Joseph and the pit woodcut (The Cologne Bible 1478-80)
Why is the Bible Not About You?
Stephen T. Hague
Now that I have your attention, I could qualify this title by following with, “but it is to you.” This distinction would be the same if we were discussing Shakespeare or Aesop’s’ Fables, or any other great literature, since these are not about us, but were written to us and for us. Well, at least in a secondary sense, since authors most likely have their own contemporaries first in mind when penning their creative whims and wit. And, even though we do find their creations engaging because we identify with the characters and life-situations, and especially their stories, we would not for a minute pause and think, “oh, this story is actually about me,” or “this character is really me.” Yes, the great authors want us to enter into the worlds they create, and to identify with their characters and their topsy-turvy lives, so much like our own, but never so as to confuse the reader with the suggestion that they are actually the characters themselves! Nor that the primary reason they present us with their wondrous worlds is to illustrate our lives for us. There is no direct line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to some modern analogy. The story was about Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Yes, we also find countless (actually 2,930) biblical characters and their life-situations that we can identify with, since this is true of all stories that engage us, because we humanly relate to them personally. Yet, even so, none of these stories are our stories; they belong to their times and places and persons, not to us. They only do belong to us as ancient and received stories and texts. So, why then do so many teachers of the Bible insist on telling us that all the stories and characters of the Bible are really about us, and inter alia, they are us? Please correct me, but have you ever heard anyone teach the great Old Testament story of Joseph in which eventually you were not told that somehow you are Joseph in the pit (of depression or woes or vanity), or that you are Joseph betrayed by his brothers, or Joseph the forgiver, or . . . . [add any number of other examples here]?
As in all such ways of interpreting biblical stories, these direct analogies draw a straight line that makes the story normative (what should be ordinarily expected in our present lives) for you and for me, and they pile up endlessly into a fragmented pastiche of moral applications that have little, if anything, to do with the original narrative. This unintentionally and ironically makes the actual story itself rather unimportant, or at least secondary. Since this is the most standard way of explaining these ancient stories today, there is no obvious reason for anyone to cry out, “Whoa, slow down here. What is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery to Egypt, by his betraying brothers, really about?” Really simply, the question is, why did God use Joseph in the way he did? Why was he sold that way, and later imprisoned, and then raised to great prominence in Egypt? Why does his family then all go down to Egypt with Jacob? What connection does it have to the history of later Israel or the promises of God and his works of redemption?
It troubles some people when they hear that the Bible is not a story about them. But perhaps, there can be some consolation to hear rather that it is a word from God to them. After titling this, and writing thus far, I searched online and found that I am not the first to use this title, and so I am not alone in my observations on this (no, I am not giving up my title . . . at least not yet.) There may be many reasons that it disconcerts people to hear a declaration like this, that the Bible is not about them: for example, our individualistic, solipsistic, infatuation with ourselves, lazy habits of reading and poor foundations in basic hermeneutical principles, unbounded freedom for interpreters that allows great creativity in expanding the meaning of texts, and our contemporary pragmatism that treats the Bible as a great self-help source-book to improve on ourselves and our lives. I am not so much concerned here with these, but rather with the interpretive impact of the common assumption that the Bible is a book about me.
Consider Elijah. Is his story about us somehow? The way he depended on God for his food at the Brook Kerith, and the way we are to depend on God in times of need, and how God always provides for his people, therefore we should have more faith and trust God like Elijah? This focus on the similarity between Elijah’s circumstances and our own (drawing a straight line from the historical event to modern applications, makes that event normative for all times, morally prescriptive as a promise of material provision, rather than descriptive of what happened to the man Elijah). On the other hand, we could understand that this story in its context is about the covenant-curse (in the intensification of God’s judgment on Israel) being fulfilled in Israel by a holy Lord (understanding the present context in light of the past covenant-promises and covenant-warnings). Further to that, it is about the opening to the gentiles to be further grafted into the vine of the promises. That the gospel in Gen 3:15, and all the rest of the OT, is for all the nations also points forward to the completion of this in the future. It is not, therefore, a unilateral moral prescription for us today about how to work harder at trusting God for our daily bread, but a description of God’s promissory works of judgment and redemption both past, present, and future.
There is this the principle of in–grafting of the gentiles. The widow thinks her son’s death is due to her sin and she thus blames Elijah’s presence. Elijah is as surprised as the widow, so, he prays. They both knew God had brought it upon her. The prophetic ministry of God’s word is then brought even further to the heathen nation! The healing word comes to the enemy Sidonians, even more importantly, the resurrection word is revealed for the first time in the Bible, and outside Israel, while Israel stood under God’s judging word. God reveals his omnipotence, holiness, and mercy to the heathen. He uses Israel’s disobedience to teach the extent of the covenant-promise. God’s word will not be stopped. His eternal promise is sure, even when the temporal, conditional blessings are withheld. Further, a prefiguration of the reversal of the curse of God on our bodies (Gen 2:17; 3:17-19) is seen in the resurrection from the dead, as are all such miracles in the Bible. They all point back to the “first Gospel” (proto-Euangelion) of Gen 3:15 which pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah who would bring a reversal of the curse of death, while also crushing the deceiving Serpent’s head.
Consider the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac’s story (in Mk 5 and Mtt 8). This is one of those really dramatic tales in which some two thousand swine are driven off a cliff by the demons Jesus cast out from a possessed man living out among the tombs. But, is this story about us and our struggles with our various “demons”? Is there some moral lesson here about our faith or our deliverances? We received this ancient story from the Apostles and the disciples along with all the other marvelous stories in the NT, but they are not about us. They are written to us and for us, so that we not just receive and accept the story but also that we might believe God and put our trust in the Son of God, since all who believe on him might receive his gift of salvation, a new heart, a new nature, the hope of a glorious future bodily resurrection, and a new heavens and a restored earth. This same Jesus who can still the seas, destroy demons, raise the dead, heal the lame, open the eyes of the blind, is the only One who can also redeem us and his creation, reversing God’s curse on the ground and our bodies. This is a story about the question, “who is this man?” The demons then answered it, shouting loudly that Jesus is “the Son of the Most High God.”
Consider Jesus’ disciples on the stormy sea (Mtt 8:23-27; Mk 4:35-41; Lu 8:22-25). How many times have you heard in sermons and in conversation that “Jesus stills the storms of your life, if you trust in him, if you believe and have sufficient faith in him, etc. etc. . . .” As Sidney Greidanus writes, “since not many of the hearers will find themselves threatened by a destructive storm and on a raging sea for the sake of instant application the storm and sea are spiritualized to ‘storms’ on the ‘sea of life’.” Such exemploristic-moralistic-spiritualized interpretations miss the tremendous significance of the manifestation of Christ’s power in redemption-history: He is Lord even over nature, and this is just a foretaste of the eventual redemption of creation itself! The one particularly vexing need among the ancients in their pagan religions was to find a god who could control nature, and thus the nature gods prevailed. Here, nevertheless, is the Creator-Redeemer God of the OT manifested in the flesh, demonstrating the same kind of power that God did in dividing the sea in Israel’s deliverance. Real continuity with the OT is shown, as well as further marvelous revelation of God in Christ. Jesus alone had power over devils, illness, and nature, as illustrated repeatedly by his various corresponding miracles. Furthermore, we see in such Gospel miracle-narratives that the Creator is the Redeemer, and that his creation matters to him. There is much more that could be developed from this idea, particularly in the area of the continuity of our life now with life as we will know it on the earth for all eternity. For example, our entire lives, relationships, work, and character, are horizontal into eternity. If this was not so, why would Christ take on flesh, heal the sick, raise the dead, and still storms?
Most importantly, we can affirm that these stories are all an interconnected testimony to answer the questions of the disciples and the crowds, “What kind of man is this?” Who is Jesus? These questions are not about us, but about Christ. The focus of the text is therefore Christ. So, what exactly is our relationship to such stories? Do we ourselves have any part in the story? Yes, but not that we are in the story itself. Rather, in response to it, we are being asked to believe the historical testimony left to us by the Apostles and inspired by the Spirit of God – in order that we too might receive him and believe on Christ. This is not a story about us just having enough faith in Jesus and the storms of life will suddenly cease. That is the gravely mistaken message of the popular “prosperity” teachers.
Redemption is not deliverance from the world but redemption of the world: “God so loved the cosmos . . .” We are reminded here, looking back to creation, that God sees his creation as “very good.” It also points forward, in a prefigurative sense, to the eventual restoration of all creation through Christ who is King over all of his creation. These narratives all give us a foretaste of the eventual healing of the world. Simply put, exemplorizing and spiritualizing this storm-narrative fails to convey its redemptive-historical meaning. It also risks presenting another gospel, one that teaches us simply to have more faith than the disciples in the boat during our storms of life, and then Jesus will still the storms for us (however defined). Nevertheless, this draws a straight line of application from the historical context of Jesus at Galilee to our present experience, suggesting this story is somehow normative for all times and thus prescriptive not descriptive, and when it is actually revelatory of who Jesus is. Assuming that the story is normative and about us and our needs, displaces Christ in the text, and by removing the story from its historical context misses the meaning of the text, making it me centered. Accordingly, it most seriously removes the story from its NT context, as well as from the broader redemptive context of the promises of God to Adam and Eve and the Patriarchs through all the ages that the line of the promise would produce one who would reverse the curse on the earth and our bodies. The central concern of this story is reflected in the final question that each of the synoptic accounts record: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” This question is the concern of the entire narrative of Scripture. Remarkably, it is answered by the demon possessed (discussed above) in the next event (recorded in Mtt 8:28-34 and Mk 5) – the demons understood that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had authority/control over them – when they shouted out, “What do you want with us, Son of God?” (Mtt 8:28).
This is the meaning and application of the many remarkable stories of the Bible, taking them on their own merits and in their own contexts. God the Creator is God the Redeemer – he does not rest from his work of redemption until he sends his Son to complete that work at the end of the age. Then, we will clearly see most fully how our own stories related to, and completed his works of redemption introduced to us in the testimony of the Bible. And yes, our names will also be written in Lamb’s Book of Life. This is our part in the big story.
This is what we might call a Biblical theological reading of the narratives, that reads them as fully as possible within the flow of the whole story, beginning with Creation and the Fall of humanity and ending with complete redemption. The many stories and characters are not normative, or repeatable, history (or just for moral instruction like Aesop’s fables), but rather redemption-history. That is, we know that the acts and lives of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, etc., were lived once and cannot be repeated; they each have profound significance in the progress of redemption-history, but their persons and their life experiences are not ours, even when they have many similarities. We are not them and they are not us. God gave us the record of their lives for a specific purpose of revealing his redemption to us. It follows then that the events and characters and works done in the biblical narrative are not all normative for us today. The resurrected and ascended Jesus does not continue to walk about bodily doing miracles in our midst, as he did in ancient Israel. Nor are we supposed to imitate his works in that regard. There is no unilateral straight line from his miraculous works to us and our works. Indeed, none of his redemptive works are repeatable by anyone, since he alone is sinless Savior. In sum, the key questions these stories explore include: who is God and how is God presently at work? Who is the One promised to bring redemption from the curse? What will he be like? What will he do?
By contrast, moralistic spiritualizing leads us to ask questions of the most popular god of our generation, described so well by Christian Smith as the god of “therapeutic Deism”: “How do these narratives help me to be a better me, or a better Joseph, or a better David . . . .” ad nauseam.
How the Bible is about us
To put it another way, the Bible narrative is a history of our prior family story; it is like the mutually treasured family photo album and family history discovered in the attic of those ancestors who preceded us. We inherited these stories, written and compiled long before we were born. In a similar fashion, the Bible gives us the whole picture of the family story from beginning to end with varying degrees of completion. We also understand from the story itself that it is God’s perfect, revelatory record and interpretation of that story. Most importantly, this story reveals who God is, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he is going to do to redeem his creation. We do have a place in this story as members of the family who have been created by the same God, live in the same world, have the same kinds of problems, and are descendants of those in the recorded story (the biblical canon). This family story is especially focused on the fact that we have all been similarly rescued from darkness in our redemption.
Nevertheless, just like our more immediate family histories and photo albums, we are not personally in the narrative nor in the snapshots before we were born! Our place in our family histories begins of course after we are born. We do not in any real sense live their lives, seek to relive or imitate their lives, and we certainly are not in any sense the same people as our ancestors, and they are not us. We would never confuse the two. Similarly, our personal place in the family narrative of the redeemed begins after the canon of the Scripture was closed at the completion of the New Testament. Why then do we contrarily find so many interpreters insisting that we inject ourselves into the family photo album and family histories, as if we are in some sense them? Perhaps people believe that they can make the family history more “relevant” if we inject ourselves back into the narrative, or edit ourselves into the family photos. Yet, in so doing, they actually remove us from a proper relationship to that family history, since our relationship to it is of those who follow those who preceded. We experience a present continuation of the story as co-heirs of the same history and redemption, as a continuation of God’s redemptive works in the generations that succeed those before the canon was complete. In short, our part of the story is not written in the canon, and we would be amiss to revise the prior written story to include ours. There is not a unilateral line between us and them, as it were. We have a real ancestry in the ancient history of the Bible, but we are not our ancestors themselves! How peculiar we would seem if we read the personal histories and photos of our ancestors and claimed that what is really important is not them, but us, our stories, if by extension we are them and they are us. Put this way, to be blunt, it sounds ridiculous, but this is precisely the way so many teach and read the Bible today.
Surely, we might learn from our personal family history and photo album that a certain Uncle Wiggly became the town drunk, and that we would be warned to be wise and avoid his downfall. But surely we could concede that this was not “the reason” he existed and lived the way he did, so that we might find ourselves in the story or simply to be warned against his choices. Can we not then grant that the same is true of the 2,930 characters in the Bible, and all of their stories – and even more so – since in this case their stories recorded in Scripture show us God’s purposes and will and plans to bring to light his glory before humanity, and to redeem his creation, not just to give us some moral guidance or models for self-improvement. Yes, we have a real connection to all of these biblical characters and their stories in the history of redemption, but we do so as recipients of their stories not as participants in their stories. We do also have similar stories, as sinful recipients of redemption, as those who also believe and receive that redemption. Nonetheless, we are not to be identified as the people in the prior narrative of the story. We have received from them a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), and we too are witnesses to our present generation of their testimony, but all the same we are not them. Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Zipporah, Elijah, David, Bathsheba, Solomon are not you and you are not them. Abraham’s faith is not yours and yours is not his, Joseph’s suffering in the pit is not your suffering, nor your suffering his. You are not promised that God will take you to some palace if you only trust God like Joseph! Yes, in Adam all have died, yet his sin is not our sin (though we do inherit his guilt). Yes, in Abraham we are all counted righteous by grace through faith, yet his faith is not ours and ours is not his. The Gerasene demoniac is not our story; it is his story. Jesus’s story is not our story; it is his story, and exclusively.
Why then do so many insist on reading and interpreting in this way, often leaving us feeling that we must just try harder – like Noah, like Abraham, Job, or like Joseph, or like David or Solomon, or like Jesus – then we will really experience God’s blessing, or presence, or . . . . whatever we might want. Once we work up enough faith like them, then God will take us from our flooding ark of problems to prosperity, deliver us from our pit of depression to the palace, raise us from the ashes of despair to double-fold blessings, going from the sheepfold to the kingship, and from the cross to glory. We are members of a generation of folks raised on this famishing diet of moralizing, and as G.Goldsworthy states it:
“While I certainly do not want to appear to be carping and critical of the multitude of faithful volunteers who prepare curricula and teach them in Sunday Schools, I get the impression that both tasks are often carried on with little or no understanding of the big picture of biblical revelation. Consequently, children are often taught a whole range of isolated Bible stories, each with its neat little application deemed appropriate to the respective age levels. So much of the application is thus moralizing legalism because it is severed from its links to the gospel of grace. By the time many of these children reach their teenage years they have had a belly full of morality, enough, they would think, to last them for the rest of their lives. They thus beat a retreat to live reasonably decent but gospelless lives.
Ultimately, what is at stake here is the Gospel of Christ. Let us then strive together to bring an end to these solipsistic and narcissistic readings of the Bible, specifically by rejecting and challenging their legalistic, moralistic applications that so plague us today. In doing so, let us put to rest the false god of “therapeutic Deism” that rules over these self-help interpretations. Such hermeneutics of “do and don’t” like “so and so” terribly diminishes the great and awesome story of God and his wondrous works of creation and redemption which reveal his glory to us through the narratives and characters of the Bible.
Let us further be done with the prosperity preaching of our generation which puts all of Scripture through the meat-grinding grid of blessings of health, wealth, and success . . . if only we can be an Abraham, a Joseph, a Job, Elijah, or a David in our faith. This prism of prosperity-thinking totally distorts the meaning of the biblical text and should therefore be rejected regardless of how much people get a feeling of blessing or a sense of deeper insight into the text. This may sound too strident in conclusion, but our responsibility to “guard the gospel” must begin in our own house. It is not enough to condemn the Liberal (historical-critical) approach to reading the Bible when we in fact (even if inadvertently) so distort the meaning of biblical texts that what we communicate is a contrary “gospel” of works and not the gospel of grace. Doing so, we totally fragment the biblical story into an endless litany of moral points placed on the shoulders of those already burdened by the weight of their own sense of failure.
The gospel we received from the prophets and the many authors of Scripture, their Apostolic witness, is one that proclaims the story of redemption by grace; it is that of the Christ who is, who was, and who is to come (Rev 1:8) and who came in the flesh to complete redemption by fulfilling the ancient promises of redemption. That redemption is a gift to us of God’s grace, and for which we presently await its fullness – along with the saints of all the ages – to experience at his return the final consummation of the redemption of all creation (Rom 8:18-25). That is our part in the story, the greatest of all stories, since this story gives the true and complete meaning of every story ever told. It will only be then that we will drink together in his glorious presence of his new and everlasting wine, and when we will have many a tale to tell of how he worked out his precious grace to make whole our broken lives.
 This may be also called biographical exposition, and could consume the entire career of the expositor with the 2,930 characters in the Bible! The shift from a theocentric/Christocentric to anthropocentric exposition should be obvious.
 Greidanus, Modern Preacher and Ancient Text, p. 160.
 Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 151.
 Having said this, we certainly do not reject biblical ethics, nor do we advocate for antinomianism, but our ethics must be built biblically and in the proper hermeneutical fashion.