The Strangest Story in the Bible

May 19, 1996


Pentecost: Wind & Fire at the Birthday Party

Music and sermon are not in sync this morning because the choir and I have divided our energies between two special days. The music was obviously in honor of Memorial Day, which occurs next Thursday but since we move holidays around to suit various interests will be celebrated tomorrow. This day — Pentecost Sunday — also has some special significance in the Christian religion, and while it is a very small blip on the screen in terms of sales and vacations, once in a while I like to remind churchgoers what it was all about. The last time I did that, it turns out, was 14 years ago so it seems appropriate to do it one more time.
I cannot make sense for myself of what Luke says happened on the day of Pentecost without talking about symbolism in literature and about something students of the Bible call “typology.” Since symbolism is better known, we’ll start with it. I’ve chosen to illustrate it with one of the most famous short stories in American literature, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, in which a series of improbable events are created to symbolize certain social attitudes Miss Jackson deplores in modern American life. In the New England village she shows us, it has been traditional to hold a lottery one day each year so the summer crops will be good. According to an old saying which seems to have the force of sacred scripture, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” It is Lottery Day as the story begins, with officials and townspeople calmly making what routine preparations, and we are well into the story before we catch on that the lottery will determine a sacrifice to be offered, and that the sacrifice is going to be the unlucky man, woman, or child who draws the fatal piece of paper out of a box. Some liberal souls here and there have questioned this ancient ritual, but the conservative oldtimers scoff that it has always been done and that to give it up would mark the first step on a downhill slope into the total ruin of social life. So it continues, and on this day a loving wife and mother named Tessie Hutchinson draws the deadly piece of paper. Within moments her neighbors and best friends, including even her husband and her little boy, stone her to death because…..well, because they have done this as long as anyone can remember.
The story reads as if it were a completely factual piece of history, but the author has created characters and arranged the plot to make it symbolize our own continuing superstitions and our use of a scapegoat when we need one. To read it literally, of course, is to miss the whole point. Serious literature is filled with examples of symbolism, whill will not work and will seem like pure nonsense unless the reader interprets as the author intended. One more example, this time from a Theodore Roethke poem about his days as a teacher. I always had a few literal-minded students who thought he was simply a little crazy and not worth serious attention when he tried to capture classroom life in words like these: “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils….all the misery of manilla folders and mucilage.” Well, none of that nonsense for my young literalists! They knew pencils can’t be sad, they knew that paper and glue can’t feel misery, and so why don’t people just say what they mean? Undeterred, because here and there a face was alive with intelligence and curiosity, I would go on to read these three beautifully crafted lines: “And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,/ Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,/ Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium” — and I would ask what that dust really symbolizes, and why the poet says it’s more dangerous than the fine powder from which glass is made, and why when he speaks of a copier he says nothing about duplicating tests or assignment sheets, but speaks instead of “the duplicate grey standard faces” all around him — all of which is pure nonsense on a literal level, but which as symbolism makes a marvelous starting point for talking about the tedium one too often finds in schools and the cookie-cutter standardization they often impose upon students.
I said “one more example” but we need need one from the Bible before we get to our topic for the morning. Keep in mind, please, that the great Chicago Divinity School scholar and Bible translator, Edgar Goodspeed, was not exaggerating when he pointed out years ago that one-third of the Bible is poetry, and uses those strategies of poetry we call symbolism, allegory, metaphor, irony, personification, hyperbole — meaning, of course, that it has to be read for what it intends to be, and not as a factual report in a newspaper or a piece of literal history. Of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Luke is by general consent the most gifted writer and has used more of the typical strategies of poetry than the others. So what kind of truth, literal or poetic, does he have in mind when he tells how Mary, hearing from an angel that she will have a holy child, goes to see her cousin Elisabeth who is also pregnant and who declares that the baby in her womb has just jumped for joy at the news Mary brings? Does Luke really mean for us to believe literally that a fetus has kicked happily at the news of Mary’s pregnancy, or is that detail his poetic way of symbolizing a truth he believes in profoundly: that so great a joy is coming into the world that even an unborn child might well boot his mother in divine ecstasy? My mother and father, and millions more like them, lived and died reading the Bible the way they read their morning paper, and for them the prescient baby in Elisabeth’s womb was as literal a fact as yesterday’s account of a car wreck or a house fire. But there were, and still are, millions of others whose lives are dedicated to Christian faith who make distinctions between moments of sober history and moments of high poetry in the Bible.
Let’s see now how differently the two groups might approach the story of how the Christian church began on that Jewish holy day known as Pentecost. Here is how Luke describes that event: “While the day of Pentecost was running its course they [the disciples] were all tgether in one place, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.”
Luke goes on to say there were devout Jews present from “every nation under heaven,” a troublesome statement for people who insist the Bible always means exactly what it says, for only a handful of nations were actually represented that day from among the hundreds that then filled the world. The Japanese were not there, nor the Chinese, nor the Indians…..but the scientifically inaccurate statement really doesn’t matter if Luke only intends it to symbolize his conviction that the heritage of Pentecost is for everybody. He says the crowd was amazed to hear the gospel message in their own native languages and wondered “What on earth can this mean?” (Phillips).
Two thousand years later, the question can be ours as well. What did Luke mean by shaping his story the way he did? Was the church really and truly born on that Jewish holy day or did Luke, writing long after the event, pick Pentecost for its symbolic value? First century Jews who became Christians believed that Moses gave the law from Mt. Sinai exactly 50 days after he led his people out of bondage in Egypt. There is no clear proof of that in their written history, but they liked the idea and so they celebrated it on a holy day called Pentecost because the word means “fiftieth.” On this day, they would say proudly, our Jewish church was born — 50 days after the departure from Egypt.
Is Luke creating a neat parallel by having the Christian church born on that same day? Old law gone, new law in — old church finished, new church born? In the Old Testament story, fire and loud noise accompanied the giving of the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 19). Luke has both of them present as a new covenant takes effect. Biblical scholars call this kind of thing “typology,” which in the simplest kind of definition means finding things in Hebrew scripture which prefigure or point to things in Christianity. Crossing the Red Sea may have saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but Christians decided it was really important as a prefiguring of baptism and deliverance from the slavery of sin. Moses may have won a battle one day by standing with both arms outstretched, but that event was really meant to foreshadow the day when Christ, both arms outstretched on the cross, would win a greater battle.
Unless you spend weeks in a seminar devoted to typology you can hardly imagine how far-fetched some of it seems, but the fact is that a lot of that kind of thinking found its way into the gospels. No one else tells the story of Herod’s slaughter of all infant boys around Bethlehem, and no one ever mentions it again, and nothing in history supports it, but Matthew seems determined to make parallels between Christ and Moses, so since the state tried to kill the first Moses as a baby, Matthew has the state try to kill the second Moses as a baby. And since the first Moses came out of Egypt, Matthew makes a point of saying Christ also came out of Egypt in order to fulfill a Jewish Scripture which represents God as saying, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Never mind that the Scripture is about Israel coming out of bondage, and never mind that Luke’s history of the infancy of Christ seems to leave absolutely no room for such a trip: Matthew is intent on fashioning a Christ who is in all sorts of ways a second and greater Moses. Moses was transfigured on a mountain, his face glowing, so we have a parallel story in which Christ the Second Moses is also transfigured on a mountain. We have a Hebrew story in which the great prophet Elijah was lifted mysteriously into the skies; we have an echo story in which Christ, held by Christians to be a greater prophet, is also lifted up.
If Luke is using Old Testament motifs in his story of Pentecost, as I think he is, then it is no surprise that the fire of Sinai, at the giving of the Old Law, becomes the fire of Pentecost at the giving of the New Law. In Luke’s pictorial language there are tongues like flames resting on each apostle’s head. Only the most determined literalist would wonder if anyone’s hair was scorched, or if — had there been a camera — the flame could have been caught on film. Those tongues of fire are symbolic of potent speech, and they represent, surely, the church’s conviction that no barriers of language could stop the new faith from burning its way through the world. It is probably no accident that Pentecost is the old Tower of Babel story in reverse. In that story, human speech was confused and the project failed. In the Pentecost story Luke has the ancient language barriers break down and people of different languages miraculously understand the first Christian sermon
Luke wants us to know that a sense of power surged into that little band of confused disciples like a roaring windstorm. They were filled with a new spirit, convinced suddenly that the Teacher they had loved was among them again, filling them with a sense of his presence, making them strong and sure. They were so drunk with joy that some spectators thought they were drunk on wine, a charge the Apostle Peter laughed off by saying, “Come now, gentlemen! Nobody starts drinking before 9 o’clock in the morning!”
But in one sense the critics were right. These men were not sober, they were intoxicated. A few days before they had scattered in fear and despair; now their courage is beyond logical explanation. No wonder bystanders thought they must be drunk. Most of us have seen how a few glasses of wine can dissipate gloom and make shy people bold. I remember from college days in Tennesse a classic story mountain people liked to tell about a dirt-poor farmer who met a friend of his who was about to move to Texas. “I have a brother in Texas,” our man told his friend. “I want yiou to tell him for me that my crops have failed and my hogs have died. Unless he helps me, there’s no way I can make it through the winter.”
But a he talked that way, feeling deeply sorry for himself, the friend shared a bottle he had brought, and an hour later our man was saying, “I have a brother in Texas…..if you see him, tell him if he needs anything, just let me know!” The apostles were drunk like that, suddenly confident that the kingdoms of this world were about to become the kingdom of their Lord. Prose wasn’t good enough for Luke. He needed poetry, symbolism, to describe the deepest truth about that incredible day. We can understand the great transformation in the disciples better if we remember what they were like before Pentecost. Mentally, Jesus had strained them again and again to exhaustion — surely no surprise when after 2000 years of analyzing his teaching we still find some of it so hard to understand. Over and over these ordinary men must have wished their Friend were a little more conventional, a little easier to follow. Many of them, in fact, gave up and went back to their old lives, and even the few who stayed to the bitter end had not learned much. At what we call the Last Supper, they were still quarreling over who would be Prime Miniser in the new kingdom — which meant, of course, that they had simply not “gotten it.” This is why Jesus knelt with his basin and towel and washed their feet — to try one more time to show them what he meant when he spoke of a kingdom. They still had not caught on, but that should come as no surprise. Most of us haven’t either.
But one day, whether on the actual day of Pentecost or on some other day not as full of symbolism, something happened to them — there is no doubt about it — something which convinced them their Teacher’s living spirit was among them and that if they told their story the world would accept his way of life. So they began to talk, and when they were warned to stop they said, “Sorry, we can’t stop,” and when they were arrested the police said, “We told you to stop talking, and you’ve filled all Jerusalem with your story.” It was a dangerous moment, a good time to hush for a while, but these men had tongues of fire and could not stop.
My oldest son tells me about a woman in a little Oklahoma church he once served as a student minister who shook her head sadly when she read the story we have talked about this morning. “I wish I had lived in Bible times,” she said sadly. “It would have been so much fun to see all those miraculous things!” Poor lady! Her only trouble was that she read with a mind too literal and had not yet lifted up her eyes to see. Tongues of fire on people’s heads, strange winds that blew up with no clouds in the sky — she knew things like that didn’t happen in the red clay country of Oklahoma. But she only needed to be taught how to read. The same things happen now that happened then. It’s just that we use different language for describing them. Pentecost is whenever people hope and dream together until their hope becomes incandescent, and their hearts unite, and they are positive they can make their dreams come true. Those of you lucky enough to have been in the chapel at Collegiate School on Sunday morning, April 17, 1983 know all about incandescence, about being drunk with joy, about realizing in a stormwind of emotion that a church — this church — had been born. We were so happy that someone peeking through a window might have thought we, too, had substituted a good chablis for the morning glass of milk. With our own Pentecost only 13 years behind us now, it should be easy for us to feel the excitement Luke writes into his story of the birthday of the Christian religion.
As I said at the beginning, Pentecost has never been big like Christmas and Easter. No one is likely to say “Happy Pentecost” if you go out to eat lunch in a few minutes. But that birthday is part of our heritage and I hope Luke’s description of it now means a little more.

We hope, our Lord, that in the the winds of fresh hope and
the warmth of friendship, this church will be born over and
over into the spirit of love, compassion, and justice. Amen.

The Strangest Story in the Bible
If it occurs to you by and by that I seem not to be preaching the sermon named in the bulletin, you will be right. I gave that sermon up midway through the week when someone made a request I couldn’t resist. A woman who is not a member of this church, but visits frequently, called about another matter but in the midst of our phone talk asked if I would mind doing on a Sunday morning what I did years ago in one of those Bread ‘n Books lectures at the downtown public library. She said, “When I heard that talk I was simply not ready for some of the things you said. Since then I’ve changed a lot, religiously, and I would enjoy the chance to listen for a second time to some comments about the Bible that in those days I simply dismissed.”
I’d rather respond to a request any time than to pick a topic on my own and hope that somebody in the audience will be helped by it. Besides, my caller was referring to what I think easily wins the prize for being the strangest story in the entire Bible so the planned sermon went on the shelf. I’d like to set up this one by saying something first about the nature of the Bible itself. Once upon a time, long ago, through the courtesy of the United States Army, I spent a happy week skiing and vacationing in a charming old Swiss hotel. It was fun, in the first place, just to walk around inside the place. It must have had at least ten different levels. You would start down a corridor, turn left and go down two steps, then back to the right and up four other steps, and so on through a maze of ups and downs and turnings until you were lost and had to hail a bonneted Swiss maid to get directions back to your room.
The Bible, I came to realize later, is very much like that old hotel. To whatever may be called its nucleus, its original shape, has been added through the years — by many different hands — more rooms and corridors and closets. Some of them are large and airy, and you feel comfortable in them, but others are so cramped and obscure you can’t imagine why they were tacked on. The Old Testament especially is a huge rambling thing with odd wing stuck on here, a verse there that doesn’t make much sense, a sudden story in yet another place that appears so totally out of context you have no idea what its original purpose may have been. Songs and stories were composed by generation after generation, and it took centuries for the Jewish people to decide which ones of them should finally become a part of their sacred book. That process was hit-or-miss at tiems, and to this day there are Jewish scholars who will tell you that some very puzzling and unhelpful things were left in which might better have been dropped.
Ministers who graduate from good seminaries learn these things when they take a course in what is called The Development of the Canon, a course which explains why some pieces of Jewish and Christian literature got into the Bible and others were left out. The course is considered basic for students who want to do serious Bible study, and my own conviction is that every church should be exposed to this knowledge in their adult Bible classes. The old excuse that laypeople might be shocked and confused by such information, and need to be protected, has become ridiculous.
No one has argued this more passionately than Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann in a book called The Faith of a Heretic. In a chapter about organized religion, he laments the loss we all suffer when we are not exposed to careful and honest study of the Judeo-Christian sacred books. We are indoctrinated, he says, by what our particular church wants us to know, but we are shielded from what serious students have known for years on the grounds that it might disturb our faith. Thinking of what happens in sermons and in high school Sunday School classes, Kaufmann makes this blistering indictment: “Whatever organized religion in the 20th century is doing, it certainly is not exposing the young to the Old or the New Testaments. Students at our leading colleges and universities who have attended Sunday School for years and still attend church with reasonable frequency display the most appalling ignorance of Scripture.”
Kaufman is not very happy with organized religion to begin with, so he rather gleefully cites statistics to show that while a large majority of Americans affirm the Bible to be the revealed will of God, about half of them confess they know almost nothing about it. As for churches, he says: “They monopolize religious education and, for the most part, make a wretched mess of it. What they offer rarely deserves the name of education.” And then, with tongue in cheek, he fires one more shot: “A critic of organized religion need not oppose religious education. On the contrary, he may charge organized religion with having done its best for centuries to prevent such education.”
My own best opportunity to check the truth of his accusation came when I was invited, years ago, to teach a course at Wichita State University called “The Bible as Literature.” I was excited at the prospect, even though I noticed the look of pity on the department chairman’s face when he offered me the course, and despite the warnings of some of my colleagues that students would come in expecting an extension of Sunday School, or a confirmation of what they already believed, or even an evangelical experience in which they would join with the professor in converting any pagans who happened to enrol. It turned out to be, as some of you know, one of the most exhilarating teaching experiences of my life. Students ranged from Jesus Freaks and Born Agains to militant atheists, from Pentecostal charismatics to staid Episcopalians, from kids who confessed to never having read a word of the Bible to some who were smugly positive they already knew everything about it that was worth knowing. What they really knew, I found out quickly, was the highly selective Biblical information considered important by their churches, and they were beautifully ignorant of a world of surprising stuff that never comes up in Sunday Schools and sermons, and that can profoundly change the way one approaches the Bible. I’m ready, finally, to give you an example of what I mean, and in the process to respond to the woman who asked for a re-run of that library talk about the strangest story in the Bible.
The first oddity is that I can’t recall a single student who had ever heard of it, even though it is only one chapter removed from the famous story of the baby Moses being found in a basket in the Nile by Pharoah’s daughter. In the place I’m talking about, which is Exodus Chapter 4 if you wish to look at it later, we read how Moses, now grown to manhood, is commissioned to go back to Egypt and deliver his people from bondage. He starts out on that trip, and suddenly, without anything at all to help us make sense of it, we come upon this bizarre and puzzling incident: “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.” What makes this a peculiar jagged rock in the midst of an otherwise smoothly flowing stream is that there has been no hint of any kind before this grotesque remark that God was angry enough at Moses to want to kill him. But why God is that angry is not the big problem. The real question is, How do you read a story which has the Eternal God act like this? As one of the students asked, “Why would God want to assassinate anybody, and especially Moses who had just been picked by that same God to rescue his people? And why would he have to sort of ‘waylay’ Moses, as if he needed the advantage of surprise? What does it mean to say that God “sought” to kill him, as if something interfered with the divine plan? It sounds,” she said, “as if something in this story has been changed over time or left out of it” Perceptive young woman! It is — or certainly ought to be — profoundly disturbing to find God represented like this, as if he were some ancient demonic god acting like an angry tribesman in a desert feud.
What happens next in this short short story must be meant to explain why the would-be killer changes his mind. I want to read to you from one of the most highly regarded translations in recent times, the great Catholic version known as The Jerusalem Bible.. Keep in mind as I read that nothing leads up to these three verses and there is no reference to them ever again. They are stuck in the middle of the narrative as if someone had made a completely irrational hole in it and inserted this incomprehensible episode. After we learn that Moses’ wife Zipporah and his son are traveling with him to Egypt, and after God is represented as telling Moses how things will happen when he gets to Egypt, there comes this sudden interruption: “On the journey, when Moses had halted for the night, Yahweh came to meet him and tried to kill him. At once Zipporah, taking up a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin and with it she touched the genitals of Moses. ‘Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ she said. And Yahweh let him live.”
If you are now thoroughly confused, you are in excellent company. Why is Moses called a “bridegroom” when earlier in the story he is already the father of two children? The best guess is that this bizarre fragment has been dislodged from some other context that might have made sense of it, and stuck in this place because one of the Biblical editors did not know what else to do with it. Perhaps in some ancient legend of the Hebrew peole their god is mad at Moses because he has not been circumcised and decides to kill him. But why would Moses not have received this surgical attention at birth? And if for some reason that didn’t happen, why would the Hebrew god wait so long to get angry and plan to kill the very man he had chosen to deliver Israel from slavery? As the story now stands, it would seem that Zipporah responds to the crisis by performing a vicarious circumcision, using a piece of flint in accord with extremely ancient Jewish practice — circumcising her son and then simulating that procdure for her threatened husband by touching his genitals with her son’s flesh. Since my intent this morning is to suggest how poorly we educate people about the Bible, I should tell you that in most English versions you will read that she touched her husband’s “feet” — which will leave you even more confused than ever unless you have a scholarly footnote explaining that the word translated “feet” was actually a common Jewish euphemism for male genitalia. If you pursue this puzzle and read articles about it in religious journals and commentaries you will find various fascinating guesses as to what these verses mean, but the simple truth is that no one knows for sure. One of the best of modern Bibles gives you a hint that you might just want to skip this section by calling it “A mysterious narrative difficult to interpret.”
But students in a college classroom, and adults in a church Bible study group, can’t just skip it and avoid the problems because they have to make decisions about how to read the Bible. If they read this story literally, then they have to try to imagine the Eternal himself — that infinite wisdom and goodness we have been taught to worship — waylaying Moses at a Motel Six with murder on his mind — only to repent as a result of Zipporah’s grotesque offering. The question then has to be faced: Is God an assassin? — which is what the verse literally says. And if he is, given his omnipotence, would he have had to “set up” the assassination attempt like a CIA agent in a spy novel? Or…..does the Bible contain stories we must assume to be part of tribal lore rather than of edifying and permanent truth? I want to say this to you: anyone who reads this single brief episode in Exodus and really comes to grips with all the problems it presents will never again hold simplistic ideas about how the Bible was composed.
The questions raised by such a story were agonizing for those fundamentalit students in my classes who were too honest to duck them. And they were hardly over the shock of God as a hit man before they came to Second Kings and a prophet named Elisha who was jeered at one day by some little boys who thought it would be cute to call him “Old Baldhead!” It may not seem an insult worth the death penalty , but the author of this particular bit of Hebrew history tells us graphically what happened: “And [Elisha] turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore 42 of the boys.” Cause and effect: first the prophet pronouncing a curse in the name of his God, and then the awful consequence. The writer clearly accepts the notion that the Almighty cooperates with angry Elisha to inflict that kind of horror on little boys who have been guilty of bad manners. The problem for a modern reader is, how can we believe such a story and think of the prophet, or the God he serves, actually doing such a thing? How does the story stand up against the command to love your enemies and bless those who curse you?
The students, as you would guess, always divided fiercely over whether to read such a story literally. As one of them said, “If God is love, he did not send bears out to tear up 42 little kids for calling a man ‘Old Baldhead,’ so I don’t believe this story is history.” But when some others nodded in agreement, a young man on the front row, his face red with righteous anger, shouted: “God can kill anybody he wants to kill, and He knows best!” It did not occur to him what an incredible thing he had just said about the nature of God.
I hope you understand exactly why I chose this morning to make a public response to the woman who asked for these comments. People who read the Bible with a kind of wooden literalism have done terrible things in its name. You know the list: innocent men and women burned as witches, because an ancient law said, “You shall not allow a witch to live” — whole villages of Jews and Muslims massacred by Christians — dying chldren, even in these enlightened times, denied a transfusion or the care of medical specialists — physicians and the clerks in their offices killed by religious fanatics who quote a verse from the Bible to justify murder. The church has a responsibility to remind people that the Bible is not only a great book, capable of creating enormous good, but that in the hands of those who know little of how it was put together or of the techniques of interpretation it may become the most dangerous book ever written. This may not be a comforting thought, but it is the truth — and my commission has more to do with truth than with comfort.

We wonder as we leave whether our dear Lord knew to what
challenge he would call us when he said, “You shall know the truth
and the truth will make you free.” Give us the courage to believe
it, in His name. Amen.