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The Stories We Live By

Berry Friesen (January 9, 2015)

Today the news is filled with accounts from France, where the police are searching for those who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders.  It’s another chapter in the grand story entitled “War on Terror.”

We humans make sense of life by fitting ourselves into larger narratives. Some are small, such as the story of a family, a career or a congregation. Some are middle-sized and tell how one life fits into the development of an institution or industry, the emergence of an artistic or intellectual genre, or a large social migration and resettlement effort. Some are mega-sized in their impact on us, both individually and collectively; Christianity, Democracy and the so-called War on Terror all qualify.

The Bible is a collection of such stories.  Here are four from the First Testament.

1.  The imperial kingdom of David and Solomon and God’s promise to David that a descendant would forever rule the Israelite state.

2. The liberation of the Hebrew people from imperial control via the exodus and the non-imperial covenant God made with them at the mountain in the wilderness of Sinai.

3. The sudden lifting of the terrible Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, either because of divine deliverance or because the Jerusalem elite surrendered to Assyrian political, economic and religious demands.

4. The campaign by Israelite militias to cleanse Canaan of its indigenous residents and make it exclusively Israelite.

As it turns out, whether or not a narrative is powerful does not depend on whether it is historically accurate.

Consider #1 and #2 on my list. Both are doubtful as history (to us and to those who lived during biblical times), yet in contradictory ways each functioned in a powerful way to shape Israelite life.

Narrative #1 carried the day for 400 years during the era of Israel's kings, only to be discredited by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE.

Narrative #2 was nearly as old as narrative #1, but was broadly embraced only after the exile in Babylon where the Jews had no land, no state, no king of their own. Then with the help of Ezekiel and the writer of 2nd Isaiah, narrative #2 animated the astonishing religious, literary and artistic renaissance the Jewish people experienced during the diaspora.

Though #3 describes a historical event, the false interpretation that carried the day (divine deliverance) locked the nation of Judah into a disastrous trajectory vis-à-vis the Babylonian Empire. This is what Jeremiah is about, and what Micah hints at.

#4 did not happen, yet the story of God-directed ethnic cleansing became part of Israelite theology and self-identity and provided the core rationale for the emphasis (obsession?) with purity during the Second Temple era.

There are no foolproof principles to sort this all out as it happens.  We're searching for the Spirit of God at work in history, and the reading of the signs will always be contested. But one thing we can say:  it’s important to pay attention to the big stories of our times and consider where they are taking us.  Some stories lead to life, others to death--and our book finds decisive help from Jesus and the Second Testament stories in discerning which it is.

A second point is that it’s a big mistake to incorporate the empire’s version of events into our personal and communal stories.  But let’s save that for future discussion.

Oh yes, for more on the historicity of several events noted above, I recommend reading Uri Avnery’s recent speech, “The Rock of our Existence.”