Friday, October 14, 2011

Should We Emulate Biblical Characters?

Every Sunday, it happens in most Sunday Schools around the country. The children go to their respective classes and sit down. Papers are handed out. Crayons are spilled onto the communal table. The teacher wants the kids to color a scene containing a Bible character, because today's lesson will be about that character. "David was a valiant warrior for God. We should all be like David." "Abraham interceded for people in prayer. We should all be like Abraham." "Peter got back up after being tossed down by his sin. We should all be like Peter." Of course, this teaching by emulation of Bible characters often extends into the adult Sunday Schools and even the service. But is that what the Bible is actually teaching us? Is this what God wants us to do with the lives of Bible characters? Is the way that they live and conduct themselves meant to be God's model for us, or is the recounting of their lives for a different reason altogether?

I once said in a Sunday School class (adult), as we were going through the Book of Genesis, that Genesis isn't about Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Noah or Adam. It's about God in relationship with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Noah and Adam. I continued to say that if you want to know the main character in a story, you have to look at who the storyline follows from beginning to end. It's God, not any human. The humans come and go. God is the main character. He is the one the story is communicating to us. The humans are just the supporting cast.

This hits home every time I see another colored picture of Jacob or Joseph and my kids explain to me that the lesson was all about being faithful and having a positive attitude. Hugh? You mean like Jacob the liar? You mean the positive attitude of Joseph the braggard? Sure, in the end, Jacob told the truth and Joseph set his faith on God in a positive manner, but is this the point of the stories? I fear that it is because we do not know the actual points these books are making, we fall back into what we do know, and what we do know is what we were taught in Sunday School (i.e., the Bible is a big moral book that uses characters, like Aesop's Fables, to teach us lessons about life situations). The Bible certainly mimics life situations, but it isn't to teach us about them. It is to teach us about God who has entered into our life situations. The Bible is about God and how we are to view Him and His work in the world. In learning of Him, we emulate Him, and subsequently learn about what we are to do in the world. In other words, it's not that we don't learn how to live through the teaching of the Bible. It's that we don't learn how to live by merely whitewashing Bible characters and trying to emulate them. We learn to live by learning about God. As His images, knowing Him will tell us what we are to be in the world. This prepares us to receive the message of the Bible (Law and Grace) about our relationship with God. The works that are produced in our lives flow from that relationship, not from our attempt to be like Peter or David.

It's not, of course, that you shouldn't emulate godly men. Paul tells us to be imitators of himself, but he also first and foremost tells us to be imitators of God. So we can see that when we first learn of God, we can then go back and learn from godly men. The problem, as I see it, is that we are not learning of God first. We are stuck in a teaching that tells us to look at what we perceive as a positive biblical character and do likewise. This leads to a superficial understanding of the Bible and a moralism that is void of a relationship with the real God as our model. Such moralism has led to people thinking they're just good people, apart from a submissive relationship with Christ, simply because their lives look like the lives of biblical characters. The sins committed by those biblical characters justify, rather than shame, our sins. But, in a relationship with the real God, of whom we have learned in the Scripture, all of our sins are shamed and all our good morals are filthy rags before Him.

This brings me to the Book of Judges. The Book of Judges has been used and abused by so many people in our culture, it's hard to mention all the errors born of such abuse. One of the major abuses is the example of Gideon and the fleece. Gideon is told by God (verbally) that he is to gain victory over Israel's oppressors in battle. Gideon sets out a fleece one night and asks God that if He is really with him, He will make the fleece damp with dew but the ground dry. God does so. The next night, Gideon asks God to do the opposite (i.e., dampen the ground but keep the fleece dry). God does so. People ever since have been talking about putting out their fleeces to confirm God's will. After all, why wouldn't they. They're supposed to mimic Gideon, right? Wrong.

Gideon is sinning here. He's asking for an omen to interpret, rather than trusting in the revelation God has given him. The point of the episode is to show us that there was a decline in godliness in Israel to the point to where "every man did that which was right in his own eyes." Judges begins with judges who would have been viewed as slightly imperfect in regard to their role as a judge (e.g., a left hand, a woman, etc.). Then it degrades into judges who look for omens (i.e., Gideon), are themselves violent murderers (Abimelech), one who sacrifices children (Jepthah), an absolute covenant breaker (i.e., Samson in terms of both his Nazirite vow and especially his shacking up with unbelievers), and men who have become more like those of Sodom than those of God's images in terms of sexual immorality and violence (i.e., all of Israel).

So Gideon is in a long list of people who are sinning against God. Deuteronomy 18:10-14 tells us that God detests those who interpret omens, as the surrounding nations (from whom Israel was to stand apart) practice those things in absence of God's revelation. God is making a concession here, not a sanction. If we learn of God first and then read Judges, we realize the point is not to emulate Gideon, but to show God's faithfulness to His people, even when they do not deserve it. God is determined to free Israel from their oppressors, and hence, as long as they turn to Him in repentance, He is willing to remove their oppressors from them. If we are to apply such a message in light of Christ, we know that, although we are unworthy to receive God's favor upon us, as long as we repent, He is willing (i.e., He is faithful and just) to forgive us of our sins (i.e., remove our sins from us) and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (i.e., our true oppressor). We know this because the picture that Judges gives to us is of a God who does not hold a grudge, but answers us and wants to cleanse and forgive His people when they turn to Him.

So what does Judges teach us? It teaches us about God and His faithfulness to His people. It teaches us about His patience and mercy. By way of application, it teaches us how we ought to approach God (i.e., via repentance) if we want Him to remove our sins from us. But it definitely does not teach us to be like Gideon. It definitely does not tell us we ought to look for omens in interpreting God's will for our lives. We have God's will for our lives. It's called the Bible. In it are contained the revealed things that are for us and for our children forever. Apart from it are the secret things that God reserves for Himself.

Likewise, when we approach Genesis, the book isn't about Noah or Abraham or Joseph. It's about God as the Creator and Sustainer of true humanity, i.e. His images. It's about God's victory over chaos both in the beginning and through the very acts of chaos that are perpetuated by humans. God is one who seeks human life to thrive upon the earth as Creator and Sustainer, and as such, He seeks the good (i.e., the preservation of human life) in and through all things. This, as a result, tells us what we should be doing in the world, as we are to emulate God's actions in the world as His images. We are also to be those who seek the preservation of human life in all things. God, not Jacob, who creates more chaotic situations that would end God's promises at the get go. God, not Joseph, who would have died in prison had God not interceded. God, not Noah, who gets drunk and exposes himself to his children, is the one who preserves humanity in the flood. Genesis is about God. Judges is about God. Samuel is about God. Kings is about God. It's all about God.

Now, I'm not saying that we don't lift up the godly aspects of biblical characters. What I am saying is that the author of Hebrews only gives us a list of all of these characters as those who followed God through faith after he has spent countless statements explaining to us who Christ is and what He has done. The list is a list of examples in how we should respond to the revelation of Him, not a list of people we should go back and emulate. Yeah, it's great to have faith like David, but I don't want his faithlessness too. Samson did respond to God in faith, but only after he led a life of sin. Give me blind and beaten Samson as an example of how we respond to the God that the Book of Judges just communicated to us, and that will be one of many examples of how we should also respond to this God.

Maybe we need to put up the crayons in both our children's and adult's Sunday Schools and start learning what the Word of God is actually trying to tell us. It's about God, not moralism. It's about who He is and what He has done, not what a bunch of people who kind of followed Him did. They are great pictures of us, but we already know what we're like. We need to know who God is, so that we do not remain as they were, but become like Christ is. So let's not argue from the is to the should be when it comes to human characters in the Bible. Let's instead argue from who God is to who we should be in response to such a one, and we will finally be reading the Bible and understanding that it all points us to Christ, because it has always pointed us to the God Christ communicates. Only in emulating Him, can we be truly called "Christians."

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