Barak’s Insubordination (Judges 4)

Lambert Lombard, Jaël (1530-35). Museum Grand Curtius, Liège, Belgium.

The story of Deborah and Barak usually gets read in a very un-feminist way, in spite of the fact that she’s the only named female judge of ancient Israel (Judges 4:1-24). Preachers portray Barak as being too timid: he’s afraid to go into battle against Sisera’s army (4:8). He says to Deborah, “I will go if you go,” and the implied message of these interpretations is that if he would “man up,” then he would get the glory of killing Sisera. Instead, because Barak needs a woman to hold his hand, God delivers Sisera into the hand of a nomad woman (4:21).

This interpretation is a sleight-of-hand. It takes a story with a female hero and turns it into an object lesson about the dangers of giving up masculine strength and authority.

Some interpreters read this story in a more generous and less sexist way. They see Deborah and Barak as sharing power (the song in chapter 5 does name both of them as leaders), but Barak’s failing is that he does not adequately trust God. I’m not convinced by this reading, because I don’t really see why gender becomes a relevant point of their discussion in this interpretation.

I’m even less convinced by one alternative reading mentioned in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which says that Barak is “inviting Deborah to bless the military expedition.” Again, if that’s the case, why does it matter to Deborah who gets the glory, or whether they are male or female?

Instead, I approach this text with a question I’ve heard asked about other female leaders—how would Barak’s response be different if Deborah were a man? If a male prophet had told him to gather the troops and meet Sisera in the field, would he have hesitated? I think there is something other that distrust of God or benevolent invitation in Barak’s resistance. I think it’s a challenge: “Lady, it’s easy for you, to talk about going to war. But will you put your life on the line?”

Read from this direction, Barak’s failing is not cowardice, but sexism. He is insubordinate to Deborah in a way that he would not be to Gideon or David or Moses, because she is a woman.

From this reading, her response makes sense: “Fine, but the path you are following will not lead to your glory; God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Deborah is willing to put skin in the game, to take the field of battle with the fighting men. But even she doesn’t deliver the killing blow. That service is performed by Jael (4:21), someone with even less power and standing, using a woman’s homemaker tools. Barak loses the glory of victory because he doesn’t trust a woman to lead him.

How would churches be different if this were the standard approach in sermons?

Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smith's_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.

How to Avoid Anti-Jewish Preaching

"Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2" by Fred Schaerli

“Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2” by Fred Schaerli

This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” That’s what our guest lecturer, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, said to our preaching class over a decade ago. I’ve never forgotten her admonishment.

That’s not to say that I’ve always lived up to it. As a preacher, I will confess that I’ve uncritically repeated anti-Jewish ideas in sermons and writing without ever realizing they were anti-Jewish. It’s too easy to equate Pharisees with legalistic or hypocritical Christians. It’s too simple to buy into the theology that Jesus represented grace while Judaism represented law, that Jesus replaced an oppressive “Old Covenant” with a freeing “New Covenant,” substituting a relationship for rules.

It’s easy to portray Judaism as a religion obsessed with ritual purity—ignoring that the usual consequence for ritual impurity is simply not going to temple. As Dr. Levine told our class, “Being ritually unclean was generally not a big deal—most people were probably unclean most of the time.” Being ritually impure is an important part of life. Although handling a corpse might make you ritually unclean, burying an unburied body is an ethical imperative and an act of love. Having sex or menstruating might make people unclean, but it is a necessary part of being fruitful and multiplying. Judaism did not consider ritual impurity a sinful state! It was simply part of life. Conversely, one could be a jerk, fail to do justice and righteousness, and still go to worship—just as Christians do today.

Another version of this anti-Judaism says Jesus’ culture was patriarchal, but Jesus was a feminist, that first-century Jews were obsessed with money and privilege but Jesus, radical that he was, showed love to the poor and marginalized.

We often assume that for the Christian narrative to work, we have to make Jesus opposed to his own religion. Instead of locating him firmly within Jewish tradition, we make him an Other. The gospels themselves make it easy to do so: we read Jesus’ polemic against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, or about how “the Jews” rejected Jesus in John. Historically, it’s just as accurate to say that the early church rejected Judaism!

Dr. Levine’s recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, not only examines Jesus’ parables by placing them in a Jewish context, but also reviews some of the ways anti-Judaism gets perpetuated in Christian books, periodicals, and commentaries. Christians often rush to make parables clear-cut allegories with heroes and villains, to extract a tidy preachable moral from each story. Even when we take the view that parables are meant to unsettle, rather than simplify, we have very particular views about who is meant to be unsettled. As Levine says, “Clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are, unintentionally, repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes” (p. 20).

In the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), for example, we usually read with the assumption that the widow is a victim in need of rescue. Christian preachers often claim that in her first-century Jewish setting, she had no rights and was doomed to a life of poverty. Levine’s close linguistic reading of the text reveals that the widow is a dangerous woman: she desires revenge on an enemy, and the judge is afraid she will punch him the face!

Levine also gives us a view of biblical widowhood that is at odds with our usual reading of helpless victims in need of rescue. Although the Bible is full of admonitions to care for widows, and although biblical authors talk of society’s obligations to widows, widows clearly could own property—otherwise, why would villains be after their houses (Luke 20:46-47)? If they were helpless, why would Paul feel they needed to be regulated (1 Timothy 5)? In Jewish tradition, women without husbands are often strong protagonists who act decisively, like Judith, Ruth, Tamar (Genesis 38), and the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17).

It is not only our characterization of heroes and villains that reveal our anti-Jewish tendencies. When we describe Jesus’ audience as being offended by the lavish love of the prodigal Father, or indifferent to the suffering of Lazarus, or scandalized by a woman hiding leaven in bread, we reinforce the idea that his listening Jewish audience embodied everything wrong with us. (These are also sloppy readings of scripture, often contradicted by evidence in the story itself). By extension, we make Judaism into a broken religion in need of correction—a correction that can only happen through Jesus.

We don’t need to call Jews “Christ-killers” to promote anti-Judaism. Both conservative and liberal Christians, liberation theologians and evangelicals express this kind of anti-Judaism. It is perpetuated by Christians on both sides of the modern Israeli/Palestinian debate. It is deeply rooted in our Christian rhetoric. It means Christians in the pews seldom receive an accurate picture of either historical or modern Judaism, and that Jewish kids get bullied.

Here are some ways to avoid expressing anti-Judaism in our preaching:

  1. Refer to the “Hebrew Bible” instead of the “Old Testament.”
  2. Remember that most of what Jesus said about Pharisees and Jews of his day can be applied to committed religious people in any time and place. When Jesus talks about “Pharisees,” he often means it the same way that I mean “Christians” when I use it in this article—as a critique of a group to which we belong.
  3. Be careful about referring to “what Jews believe(d) or practice(d).” It’s often more accurate to say “some Jews.” Remember that like Christianity, Judaism has never been homogenous or monolithic. There are multiple ways of reading, interpreting, and living out Torah. In Jesus’ day there were at least four major Jewish factions, and even within those factions, people disagreed.
  4. Remember that real live Jewish people exist in your community. Christians often talk about Judaism as if it is in the past, or somewhere over in the modern state of Israel, and that it stopped developing 2000 years ago. Learn about contemporary Judaism in your own community.
  5. Take every opportunity to show how Jesus’ message echoes the major themes of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus did not invent concern for people at the margins, nor did he introduce an entirely new understanding of grace and sin. Connect what Jesus said to other Jews who lived around his time period, like Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
  6. Avoid attributing legalism, violence, or other negative qualities to the Jewish faith or the Hebrew Bible. It is not the case that Jews of the first century, or today, believe in stoning adulterers or disobedient children. Christians often assert that our “New Covenant” supplanted the Old. But Jewish parents love their kids, spouses, and neighbors just the way Christians do—imperfectly, passionately, and with a measure of grace. Jews manage to avoid stoning adulterers and disobedient children because they have a mature and nuanced understanding of how the Bible should guide their lives.

We do make definitive and distinctive claims about the person and character of Christ, and Christians have a unique theology of incarnation, atonement, and salvation. We do not need to stop lifting up the name of Jesus. But we need to learn to do so without denigrating—or making exotic—Jesus’ own faith.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” It’s a good principle for preachers to remember.

For further reading: 

The Jewish Annotated New Testament Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler

The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine

The Jew Named Jesus by Rebekah Simon-Peter

Anti-Judaism in Christian Teaching and Preaching by Matt Skinner

6 Ways to Avoid Unintentional Anti-Judaism by William F. Brosend

Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintentional Anti-Judaism by Marilyn Salmon

Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”

 

Modern Parables 7: Beach-Front Property

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Climate change and rising sea levels began destroying a wealthy industrialist’s beach-front property. So she sold that house and bought a mountain cabin. “I feel closer to God up here,” she said. “And one day, this will be beach-front property, too.”

 

Modern Parables 6: Round Up

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The kingdom of God is like dandelions spreading across your lawn. You can spray with herbicide, but it kills the grass, and the dandelions spread even more.

 

Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.

 


My Conversation With God

God spoke to me yesterday. She said, “Dave, you should report more of our conversations in your sermons.” In my arrogance and self-centeredness I replied, “But God, what if people see that as religious grandstanding? I’m not like Moses or Jeremiah or Paul.” She said, “Haven’t I called you to be like Moses or Jeremiah or Paul?” Then she went on to really school me. She said:

First, I’m God, so shut up and don’t argue.

Second, it’s not like preachers haven’t been doing this forever. You know how to come across.

Third, it’s a great opportunity to make your concerns into my concerns. That’s just the way I’ve chosen to bless you.

I said, “Okay, God. But what if I offend some people? What if they see this as code language for talking about someone without talking about them? What if they think it’s cowardly, or rhetorically manipulative? What if they think it’s a way to embed my own theological commitments without making them explicit? What if they think I’m insincere?”

She told me, “You’ll know how to handle it.”

Noah’s Nonexistent Nosy Neighbors

This March, the blockbuster film Noah will hit theaters. I’m going to be preaching on the story of Noah and the flood this Sunday.

I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.

I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!

Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.

Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.

And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.

The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.

Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday 😉