November 21, 2012

Characters That Mean It

My son Aidan was not yet 2 when his mother decided to perch him on a tree fork six feet above the ground for the very first time in his life. He was ecstatic. Smiling, he grabbed firmly to one of the branches and for a moment enjoyed seeing the world around from that privileged spot. A few seconds later, however, he looked down at us, and very matter-of-factly shouted: “Zacchaeus, come down!”

His mother had read to him the story of Zacchaeus’ life-changing encounter with Jesus a few times. So far, however, we had never been able to confirm whether he had really understood it. Or what he had actually stored in his toddler mind. No doubt, that moment on the tree fork was illuminating.

As I processed this special moment, it suddenly hit me: I realized that Aidan, not yet 2, had really understood what listening or reading Bible stories is all about. For him, Zacchaeus’ story was not just an old comforting account with the soothing effect of a happy ending, but otherwise detached from his daily experience. On the contrary, Zacchaeus’ rendezvous had become part of his everyday life. In fact, as he perched on the tree fork, he felt he was Zacchaeus balanced on the sycamore tree at the precise moment Jesus called him and changed his life forever. Or perhaps he felt he was Jesus, summoning the rich tax collector to come down and be transformed. How could we possibly as parents know what happens inside the brain of a 20-month-old? One thing, however, is clear: That specific Bible story had been ingrained in his mind in such a way that our backyard Japanese lilac was not any tree, but a first-century sycamore in Palestine, just the one that Zacchaeus, the cheater, chose to climb upon—and be changed.

2012 1533 page24From Judges to Fellow Servants
My son, however, is not the only one who loves reflecting on Bible characters from a few feet off the ground. We all do, but for different reasons. When dissecting the stories of the Bible, we often enjoy perching ourselves on an immaculate pedestal from which we put in motion what I call “the judgmental approach”: We ascertain motives, jump to conclusions, and pass swift judgments. We love doing it! The weaknesses of Judas, Peter, and Samson are among our favorites; but there are also Drunkard Noah, Deceitful Jacob, Adulterous (and Murderous) David, Coward Jonah, and many others. The list is long and juicy.

This approach is not illogical. Its breeding ground is found in the fact that, as Ellen White concedes, “inspiration has dealt sparingly in praise of the noble deeds and holy lives of the faithful. . . . On the other hand, the errors, sins, and vile apostasies of some, who had been the consecrated and favored servants of God, are dwelt upon in Sacred History at length.”1  So, as we compare ourselves with those flawed “heroes,” we feel good. We are not that bad after all. We surely could have done better than that!

But “[the Bible] is not an epic about the life of heroes but the story of every man in all climates and all ages.”2 Its characters are not historical engravings cast in bronze, but the expression of real-life experiences of human beings—people like you and me. It is only when we understand this that we are able to step out of the vicious circle of treacherous self-satisfaction and become a humble work in progress, ever conscious and sympathetic to their plights.

As human beings we have a constant tendency to either enthrone or engulf, bless or bash our role models. In our distorted view, the characters of Bible stories are no exception. We tend to see them as paradigmatic figures, in idealized fashion, or discard them altogether as not worthy of emulation and fallen from God’s grace.3 Going overboard in our appraisal of role models is a knee-jerk reaction—it happened even to John the apostle—at least twice. The first time, while still young, he offered “to command fire to come down from heaven and consume” the Samaritans who did not bother to receive Jesus as He and His disciples were making their last trip together to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-56).4 The second time, many years later, the beloved disciple fell at the feet of the angel of God to worship him. What the angel said to him could well be applied to us: “See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant” (Rev. 19:10).

Oh yes, we can do better than that!

Blurring the Lines
Recent works of literature have sometimes tried to blur the boundaries of traditional stories by watering down the divide between the narrator and the protagonist. Thus, at some point, the narrator allows himself or herself to enter into the story and “meet” his or her characters, or vice versa.5 Sometimes identification becomes so close that both merge into a single character.
While this is often no more than a rhetorical tool in the hands of a skillful writer, there is something for us here: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). Just as little Aidan on our backyard tree, we can purposely identify with the life experiences of Bible heroes, for they were real people “with a nature like ours” (James 5:17). Bible scholar Jan Fokkelman puts it this way: “[Bible] characters are in principle just as ignorant and insecure, arrogant or sad, just as smart or vicious or ironical or excited as we are in our own lives.”6

As we read the stories in the Bible, we are invited to follow the steadfastness of Joseph in Egypt, the determination of Daniel, the surrender of the virgin Mary, and the missionary zeal of Paul. At the same time, we are bidden to identify with the meanest characters, even in cases when the Bible does not soothe us with the comforts of a happy ending.

This is not a hollow generalization; it is a personal enterprise. Their trials are my trials; their challenges, my challenges.
In fact, I am Esau every time I do not hold in high esteem the blessings and privileges I enjoy as a son or daughter of God. I am Balaam every time I choose personal profit over the fulfillment of the mission assigned to me by Divine Providence. I am Eli every time I water down my duty as a parent or leader due to neglect or mere laziness. I am even Ananias and Sapphira—the Spirit tempters—every time my personal stewardship of the Lord’s material blessings leaves a lot to be desired.

The list, of course, could go on and on.

And yet . . . 

Warts and All
Human behavior is hardly linear. The Bible reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). We find great comfort in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30), and in the separation of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-33). Such highly anticipated denouements, however, belong only to God, and are still in the future.

2012 1533 page24In practice, our actions and motives are not always so clear-cut. Every one of us is endowed with the potential for healing or hurting; for doing invaluable good or incalculable harm. Often we find ourselves juggling between God’s ways and the enemy’s. The Lord accepts us anyway, because He “knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). He understands our weaknesses, our inner struggles and inconsistencies (see, for instance, Naaman’s dilemma in 2 Kings 5:15-19, or Amaziah’s double-mindedness in 2?Kings 14:1-4).

Even then, our identification with the characters of Bible stories can assist us by giving us hope in the Lord’s transforming power. He is faithful and has promised to complete the good work He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). He was able to make a strong leader out of an obscure young man (Gideon); a remarkable queen out of an alien orphan (Esther); and an unswerving disciple out of a self-righteous Pharisee (Nicodemus).

Moreover, Bible characters remind us of God’s steadfast mercy and never-failing compassions (Lam. 3:22). If those men and women were forgiven and restored, we can be too. In some cases, their experiences are themselves related to a sort of “story within a story” that, among other things, emphasizes the validity of character identification as a means of reflection.

A Brief Case Study
Remember David?

When Nathan the prophet was sent to rebuke him for his sin, God’s messenger told him a parable of a rich man who stole the only lamb of his poor neighbor. Oblivious to the analogy, “David’s anger was greatly aroused . . . , and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because . . . he had no pity’ ” (2 Sam. 12:5, 6). The judgmental approach indeed! Ready-made facts, instant conclusions, and pontification with the verdict.

But then the prophet added, “You are the man!” (verse 7), and the whole focus changed. David was, in fact, that man! Not the king of God’s people. Not the sweet singer of Israel. Not a man after God’s own heart. In that moment he was that greedy, unrepentant, merciless rich man: a thief; a murderer. As he himself had stated, he deserved to die. The fact that he realized it by identifying himself with the ordeal of the poor man made it easier for him to acknowledge and confess his sin (verse 13). And David’s confession and repentance restored him fully to the position he had had before God.

Heroes in His Love Story
A great storyteller once said: “God made man because He loves stories.”7 Our Lord is still writing the concluding paragraphs of the story of redemption, the greatest story ever told. We too are His heroes, flawed and frail maybe, but nevertheless the object of His supreme care.

It may be time to get off our high horses, our judge’s pedestals, our fake sycamore trees. And we should hurry, for today the Lord wants to stay at our house. It is only in the light of His presence that we contemporary Zacchaeuses—poor, blind, and naked Laodiceans, always searching, never satisfied—can become humble servants and followers of the only Bible character worthy of our worship and praise. 

1 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich. SDA Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 3, p. v.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976), p. 239.
3 Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005), pp. 50, 51, notes that neither prophetic literature nor the Psalms specifically command or encourage us to emulate biblical characters. 
4 All Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved..
5 It is a device used, for instance, in some works by Kurt Vonnegut.
6 J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999), p. 68.
7 Elie Wiesel, in the preface to The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).

Marcos Paseggi is a translator, biblical researcher, and writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This article was published November 22, 2012.