What Bible You Readin’?

This week I have discovered a pet peeve of mine.  I can’t stand the way angels are depicted in art and other visual representations.  Think about it.  The angel is usually a fair-haired, good-lookin’ white man.  We have nothing to tell us that this is how angels look, and in fact, most of the Bible stories lead us to believe that angels looked very different from what our visual representations would lead us to believe.[1]

For instance, think about the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke:  “Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah.’”[2] Do we really think that Gabriel is basically a man with wings?  No.  Zechariah sees Gabriel and freaks out.  It’s not, “Oh wow, that dude has wings.”  He has a much stronger reaction than this.  Here’s how I imagine this exchange taking place:

*Gabriel appears in the sanctuary.  Some sort of feather or scale rustling alerts Zechariah to his presence.  I don’t know.  The whole point is that we don’t know what strangeness angels look like.*
*Zechariah turns and sees Gabriel in the sanctuary*:  “WHAA?  AaaaaaeeeeeiiiiiiiII!!!!!!!”
Gabriel:  “Zeke, I know, I look scary, but please, don’t be afraid.”
Zechariah:  *Continues screaming*
Gabriel:  “Hey!…I…you know what, just get out of your system.”
Zechariah:  *Continues screaming*
Gabriel:  “Enough of that!  I got a message from YHWH here!”

How often do angels appear to people and the first words out of their mouth, assuming they have a mouth that is, is “Do not be afraid” or some equivalent of that?  Fairly often.  Angels are not as anthropomorphized as our art and visual representations would lead us to believe.   This leads me to my deeper point.  Often, our surface reading of the Bible, or what we expect to happen, leads us to either wrong conclusions about the text or, more often, not gathering the significance of portions of the text.  Our image of the angels as pretty people with wings leads us to miss how freaked out Zechariah gets just from viewing Gabriel.

Things happen in the Bible that should make us say, “WHAT?!  That s*** just happened!”  But because it’s an ancient text there are both translation and holiness issues.  Translation issues in that even when we get the literal words, often there cultural impact isn’t immediately recognizable to us.[3]  The holiness issue in that often we put the Bible on the pedestal in such a way that the impact is taken away from us.  When we read it publicly in a monotone without any inflection or emotion, then that also leads us to miss the impact.  Often, we also frame the Biblical narrative in such a way that the messiness of the text, the fertile ground from prime theology, is taken away.

On the last point, Noah and the Ark is a prime example of this.  How are we told the Flood story when we are children, i.e. the story as we know it since we usually only discuss it as a children’s story?  Noah is a good man in a world of bad.  God tells Noah to build a really big boat because God is going to flood the world and start anew.  God then leads two of every animal to the boat, big ass boat apparently, and then Noah and all Noah’s children and their families board.  The flood comes, and they sail for forty days and nights.  Noah, Noah’s family, and all the animals land and disembark, and then God makes a rainbow promising to never do that again.  The story ends.  A nice little children’s story, right?

Wrong.  This story is incredibly twisted and fraught with problems.  Often, we float over[4] what happens during the flood.  The Bible does not, for we are graphically told, “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days.”[5]

This is incredibly poetic, for just as God pours the breathe of life into the first human in Genesis chapter two, God sends the water to take it away.  It’s a reversal of the creation that God now regrets.  But let’s not get lost in the poetry.  In this story, except for Noah, his family, and the animals on the boat, God drowns every other creature on the planet.  They die excruciatingly, and what’s more, the people on the boat have to listen to them die.  Can you imagine being in a boat and listening to your fellow humans claw at the sides trying to get in to finally succumb to exhaustion and die?  Not pretty, not easy, and certainly not a children’s story.  Also, what’s the first thing that Noah does after settling his ritual obligations to God?:  “Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.”[6]  Noah is so troubled, disturbed, and emotionally scarred by what he has gone through, seen, and heard that the first chance he gets, he grows some grapes, so he can make wine and get drunk.

This is not an easy story, and it is certainly not a children’s tale.  The story also poses all kinds of challenges to our conceptions of God, our faith, and our place in the world.  But when we conveniently forget portions of a narrative or when we read it in such a way that the emotional impact is softened or taken away altogether, we cannot wrestle with those challenges and implications.  We cannot bench press those challenges with our spiritual muscles, and our faith cannot grow stronger and thrive if we conveniently forget about the weights in the corner.  What does it say that God gets pissed off with humanity and wants to click the restart button by committing mass genocide?  What does it say that one of the heroes of the Bible tackles his mental and emotional issues by getting drunk?  When we don’t confront these issues, then we are not being good stewards of our faith.  When we skip the tough stuff, we are not loving God with all of our minds.  The Bible has a great deal more to offer to us than we typically grant it, but only if we read it in such a way and present our faces to its challenges rather than shying away from them.

[1] Isaiah 6:2

[2] Luke 1:8-13

[3] Read Luke chapter three, verse seven.  Did you just go, “What did JBap just say!?”  Then you probably didn’t read it right.  Seriously, keep in mind that brood means children of and exchange snake for female dog and read the sentence again.  Yes, that’s in the Bible.

[4] Get it?  Float over the flood?  Oh forget it.

[5] Genesis 7:21-24

[6] Genesis 9:20-21