What’s So Great About a Bible Hero?

Did you know that research has found that people in interracial marriages report that marriage is more difficult than they anticipated and are slightly more likely to divorce? As someone in an interracial marriage, I can tell you why that is. Our normals are different. And that causes problems.

By normals, what I mean is what we each assume is right, good and normal. All couples deal with this. You think it’s normal to walk around the house in your undies and your beloved wouldn’t dream of walking out of the bedroom with out his shoes on. He thinks spaghetti is served with velveeta melted on top and you’re not a lunatic, so you recognize crazy when you see it.

Most of the time we are able to adjust, compromise and accept that each of us thinks the other person is certifiable in some way. But people who marry people from other races tend to face much deeper differences in what they think of as normal. African American’s relationship with authority is much different, more complicated and often more rigid than a white American’s. (Oddly enough, attitudes towards authority just don’t come up much while dating.) A woman I know married a man from Peru and was shocked to discover that he expected her not to speak with men she didn’t know when he wasn’t present. He was shocked that she would even consider doing such a thing. Another woman I know married a man from East Asia and learned that they had very different ideas about secrets – he felt perfectly comfortable telling their children lies about some important things to protect them from hard realities. Authority, gender, secrets – when people from different cultures get married, they often discover that they are in conflict about some very deep things.

What makes interracial relationships so difficult, I think, isn’t just the conflicts that come out of these differing ideas of what’s normal. It’s that you are constantly being forced to examine and question the underlying assumptions you have regarding really deep things. And we’re not good at that. We can barely admit when we’ve taken a wrong turn and gotten ourselves lost. Considering if maybe your entire concept of the role of fairness in relationships and society is off is painful and confusing. Add in the fact that there isn’t necessarily a “right” answer to questions you always used to know the right answer to and  . . . . arrrrgh!

Sometimes you just want to tell the other person to leave you alone – life was just fine before you came along with your crazy ideas and made me question the existential meaning of housekeeping! (And yes, I do know that in my case, some of this is driven by the fact that my husband and I are very intense people who completely over-think everything. But really, that just means we can define what we are arguing about in greater detail than most people!)

I happen to think that as hard as it is, couples in interracial relationships are doing hard, but good, important work. The sort of work the heroes of the bible did, in fact. Wait . . . what? Interracial couples challenging each other’s ideas about normal is just like the bible heroes? How’s that for a complete non sequitur! Allow I to explain.

Anyone who’s actually read the Old Testament has been confused. There’s a lot of sketchy stuff and questionable behaviors going on in there. Even from those we’ve been taught to think of as heroes. I can only scratch the surface, but there’s Abraham lying about his relationship with Sarah and leaving her vulnerable to the sexual demands of a king, Sarah throwing Hagrid and Ismael into the wilderness to die, Lot offering up his virgin daughters to a mob for rape, Jacob and Rebecca using trickery to steal Esau’s rightful inheritance, Samson’s violence, David who was, for all practical purposes, a murderer and rapist. I could go on and on, but literally, almost every character of note in the bible engaged in morally problematic behavior.

Christians tend respond to this issue in one of two ways. The first is that they come up with explanations for why the behavior wasn’t actually wrong. They try to explain it away. We may not understand, but since these were upstanding people of faith, then they know better than you and I and we should just accept that their behavior was right. The second way Christians respond is to say that these stories show that God is so gracious that he can and will use the broken and the sinful to do his work. That way his power shines through since such broken, sinful people could never of their own power accomplish anything for God.

Of these two options, I fall into the latter camp. I don’t think it makes any sense to try to pretend that offering your daughters up for rape or throwing a child into the desert to die can be justified. So clearly, God will use the broken and the sinful to do his work. But the world is filled with nothing other than the broken and the sinful. Was there something in particular about these people which made them suitable for the work God was doing?

I think there was and it goes back to same thing that makes interracial relationships particularly challenging and important – changing your idea of what is good and normal is really, really hard for us human beings. Not every person is able or willing to consider, much less adopt, radically different ways of doing things, but each of our bible heroes did just that. They broke from family and established religious traditions, stood against their communities, broke rules which would have resulted in problematic outcomes. In short, to the extent they were able, each of our bible heroes moved out of or beyond what was considered normal in the world they lived in.

This may seem like a nice enough, but not exactly heroic thing to us today. But that’s because we live in a world where things change all the time. I parent differently than my parents. My husband does different work than his mother or step-father. I use technology every day that didn’t exist when my grandmother was raising her own kids. My oldest son wears his hair in a style that would have gotten him kicked out of reputable establishments 50 years ago.

But go back in time and this sort of change is practically unthinkable. Life was the same for millenia at a time. A person’s work was determined by their father’s work as his work had been determined by his father’s work going back across many generations. When archaeologists look at pottery shards, they can figure out what time period they came from because styles changed . . . over the course of centuries. As opposed to us who change styles on a seasonal basis. Change was not normal. At all. Everyone knew what normal was and that was just all there was to it.

There’s a line I love from Hosea where God says, “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert.” I believe that it was this willingness to change, to challenge what was normal and to oppose long-standing cultural standards which made Israel “like grapes in the desert”.

To see why this was so important, we need to understand the problem that God was facing after the fall. When God made mankind, he had us name the animals which I believe symbolized that this creation was our responsibility. He told us that we had dominion – responsibility – for this creation. And he gave us two simple tasks: to tend to the land for our sustenance and to be fruitful and multiply. That was it. We were still in the process of learning these simple tasks when everything went awry. After the fall, we suddenly felt the urgent need to do other things – cover ourselves, for example. And we had no idea how to accomplish them. And we didn’t even understand enough about ourselves or God to go about figuring them out in a reasonable way. And we were too immature to get even the basics right. We were driven by shame over ourselves and fear of God. Rather than looking for solutions or help, our instinct was to pass blame and judgment on each other. And we were passing on and magnifying the trauma of it all across each successive generation. And somehow, it was God’s task in the middle of all this to help us learn how to do life without causing ourselves and our world harm.

There are a whole host of challenges involved in this state of affairs, but I want to focus on the over-arching issue. Shame, fear and blame are all from the enemy’s kingdom. As long as humanity is in the grip of shame, fear and blame, the rules are set by the ways of the enemy. The norms and standards are based on the ways of the enemy. The solutions which seem right to us follow the rules and norms of the evil one. While ruled by shame, fear and blame, we are actively bringing the kingdom of Satan to life here on the earth God gave us to care for. Want to know what that looks like? Read a history book. That’s where we were starting from.

So God’s job is to get us to cooperate with the destruction of the enemy’s kingdom and its replacement with the Kingdom of God. What God had to do went much deeper than giving us a different set of standards, values and solutions. He couldn’t just come down and command us to do what he said. He had to somehow convince us to willingly embrace his ways – that free will thing. And of course, we are unlikely to embrace his ways as they are completely and utterly counter-intuitive to people in the grip of shame, fear and blame. Finding people who were up to the task was going to be hard. And it was going to take time because the ability of any given human being to change their fundamental ideas about how life ought to be done is limited. Today, despite being well acculturated to constant change, those of us in interracial relationships can testify to just how hard even relatively minor changes to our concepts of what is normal and right are. Imagine how difficult it would have been thousands of years ago in cultures where change rarely, if ever occurred.

goat rocksThe fact is that every available candidate for God to work with was going to be broken, flawed and in the grips of a world run according to the mores of the enemy. It then makes sense that instead of looking for the most moral person possible, God would instead seek out the people most willing to break the rules. Because that’s what all of them did – they broke the rules. They did things that no one around them would dream of doing. We read these stories and see men and women following God, but to their contemporaries, they just looked like rebellious, contrarian rule breakers. The sort of people who get kicked out of churches and condemned as heretics, in fact.

In this light, perhaps its not so surprising that the people who God chose to work with often did such awful things. As the demon in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters points out: “The great sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena, the great Saints.” When following God’s leading, breaking the rules is good, although it might get us in trouble. And then again, it might also lead you to do awful things that people will look back thousands of years later and shake their heads at.

Too many Christians today spend their time looking backwards, trying to figure out the best ways to follow the rules and principles God provided in the past. But the Christian life is described by Paul as a race – which means moving forward. Pressing on. Keeping our eyes on what is ahead. Certainly, how we run the race needs to be informed the learned experiences of those went before. And the boundaries set forth in the ancient creeds of the church help keep us on the racetrack. Jesus didn’t show up and say, “I’m tossing all the old boundaries and understanding y’all have”, after all. He wasn’t even the first to identify “love your neighbor as yourself” as the point of the Law. He was well grounded in Hebrew thought and belief.

What Jesus did do was refine those boundaries to reflect what actually matters to God. He provided understanding of what the path we need to follow actually looks like – one paved by love, humility, self-sacrifice, service and mercy rather than rules and rituals. As always, God can’t simply come down, give his commands and have it be so. Human beings always struggle to let go of what they have always known to embrace a new way of doing life. If you look at the church over the last 1500 years, the stories of the saints have been the stories of people who were persecuted and reviled by the church for breaking the rules.

I think that we’ve learned enough and gained enough understanding that there are more and more people of God who are able to break the rules to follow God’s ways. To the extent that we still have Christians trying to depend on rules, hierarchies and judgment to pave the way, we can see just how hard it is to get people to let go of the way that seems right to men – even when God commands it. I know from corresponding with some of you, that you have been rejected and hurt by the sort of rule keepers who believe that they have an iron grip on what is good, normal and acceptable. But don’t forget Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Jacob, David, Deborah, Lot and the rest. As the bible says, there’s nothing new under the sun. We still need people who are willing to have what they view as normal challenged and changed. We still need people following in the footsteps of those old bible heroes who will break all the rules to help us move away from a world shaped by the enemy’s kingdom and into one where God’s Kingdom reigns.

Some related posts you may also like:

Defiance is a Christian Virtue

Ways to Make a Christian Faint

Abel Was a Creative – Drew Downs

Not All Religious Convictions are Written in Stone – Rachel Held Evans

8 thoughts on “What’s So Great About a Bible Hero?

  1. Hmmm, people willing to break the rules don’t seem to be a rarity. People willing to examine them; that’s different.

    If Abraham had simply neglected to sacrifice his first born son, I suspect the neighbors would have talked, not stood too close during thunderstorms, etc. — but he would have gone down in history as: “Who? Huh?” Instead, he tried to do the customary Right Thing (for the time) but instead, out of compassion, found a way around that; and by thus he started something new.

    I don’t recall David going in for actual “rape.” He condoned it in his son to preserve the domestic peace of his overlarge, spoiled household. But the worst that comes to mind in his own conduct was a bit of sexual hassassment: sending a troop of soldiers to the lady with an invitation: ~ ‘The King would like you for dinner; we’ll wait.” The practicalities of declining? — I really don’t know; but the practicalities of accepting might have been the deciding factor…

    David’s career must have been an inspiration for Machiavelli, the way bad things just kept happening to anyone who might conceivably have inconvenienced his reign — but the one thing that weighed heavily on his conscience, to the point where he offered to let the punishment fall on his own head rather than on the nation — was the attempt to do a census.

    1. Plenty of people are willing to break rules so long as it doesn’t cost them anything they care about. People willing to break the rules and suffer negative consequences from people and institutions they care about are far less common, it seems to me.

      When I think of Abram, I think not of the episode with Isaac so much. I think of him leaving his land and his people to go somewhere unknown. He also turned away from idol worship. There’s an old Hebrew midrash story which says that Abram’s father was the town idol maker. Supposedly Abram smashed every idol in his father’s shop one day and put a hammer in the hand of one of the idols. When his furious father confronted him, Abram told him it must have been the idol who was holding the hammer who did it.

      As for David, we don’t know for sure how Bethsheba felt about the whole thing. Perhaps it was the an oversight brought on by the whitewashing David’s croniclers were prone to. Or perhaps her story simply didn’t matter to anyone but her. But refusing King David, who as you say could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two, wasn’t really an option. Demanding that a woman come and sleep with the king at his orders goes waaaaaay beyond harrassment. Can you imagine the nightmare of having a powerful man demand that you sleep with him, impregnate you and then murder your husband? And then your child dies after birth. Far too few Christians have an appropriate amount of empathy for Bethsheba. i’d recommend clicking the link about David and Bethsheba.

      1. Uriah gets all the sympathy… because either he’s being incredibly naive, or he knows that something is up, but insists on raising the ante, too much the tough guy to back down. “Hmmm, you’d like me to go home & party with my wife? Is that the pious thing to do in your religion, with a war on, and all? I thought you people abstained until you were done thumping your enemies…. I wonder, what would happen if I didn’t go home?” [I guess he found out.]

        Nathan is full of sympathy for Uriah — portrayed as the doting owner of that little wandering lamb — but were her girl friends all telling her: “Hey, I hear the King has been looking at your facebook page! You know, that part where you take a bath on the roof & all?”

        Was this a happy marriage? Uriah would rather go back to the war and whack heads! I ask you…

      2. Further — I think we’ve got one of your culturally-mixed marriages here, between Uriah & Bathsheba. He’s a foreigner and an army lifer, part of a professional army that’s a radical new organization in David’s time.

        The traditional Israelite thing was, pre-monarchy: You worked your farm & you raised your animals, but then if there was a foreign raid nearby, maybe your village would send a contingent of guys with spears & rocks to drive them off.

        There’s even a provision in the law about guys who’ve just gotten married being exempt. You aren’t even supposed to show up if you’re feeling uneasy about the whole thing. (They’re expecting you to stand there with a bunch of farmers; and if one of you runs, chances are that everyone will, whereupon the other side will chase after you, kill the slowest, & keep on raiding.)

        David’s general is, naturally enough, on Uriah’s side. He’s willing to follow orders, but these orders smell. After the battle, he sends back a dispatch: “If the boss wants to know why we lost all those people attacking too close to the wall, just tell him that Uriah’s dead.”

        Bathsheba doesn’t have anyone to take her side even to that extent. One could even understand David as trying to tell Uriah, “Look man, we don’t run our army that way in this country. Take a vacation, keep your wife happy — or some other guy (and believe me, we aren’t all this nice) is likely to take her away from you.” Whereupon Uriah, out of his cultural depth, ends up saying something close to “Mind your own business!” At that point, David passes the word to get Uriah fragged…

        Wierd, but we really don’t understand these people the way they understood themselves. Could have been that way?

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