The Prodigal’s son. The Good Samaritan. These are some of the best-known Biblical stories. People of all faiths know about them — you don’t need to be a christian to respect the message these stories teach. Indeed, these stories have become some of the central stories of our culture.
These stories, of course, were not literally true. They were stories attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. According to the Gospels, Jesus routinely told allegorical stories, also known as parables, to help him teach complex concepts to his audience. Obviously, Jesus, the greatest spiritual teacher of all, believed in using allegories to describe spiritual truth. I guess I don’t understand why some people have so much trouble accepting the fact that much of the Bible is in fact allegorical, and that many of the stories from the Bible we are so familiar with are actually stories, at best loosely based in fact, aimed at teaching us spiritual truth.
Just as there was no Prodigal’s son and no good Samaritan, there were no Adam and Eve, no talking serpent, no apple, and no Ark that saved all creatures except for the unicorn. It’s pretty clear that it took more than six days to create the world. Even where stories might be based upon historical fact, oftentimes they have evolved and been exaggerated. For example, it is clear that the Israelites probably conquered Canaan about 1400 BC. The Biblical description of the opening battle of that campaign, the battle of Jericho, tells a tale of espionage, intrigue, secret maneuvers resulting in a massacre of every man woman and child in the city. Archaeological research, however, has revealed that Jericho was probably actually abandoned at the time the Israelites showed up. In other words, it appears that the Biblical account was exaggerated to make for a good story.
The Old Testament is filled with stories about huge battles between massive armies with casualties numbering into the thousands. Given the small population of the world at the time, and the technology of the day, it is unlikely that these battles which were essentially skirmishes between competing tribes had casualties comparable with battles in World War I. Many of these battles might actually have happened, and the victory was quite possibly miraculous, but such large numbers are obviously exaggerations intended to make the story more impressive.
The allegorical nature of most of these stories does not diminish their power or the importance of their message. The reason stories like Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood and David and Goliath are central narratives in our culture is not because they are historical retellings of actual events, but because they teach us lessons about love, faith and the blessings of the almighty that form the basis of our spiritual quest. If we can get past arguing over semantics and details, we can get to the fundamental truths about our spiritual nature that these stories aim to teach us.
At the risk of overstepping my credibility then, I wanted to put on paper a few of my thoughts about some of the Bible’s most popular stories. The beauty about these stories, however, is that they are open to interpretation. As a result, I have no monopoly on thoughts about these stories. Let’s discuss our ideas, but let’s get past debates where we shut down discussion because of what the literal words of the scripture say.
a. The Flood
There’s a story you may have heard. It involves a guy a long time ago who got word from God that there was going to be a flood. At divine direction, he built a big boat to rescue all living beings. Once the ship was done, and he loaded all living creatures on board, it started to rain. It rained and rained until the world was covered with water. After awhile, the rain stopped, and the water started to dry up. The boat settled on top of a mountain, and after it seemed that the water receded, he sent out birds to verify that the land had dried. After a couple birds returned, one never came back, indicating that it had found dry land. As a result, he released all the animals he had gathered on his boat. Of course, his name was…Utnapishtim.
I take it you were expecting somebody else. But this story we are all so familiar with was not originally a Biblical story. In fact, it comes from one of the first written works of literature ever, the Epic of Gilgamesh, written down over 2000 years before Christ, and over a thousand years before the Old Testament. It was a Sumerian story that started as an oral tradition as much as 2500 years before Christ. It’s not terribly surprising that the Sumerians would have written this story down, they’re the ones who invented writing, probably to help them track their commercial transactions. At some point, somebody decided to use this newfangled thing called writing for something other than tracking the purchase and sale of goods, and he decided to write down some stories people had been telling for years. Thus literature was born in the form of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
This story is not the only Biblical tale that finds its origins in the early oral traditions of the time. The creation story is actually the consolidation of two creation stories that were circulating about then. There is the story of creating light from darkness we are all so familiar with. But a close reading reveals a second creation story intertwined with the first. It is a story about the sea being separated from the land. These are actually two separate creation stories that were consolidated in the Biblical account.
Early Biblical figures and authors would have been familiar with these stories for the simple fact that they were Sumerians. Abraham, the father of the world’s great monotheistic religions, left Sumeria with his family to seek a better life to the west. As a result, the stories that Abraham and his family grew up with probably formed the oral tradition that was passed down from generation to generation among his descendants, the Isrealites. When early authors finally put the first books of the Old Testament to writing in the 6th Century BC, these stories probably impacted the narrative. Since the audience for the Bible at the time — the Israelites in exile in Babylon — were probably familiar with these stories from their forefathers, the authors probably tried to incorporate these popular stories into their own narrative. So, for example, since people were familiar with the flood story, it was incorporated into the Bible, but changed to show that it was the God of the Israelites who warned Noah, not the Sumerian god warning Utnapishtim. Similarly, the creation story that the people of the time were familiar with was included in the Bible, but with the God of the Israelites making the miracles happen.
Just as the fact that there was no good Samaritan and that there was no Prodigal’s son does not diminish the importance of those stories, the historical origins of the story of Noah do not diminish its power. It is still a beautiful story of faith and God’s mercy. The message that this story and others in the Old Testament convey is one regarding our connection to God, and our ability to rely upon his love. These messages are important in any age, no matter where they originally came from.
Surveys say that about a quarter of Americans don’t believe in the theory of evolution. More than anything, this statistic points to a poverty in American education. Evolution is a changing study about how we came to be the way we are. Mountains of evidence support this theory, and it is by far the dominant scientific theory in biology.
I recently read a book by noted primatologist Frans De Waal called Our Inner Ape. The book is fascinating, and a good read to boot. In it, De Waal looks at the two ape species that are most closely related to us, chimpanzees and bonobos. What is shocking in his descriptions of the behaviors of the species is how much they are like us. They have similar social structures, similar methods of communication, and establish similar relationships to what we see in humans. One cannot come away from that book without realizing how closely related we are to these other apes. We are truly nothing more than hairless apes.
This analysis is borne out by the study of genetics. My kids are tired of hearing me point out that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than are horses to zebras, mice to rats or porpoises to dolphins. This illustration just points out how closely related we are to our cousins in the jungle of Africa.
But understanding that evolution is an important area of scientific inquiry does not diminish the importance of the Biblical creation narrative. We have to remember that the authors of the Bible were making no claim at scientific accuracy. For example, the Bible claims that the universe was created in six days. But how would it be possible to measure days when the Earth was not in existence? One day is by definition the amount of time it takes the Earth to rotate on its axis. So if there was no Earth, there was no timeframe called a “day.” Another example is that when Adam and Eve, supposedly the first humans, were cast out of the Garden of Eden, they meet up with other humans (i.e. Cain’s wife). So the Biblical authors weren’t even trying to be literally accurate. They were instead telling a parable about how important God is to our world.
The fact that after years of study we have started to gain some understanding of the mechanics of how the world came to be and how we evolved into what we are does not diminish the importance of the almighty. Science and faith are not in conflict. The fact that we can explain where we came from scientifically does not make it any less miraculous. That is the message of the creation story in the Bible. When it was written, they just didn’t have the scientific understanding we now have, so they had to rely upon the creation myths of the time. But their point is not that one story or another is accurate. Their point is that it is miraculous that we came into being at all. Scientists have a sense of awe when they study the natural processes that brought us into being. They of all people understand how minute the odds are that we would have come into being as we did. Nevertheless, despite the odds, here we are. And that is miraculous. The fact that we now better understand the mechanics of how that happened does not diminish its wonder.
c. Adam and Eve
We discussed earlier how Adam and Eve represent the first married couple, and how they were made as a couple so that they would more accurately reflect who God is: love. It is in their relationship that we learn how important our relationships with others are in our quest to get closer to the almighty. But that is far from the only lesson in this story.
There is an interpretation of this story that supports many of the contentions we are discussing in this book. Adam and Eve were tempted to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It was not a tree of evil, it was simply a tree that gave them knowledge enough to enable them to learn. Suddenly, they no longer were satisfied with how things were. They became curious and wanted to experience life. That is the change that led to them getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
We can view this story as analogous to what all of us are experiencing. We were born into this world taking us away from the almighty. We came into this world with a thirst to learn and grow. We experience hardships during our lifetimes that give us opportunities to learn. As we learn, we have the ability to become closer to the almighty and develop faith.
So what hardships were Adam and Eve doomed to? They were cursed with work and giving birth. These are two of the foremost opportunities for us to learn. Where else do we experience more challenges that force us to grow than in the workplace and in our family. So just as Adam and Eve were required to go through the challenges that work and family bring, so too do we face these challenges. As we have discussed repeatedly, these challenges may be difficult to endure at times, but ultimately, they are what allow us to grow and learn to spiritual maturity. It is only in experiencing these challenges that we will achieve faith.
So the story of Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden is really our story. We leave the peace and security of our place with the almighty and come to this world to experience hardships. Many of these challenges will take place within the workplace and the family. But these challenges, despite being difficult at times, are actually gifts from God to allow us to grow and become closer to the almighty.
d. Garden of Eden
We can follow our logic about Adam and Eve to explain what the Garden of Eden represents. It is not a place, and it never was. The Garden of Eden is a symbolic state: the state where we are in direct contact with God. As we have discussed, we leave our connection with the almighty to come and experience life here. If Adam and Eve were banned from the Garden of Eden to come to our world, then the Garden of Eden represents the state when we are fully connected with the almighty. It is Paradise, or Eden, or Heaven simply because it is where we get to be fully connected with the almighty. The difficulties we experience in our lives are a function of the fact that we have become separated from the almighty, and we need to grow and learn to reestablish that connection.
e. Jacob wrestles with the angel
This message of this story is almost obvious. Jacob is known as the founder of the Israelites. One night, when he is alone, he wrestles with an angel or God — it’s not exactly clear which — until he gets blessed. When Jacob gets his blessing, he is informed that his name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel instead. Israel means “upright with God.” So in effect, Jacob struggled all alone through the night to go from being the individual of his birth to being close with God.
This story is clearly analogous to the struggle we face in our own lives. We must go from who we are at birth, selfish and egotistical, and go through the struggles of our life. At times we will feel alone as we face these struggles. At times we will feel like we are in the dark facing these struggles. But ultimately, if we struggle hard enough and don’t give up, we will become close to God.
f. Joseph forgiving his brothers
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. His slavery took him to Egypt and prison before finally becoming an adviser to the Pharoah. When a famine came, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt which was surviving the famine very well thanks to Joseph’s work. After toying with them a bit, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and forgave them.
If you think you have a hard time forgiving you relatives for what they did to you, just be grateful they didn’t sell you into slavery. That’s the point of this story. We all have axes to grind with our family. The nature of the family relationship means that there will be difficulties among the family members. But no matter what wrongs have been done to us, we will ultimately be better served by forgiving our relatives and working to establish a positive relationship with them.
Ruth is a book all about relationships, and how relationships lead us to the almighty. Ruth is the story of a young woman who married one of the sons of Naomi. After Naomi’s sons died, Ruth released her daughters-in-law to return to their families. But Ruth refuses to go, and commits herself to stay with her mother-in-law.
Ruth is held up to all of us as an example of what it means to be in a relationship. Note that by relationship, it need not necessarily be that of a husband and wife. The relationship of mother-in-law to daughter-in-law is one often fraught with tension. But yet despite the challenges she faces in staying with her mother-in-law, that’s exactly what Ruth does. In the end, she is blessed for her commitment, remarries, and ultimately has a child who becomes an ancestor to both King David and Jesus.
The most wonderful part of this story is the relationship between Ruth and Naomi. This is a true loving relationship. There is no selfishness involved. Naomi did not act like a martyr to try to guilt Ruth into staying with her. In fact, the contrary is true. Naomi urged both her daughter-in-law to return to their families, but out of unselfish love, Ruth stayed with her. This kind of unselfishness is what true love is made of, and we can see how both parties benefit in how their true unselfishness creates something in their relationship that is greater than its parts.
King David is one of the central characters in the Old Testament. The most famous story about him is the one about him killing Goliath with his slingshot. But he was far from perfect. One more than one occasion, he proves a disappointment to God, such as when he had an affair with Bathsheba. But David’s tortured relationship with God is just what makes his story so moving. Here is a Biblical character we can relate to. He is not perfect, he is very human. In fact, he is just like us.
David is thought to have authored many of the Psalms, including all the most famous ones. The Psalms are beloved by many, and for good reason. It is in these songs that we get inside David’s mind. We hear how conflicted he is, how he struggles through the challenges in his life. From the Psalms, it is clear to us that David doesn’t always find it easy to do the right thing. He often gets frustrated with God, fearful, and disappointed. But despite this rocky road, he always comes back to his faith and finds comfort in it as he endures his challenges.
David is the ultimate example of what makes the Bible such a powerful book. The Bible is filled with flawed, complex individuals. We don’t need to look far to find people struggling with the same kinds of problems we face: problems with work and family, grief, and illness, to name just a few. We can relate to these people. But so many of the Bible characters are able to endure their struggles as a result of their faith, and because of their struggles, their faith grows stronger. This is really the central message we are to take from the Bible.
Job is a book that is often misunderstood, in my opinion. Many people focus on the bet that God made with the Devil. Job, of course, was the Biblical character who was faithful to God. When God bragged about Job’s faithfulness to the Devil, the Devil said “of course he’s faithful, look at all the blessings he’s got.” So to prove his point, God allowed the Devil to ruin Job’s life, take everything away from him and cover his body with boils. Despite all this, Job kept his faith, and as a result, he was ultimately blessed by God.
The focus of the reader, however, should not be on the bet. It should be on Job. What this book is really about is not some foolish game between God and the Devil. What it is about is how hard life is, and that even in our darkest moments, we can know that the almighty is still with us. What’s more, Job shows us that even though we may not be able to understand it at the time, all our suffering has meaning. We just have to endure.
If we look at the Book of Job in this way, suddenly it is something we can relate to. We have all gone through dark periods that never seemed to end, periods during which everything seemed to be going badly for us. Job tells us two things. First, that things will get better. We don’t know when, but they always do. Second, that even though we can’t understand it at the time, our struggles have meaning. Knowing these two facts are the central elements to possessing faith.
j. Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem/The Passion
This story always really bothered me. I never understood how Jesus could go from being a hero entering Jerusalem, with people cheering him and laying down palm leaves for him to walk on, to them calling for his head just days later. That change just didn’t sit right with me. Until, that is, I started working in municipal government.
For ten years I worked as Deputy Mayor in Michigan’s third largest city. We always got a lot of attention because our politics was very hot. What’s more is we came into office at a time when the City was facing a fork in the road. It could either continue to go down a path that would eventually lead to financial ruin and decline, or it could modernize its finances, address certain structural problems and encourage new investment. My boss, the Mayor, was committed to taking the latter route. But that was not the easier path.
To resolve some of the long-term structural financial problems the City had, we had to change the City’s relationship with its workers. In the past, when the City was growing, a City job was seen as a cash cow. You got the job, and every year your benefits got better, you could retire earlier, and you got a raise to boot. That trend continued until what City workers earned was way out of whack with what the City taxpayers earned who were footing the bill. As a result, we had to go through some very tough negotiations with our unions, and had to endure some very contentious battles for the support of our voters.
What’s more is that a number of large industrial taxpayers were frustrated with dealing with our City. We had to change their attitude so that they wanted to invest in our community rather than elsewhere. Investment is the life blood of municipal government, since it leads to property taxes. If we didn’t encourage these businesses to invest, our City would have been facing a long decline.
Addressing these problems was never easy. We knew the majority of our residents wanted us to solve these problems and we believed we had their support. But most of these people had lives. They were busy with family and work and even though they supported us, they didn’t have the time to really do anything about it. But with every issue, there was a small group of very vocal opponents who would come to the City Council meetings and yell and scream and make all kinds of accusations. City workers opposed to our reforms would show up to the council meetings demanding that the council force us to change course. Neighbors of proposed developments would come to council meetings to try to stop a new business from investing in our city and ruining the vegetable garden they planted or thee playground they constructed on the company’s property with a factory, building or new homes. In each case, we had to work hard to demonstrate to the City Council that this was just a small, vocal group of people with a very specific agenda, and that the majority of residents were behind the reform effort.
That’s how I came to understand the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been popular with many people there, maybe even most of them. Many showed up to welcome him and his mission to their city. But there was a small group of very powerful, very wealthy people Jesus threatened. These were the elite who controlled the church and the community at the time. The position of these people was seriously threatened by Jesus’s message of treating everyone with respect and dignity. The ventures of these people were threatened by Jesus’s reform efforts, like when he threw the moneychangers out of the Temple. So this small group was able to create enough noise and enough trouble that the Romans in charge literally washed their hands of the situation and executed Jesus.
The Mayor used to say that the Warren City Council was like electricity — they want to follow the path of least resistance. So our job was creating enough resistance to counter that created by the noisy minority. Generally speaking, we succeeded, and largely as a result of our reform effort, our City is in a stronger position during this economic crisis than most of its neighbors. But in Jesus’s case, there was nobody mitigating the noisy effort of the small group who wanted to see him dead. So the message of this story is not that we should be angry at any group because of Jesus’s death. Instead, we should understand that Jesus’s message of love and reform threatened some very powerful people who wanted to get him out of the way.
There is one more point that I think needs to be raised under this topic. There are some christians who are angry about the fact that Jesus was executed. But according to their own beliefs, Jesus had to be executed so he could rise from the dead. Under that logic, it was necessary for Jesus to face his fate, and everyone involved in the process was simply playing a bit part in a much larger play. As a result, it makes no sense to blame any one or any group for Jesus’s Crucifixion because after all, it was necessary for his divine purpose to come to completion.
Ultimately, we need to focus on the message Jesus brought to us. He was probably the most important religious figure of all time, whether you believe in his divinity or not. People of all faiths can respect how he advocated for love, faith and unselfishness. In fact, when we look past the literal words, we can find this message sprinkled throughout the Bible, as it is evident in the scriptures of other faiths as well. These are the values that will make our spiritual quest successful, and this message is ultimately what continues to make the Bible important to us today.