The Old Testament is difficult to read, and it's even more difficult to preach. It contains many stories that are neither uplifting nor inspiring. The story of Noah features most of the world drowning to death. To make matters worse, after Noah leaves the ark, he gets so drunk that he passes out while naked (Gen. 9:21). Abraham fools around with polygamy (Gen. 16). On two other occasions, Abraham lies about his wife, giving her away to other men (12:10-20; 20:1-18). His son Isaac does essentially the same thing (26:7-11). Meanwhile, Abraham's grandnieces get their dad drunk and sleep with him (19:30-38).
Abraham's grandson Jacob exploits his famished brother Esau (25:29-34). Later, Jacob deceives his nearly dead father and again cheats Esau, who then plots to kill him (27:1-45). Jacob in turn receives his own share of harsh treatment from his uncle Laban, whom Jacob combats by running off with Laban's daughters, who steal their dad's idols (chaps. 28-31). Then Jacob's sons nearly kill their brother Joseph, choosing instead to sell him into slavery (chap. 37). As a slave, he's falsely accused of trying to sleep with his master's wife, so he's sent to prison (chap. 39). Talk about dysfunction! Abraham and his descendants are a complete mess.
We struggle to do what is right, though we deeply desire it. We need stories that are just as complex and fraught with difficulty as life itself.
Beyond Genesis, readers find Israelites—fresh out of slavery—doubting and abandoning the God who rescued them. The book of Numbers describes incessant whining that brings punishment after punishment. At one point, the Bible talks about the Israelites vomiting quail out of their noses (Num. 11:20). The book of Judges abounds with stories of deception and violence. It recounts how a man killed his own daughter to fulfill a rash vow (11:29-40). Judges 19-21 tells a terrible story of rape, corpse mutilation, and killing; if it were a stand-alone short story and not in the Bible itself, Jews would likely denounce it as anti-Semitic, and Christians would probably try to censor it.
In the books that follow, Israel moves from judges to kings, but stories about these rulers are hardly edifying. King David embodies the corruption of power. Abusing his office, he sleeps with his friend's wife while his troops are at war. After his initial cover-up operations fail, he orders the death of his friend (2 Sam. 11-12). From there, the monarchy spirals out of control.
What do we make of these disturbing stories? Why are they part of the Holy Bible—when they seem so unholy? Why has the church kept these shocking and confusing stories in the Bible? Why do children's Bibles need to censor so much of what the Bible says? What redemptive value do these sordid stories have? How could we ever preach them?
When normal models of preaching break down
The Old Testament leaves many preachers scratching their heads. We know the people in our congregations face great pain: the couple on the verge of divorce, the parent just diagnosed with cancer, the faithful layperson who just got laid off. Why would we ever add to their struggles by giving them texts filled with struggle? We often think of preaching as sharing good news, showing people how great Christianity is, and inspiring our flock to faithful living. So what do we do with texts that lack good news, that don't portray the life of faith as wonderful, and that make us feel miserable rather than uplifted?
To begin, we need to rethink preaching. Our normal models aren't bad. We just need other models to tackle the Bible's most difficult texts. One way forward is to see preaching as a holy moment when we incorporate ourselves into the biblical story. In this model, preaching has less to do with giving people a few principles for a better life and more with giving them an identity as the people of God. We turn to the Bible because it honestly depicts the human condition in all its pain and problems—so that we have something to go on when we face pain and problems. Preaching means joining the people of the Bible on their rocky journeys of faith.
We often assume that as preachers, we should read the Bible focusing on the good. As a result, we look for likeable saints, positive principles, and happy outcomes. However, the Bible presupposes that the good all too often is inextricably intertwined with the bad. We all bear the image of God, but we're all sinners. A good God created a good world, but that creation "waits in eager expectation" for a brighter day (Rom. 8:19). We've been expelled from Eden, and we don't know how to return. As Jesus puts it, the world is a field filled with both life-giving wheat and life-sucking weeds. Good and evil won't be sorted out until the harvest at the end of time (Matt. 13:24-30).
Therefore, when interpreting the Bible for our congregations, we dare not confine ourselves to a narrow question like: What's ideal in this text, and how can my church uphold it in its life? We do much better to ask: How is this text realistic, and in what ways does it reflect the struggles of upright living? In other words, we miss the big picture by only searching for what's positive. If we were already leading wonderfully good lives and just needed help continuing on that perfect trajectory, then we would need nothing but saintly examples, inspiring words, and positive guidelines. As things stand, however, none of us is perfect. Our lives are frequently more complicated than we realize. We struggle to do what is right, though we deeply desire it. For these reasons, we need stories that are just as complex and fraught with difficulty as life itself.
Looking to Joseph
In Genesis 37-50, readers encounter Joseph. To review, he's an annoying child who thinks he's better than all of his older brothers—even better than his parents. His brothers in turn sell him off into slavery (Gen. 37). Joseph goes from slave (Gen. 39) to prisoner (Gen. 40) to overseeing Egypt's food distribution (Gen. 41). In time, Joseph's brothers go to Egypt for food (Gen. 42). Joseph recognizes them, but they fail to realize who he is. Joseph eventually reveals his true identity, and the family soon dwells together in Egypt, at peace with one another (Gen. 45; 50). For many preachers, it's tempting to turn Joseph into a saint. So, a sermon would look to Joseph as the one to imitate, a Christ-like figure. Unfortunately, when you read the Bible carefully, it's clear that Joseph is far from saintly. The Bible says specifically that Joseph brings back "a bad report about" his brothers (37:2 NIV). It says that he "spoke harshly to them" (42:7 NIV). He accuses them falsely several times, despite their pleas to the contrary (42:9, 12, 14, 16, 30). Joseph imprisons his brothers for crimes they did not commit (42:17) and makes them appear as thieves (44:1-15).
Although Joseph occasionally extends a nice gesture (like giving them food), for much of the story he appears out for vengeance. Joseph once suffered at his brothers' hands. Now they suffer at his hands. He seems interested only in reuniting with his closest brother, Benjamin, not his thuggish half-brothers. Yet, with the passing of time, Joseph has a change of heart. The brothers eventually prove that they're no longer the type of people who sell off family members to save their own necks (Gen. 44). Joseph is deeply moved. He sees that they have changed. He offers forgiveness, and the brothers make peace. Joseph finally does the right thing, but his harsh circumstances have not left him guilt-free.
As preachers, our job isn't to bleach the Bible's portrait of Joseph, attempting to clean off smudges on his moral character. The Old Testament provides no biographies of saints. When Paul says, "All have sinned and fall short of God's glory" (Rom. 3:23 NIV), he has done his biblical homework. If we can't tell our congregations to imitate Joseph, can we at least arrive at a word of guidance for them to live out in their lives? Joseph, after all, forgave enemies who nearly killed him and sold him into slavery. Perhaps it'd be great to preach with the simple message, "Forgive your enemies."
On the one hand, such a message has certain merits. It's biblical. The Joseph story illustrates that reconciliation can occur, even after horrendous ruptures in relationships. Yet it's not as if we can disregard the story once we have arrived at an important principle. The Joseph story is much more than a way of encouraging us to forgive others. It shows, for example, just how difficult real forgiveness can be. It teaches us that the worst conflicts can arise not among enemies, but among family members. It illustrates the temptation of harming those who harmed us. It shows how lasting reconciliation does not happen overnight. It's a devastating critique of those who cheapen forgiveness, making it into something we can achieve in an instant. It shows that some wounds strike so deep that much time must pass before real forgiveness can be offered.
Our job as preachers isn't to boil a bunch of chapters down into a single principle. The Joseph story is much too rich and deep for that. We trivialize both the Bible and God by focusing on abstractions. If we instead enter into the story with Joseph, identifying with him and others, we can emerge with deeper wisdom about the complexities of forgiveness.
Gaining experience from stories
Most people know that you can only learn so much from rules, principles, and theories. At the end of the day, to do something well, you also need experience. When we read the Bible's stories, we gain a special type of experience. While story-experience isn't the same as real-life experience, it's still immensely valuable.
When we preach about the Bible's characters sympathetically, our congregations can experience what people in the Bible go through. We sit beside Hannah as she makes her desperate prayers. We see Elijah depressed from the loneliness that all too often accompanies faithful living. We join Jonah in wondering why God's grace gets extended to our worst enemies. As we join biblical characters on their journeys of faith, we gain some of the experience we need for faithful living. In this sense, the Bible's stories are like apprenticeships. They give us equipment for surviving and even thriving in a fallen world.
Or to use another metaphor, the Bible's stories work like laboratories for ethics: they provide controlled environments where readers can test out actions without fearing too greatly the consequences. When faced with moral uncertainty in real life, people can make bad choices that lead to enduring, catastrophic consequences. On the other hand, when faced with moral uncertainty in stories, people can experience different things without suffering consequences in the same way.
The Bible's stories can focus our attention in ways that are not always possible in real life. Amid the flux of everyday life, we frequently lack the time, wherewithal, and energy to consider the theological significance of everything we encounter. Stories and preaching, on the other hand, give us time to ponder.
Stories change what we cherish
Stories pattern desires. They summon attitudes. They instill values. They evoke views of the world. They show readers what truly matters, what is worth considering and reflecting upon, what people are truly like, and what hazards and opportunities the environment has in store. The Bible's stories give us an identity as the people of God.
Consider, for example, the book of Numbers. It's a terrible book to read. Chapters 10-25 are a mess. The stories are disjointed. People complain. Tempers run short. God sends horrendous punishments. The people still don't learn. In many respects, the book of Numbers is like a long car trip that won't end. The children whine. The parents don't make things any better. The air conditioner is broken. They're in the desert. And they never seem any closer to their destination—"When will we get there?" "In forty years."
As we read and preach on Numbers, we shouldn't expect to feel uplifted. We shouldn't look for inspiration. Instead, we should expect to feel like the Israelites did out in that desert wasteland. Ironically, you're reading Numbers well if you're sick of the characters and want to stop reading. You're reading well because in that moment you begin to understand in new ways what things were like for the Israelites and for God.
Through the trials of reading Numbers, we can emerge as better people. Preachers might rattle off a cliché like "Count your blessings." Or we might admit, when we stop and think about it, that complaining isn't a great way to go through life. However, many of us need something more to put our grumbling aside. When we read Numbers, something interesting happens. We are exposed to constant complaining. We are forced to suffer alongside Moses and the people. We grow sick and tired of their bitterness. And hopefully, complaints in our own mouths begin to taste like ash.
Our need for disturbing stories
We, as the church, need to hear the Old Testament's disturbing stories because we, like the characters in those stories, are sinners. Maybe if we were already saints, we would be inspired by stories of those who always knew what to do and easily conquered every evil. But as it is, we need a survival guide for making it in a fallen world. We need ways to deal with the sinful nature that resides within us. We need real stories of real people struggling in the real world. Alongside them, we gain experiences and a sense of wisdom for handling struggles within our own lives. We learn more about our world's limitations, our imperfections, and God's grace.
Matthew Schlimm is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is also the author of This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities.