Asking the right questions of the Bible - Kyle Hanawalt
Fourth in series: When the Bible came alive to me
This week I am excited to continue our current series, that we have called When the Bible Came Alive. The basic starting point for this series is that I have found myself throughout my life to struggle with two big pitfalls when it comes to the Bible. SLIDE If you want to hear more about it, please feel free to go back and listen to one of the first two sermons in this series, On one side, you have treating the Bible with such reverence that you don’t ask proper questions, on the other is dismissing the Bible as antiquated and not worth listening to at all. And this series is exploring that middles of thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible that allows it to come alive.
SLIDE Today I want to talk about something that we first brought up a few weeks back as one part of talking about culture and the Bible, and I’m going to zoom in on that one part this morning It’s that the Bible is a collection of many different Genres of writing I remember when I first became aware of Genre I had a Professor really flesh out the implication that the Bible is not just one long piece of writing, but rather a series of writings that are written in a multitude of Genres (and at different points in history spanning hundreds of years), You have narratives, poetry, wisdom sayings, parables, biography, letters, prophetic sayings. And he pointed at a lack of appreciation of how differently these different Genres operate as a source of so much misinterpretation of the Bible. How we get in so much trouble when, for example, we take analogies from poetry or images from prophetic sayings and read them as though they are trying to be literal. As a kid who grew up with (not all, but) a number of religious authorities in my life teaching me something akin to “if you don’t take the Bible literally, you’re not taking it seriously”, I remember how much my mind was blown when I first really started to understand this. And when my professor started to really take us through the various genre’s and how to understand them, the professor started in the beginning, as in the book of Genesis. SLIDE
And he talked about how even different parts of the Book of Genesis are written in different Genres notably that the the first eleven chapters of Genesis are different from the rest of the book, (PAUSE) This is crazy, right!? That is not commonly understood today by most people who read the Bible! Because it’s just “The Book of Genesis” -- people don’t talk about the first 11 chapters, and then the rest of it.
Likely, when Genesis was first compiled into a book centuries ago, that difference between the first 11 chapters and the rest of it was just assumed to be understood by readers, so no attention was drawn to it -- a lot like if we today are reading a nonfiction book that begins a chapter with a quote that’s in italics, we get that that italics is not the author’s words, but that the author’s words begin below in regular text --
It’s really too bad that this difference between the beginning of Genesis and the rest of it is lost on so many of us today.
Because once I saw it, it felt so true! the style is different, the kinds of words descriptions that are used are different. Some scholars say the best way to understand the first 11 chapters would be kind of like a Prologue or preface.
That if the Bible were compiled today, in the style of books today, that Genesis 1-11 would work as the preface, setting the stage for everything that is about to come, the lens through which we can best understand the the story that’s about to unfold
This is a great case study in how understanding a Genre of writing in the Bible helps us ask the right questions of it -- AND not ask unhelpful questions of it. So I want us to look at a little bit of Genesis together.
the first 11 chapters of Genesis fall into a style of writing that was actually pretty common in the ancient world, what we might call an “epic poetic narrative”, SLIDE whereas the following chapters of Genesis from 12 on, starting with the story of Abraham tend to read like a much more straightforward ancient narrative. (Which to say is still a bit different than what we think of in modern narrative writing)
Now the goal of epic poetic narratives is to help a people (in this case, the Ancient Jewish people, likely during a difficult time when they were exiled and oppressed under foreign rule) understand who they are, SLIDE what it means to be “them”, who they are we in relation to each other, God, the rest of the world. It’s an examination of what it means to be human.
In a way, as much as it is telling the story of specific people, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, to name some of the names you might be familiar with from Genesis 1-11, it is trying to tell the story of us all.
We still do these same sorts of thing today, ask big questions, but with Philosophy Or through Satire, or the narrative of film and TV or through things like TED talks. We still do it, but we just don’t use this “epic poetic narrative” genre anymore.
Genesis 1-11 begins by describes the world coming into being SLIDE For the sake of time, I am going to read from genesis 1-2 and then also summarize some parts. 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good,
He then creates day and night, then the second day - water and sky and he calls it good, Then the third he divides land and sea, and vegetation and calls it good, then the fourth day he creates the moon, stars, and sun, and calls it good, then the fifth day he creates the all the animals of the sea and birds of the sky, he blesses them and tells them to fill the whole earth, and calls them good. He then creates the domesticated land animals and the wild animals and he calls them good. Then now again reading from the passage, picking back up at verse 26 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. He then tells the humans to fill the earth and care for, rule over, or what I think is the best translation, to be stewards of all the earth, and he calls humans good. Picking back up in v 31 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day. Then on the 7th day, God look created and blessed that seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. SLIDE If, again, this was written to address questions like: who are we? and how do we relate to each-other, God, the world? I think reading that there are some things that just jump out to me on the surface that is super helpful stuff
However, below the surface there is even more! as I mentioned earlier, the epic poetic narrative was already a pretty well know genre of writing. And the meaning in these passages explode to life when we begin to compare these opening chapters to the other Epic Poetic Narratives of the Ancient world, in reading this in light of the what would have been the competing narratives it powerfully speaks to what it means to be human, how we can understand ourselves in relation to each other and to God.
You see, In the other Epic Poetic Narratives of the Ancient world, with probably The Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh SLIDE being the best known, we have a very different picture being depicted. Humans work for the Gods There is a Contentious relationship between God and humanity. Gods are often being selfish and many times tricking humanity to do things to their benefit. The “who we are”, especially in relation to others and God, these other stories show a picture of being out for yourself, working against each other purposes Often humanity and the gods have some selfish desires they are trying to purse at the others expense
And it is in reading Genesis in the context of these other Epic Poetic narratives, that more things just jump off the page,
It's almost as if Genesis draws out its most powerful points by the contrast it draws to these other stories.
Rather than seeing a picture of contentious, adversarial relationship between each-other and God,
Genesis shows us something different SLIDE First off, we see a picture of a God who is good, And all of creation is good. Man and woman are made with in the God’s image, and they are good. We also see a God who has no need, and rather seems to be working on humanity's behalf, loving and providing for them, He even builds in rest for them, he’s not a careless master. That is meaningful, it not a contentious relationship but one of love, God loves us And even more than that we are created to love each other. The ideal reality God creates is one where we live in perfect harmony and connection with God, each other, and world itself Where God is the good, trustworthy, provider of our need, the one who facilitates open and perfect connection with him and each other.
Look at how this hits us when we read it in the correct genre and we then to ask the questions that genre is actually trying address. It’s beautiful and deep, right!?
But, For so much of my life, I read Genesis 1-11 like I read my history books in school. And thus I asked the same questions of Genesis that I would ask of these History books.
What happened, in what order? Who started what? How did they do it?
And when I read Genesis this way, not only did it make something like science feel like a threat to my belief in God,
Like questions as simple as, how was there light and darkness before God even created the Sun.
No but more than that, when I read it that way it actually made God feel kind of unsafe to me.
Think about what comes right after what we just read, Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve.
When I read that asking History text questions, I felt like God was somehow Arbitrary
That I can have a perfect life as long as I don’t eat from this one tree that he without explanation told me I can’t
To me I always struggled with how it felt like God set them up for failure by tempting them.
Ohhh, you can do whatever you want, but just don’t eat this bowl of ice cream that literally is the most amazing thing in the whole world, it is everything you wish you had but don't.
Now I am going to go out, and just leave this here in front of you, but don’t eat it.
And not only that, I am going create this serpent, because I created everything, and while I am gone he is gonna hang out with you and talk non-stop about how you should eat it. It felt like he set them up for failure then punishes them and then everyone in history for that failure. But, as I begin to understand the Genre of Epic Poetic Narrative, my questions changed.
SLIDE There may have been a literal Adam and Eve, but that is 100% not the point of why Genesis 1-3 was written.
It isn’t trying to answer the questions of What happened, in what order? Who started what? Who was at fault? It is trying to answer the questions that Epic Poetic Narratives are trying to answer - It trying to help a people understand who they are, what it means to be “them”, who they are we in relation to each other, God, the rest of the world.
How do you understand the hardship and suffering of the world, and how do we think about God in light of that. And as I began asking those questions of this section, God suddenly felt sooo Good, and so loving And this story helped me see and understand the very nature of what so often leads to our hurt. Our desire to be the ones in control and in power and “in the know”, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and Evil. On the “what it means to be human” terms, this is super helpful.
And it aligns with the God Jesus showed humanity, A God who longs to comfort us, provide for us, offer us grace, healing and acceptance. And unlike what we see in the other Poetic Narratives, the craziness of life, the hurt and brokenness is not something that God is doing to us, It is so often what we do to ourselves, and all the while he is bringing order and light to what is formless, empty and dark.
SLIDE All of this was unlocked by by understanding the Genre of this beginning part of Genesis.
And so, this is just one case study we did today, but if you are interested in learning more how to understand the Genres in the Bible Better I have suggestion. I would recommend something I recommended about a month ago, a book by Gordon Fee called SLIDE How to Read the Bible for all it’s worth, This is just as straight forward and helpful tool in understanding the role of genre and context in reading the Bible as anything I have come across. There are some big concepts in it, BUT it is not overly academic.
And to end, I would love to pray for us here today jumping off of what Genesis is meant to tell us, will feel true. That God is good and reliably good. That world around us and everything from the Birds to the trees are good. That humanity is Good and that each of us are made in the Divine image.
And strangely enough I have experienced in my life, and I know many who have experienced that the Bible, used inappropriately, to actually makes us question the goodness of God, or question whether he is reliable or arbitrary.
That particularly with the passage we just read, that somehow God and science or common sense are at odds.
No, one of the implication of Genesis 1 from a Epic Poetic Narrative perspective is that Science, learning about our world, understanding it, caring for it, protecting it’s harm, is actually part of our God given responsibility in being human.