by Will Small
These days I wonder if the vast majority of the issues that divide people within Christianity come down to what we think about and how we handle the Bible.
About six years back, I stood in the courtyard of a church that was voting on whether or not I would commence a pastoral role there (part of the way Baptists roll). While I waited, a woman I had never had a prior conversation with approached me and asked point blank: “So what do you believe about the Bible?” I stared at her a little unsure how to answer, and considered just saying the first thing that popped into my head: “I’m into it..?” Whilst I thought my very intention to become a pastor ought to communicate as such, it was clear that her question was laced with some anxiety. This was further affirmed throughout the conversation as she warned me about young people going to Bible college these days and being taught not to take every part of the Bible literally (I didn’t need to go to Bible college for that; my English lit. undergrad had already taught me that genre defines expectations, and all of that biblical poetry probably shouldn’t be interpreted as science).
I fumbled through an answer about how I believed the Bible was a beautiful conversation between God and humanity, and that it bears the marks of divine breath and human fingerprints. That it matters, and reveals the heart of God but God chose to collaborate with humans to make it. I managed to word things in a way that I think assured her sufficiently that I wasn’t quite worthy of stake-burning…but I probably planted some seeds of doubt in her mind about my leadership qualities, by trying to add so much pesky nuance. OK, maybe I’m being a little facetious, but here’s the point of this little anecdote. If you think you can summarise the nature or quality of the Bible in a single word — something like innerant or infallible or inspired — perhaps you’re already on the wrong track. The Bible is unavoidably complex and demands that we pay attention to its nuances. If you want to see what I mean, all you have to do is actually read it.
Let’s do a little case study, from one of my favourite stories that helps me think about the very nature and purpose of scripture.
It’s this story about a fella named Jacob getting in a wrestling match with God.
You’ll find it in the first book of your Bible (Genesis), with the wrestling going down in chapter 33. But we’ll back up a bit before we get there.
There are these two brothers.
Jacob and Esau.
Esau was the firstborn. Which was a pretty big deal back in those days. The firstborn got all kinds of privileges and honour. In particular, they got their Daddy-o’s blessing. Which was also a big deal way back when. It wasn’t like the ‘bless you’ after a sneeze. Or the customary blessings pastors give in their email signature. It was an affirmation that the father’s line was going to pass on through you. It was a proclamation of your future, of prosperity and honour.
So Jacob, in one of the dodgiest younger brother moves in history, tricks his Dad into giving him the blessing. He takes advantage of Esau when he’s hungry (which sounds kind of dumb at first, but then you think about what it’s like when you go grocery shopping and you’re hungry and you get taken advantage of by marketing and walk out with a year’s supply of things you don’t need).
Then Esau literally says, “I’m going to kill my brother” (Genesis 27:41). Which all of us who have little brothers have said at one point in time. But in Genesis, brothers who want to kill their brothers have a pretty high success rate.
So Jacob runs away. And has a crazy dream, where God tells him that everyone on earth is going to be blessed through him and his offspring.
And he wakes up and says this incredibly profound sentence: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.”
And then Jacob goes and works for a guy named Laban and ends up marrying both of his daughters (note at this point: not everything in the Bible is something you should do). And has some children, gets a bunch of sheep and then runs away. (this is the abridged version, feel free to go read the whole thing).
Jacob then ends up on track to see his brother Esau again. Who wanted to kill him a while back. Can you feel the tension brewing in this story?
So, he shoots up a prayer and sends a few hundred animals his brothers way.
And then this crazy thing happens.
Jacob sends his wife and servants and sons across the river. And then he sends all his possessions.
And he is alone. Empty-handed. A man with two wives, eleven sons (!) a bunch of servants and hundreds of animals finds himself alone.
And then there’s this verse:
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.”
(Ok, so that’s weird. And creepy.)
Jacob has the upperhand. So the man busts up his hip a little. And then says “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
To which Jacob, (who just can’t get enough blessings), says “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asks for his name. And then says “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
And then, wait for it….there’s a plot twist.
It appears as though the man was God!
Jacob says “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Jacob had God in an armlock at one point.
God, according to the story was struggling to overcome Jacob.
What kind of God is this?
Jacob wrestles with God and walks away with a busted hip and a blessing. He is broken and blessed. And in the process Israel is mentioned for the first time, the nation that God is going to use to bless the earth is the name given to this guy in this wrestling match between God and a man.
Do I even need to explain why a story like this makes some of the categories we try to jam the Bible into look ridiculous?
This is such sacred and beautiful (and strange!) storytelling. It is so tightly packed with wonder and meaning and humanity and divinity. But was God really struggling to overcome Jacob? Was this a literal wrestling match between them that lasted all night? Does it honestly matter? Have you ever been alone and afraid and wrestled with your identity? Does the story have something to say to you if you have? Does it say something about what God is like? What we are like? What faith is like? What the Bible is like?
There’s plenty more that could be said here. And people write whole books about this concept. (Here’s three that have been seriously helpful for me: Brad Jersak: a More Christlike Word, Rachel Held Evans: Inspired, Peter Enns: How the Bible actually Works).
But, here are the dot points:
- The messy nature of the Bible is waaay more interesting than a clinical statement of divine truth. It invites you into a conversation.
- Wrestling with God is allowed. It’s encouraged. And sometimes it happens when you feel scarily alone and vulnerable.
- But where things break, there may also be blessings (bread and wine, anyone?) Dig deep into the places your faith has come undone; what if that’s exactly where God is to be found? Maybe God is in this place and we weren’t aware of it?
I don’t want to wrap this up too neatly. The Bible doesn’t do that. So neither will I.
Let go of the need for it to resolve. Change the lenses. And join the divine wrestle.