August 8, 2010

One Tale to Rule Them All

In the life of any given family, every day generates new stories to tell.  The refrigerator stops working, a postcard from Uncle George arrives from Budapest, your kid starts kindergarten.  Every day, another anecdote.

Even so, not all tales are created equal. Some set the tone for others.

Recently, a person in my congregation was relating to me the narrative of how a house on the shoreline of Lake Chautauqua in New York state came into his family’s possession years ago.  It is currently enjoyed by a fourth generation, with an eye toward a fifth.  Buried there at the beginning of all that handing-down is quite a tale to tell—a story about a dream, a purchase, and a plan for construction.  One could say that the decision of great-grandparents to develop a little spot by the lake has introduced countless new tales into the lives of his entire progeny. And you can bet that at least once a summer, someone pushes back from the dinner table and recounts for all the narrative of how this place came to be. One primal story has set the tone for countless others.

In a similar fashion, not all tales in scripture are created equal.

Books of quotations from the Bible—collections of singular verses lifted from their context and arranged by topic—have the unfortunate effect of flattening out the Biblical narrative, suggesting that every story is cut from the same cloth.  True, one could (should) say that everything in scripture is important to us as the gathered faith community, but it is just as necessary to say that not everything in scripture is of the same importance.  A few primal stories set the tone for all others.

In the Old Testament, for instance, there is one tale that rules them all: the Exodus.  The second book of the Bible turns out to be first in importance, because it is the book of Exodus that narrates God’s first and fundamental act of redemption: liberating the Hebrew slaves from the hard hand of Egypt’s pharaoh.  The living God overhears the cries of the Hebrew minions and sets in motion a plan for judgment upon Pharaoh and release for his bondage-people.  This tale, this primary Old Testament narrative, sets the tone for all the others that follow and precede.

What about the creation stories of Genesis? Is not God’s act of creation more important than any rescue, if only because there could be no release without existence in the first place?  That may be good logic, but it is not the theological-logic of the Bible itself.  Genesis 1-3—important as they are—are best understood as a holy afterthought, an inspired prologue leading up to the crown jewel of the first Testament: the Exodus encounter.  The first and foremost news of the Bible is that God liberates and restores.  The creation narratives are later appended to the front of this tale in order to announce that the God who formed a people out of worthless slaves turns out to be the same God who formed the cosmos from meaningless chaos.

More than even the creation stories, it is the Exodus that sets the tone for what follows in the Bible.  God’s compassionate ear, God’s calling of unlikely Moses, God’s judgment upon the hard heart of Pharaoh, God’s making a water-way where there was no way, God’s leading his band of folk through the long wilderness, God’s promise for a promised land.  These are the contours for every good Biblical tale that follows; these are the building blocks for every other bit of news the scriptures intend to announce.  And chiefly, from the perspective of our baptized journey, these are the primal ingredients for the other great normative tale of our two-tiered Bible: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.

Two stories to rule them all.