When we infuse ourselves into a story where we do not belong we disrupt the narrative, interrupt the characters, and disparage the intent of the author of that story. Its structure changes to fit us into a tale, a poem, or a lesson we have no business being connected with, save our proximity to the story as a reader. But we make this mistake every time we open our Bibles and throw ourselves at the feet of the story, hoping that God sees us in the same light he saw Hagar, Joseph, Daniel, and that brave Bad-Negro. Correction. Abednego.
But listen, we’re all guilty of seeing ourselves as the heroes of our stories; and we like to see ourselves as the heroes of the Bible, as well. Their sufferings, however much greater than our own, remind us of the time we dealt with a flat tire, hoping God would swoop in and help us soar like eagles over traffic on our way to work.
We’re quick to place ourselves in Daniel’s shoes, as the prophet endured displacement, exile, and ethnocide at the hands of the Chaldeans because a fellow citizen bumped into us at Starbucks, making us spill our latte and with it, an avocado toast. This disruption; the ruined latte and avocado toast, turn a banal task into a spiritual maelstrom.
Why are we so pressed to identify with Biblical characters, wishing their successes were ours. We hope we’re privileged enough to open the Red Sea; we dream of waking up one day to rule Egypt; we buffet our bodies in preparation for a wrestling match with God in the desert; we dive into any murky river we can find in hopes of ridding ourselves of a dermatological ailment.
Forever seeking to relive the stories we read about like hopeless romantics forever lost in the past but we grimace at the thought of being associated with anything in scripture that does not portray us as devout, pious, and disciplined in ways of the Lord.
But our ignorance, once mixed with hopeless romanticism, drives us further down a path of biblical illiteracy. And this is only amplified by preachers and teachers who, instead of informing their congregation of the wealth of narratives within scripture, fuel their individualistic hysteria with stories that make them the center of the world; all this is made possible with the absence of historical and literary context.
Pastor Rohan Samuels of Freedom Life Church covered ten possible narratives that can be found within the Bible in his sermon titled, Don’t Miss The Vision Because of the Miracle. In these ten, one can see them intertwine, mix and match, or simply allow the reader to enjoy a story as told by first-hand account. If one is unaware of this, they may see one literary approach as another, thus confusing themselves in the process. The damage here is that a reader may approach, say, the book of Leviticus in hopes of acquiring life-altering principles for their marriage only to walk away dismayed and distraught by the content therein.
We need to better understand the books we are studying, what the author intends to portray, to who(m), when, and why. Without this, we’re primed to become victims of men and women who use the bible as a means to subjugate people into cultish environments and stupefied states of being.
I.e., Christian fundamentalism.
Let’s do better.
Again, here are Pastor Rohan’s ten, what he calls, genres, found within scripture:
Now, let me try to give you an example of each.
The Believers Share Their Possessions – Acts 4:32-37
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
The Ten Commandments (Abridged) – Exodus 20:1-17
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
“You shall not murder.”
You shall not commit adultery.”
“You shall not steal.”
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”
The Fall of Jerusalem and Exile of the Jews – 2 Chronicles 36:15-21
15 The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he pitied his people and his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17 He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. 18 He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19 They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
Christ’s Genealogy – Matthew 1:1-17
From Abraham to Christ.
1 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
From Abraham to David.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
From David to the Babylonian Exile.
7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, 8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, 9 Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
From the Exile to the Messiah.
12 After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, 15 Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.
The Mountains and Fragrance of Lebanon – Songs of Solomon 4:8-11
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride, come with me from Lebanon. Descend from the crest of Amana, from the top of Senir, the summit of Hermon, from the lions’ dens and the mountain haunts of the leopards.
9 You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!
11 Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon.
Advice to a Prince. – Proverbs 31:2-9
2 “O my son, O son of my womb, O son of my vows,
3 do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings.
4 “It is not for kings, O Lemuel– not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer,
5 lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.
6 Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish;
7 let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.
8 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Seventy Years In Babylon – Jeremiah 25:7-11
7 “But you did not listen to me,” declares the LORD, “and you have provoked me with what your hands have made, and you have brought harm to yourselves.” 8 Therefore the LORD Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, 9 I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. 10 I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. 11 This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.
Christ defeats the beast. – Revelation 19:11-16
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:30-37
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Greetings from Paul.
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippian Christians.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
The Bible employs various literary devices to get its point across, in telling or retelling a story, in portraying kingdoms and kings as beasts to explain a mode of military operations, and in using poetry to get a life lesson across. Literary devices are numerous, but here is a list of some we use or witness in film, theatre, and literature more often than we know.
Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy
I won’t detail each device but I want you to know that you are susceptible to using one if not a combination of these in your everyday conversations without evening knowing it. That’s how language works. And that’s how we have developed or at least better understood different literary styles and modes in the past, and present, and will understand them in the future.
Without a healthy or at least a neophyte’s understanding of these literary devices and how the Bible employs them to explain, teach, inform, relate, or narrate biblical truths, we risk misunderstanding and also misapplying scripture to our detriment.
Just one short, albeit constantly misused example, is a passage from Jeremiah 29:11.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Reading this text, as is, helps us see the benevolence of God in scripture but we also risk adding ourselves as the recipients of those words. Of course, who wouldn’t want God’s plan for their life to come to fruition? Who wouldn’t want prosperity, wealth, stability, and economic freedom? Who wouldn’t want to live free of harm, violence, theft, and homicide? Who wouldn’t want these existentially reinvigorating blessings of hope in their life? Life, without hope, is no life at all. And who wouldn’t want the peace derived from knowing there is a future ahead of them? No one wants to live with a death sentence looming above or a terminal disease followed by several days or weeks left to live. We want to know that there is longevity and progeny ahead of us and that we haven’t exhausted our days so soon.
It is not wrong to want better. It is not even wrong to want the best from God. It is simply a God-given desire to seek that which we believe is best for us.
But that is not what this verse in Jeremiah is about at all. It isn’t about 21st-century North Americans who spent too much on a car or a house and now struggle with their mortgage, uncertain of whether they’ll be able to keep their house or not. If the bank will take the house from them or not.
This verse, within context, better explain God’s relationship with the nation of Israel, and more to the point, his relationship with the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem.
Let’s add context to this verse by citing a verse before it and a few after it.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” Jeremiah 29-10-14
Now, with a better view of this passage, the dynamic of it changes. The narrative changes. The recipient(s) of those words, those promises, changes, rightly moving the story away from us and onto the subject within the text, within context.
The southern nation of Judah, its capital Jerusalem, had squandered its God-given edicts, laws, and worship rituals by seeking gods, idols, and mystics from the surrounding nations. If you know anything about the Jewish faith and the Ten Commandments, to seek any god or deity other than Yahweh is a major breach of Israel’s spiritual contract with God. When God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, they signed a pact with Him in the desert, promising, with their lives and their posterity, that they would serve Him and Him only until the end of time. And in that contract, they understood that if they deviated from this relationship to serve other gods they would be liable to the consequence of exile from the land God had promised them and also bound to slavery, once again, to a pagan totalitarian regime.
“7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.” Exodus 19:7-8
And sure enough, they did just that. One of Judah’s kings, Manasseh, in pursuit of mediums, mystics, necromancers, and idols, offered his children to the fire as sacrifices to local gods as a means to appease them and gain spiritual and physical blessings. This was the last straw for God. And not too long after Manasseh’s heinous crimes, another group of Jewish monarchs invited Babylonian princes into the city of David and showed them all of the city’s gold and gems, which resided in the Solomon Temple, for clout, of course.
“To whom much is given…” You know the rest.
So God made the Jews a promise. He said, in so few words:
“Because you breached our relationship and betrayed my trust, numerous times, even after the multiple times I forgave you and took you back, I will send an agent of destruction to destroy the temple and city you have spurned. I am sending Nebuchadnezzar and his Chaldean army (Babylonians) to Jerusalem and they will raze that city to the ground and everyone left alive to witness its destruction will go into exile in Babylon for seventy years.”
And after this promise, this prophesy, uttered through prophet Jeremiah to the Jews of his day, God then promises them that he will not abandon them in Babylon forever. Just long enough for this problematic generation to die off and for the land of Israel and Judah to rest, after being abused by agricultural over-use.
Not: On Sabbath, the people and the land would rest. One day out of the week. And every seventh year, no one was allowed to plant anything, so that the land could rest, per se, and be reinvigorated. But the Jews had forsaken the purpose of the Sabbath, their weekly day of rest and worship. And their greed had ushered them to dismiss the seventh year of rest cycle, thus ruining the land they pulled crops from.
This enraged God.
So for every seventh year of rest they ignored, God made them stay a year in Babylon.
Crazy. I know. But the land finally got its rest. And the people who had sifted the land of its resources had all died out.
So Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t about us. It isn’t about our comfort, our wellbeing, our financial success, or whatever you want to attribute that verse to in your life today. That verse pertains to God’s promise of redemption for the Jews once they had endured seventy years in exile.
Here is a passage that God relayed to king Solomon long before Jeremiah ever graced the plains of Jerusalem. God spoke with Solomon about the risk and consequence of falling away from His edicts and how the people and the land could bounce back from their backslidden ways.
13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:13-14
Hundreds of years before the destruction of the city and its inhabitants, God produced a path of redemption for these people and that is exactly what happened when Daniel began to pray while in captivity in Babylon. The man had lived through the various exiles of the Jews into a foreign land and reached Babylon as a youth. Having spent his life in the service of Babylonian and Persian monarchs one day he set his heart to pray for his people and was reminded of the promise God made through Jeremiah.
“In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
4 I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:
“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.” – Daniel 9:1-6
The confirmation of God’s promise took place when Ezra was granted a leave of absence by Cyrus the King of Persia (Medo-Persian Empire) to return to Jerusalem in hopes of rebuilding the Temple of Solomon. Not long after that, Nehemiah, a cupbearer to King Xerxes, was given a leave of absence to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city’s walls.
Note: When the Babylonians laid siegeworks against a city, invaded it, or killed or enslaved its inhabitants, they would destroy that city’s walls in the process. One Babylonian commander by the name of Nebuzaradan burned the Solomon Temple down (some believe he used the tree trunks and barks that surrounded the city to burn down the temple, melting the temple’s gold into its foundation). And the same commander destroyed the city’s walls.
In conclusion, Jeremiah 29:11 is about a Jewish audience who, short on time, are about to face their worst loss since kings David and Solomon passed away. And this loss will be a stain on their history for decades as they languish and then die in captivity in Babylon. God is telling them through Jeremiah that the next generation or two, the remnant of these people who survive the exile, will be rescued and they will prosper. God had a plan for them. God had a plan for their future. He wanted to give them hope.
Outside of this context, which, decontextualizes this passage, we destroy its meaning by infusing ourselves into a narrative, a historical narrative, a prophetic narrative, we do not belong in.
But 21st century Christians do this all… the… time. All the time.
Attributing passages from apocalyptic (Book of Revelation) writings to their current predicaments. They find descriptive passages from a Pauline epistle and transform them into prescriptive writings for 21st century Christians in Edmonton, Alberta. They pull promises God made to Abraham, the patriarch, and add these to their lives as if the promises will hold.
But oddly enough, the same people who infuse themselves into scripture as heroes and recipients of God’s benevolent promises to them rarely infuse themselves into the story or stories they read as the villains or malefactors therein.
They never read themselves into the Pharisees who crucified Christ. They never read themselves into Judas Iscariot who betrayed our Lord. They never read themselves into Pharaoh, who hardened his heart time and again against God’s request that he deliver the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. They never read themselves into the sexually depraved rapists from Sodom and Gomorrah. They never read themselves into Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit and were struck down where they stood.
And this is a sign that all they care about is making themselves the centerpiece of God’s story. It’s a rather recent phenomenon within Christendom, considering the hyper-awareness and favoring of an individualistic faith in our time, whereas the Christian faith, for almost two thousand years, has been about equal parts personal salvation and communal liberation.
But I rest my case here.
All I want to do with this post is remind the reader, the Christian reader, the secular, the Muslim, and the spiritually curious, that when you read the Bible you must invest yourself into the context of the passage you are about to read to get a better grasp of who the author is, their audience, and what is happening in the peripherals for this narrative to be taking place? What are the geopolitical ramifications going on within the text? What are the religious qualifications attached to this verse or passage? Is this passage relegated to the Jews and the Jewish state alone? Is this a Levitical law only pertinent to Jewish priests? Is this a cultural law? Is this a moral law?
Outside of this, we become victims of ignorance and selfishness, pride working its way through our hearts, making God our servant and slave. And whenever these promises fail to come to fruition in our lives, we blame God for failing to uphold His side of the bargain (which was never between us and God).
What we ought to take from these passages when we read them in context, as we should, always, is what we learn about God’s character toward human beings. In understanding His heart for justice, we also see His undying pursuit of redeeming humanity. He brought the Jews out of Babylon and back into the land of Israel so that Jesus could be born into it. And the story about Jesus goes from there. Redemption then becomes available to the world, not just Israel.
So when we read these passages, our overall take should be a more wholesome understanding of God’s personality, character, and goal, not just for the people He is speaking to within context, but, also for how He navigates events and people through history to bring about His ultimate plan for redemption, deliverance, and forgiveness of sins for all.
Please, for the love of your spiritual formation, stop reading yourself into the Bible.