Once upon a time, many years ago, long before the computer or smartphone, there was a land where people could neither read nor write.
Pen and paper did not exist, but stories flourished. In fact, in many way, they were even more blatantly important than they are to us today.
Without written records, all knowledge was subjected to the six-inch space between a person’s ears and between the ears of people they came in contact with.
Oral transfer of information was all that was possible … and the best way to transfer information was to tell a story.
It still is!
(Lists, instruction manuals and formulae may be great tools when you can go back and refer to them, but when everything needs to be stored in your head, you had better start with a narrative.)
It was within this world that a story started to be shared. A story about the One God of Israel.
And this is the first (and most basic) reason why the bible is what it is … it began within an oral culture and an oral culture has no other way of remembering and sharing information but to tell stories.
These stories were important to tell each successive generation who God was and what He was like.
A second reason we are given a story instead of an instruction manual is because a story is flexible — it teaches deeper truths rather than specific truths.
Another way of saying the same thing might be that a story gives guidelines instead of hard-and-fast rules. It provides an underlying “motivation” for action that can be adapted to any situation rather than instructions to deal with simply this situation in front of us.
How could an instruction manual ever cover every situation in our diverse lives and remain relevant for every changing generation?
It couldn’t — but stories can!
To see how this works and why it was so important, let’s start with Exodus (which many scholars consider to be the “first” book of the bible — as in the thematic starting point — and the root of all that follows in scripture).
To illustrate the importance of “story”, I want to highlight something found in the story of the Passover and Hebrew flight from Egypt. In explaining to Moses what is about to happen, God does something very interesting …
Let’s skip over the first nine plagues and start in Exodus 12 after God has just told Moses what will happen on the first passover. He is explaining that from now on their calendar will be arranged around this yet-to-happen event (interesting) and they are to “memorialize” the 10th day of this month with a festival.
Later on, just before the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 13, he gives similar instructions for another festival.
Now, what is interesting about these instructions (assuming you’re not bored already) is that three times in the explanation God essentially says; “these things are happening so that you will tell the story!”
It’s the opposite of how we usually think about stories. To us, something happened and so we tell people the story of that crazy or important time in our life. In this instruction, God is saying I want you to tell stories to your children and grandchildren and that is why I am going to do this for you.
The purpose of the event seems to be to kickstart storytelling among the Jewish people. Avivah Zornberg says it this way:
“Several times, the Torah itself emphasizes the importance of telling the story to one’s children and grandchildren. At certain moments, this imperative to narrate the Exodus becomes the very purpose of the historical event: it happened so that you may tell it. At the heart of the liberation account, indeed, God prepares Moses with a story to tell a future child; this rhetorical narrative, astonishingly, precedes the historical narrative of liberation … the biblical text includes four versions of the narrative to respond to four hypothetical questioning sons of the future … the difference between the four versions is remarkable … the biblical text seems to offer an invitation to modulate the story to meet varying rhetorical ends … ‘What really happened in Egypt?’ becomes a less important question than ‘How best to tell the story? Where to begin?”
We are given the bible as story because it helps us remember who God is and what He is like.
We are given a story because we can learn the underlying truths about who God is and what He is like and adapt them to our own personal and specific situations in a way that would be impossible in an instructional manual.
And this is just part of what makes the bible such a special book …