The Making of a Reader: Part Four
We learn to read Bible in bits and pieces. We begin with individual stories, usually unattached to what happens before and after. This is the way of reading taught in most Sunday School curriculums, confirmation programs, and even the weekly reading and preaching of Biblical texts in worship. As a result, we often miss the narrative flow, the rhythms and pace of the unfolding drama, and the impact of one scene set against another. In the synagogue, by contrast, the entire Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is read once a year in its entirety, beginning to end. I was raised in a Covenant congregation where Bible was taken very seriously. Texts were read and preached upon from the common lectionary, a structure which followed the liturgical year, organized according to seasonal themes. There are many strengths in using the lectionary. However, it did require us to leap all over the textual landscape. Such a practice makes it difficult to get a sense of the whole narrative.
Choosing a few verses here and there also meant skipping over large parts of the text, including seldom heard stories. I recall my own amazement when, browsing through Second Kings, during a worship service, I happened upon Elisha calling down bears from the mountains to maul kids who had been ridiculing him for his bald head. This is a perfect story for young readers. I nearly jumped out of the pew. No one ever told me this kind of stuff was in the Bible. Actually, it was just one of many strange and intriguing stories I would come across later. That one story sparked an uncomfortable but important new awareness. Prophets are not always nice and safe. They can be as alien as the words they are given to speak. They could turn in jealousy and anger in the blink of an eye. In these stories, seldom told, I found an intriguing darkness, an assortment of strange and interesting characters who came to the spotlight at center stage for a brief moment, only to withdraw again into the shadows.
Reading Bible by jumping back and forth also nurtured within me a disconnected sense of the Biblical drama. It was like watching a slide show rather than a film. It was vivid and often powerful, but it lacked cohesiveness and the complexities I have come to love about Biblical narrative when read in sequence. Our English translations reinforce this episodic nature of the text by the chapter divisions, paragraph indenting, and the editorial headings for each story, written in bold type.
For example, I am looking at the 14th chapter of Matthew as I write this article. The New Revised Standard Version begins with the bold type: "The death of John the Baptist." The story follows. Another heading announces: "Feeding the Five Thousand." Then verse 13 is indented, suggesting new subject matter, followed by the story.
This editorial format emphasizes that we are reading two separate stories. We are trained to instinctively accept the guidance and read accordingly. Imagine a slide show. The first slide shows John’s head being carried in on a platter. The second one shows Jesus handing out baskets of fish and bread to the throng. However, in the original text, there are no chapter divisions, no indentations, and certainly no bold headings. These are all later editorial additions, meant to make reading easier. But Matthew intends that we should read these together, as a single piece, like a film where the careful placing of scene against scene is a purposeful way of creating dramatic flow and insight through comparison and contrast.
Let us read the two scenes as if they were part of a single piece.
Scene one: At the center is, Herod, surrounded by the rich and powerful of Jerusalem who could not believe their good fortune at receiving an invitation to the birthday party of their king. The scene begins as a flashback, a dramatically effective technique and full of artistic consideration. Herod has been hearing about Jesus’ growing fame and fears that this must be John the Baptist raised from the dead. His panic recalls the party, the dancing, his oath, (yes, Herod is an honorable man!) followed with John’s head brought to the king on a platter. The head is the main course of the banquet, sterile and incapable of nourishing anything but the most sordid of appetites. We watch in horror and wonder if the guests are looking for the doors. Yet, we know from the story that John was imprisoned because he disagreed with the king’s wedding. The message is clear to everyone. Stay put! Keep your mouth shut! The whole affair is charged with lust, fear, ambition, violence, and power. What was it like to leave? To wake up the next morning? What did the party goers take with them? What images filled their minds? What did they talk about with each other the next day?
Scene two: At the center is Jesus, surrounded by his disciples and a gathering crowd of ordinary folk, many of whom are sick. The flashback which begins in Herod’s mind, is now wrestled outside the scope of his own imagination. Jesus hears of John’s execution. This is John, his own relative, who leapt in his mother’s womb when the two boys came close, who baptized him and set him on his own public ministry. John, a beautiful, young man, in the prime and filled with passion and mission, now butchered in a most horrible and senseless way. There are no words of explicit emotion in the text. But reading Bible has alerted us to this condensed style. We don’t need to hear someone else tell us. We feel it in our own bodies. Outrage! Fear! Shock! Sadness and pain! Jesus’ grief drives him to a deserted place to be alone with the weight of the loss. Complicating his feelings, as Jesus must be aware, is the close identification of Jesus and John in the king’s paranoid mind. This is a dangerous association. Can Jesus’ head on a platter be far behind? Is it a foreboding of things to come? What do the disciples of Jesus feel when the followers of John tell them the shocking details? Perhaps it is time to hide out, withdraw for a while until things cool. But the plan is abruptly halted. As usual, the crowd finds out where Jesus and his disciples have gone and compassion for them pulls Jesus back into public life.
Suddenly we are at another party. Instead of death we witness healing and health. The main course is fish and bread, abundant and nourishing. The empty places are filled, the feeling is one of joy and surprise and well-being. No one wants to run away. What does this crowd take with them as they returned to their homes? What was it like to wake up the next morning? What memories filled their minds? Ironically, Herod’s fear of Jesus power results in a great and notable display of love and mercy.
An English teacher at Purdue University, Jan Wojcik, writes about these two scenes as if Matthew was the director of a movie. By setting the two scenes together, Matthew is able to compare and contrast two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. As an astute evangelist, Matthew simply describes the scenes, without comment, allowing us to see their intrinsic difference while urging us to make a choice: What party do we want to attend?
Onto these two scenes I would weave yet another episode. The one just prior to Herod’s flashback. I want to bring us backward in order to alert all of us to the distracting effect of chapter divisions. In fact, erase the number 14 that announces a new chapter. It is an arbitrary division anyway. While we may think to connect scenes within a single chapter, we usually do not leave the confines of a chapter division. The bold heading announcing the story just before the beheading of John is, "The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth." This scene begins in verse 54 when Jesus comes to his own hometown of Nazareth. Once again Jesus is at the center, a crowd gathers around. These are not strangers to him. They are his neighbors. The story begins as he enters into the town synagogue where he had worshipped with his family. He begins to teach, and the people are astounded. This astonishment provokes a flood of questions: "Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" Then, a shocking turn. We read: "And they took offense at him."
If we read this episode along with the two which follow, the simple division of two kingdoms becomes more complex. It is not just about the rich and powerful in Jerusalem contrasted to the sick and ordinary people of the Galilean countryside. Here are ordinary people who know the family of Jesus well and cannot figure out how such a kid, growing up in their community, could be filled with such wisdom. Still, it is not their surprise and delight that Matthew reveals, but their offense. What can this mean? Jesus confronts the offended with a text. "Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house." This is an appeal to history, a personal identification with the similar experience of earlier prophets within their own communities. To find the source of the offense, we are left to look within our own time and households, to our own impulses to take offense when familiar figures return to teach us or confront us with our lives. Like all good Biblical writing, Matthew leaves us with the question. Jesus simply acknowledges the truth of it. John the Baptist, himself a prophet, will discover this truth at the birthday of the king in the upcoming scene.
Meanwhile, Jesus reacts to the reception by the home town crowd. He withholds any "deeds of power" because of their lack of faith. I am uncomfortable with this response. On the one hand, it seems a natural reaction to their lack of enthusiasm, almost punitive, something I could imagine doing out of spite. But, is Jesus surprised by their reaction? Did Jesus think it was going to be different with him? Is he just put off, or is he pushing his point by reminding his community of their own history?
His reaction to the execution of John is quite another thing. Here, he boldly acts with power on behalf of all who come. These are people who gather out of need, hunger, longing, love, and interest. They are strangers to him, but they receive him with grateful hearts. Later, we discover, even these will be offended and turn their backs. At the heart of the mystery of the gospel narrative is the wide range of reactions to both the message and the messenger. Sooner or later, our own reactions must be weighed in. What part of the message offends us!
See how Matthew weaves these three episodes into a remarkable tapestry. This way of reading, ignoring the headings and chapter divisions, returns us to the original scroll format of the text, rolling out before us like a river. It reaches out way behind and flows to a seemingly endless horizon. It is not uniform, nor without eddies and side streams. But it is a single watercourse. The placement of the scenes carries all the artful purpose of a great director setting each camera angle. When we read them together, we discover that these wonderful stories become more complex when set within their literary context.
This is most important. We should always be aware of what comes before and after a single passage of scripture, especially when we are reading just a portion of it. It is a critical hedge against easy moralizing or absolutising. Periphery adds complexity. Theology must also be done within the full textual context. More importantly, this is the rich discovery of the interconnectedness of the text. Reading scene against scene is only one way this is discovered. We will look at others in the course of this series. Robert Alter describes this process well in The Art of the Biblical Narrative: "As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the Biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness" (p. 188).