It’s story time!
My goal in this post is to illustrate what can happen when we turn the Bible into a book of sayings or an instruction manual versus how it should be read: as a story.
The problem with quotes or instructions is they have incredible limitations — among those limitations, they only make sense, or can be considered true, in very specific situations. They are very hard to adapt to new situations or to determine how to deal with unique situations that arise in every single person’s life and/or relationships.
They also do not “tell the whole story”. A story only makes sense once you have read or seen the ending. Stopping part way through can result in not getting the bigger picture or, worse, misunderstanding the point altogether.
While the example I am going to show does not lead to a total misunderstanding (say, like in Job 1:21), it does show how we can miss the “bigger” point of a story by reducing it to a quote.
So … let’s start with a famous saying or quote many people may have heard from the time of Elisha;
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it—there are more on our side than on their side.’ Then Elisha prayed, ‘O God, open his eyes and let him see.’ The eyes of the young man were opened and he saw. A wonder! The whole mountainside full of horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha!” – 2 Kings 6:16,17
This quote has been (rightly) used to illustrate the power of God to save His people. We have an army of angels at our disposal at all times …
This is a fine saying and is “true”; however, when stripped of its story, it can be taken in directions not intended by its story.
We may imagine that God is ready at arms whenever we face difficulties and is seeking to give us victory!
We may use this quote to think that nothing can ever go wrong in our lives; that we are immune to hardships because God is more powerful than anything affecting us.
We may start thinking of God as for us and against other people.
But the story surrounding this quote never comes close to saying that. Instead, the story brings out what God’s “power” looks like in practice; what He uses it to do:
“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.
The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city.
When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, and said, ‘Strike this people, please, with blindness.’ So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, ‘This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria.
As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, ‘O LORD, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.’ The LORD opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ [Someone sounds a tad too excited – Bri] He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” – 2 Kings 6:8-23
OK … so, what is the point of this story?
- Israel is at war Aram
- Elisha keeps thwarting the Arameans’ plans to destroy Israel. The king of Aram decides to capture Elisha to keep this from happening. He sends men; Elisha’s aide is worried, but Elisha shows him God is more powerful than the surrounding army.
- Elisha asks God to use His power to strike the army with blindness and then leads them to the King of Israel who wants to kill them.
- Elisha says “no” and tells them to feed them and send them back home. They hold a big feast and the Arameans stop raiding in Israel.
OK … those are the pieces of action that make up the plot … but what’s the point? What is it trying to tell us about God?
Sure, “God is powerful” could be something a lot of people may say, but this “point” comes half-way through the narrative (in the middle of a paragraph even). We need to read a story fully in order to know what it is trying to say.
So, how does this story end?
It ends with a feast between former(?) enemies that results in the (temporary) end to hostilities between Aram and Israel.
The story shows us that God uses His power to transform enemies into friends without a single shot being fired.
God’s power is not used to inflict violence but to reconcile what seemed to be irreconcilable.
God is not just for Israel, but also for Aram. His plans are to bless His creation, not just a select few.
That is what a story can do that a simply quote cannot — it gives us one context and allows us to see themes that can be applied to other contexts very different from the story. It explains what the quote means when it says God is for us and is more powerful than our adversaries.
This power does not mean He will destroy our human enemies, but rather seeks to do something far more difficult.
We can now properly imagine what God’s power could look like in our life and how we can turn impossible situations into grounds for new beginnings; new life blooming where before there was nothing but devastated battlefields.
We can see that while God is definitely for us, He is also for those we see as against us and so we need to pray not for our “victory”, but for reconciliation or mutual blessing.
That is the power of a story and the limitations we can place on this fabulous book when we read it as anything but the Story of God. We can be told “truths”, but don’t understand what they mean to our life or what they look like in actual real day-to-day living.
We can miss so much of what the Bible is trying to tell us about life with this God — and about what this God is like.