Preach the Artistry of the Narratives

Two weeks ago, I urged preachers to preach the narratives of the Bible, rather than focusing merely on the more didactic passages. Last week I argued that they should preach the ambivalence of the narratives, being careful not to try to smooth out their seemingly rough edges. This week, I want to focus on the artistry of the narratives.

The biblical narratives communicate their message through the skillful use of various literary techniques. Fail to appreciate that artistry and you risk misunderstanding those texts completely.

For example, we saw the other day how the meaning of Elijah’s name was used as the central theme of 1 Kings 18. The reader who appreciates this pun understands immediately that Elijah’s singular mission is to call the people of Israel to affirm that their God is the LORD. Biblical narratives often traffic in such wordplays, using an individual’s name as a kind of shorthand for his or her character.

Gustave Doré's Depiction of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

There are even times when a change in character is expressed by a change in name, such as when Jacob is renamed Israel. The name Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” and captures perfectly Jacob’s early penchant for undermining his rivals through deception and trickery, like a wrestler who trips up his opponent rather than overpowering him. After an epic wrestling match with a heavenly figure, Jacob is renamed Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” The implication is that Jacob’s life is now primarily marked by faith in God rather than mere subterfuge. Yet note how the two names both call to mind the act of wrestling. It is this continuity of imagery which communicates the contrast of character.

The examples of such narrative artistry are legion, but I’ll point out just one more. The story of David and Goliath makes similar use of contrast. Goliath is a gigantic specimen, a seasoned warrior, with custom-made armor and weaponry, and a shield-bearer who assists him in battle. David is merely “a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance” (1 Samuel 17:42 ESV). He has no battlefield experience, is equipped with nothing but a staff and sling, and enters battle completely alone. The humorous episode in which Saul tries to put his own armor on David only serves to underscore David’s lack of stature and experience. Yet it also contrasts his simple courage with Saul’s cowardice. We know from previous narratives that Saul is himself exceptionally tall and courageous in battle. Yet when he sees a warrior whose prowess exceeds his own, his courage fails him. All of these points of contrast with taller, stronger, more experienced warriors only serve to reinforce the central message of the text: namely, that the battle belongs to the LORD.

When we preach and teach the narratives, we must make every effort to help our listeners appreciate this kind of literary artistry. Doing so accomplishes a number of important goals.

First, it teaches them by example how to interpret and understand biblical narratives for themselves. The more the preacher or teacher focuses on important literary features such as characterization, contrast, wordplays, repetition, and the like, the more his listeners will begin to appreciate those features in their own reading of Scripture.

Second, when we bring out the literary features of the text itself, we are much less likely to impose our own assumptions on the text, or to focus too much attention on minor elements in the text, or to make the text say what we want it to say. By explaining the literary devices a narrative uses, we ensure that we are teaching what the text is actually saying.

Third, bringing out the literary artistry of the text can simplify one of the most challenging aspects of sermon-building: developing the sermon’s structure. Too many sermons depend on some formulaic structure into which the text is made to fit. If the text has one central message, but the preacher feels he must deliver a three-point sermon, he ends up elevating secondary elements of the text to the level of primary points. If, however, he allows the structure of the narrative to dictate the structure of his sermon, he simplifies his own preparation and increases his fidelity to the text.

Finally, discovering the literary artistry of a narrative is interesting and fun. Just as we enjoy discussing the plot twists and character development of a good movie or book, we enjoy learning about these elements in the biblical narratives. We all know the story of David and Goliath, but we can experience it anew through sermons which help us appreciate the literary devices that drive the narrative forward. Such sermons give us the “aha” experience that can lead to new insight.

In short, by preaching the artistry of the narratives, a preacher can help his audience develop the “eyes to see.”

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Dotwatch: What’s in a Name?

[Dotwatch is a series dedicated to showing how connecting the dots in the text of the Bible can reveal a more complete picture of what is being described.]

Gustave Doré's depiction of Elijah slaughtering the prophets of Baal

In my last Dotwatch post, we looked at the showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. By connecting the dots of geography, meteorology, and mythology, we saw how this contest amounted to a duel in which Baal was given his weapon of choice and a home field advantage. But there are other dots in this narrative worth connecting: namely, the play on Elijah’s name.

The name Elijah literally means “My God is the LORD (or Yahweh).” The name is used as a motif throughout the text of 1 Kings 18. First, Elijah sets up this contest as a test to determine whether Baal or the LORD is the one true God:

 I am the only remaining prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us. They are to choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and place it on the wood but not light the fire. I will prepare the other bull and place it on the wood but not light the fire. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh. The God who answers with fire, He is God. (1 Kings 18:22–24, HCSB)

When the LORD answers Elijah’s prayer and consumes the offering with a bolt of lightning, it is unmistakably clear that He alone is the true God. The people immediately begin shouting, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” In other words, they finally affirm what Elijah’s name has quietly asserted all along.

A love-struck Juliet famously asked, “What’s in a name?” Then she proceeded to convince herself that a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the Bible, however, a name can express the central message of a narrative and the singular mission of a prophet: namely, to urge us all to proclaim, “The LORD, He is God!”

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Bridging the Gap Between Fact and Faith

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the historical, geographical, and cultural background of the Bible. Publications like the Archaeological Study Bible, Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Background commentaries, and IVP’s various background commentaries and dictionaries all focus on helping Bible students connect the dots in the same way I’ve been discussing here. The Bible Lands PhotoGuide I wrote for Accordance Bible Software seeks to do the same thing, and is consistently one of their best-selling products. All of these reference works are excellent sources of information on biblical backgrounds.

Yet as good as these resources are, they are limited by their respective formats. The dictionaries require you to look up some term or topic, such as Elah Valley or Hazor. The commentaries require you to look up some biblical passage, such as 1 Samuel 17 or Joshua 11. But what if you don’t know what topic or passage to begin with?

A devotional, on the other hand, is something you turn to when you don’t know where to turn. It has the advantage of being able to guide you to topics and passages you might rarely consider. It’s this difference in format which makes Feet to Follow, Eyes to See unique among books on biblical backgrounds. And it’s the difference in subject matter which makes it unique among devotionals.

A devotional also adds another dimension not possible in a reference book: its central purpose is not merely to inform, but to inspire. In writing Feet to Follow, Eyes to See, I could not merely recite interesting background information and call it a day. It is not enough to connect the dots only so well that the reader gets an accurate picture of a particular narrative; you must connect the dots so that the reader sees a clearer picture of his or her own relationship with God.

Ultimately, that’s my goal in writing this book. There are plenty of excellent books which offer facts about biblical backgrounds, but I want to bridge the gap between fact and faith. I don’t just want you to understand the Bible more clearly; I want you to hear God speaking to you through His Word.

So far, I’ve shared two complete excerpts from Feet to Follow, Eyes to See. The first deals with the conquest of Hazor, while the second deals with David’s defeat of Goliath. Do they succeed in bridging the gap between fact and faith? Please let me know in the comments on this post.

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Snapshots: You Never Know Where Your Kids Will Turn Up

During our trip to Israel, my wife and I snapped close to 2000 photos. Not all of them were of biblical or historical interest, of course. Some were touristy shots, such as my wife and I riding a camel with the Dome of the Rock in the background. Some were shots of purely photographic interest, such as close-ups of the many flowers that were in bloom. And some were shots of curiosities we thought our kids back home would enjoy. The most surprising of these were the odd places our children’s names happened to turn up.

Our first son David’s name could, of course, be seen everywhere—especially in Jerusalem.

We never saw an example of Caleb or Bethany’s names. (Isn’t it always the middle children who get neglected?) We might easily have seen them had we visited the town of Bethany or perhaps a dog park (kaleb is the Hebrew word for “dog”), but alas, we never did.

Alexa and Josiah’s names turned up in the most unexpected places. Alexa is a Greek name, so what were the chances we would find it in Israel? Yet there it was in an elaborate mosaic at Tzippori (ancient Sepphoris, near Nazareth):

It was actually part of the name Alexandria, positioned just above a representation of the Pharos, or lighthouse, of ancient Alexandia, Egypt. But the Greek letter nu is partially missing, making Alexa’s name stand out clearly.

Josiah, affectionately known as “Jo Jo,” turned up in the spiral staircase leading to the top of the bell tower of Jerusalem’s Church of the Redeemer. Among all the graffiti defacing the walls, someone had inscribed Jo Jo in several prominent places. Here’s just one example:

While I think it shameful that this beautiful church has been defaced like this, I must admit to being delighted to see Jo Jo’s name up there.

Even thousands of miles from home, you never know where your kids will turn up. If you get the chance to visit the land of Israel, be on the lookout for the unexpected.

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Dotwatch: Why Mount Carmel?

In a previous post, I explained that seeing the locations of biblical events can help you connect the dots in the text of the Bible, revealing a more complete picture of what is being described. To help you see how this works, I began a series of posts entitled “Dotwatch.” In this dotwatch post, we’ll look at the showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.

Elijah first appears in the pages of the Bible after king Ahab of Israel adopted the worship of the Canaanite god, Baal.

Baal was the storm god the Canaanites depended on to send rain. In contrast to the God of Israel who demanded absolute loyalty and holiness, Baal could be manipulated through sacrifices, offerings, and sensually indulgent acts of worship. It was a seductive alternative which now had the official endorsement of the king.

So the LORD sent Elijah before Ahab with a startling pronouncement:

As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. (1 Kings 17:1, ESV)

The drought which followed was a direct assault on Baal’s alleged power to bring rain. It lasted for three years, during which Baal seemed powerless to answer. Elijah was in hiding the entire time.

This natural theater below the summit of Mount Carmel may be the site where Elijah's showdown took place.

When Elijah finally returned, he told Ahab to assemble all the royal prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. There he set up a public showdown between the two deities, proposing that Baal’s prophets prepare, but not ignite, a sacrifice to their god, while he would do the same for the LORD. Then they would pray to their respective deities to send fire from heaven to ignite the sacrifice. The one that answered would then clearly be revealed as the one true God.

Why this test? Fire from heaven certainly sounds dramatic, but doesn’t it seem a little random? And why did this showdown take place on Mount Carmel? Why not at Ahab’s capital in Samaria or some other more populated area?

It’s interesting to note that when Elijah proposed this test, the people all accepted it as perfectly reasonable. They don’t appear to have questioned the nature of the test or the choice of location. Why is that?

A little knowledge of Israel’s weather patterns and geography helps us to make sense of all this. First, we need to understand that the rains in Israel tend to be blown in from the Mediterranean Sea. Second, we need to realize that Mount Carmel is actually a range of peaks which extends from the central hill country all the way to the Mediterranean coast. Mount Carmel is therefore one of the first places in Israel to receive rainfall, and it receives more annual rainfall than most other locations in the country. Finally, we need to remember that Baal was the god who was supposed to send lightning and rain.

Connect those dots, and we begin to see how Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal was a direct challenge to the pagan deity on his own turf. After causing a three-year drought in which Baal was powerless to bring rain, Yahweh now challenges the Canaanite storm god to light his own sacrifice with “fire” from heaven—that is, a bolt of lightning. This was a duel in which Baal was allowed to use his preferred weapon, and it took place on the spot where his power would have been thought to be greatest: the verdant mountain range which captured the most rainfall.

Giving Baal all of these apparent advantages made his eventual defeat that much more resounding. He was utterly disgraced in the eyes of the people, who began shouting “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39).

Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal is one of those stories which is perfectly understandable even without these contextual details. Yet without them the narrative can seem a little disembodied and fanciful. Connect the dots, and you see that the LORD was systematically stripping Baal of any credibility. First He withheld the rain Baal should have been able to send. Then He sent the lightning Baal was thought to control. Only after Baal had been utterly disgraced did the LORD send the rain his people so desperately needed. That way, there could be no doubt that He was the one who sent it.

The original audience of the Book of Kings would have understood all this. Now that we’ve connected the dots, we do too.

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Feet to Follow’s New Domain

I’m pleased to announce that this blog now has its own domain: feettofollow.com. Those of you who have been kind enough to publicize this blog can now simply tell people to visit feettofollow.com.

Let me also take this opportunity to thank all of you who have spread the word about this new blog. One of my purposes in writing it is to be able to show prospective publishers that there are lots of people who are looking for a different kind of devotional. Those of you who have gotten the word out about it are helping me get the book into your hands sooner rather than later. So, again, thank you.

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Preach the Ambivalence of the Narratives

Last Sunday I encouraged you preachers out there to preach the narratives from time to time, rather than focusing exclusively on the didactic portions of Scripture which may translate easily into didactic sermons. This Sunday, I want to encourage you to preach the ambivalence of those narratives.

Rembrandt's depiction of David (right) sending Uriah to his death.

For me, one of the most striking things about biblical narratives is their consistently ambivalent portrayal of the characters involved. Abraham has the faith to obey God even when He asks the unthinkable (Genesis 22), yet he lacks the faith to wait for God’s timing (Genesis 16) or to trust him for protection from foreign rulers who might want to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20; Genesis 20). David is a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14) with the faith to face Goliath (1 Samuel 17), yet he falls spectacularly into adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). And don’t even get me started on Samson!

To a man (and woman), the Bible portrays all the human frailty of its “heroes”—their sin, their insecurity, their pettiness, their selfishness. Even the accounts of their brightest moments include hints that they may have ulterior motives. For example, David responds to Goliath’s challenge with “teenage passion and religious fervor,” yet not before he asks the men around him what reward will be given to the man who defeats Goliath. More often than not, the Bible records these eyebrow-raising details without trying to defend or explain them. We readers are simply left to wonder.

Most amazingly of all, the Bible is even ambivalent in its portrayal of God! The book of Job, for example, raises all kinds of questions about God’s justice and goodness, and at the end, when you’re begging for a neat and tidy explanation, God simply reminds Job that He is God and Job is not! Rather than trying to explain away God’s seemingly questionable actions, the Bible often leaves us to wrestle with what they really mean.

If the Biblical narratives are so intentionally ambivalent, we must be careful not to smooth out their rough edges whenever we teach and preach them. That’s what children’s Bibles and Sunday School lessons typically do, with the result that children often perceive Bible stories in the same way they perceive fables and fairy-tales. In fact, Bible stories are fables and fairy-tales whenever we gloss over their bald-faced depictions of flawed humanity. The Bible doesn’t make heroes of its heroes, but reveals them to be as messy and flawed and foolish as we are. That’s precisely what makes Biblical narratives so redemptive.

If you’re tempted to airbrush away the apparent blemishes in the biblical narratives, stop and ask yourself if they might not actually be “beauty marks” which should be left well enough alone. When you preach the narratives, preach them in all their glorious ambivalence. That way, your listeners will realize that God can redeem and use people just like them.

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The Battle Belongs to the LORD

[The following is a complete excerpt of Day 7 from Feet to Follow, Eyes to See]

The area of Israel known as the Shephelah is a line of foothills between the coastal plain and the Judean highlands. A series of narrow valleys run east and west through the Shephelah, providing important avenues for trade and troop movements. Among these is the valley of Elah, the site of a famous standoff between the Philistines and the Israelites:

Saul and the men of Israel gathered and camped in the Valley of Elah; then they lined up in battle formation to face the Philistines. The Philistines were standing on one hill, and the Israelites were standing on another hill with a ravine between them.” (1 Samuel 17:2–3)

The Elah Valley, where David fought Goliath

Looking at these hills today, it is easy to picture the Israelites lined along the near hill, facing off against the Philistines on the opposite hill. At the base of the Israelite hill is a wadi, or seasonally dry river-bed, which they would have had to cross to enter the valley.

Tensions were high as each force waited for the other to make a move. Then a Philistine named Goliath stepped forward to issue a challenge: let the fate of the battle be decided by representative combat. He would face any champion the Israelites chose. He shouted, “I defy the ranks of Israel today. Send me a man so we can fight each other!” (1 Samuel 17:10)

Ancient peoples saw the outcome of their own battles as a reflection of a battle between their deities. The side that won was the side whose god proved stronger. The idea behind having individual champions fight instead of whole armies was that the gods could just as easily determine the outcome of a single contest as they could a clash of armies.

It was an attractive idea, unless of course you thought your champion didn’t have the remotest chance of beating his opponent. In that case you were betting your own fate on a hopeless contest. That explains why the Israelites “lost their courage and were terrified” when they heard Goliath’s challenge (1 Samuel 17:11). He was, after all, a giant who was armed to the teeth!

In the absence of an Israelite champion, the stalemate continued. Then a teenage boy named David came to the battlefield with supplies. He arrived just in time to hear Goliath’s challenge, and he reacted with teenage passion and religious fervor:

“Just who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26)

Somehow, all those experienced soldiers had never thought to ask that question. Who was Goliath? To them he was an object of terror. To David he was simply that “uncircumcised Philistine.”

David accepted the challenge. As he crossed the wadi he armed himself with five smooth stones. Then he walked out and stood before Goliath.

Insulted that the Israelites would send an unarmed boy rather than their best soldier, Goliath spewed insults and curses. David answered him in kind:

You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:45–47, NIV)

When David backed up this boast by felling Goliath with a stone from his sling, the Philistines were in shock. For that matter, so were the Israelites! But David had known it all along: “the battle is the LORD’s,” so the outcome is certain.

Do you have that kind of confidence when it comes to the battles you face? Do you see them as the LORD’s battles, or your own?

[If you enjoyed this devotion from Feet to Follow, Eyes to See, please share it with someone you know.]

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Sorry, No Dead Sea Mud Pics

When one of the people who were part of our Israel tour group learned that I was writing a book inspired by the trip, he offered the following suggestion:

Wow, At first glance your devotional looks very impressive. But help me out, here — why no picture of you and Lisa at the Dead Sea? That would have made a great devotional: For example, like the way Dead Sea minerals bring new life to our skin, so salvation in Christ brings new life to our souls. Or you could point out that as the unique waters of the Dead Sea support the human body with amazing buoyancy, so too does God’s Holy Spirit support us in times of trial and testing.

He was kidding, of course, because he knows there is no way I would include a photo of my wife and I in our bathing suits, slathered up to our necks in mud from the shore of the Dead Sea. This carefully cropped photo is as far as my exhibitionism extends (and as much as my wife would allow!)

Still, his jest illustrates a very real challenge I’ve faced in writing this book: namely, deciding which locations to include and which passages of Scripture to focus on. When I set out to write Feet to Follow, Eyes to See, I wondered if I would have enough material to complete 31 daily meditations. Once I mapped out a tentative outline, however, it became clear I would have the opposite problem. I have now finished writing the devotions which focus on Old Testament passages, and there are a number of major sites with fascinating stories I simply couldn’t include. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll have enough material remaining to do a second 31-day devotional.

Even if I do, I can guarantee there won’t be any Dead Sea mud photos in that book, either!

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Dotwatch: Temple to Yahweh at Arad

Yesterday I explained that seeing the locations of biblical events can help you connect the dots in the text of the Bible, revealing a more complete picture of what is being described. To help you see how this works, I’m going to start a new series of posts I’ll call “Dotwatch.” In this series, we’ll look at how a little knowledge of Israel can help you understand specific passages of Scripture.

In 2 Kings 18 and its parallels in 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36, the Assyrian king Sennacherib sends an army to besiege Jerusalem, along with envoys who demand the city’s surrender. Masters of psychological warfare, these envoys call out in Hebrew so that all the people gathered on Jerusalem’s walls will hear why resistance is futile:

Suppose you say to me: We trust in the LORD our God. Isn’t He the One whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem: You must worship at this altar in Jerusalem? (2 Kings 18:22)

This Assyrian envoy is clearly referring to Hezekiah’s extensive religious reforms, in which he “removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles” (2 Kings 18:4). Yet why would the Assyrian say that it was the LORD‘s high places and altars Hezekiah had removed? Weren’t all of Hezekiah’s reforms directed against pagan worship?

The Holy of Holies of the Israelite Temple at Arad

Not all of them. Hezekiah had also shut down various sanctuaries to Yahweh which were scattered throughout the country. One of these rival worship centers has been excavated at the southern city of Arad. This temple to Yahweh was built around the time of Solomon and featured an outer courtyard with a sacrificial altar, a Holy Place, and a Holy of Holies—much like the temple in Jerusalem. One can imagine the people of southern Judah preferring to worship at this local temple rather than having to make the journey to Jerusalem. The temple at Arad would therefore have been a source of revenue for the city, as pilgrims came and stayed there during the various feasts and festivals. It also would have been a source of civic pride to the people of Arad.

During the time of Hezekiah, the sacrificial altar in the temple’s outer courtyard was buried so that no more sacrifices could be offered there. This centralization of worship at Jerusalem could not have been popular at Arad and other towns with local worship centers. Even citizens of Judah who did not experience the loss of revenue or civic pride as a result of Hezekiah’s religious reforms must have wondered how shutting down Yahweh’s sanctuaries could possibly be pleasing to Him.

Thus, the Assyrian envoy was using the unpopularity of Hezekiah’s religious reforms to undermine the people’s confidence that the LORD would come to their rescue. Even after the Assyrians were forced to withdraw from Judah, Hezekiah’s reforms likely remained unpopular. That may help explain why his son Manasseh reversed them so completely.

I hope you can see how these kinds of connections really help make the Bible come alive. The original audience of Kings, Chronicles, and Isaiah would have understood how decentralized the worship of Yahweh was and how unpopular Hezekiah’s reforms would have been, so they would immediately have connected these “dots” in the text. We, on the other hand, need a little help connecting those dots. Yet when we get it, we too can find the “eyes to see.”

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