Where Bible stories meet real life
– By Ron Simkins, based on his teaching February 7, 2010
In my teaching on Sunday, I suggested that Scriptural narratives are a good place to start if you’re looking for a way to “begin again” (or for the first time) to read the Bible.
The stories in the Bible are fascinating and entertaining, but they also come with challenges that can get in the way of our desire to take the narratives seriously and apply them to our lives. Among the various challenges is to recognize that the Bible has a view of itself that does not fit today’s labels “liberal” and “conservative.” The “liberal” view that I am talking about is the view that the scriptures just reflect some of the best human ideas about God and life. The “conservative” view that I am talking about is the view that the scriptures were meant to give us a once-and-for-all word from God, and all we need to do is obey them.
Here is one of many narratives that indicate the people we are told about in the Bible (and the people who wrote the Scriptures) did not hold either of these views (liberal/conservative) about how the scriptures originated, nor about how they were to be used. Think about the many implications of the historical process between Moses, the daughters of Zelopheahad, and the Torah (what we now call the books of Moses).
Numbers 26 provides us with one of those long census lists of males who are warriors, inheritors, and heads of clans in Israel. But, in the middle of this highly male chapter is Numbers 26:33 which states: “Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons; he had only daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.…”
At this point, Moses and Israel are following the practice of most of the ancient world, and quite a bit of the modern world, in which males are the only legal heirs and spokespersons for their families.
BUT…the five single sisters, who have no brothers and whose father has died, come to Moses and ask him to amend the current Torah of Israel—the current “law of Moses.” In contrast to the view that the Bible just records the best of human ideas, both Moses in the narrative, and the author who records this event, acknowledge that Moses does not have any better idea. He goes to seek Yahweh for help with a situation that has not yet been addressed in the emerging Torah. Contrary to the view that scripture is just once for all revealed by God and from that point on the only human responsibility is obedience, Moses and the five sisters are presented as both believing that God has been revealing the law of Moses, AND that they need to seek further help in addressing a situation that had not yet been addressed by the law of Moses.
Moses seeks God on behalf of the sisters and Israel, God reveals a next step. Moses tells the sisters they are right. The current practice, though currently God’s law, is limited, and in their case, this limitation would if applied without new help from God lead to injustice rather than justice. The five sisters are sure that “just obeying” the law of Moses as it stands will actually lead to injustice not justice. The current law of Moses would exclude their father and his heirs from their rightful inheritance in the tribe of Manasseh. His “name” would disappear.
Now, why did God not go ahead at this point and tell Moses that the Scriptures would need some further additions and further extended application, instead of waiting until real history and real people brought up the next question that came from taking the revelation seriously?
We are not given an answer to that question, but rather, another part to the narrative. This occurs in Numbers 36:2ff, in which the elders of other tribes come and present Moses with another tension between the scriptures as they stand at this point and reality as it is developing in the history of Israel. Even with God’s revelation in hand, another injustice looms as a major possibility. If the sisters marry outside their tribe, the land promised to the tribe of Manasseh will become compromised, and even the year of Jubilee will not fix things. Moses again has no great personal ideas. Instead, he goes to God for insight and help. Again, God says to Moses that, like the 5 sisters, now the elders are right, and the Torah is extended/amended yet again.
Many issues are raised here, but for your thoughts, I would suggest that we all wrestle with (1) the actual process described in this narrative between what we now call “the Bible,” and the need for continuing reapplication in emerging real life, that often presents us with things the Biblical writers had not yet considered, and (2) the fact that the final editor/author of the “Torah/Law of Moses” could easily have edited out this process and just given us the “Law of Moses” without the process involved in reaching the stage at which it stands at the end of Numbers.
Clearly, a different view of the dynamic between God, scripture, faithfulness, and obedience is at work, more than either of the commonly held modern theories about scripture. What should we, as a part of the people of God in the 21century AD, learn from encountering this narrative, and others like it, prayerfully and honestly?
I do not pretend to know all that would occur if we took the Bible seriously in what it says about itself. I would love to see us (NCF and the church world wide) create an atmosphere in which we could explore the Scriptures and the dynamic tensions they offer us without immediately attempting to stuff them into modern paradigms that really do not take the Bible seriously on its own terms. Ideas?