Stories That Shape Us
2 Kings 2:1–15
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
A little girl once asked her mother if the Bible story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was ‘real or pretend’. How would you have answered her question?
You might try to explain that sometimes a ‘pretend’ story can tell more truth and do more good than a ‘real’ one – as Jesus’ parables exemplify so powerfully. You might explain how real stories are often embellished with pretend elements. Or you might respond as that little girl’s wise mother did: ‘That’s a great question! Some stories are real, some are pretend, and some of the very best ones use a mix of both reality and make-believe to tell us something important. What do you think about the Elijah story?’ The mother’s answer didn’t tell the little girl what to think. It invited her to think – as a bona fide member of the interpretive community.
Whenever we engage with the stories of the Bible, we become members of the interpretive community. And that’s a big responsibility, especially when we remember how stories from the Bible have been used to promote both great good and great harm. We might say that good interpretation begins with three elements: science, art and heart. First, we need critical or scientific research into history, language, anthropology and sociology to interpret the Bible wisely. Second, since the Bible is a literary and therefore an artistic collection, we need an artist’s eye and ear to draw meaning wisely from ancient stories. But at every step, we must also be guided by a humble, teachable heart that listens for the voice of the Spirit.
In that light, the Elijah story addresses an urgent question: What happens when a great leader dies? Typically, a blaze of glory surrounds the hero’s departure – symbolised by the fiery chariot and horses in the story. After the leader is gone, the actual life and message of the leader are forgotten, obscured by the blaze of fame and glory. People become fans of the leader’s reputation, but not followers of his example. That’s why the old mentor Elijah puts his young apprentice Elisha through many trials and warns him about the spectacle surrounding his departure. The fireworks are not the point, Elijah explains; they’re a distraction, a temptation to be overcome. If the apprentice resists that distraction and remains resolutely focused on the mentor himself, a double portion of the mentor’s spirit will rest on him.
We see something very similar in the story of Jesus’ departure. Will his followers look up at the sky and speculate about their departed leader with their heads in the clouds? Will they be fans instead of followers? Or will they get down to work and stay focused on living and sharing Jesus’ down-to-Earth way of life, empowered with his Spirit?
Like young Elisha, interpreters today must remember that it’s easy to miss the point of ancient stories. Those stories didn’t merely aim, like a modern textbook, to pass on factual information.
They sought people’s formation by engaging their interpretive imagination.
As a first step in wisely interpreting Bible stories with science, art and heart, we need to put each in its intended historical context and get a sense for the big narrative in which each story is nested. Roughly speaking, we can locate the stories of Abraham and Sarah somewhere around 2000–1700 BC. We can place the stories of Moses and the Exodus around 1400 BC. We can locate the conquest of the Canaanites around 1300 BC, after which they formed a loose confederacy under a series of leaders who are somewhat misleadingly called judges in the Bible. Tribal leaders or even warlords might be more accurate names.
Those were violent times, and some of the stories from those times are bone-chilling, especially regarding the appallingly low status of women and the appallingly violent behaviour of men. For example, the book of Judges ends with the account of a brutal gang rape, murder and dismemberment of a young woman, followed by a horrific aftermath of intertribal retaliation and kidnapping of innocent young women. Interestingly, in the very next story in the biblical library, the book of Ruth, we find the polar opposite – the poignant tale of two kind and courageous women, Ruth and Naomi. They forged a resilient life of dignity and beauty in the midst of brutality. Where the men failed, the women prevailed.
Around 1050 BC, pressured by aggressive nations around them and brutality among them, the twelve tribes formed a stronger alliance. They united under a king named Saul. Saul turned out to be a disappointment, but in his shadow a more heroic figure named David appeared. The story of David’s gradual rise from shepherd boy to king unfolds in great detail, each episode revealing Saul as less strong and noble and David as more clever and charismatic. When Saul was killed in battle, David established his throne in Jerusalem, inaugurating what is still remembered as Israel’s golden age.
David was heroic, but far from perfect, and the Bible doesn’t cover up his serious failings – including those of a sexual nature. When David wanted to build a temple to honour God, God said ‘no’: a place of worship should not be associated with a man of bloodshed. David’s son Solomon was not a warrior, so he was allowed to fulfil his father’s dream by building a temple. But Solomon used slave labour to build that temple – a tragic irony in light of God’s identity as the liberator of slaves.
After Solomon’s death, around 930 BC, the kingdom split in two. Ten of the original twelve tribes who lived in the northern region broke away from the two tribes who lived to their south. From that time, the Kingdom of Israel in the north, with its capital in Samaria, was governed by its own line of kings. And the Kingdom of Judah in the south continued under the rule of David’s descendants in Jerusalem. Nearly all the kings of both nations were corrupt, ineffective and faithful only to their own agendas of gaining and maintaining power at any cost.
Those darker times made the memory of David’s reign seem all the more bright. A dream was born in many hearts: that a descendant of David would one day arise and come to the throne, inaugurating a new kingdom, a new golden age, a new day. The old dream of a promised land now was replaced by a new dream – of a promised time, a time when the peace, unity, freedom and prosperity of David’s reign would return. This expectation kept hope alive in difficult times, but it also created a sense of pious complacency.
That was what Jesus encountered centuries later. Many were still waiting for a ‘son of David’, a militant Messiah, to swoop in one day, fix everything and usher in Golden Age 2.0. They expected this warrior king to raise a revolutionary army, overthrow their oppressors and restore civil law and religious order. In anticipation of the warrior king’s arrival, some were sharpening daggers and swords. But Jesus was living by a different interpretation of the old stories, so he refused to conform to their expectations. Instead of arming his followers with daggers, swords, spears, chariots and war horses, he armed them with faith, hope, service, forgiveness and love. When he healed people, he didn’t tell them, ‘I will save you!’ or ‘My faith will save you!’ but ‘Your faith has saved you.’ Working from a fresh interpretation of the past, he freed them from both passive, pious complacency and desperate, violent action. His fresh interpretation empowered them for something better: faithful, peaceful action.
That’s the kind of empowerment we need to face our huge challenges today. How will we deal with political and economic systems that are destroying the planet, privileging the super-elite and churning out weapons of unprecedented destruction at an unprecedented rate? How will we deal with religious systems that often have violent extremists on one wing and complacent hypocrites on the other? How will we grapple with complex forces that break down family and community cohesion and leave vulnerable people at great risk – especially women, and especially the very young and the very old? How will we face our personal demons – of greed, lust, anxiety, depression, anger and addiction – especially when people are spending billions to stimulate those demons so we will buy their products?
These aren’t pretend problems. To find real-world solutions, we need to be wise interpreters of our past. Like Elijah’s apprentice Elisha, we must stay focused on the substance at the centre, undistracted by all the surrounding fireworks.
Because the meaning we shape from the stories we interpret will, in turn, shape us.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a ‘golden age’ you learned about in your family, your school or some other group you’ve been part of.
3. How do you respond to the comparison between the story of Jesus’ departure in Acts and the story of Elijah’s departure in 2 Kings?
4. For children: Do you have a favourite superhero? Tell us why you like him or her so much.
5. Activate: This week, try to read the gruesome story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19 – 21) and then the gentle story of Ruth and Naomi (book of Ruth). Do you see similar stories in this week’s headlines?
6. Meditate: In silence, hold the phrases ‘passive, pious complacency’, ‘desperate, violent action’ and ‘faithful, peaceful action’ in your mind for a few minutes. Ask God to make you an agent of faithful, peaceful action.