I’d like to introduce you to my friend Janelle Alberts (you can read more about her and her work at the end of this post). She’s got great things to say, and she says them in a way that both disarms and convicts me on a regular basis. She has a particular talent for helping readers see Bible characters in a a new way–a way that makes them more relatable than we might have thought…
Some of us have bought into a rumor that the Bible elite were the moral elite. They weren’t. Not by a long shot.
Which puts us in the awkward position of having an idea about certain characters, only to turn the Bible page for ourselves and find their good behavior lasted all of three paragraphs.
Remarkably, the author of the Bible wrote about epic fails as much as character triumphs. Showcasing the moral elite? That doesn’t seem to have been the point.
Take Abraham for example.
He pawned his wife off as his sister to get in good with an ungodly king. Sure, the king might have otherwise killed him, but still. This was not a God-is-my-shield-my-very-great-reward kind of thing to do.
Maybe cracks are inevitable in any character and start to show after a long and exhaustingly faithful life?
Except that it’s only page 10.
And Abraham did it twice.
If the newly recognized “nones” are looking for a culturally relevant place to lay their weary heads, this book may be a little more relatable than they heard about as kids in Vacation Bible School.
Abraham defaulted to a human response that’s still trending today: no matter what God promised, I’m ultimately on my own.
On-my-own can be an aspirational place to land. Independence. Grit. Growth. But it has a dark side. In the cadence of life, where a re-calibration is foisted upon us over and over, on-my-own becomes disillusioning.
God promised he would not leave the Israelites on their own. However, a common reaction to God’s “I am here!” was, “I doubt it.”
At least that was the case for Abraham. In Abraham’s pawning-Sarah-as-a-sister routine, the affected king (Abimelech) understood the gravity of Abraham’s not taking God at his word better than Abraham. When things started falling apart in Abimelech’s kingdom because of Abraham’s lie, the king said, “You have done things to me that should not be done.” This astute assessment from a pagan king who didn’t even believe in Abraham’s God.
Abraham’s fib was especially egregious because God had spent some serious one-on-one time with Abraham, had issued Abraham a lot of promises and had walked Abraham through an inordinately famous covenant.
Wherein we register once and for all that God’s promises can be a little hard to digest and some of us need a hand in order to believe that God is who he claims.
He claims to love us.
A lot of the time, we don’t even know what that means.
In the first place, our view of God lacks nuance. In the second place, we are not very good at the nuance that is required for the first place.
The God of this Bible, however, is the Olympic gold medalist of nuance. He embodies both a protectiveness and a learn-from-your-mistakes love for people, which he unapologetically admits we will never fully understand while on earth.
But. He would like us to try.
This comes with a lot of leeway. It certainly did for Abraham.
God locked down a covenant with Abraham that set the world record for leeway. It was an incalculable game-changer, differentiating the God of this Bible from any god before or since.
Its detail was weird. It was a “beyrith” or an agreement made by passing through pieces of flesh. It is not as gross as it sounds.
Simply, two people agreed to something, cut animals in half, and the person with less clout walked through the pieces, signifying that if he broke the promise then he, too, would be cut to pieces.
I guess it is as gross as it sounds.
Unbelievably, instead of Abraham walking through the pieces to show his commitment and indebtedness to God, God shot his own lightning bolt through in Abraham’s place.
It was the outward sign from God to Abraham that yes, Abraham, you may promise me, but what trumps all is that I promise you. The cut-to-pieces business is on me. Even when you break your promise to me, I’ve got you covered.
It was the beginning of we-are-off-the-hook.
It was a “let me draw near to you” covenant.
Counterintuitively, letting God draw near required an act of will that took…practice. Faith does not come cheap. It certainly didn’t for the Bible characters of yore.
Abraham knew God and planned to serve him all his livelong days. But walking that out took practice. A vision. Some back pedaling. Pain. Through all of which, one theme reigns supreme.
Universal miracles via a universal god is a foreign concept around Bible parts. In those chapters and plotlines, it’s personal.
For a people who were repeatedly bruised and deceived by “on our own,” it was an enticingly hard habit for them to break, even with the gift of a God who was willing to personally carry the weight of their world on his shoulders staring them right in the face.
If that idea has you thinking: this is not like what I thought it would be, then take a number. This is not like anybody thought it would be. Especially the Bible characters.
Believing God was hard.
We can view that as an indictment on the character of human beings.
We can view that as an indictment on a God who, admittedly, does not tell all.
Or we can view what God does about the situation, and consider its implications.
He handled it personally.
This God wanted Bible characters to explore his promises until they understood how he felt about them.
Easy to say, but not easy for Bible characters to walk out. The Bible is longer than a pamphlet for a reason. Some understandings require repetition.
If even Abraham struggled and his personal with God took practice, we need not feel indicted or embarrassed or even surprised when the same thing happens with us.
Why else would he have made such a point to write about it? And Abraham is tame compared to many, many more examples with sharper teeth than Abraham’s story.
T. S. Eliot once said that, “…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The Bible characters’ shady pasts demonstrate to us that practice makes personal, if we give it a chance.
He wishes we would. He’s willing to break Himself into pieces over it.
Janelle Alberts’ writing shines a lighthearted spotlight on Bible character plotlines and trending pop culture train wrecks. Prophets and prime time could not look further apart, until things get personal, in which case, we all have a lot more in common than we thought. Alberts tackles this concept for parenting and faith publications, and can be found at www.janellealberts.wordpress.com.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.