will enjoy God’s friendship forever. This is the purpose of Christian life: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” We glorify God by who we are for God and we enjoy God because God first loved us, and we know in our hearts that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
I will tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of Thomas, because I imagine myself in a place just as he appears in the Gospel of John, wanting to believe and not wanting to believe. I want to believe that Jesus is alive because I love him as a man so much; he has taught me everything worth knowing. Still, believing that he is alive is almost too wonderful. According to the Gospel of John, Thomas is not with the other disciples when Jesus first appears. The disciples tell him the good news, and he will not believe it until he sees Jesus standing before him, wounds and all. Jesus comes to him and shows him his wounds in answer to Thomas’ request, and Thomas responds, “My Lord and My God.”
The Bible begins with God telling Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Adam and Eve may have made some mistakes, but they did obey this command. For better or worse, the world is filled with humans. The Gospels end with Jesus telling his disciples to teach the nations everything he taught them, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ disciples are still working on this commission two thousand years later. Thankfully, a disciple of Jesus found me, made me a disciple, baptized me, and showed me how to obey everything Jesus taught.
To myself, I think: “I wish I could help, but I do not consider myself much of a missionary. I love individuals as they are, and it is not my goal to change people. Still, I have a great hope that I feel compelled to share.”