Friday, October 12, 2012

why "tell me the story"?

If you sit down and read documents from the ancient Near East (I realize very few of you have actually done this . . . but stay with me), it doesn't take long to notice the difference between the vast majority of ancient writing and the Bible:

The Bible is full of stories. Lifelike stories. Stories about real people, warts and all, who muddle about trying to listen to God and obey him. But most of all, stories about God's great acts in history.

Why tell all these stories?

Not for entertainment. Not as "royal records" (the documents that served that function in ancient Israel have been lost). No, what we have to understand about the ancient world is how historical narratives functioned. You see, the one place we have this type of "historical narrative" in other ancient Near Eastern cultures is in treaties. In a covenant between two parties, "the past was recounted for the specific purpose of instilling a sense of gratitude as the foundation and ground for future obedience" (from George Mendenhall's article on "Covenant" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary). If a king asks someone to swear loyalty to him, he first recounts all the generous things he has done to benefit the other party.

The stories of God's great acts in history are told for a reason.

They show us who HE is, and why He deserves Israel's highest praise and deepest devotion. This is why the Ten Commandments begin with a statement that changes everything: "I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt." That story-in-a-nutshell stands as a potent reminder that God asks nothing of his people without first giving them everything. His "laws" do not enslave. If he had meant for Israel to be slaves he would have left them in Egypt. Instead he set them free. And in their freedom he painted a portrait of what life-in-freedom-with-Yahweh looks like—a life free from enslavement to other gods and their every whim, a life free from worry about whose they are (they belong to Him and bear His name!), a life free from worry about possessions (they rest in His provision), free from disrespect, free from worry about premature death, the lure of a neighbor's advances, a ruined reputation, or the loss of what is rightfully theirs. (See Lochman's book for a beautiful exposition along these lines.)

But wait. The Ten Commandments are not designed to protect our own freedoms. If we read them carefully, we see they are designed to protect the rights and freedoms of our neighbors. As Daniel Block has often said, they function like the 'Bill of Rights' except that they are the 'Bill of Someone Else's Rights.'

Because of what God has done to set us free, we are to live in such a way that others can be free. Again and again, the stories remind us that freedom is a gift, a fragile gift, and that we best protect it by living life God's way. That's why we need someone to tell us the stories.

And that's why the stories are told.

The author of Hebrews, whoever it was, gets that. He (or she!) spends a great deal of time recounting the Old Testament stories as a reminder of what God has done, and what that means for believers in Jesus. Just as God set the Israelites free from Egyptian bondage, so he has set us free from bondage to fear and death. That freedom ought to transform everything, because that's what stories do. They tell us how it is. And who we are.

"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. ... Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience." (Hebrews 2:14–15; 4:11 NET)

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