Great stories have the power to move, change and captivate an audience, and to tell them something profound about human beings, informing their view of life and of the world. Tonight’s reading from the Book of Exodus is part of a key narrative from the Hebrew Scriptures – what Christians usually refer to as the Old Testament – which tells the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, the destruction of their enemy pursuers, and their journey towards the Promised Land. It is a story full of drama, tension and excitement, touching on great human themes of darkness, pain and death, but also on hope and redemption. We see these in the account of the parting of the waters, which allowed the Hebrews to cross on dry land, and which saw the Egyptians wiped out. I wonder, do you think the story is true? Did it actually happen like that? One thing is for sure: if it is literally, historically true, it portrays the God of Israel as partial, angry and destructive. It plays right into the hands of those who say the God of the O.T. is a vindictive and frightening figure, especially when it comes to Israel’s enemies. Also, if we take even a cursory glance at the subsequent history of the Middle East, including the contemporary situation, then God’s political foresight, as well as any good intention there may have been towards peace, harmony and justice between the inhabitants of the Bible lands, was and is seriously open to question. Sad to say, this is just one example of where a literal reading of the Bible may lead to potential or actual disaster. Surely better an open mind than a closed book….
Now, I realise that different approaches to the Bible lie at the heart of the debates which currently dominate the Anglican agenda – the place of women in the church, and wider issues of gender and sexuality. For myself, I think that asking whether the Exodus – or other biblical accounts – happened exactly as writ may be to ask the wrong question. It makes a big difference if the question is changed to ‘What does this story mean?’ rather than to ask if it is actual fact. And isn’t it the case that we encounter profound truths through the telling of stories?
The great Hebrew narratives also point towards Jesus, himself the great storyteller ‘who [the Gospel writer tells us] never taught them without a parable’. When his puzzled disciples asked Jesus to explain his parables, he replied, ‘He who has ears to hear let him hear’. It means the listener has to try to make something of it. Scripture doesn’t close debate; it opens debate, which I guess is why we sometimes see Jesus himself debating the meaning and interpretation of Scripture in the Gospel accounts.
The church has, at times, been scared of story, treating these powerful narratives solely as a source from which to distil doctrines. Yet, until the early modern period, storytelling – through paintings or mystery plays or songs – was the main way people experienced the Bible. However, a combination of Reformation thinking and the challenge of the Enlightenment led, by the 19th century, to what is often called a ‘propositional’ form of theology, in which story was sidelined in favour of what was seen as a more rational, systematic theology. In the 19th and 20th centuries, historical and critical ways of thinking treated the Bible like any other text, asking questions about historical accuracy and authorship. This also deeply affected the way in which we think it today. Rather than one epic narrative about God and his people, the Bible was dissected and ultimately reduced to a diverse mishmash of bad history and bad science – some of which survives to our day and, in some places, may still be in the ascendant. But in the mid-20th century, scholars proposed that we move away from both these ways of thinking about the Bible. They suggested that, rather than trying to extract truth out of story, we should seek truth in story. In other words, they stopped trying to dig behind the text to make guesses about origin and intention, and instead dealt with the Bible stories on their own terms. At heart, they sought to recapture our ability to engage with the Bible as story, to let it move, surprise and trouble us, in the same way as, say, Shakespeare or Dickens or Jane Austen might. Story is a useful term that sits somewhere between ‘history’ (which isn‘t the Bible’s sole or even primary purpose) and ‘fiction’ (which the Bible definitely isn’t). The Bible is a myth in the fullest sense of that word: it may not be what we would normally recognise as literal, historical truth, but it most definitely is a place where truth is encountered, and we come face to face with the reality of our human condition, from its joys and triumphs to the depth and mystery of its pain and sorrow.
To state the obvious, the Bible finds its origins in a very different culture from our own. It is from the lands of desert dwellers and wanderers, where mystics tell of the mystery of God in stories: stories of wonder, adventure and imagination. Whenever we 21st century Westerners open the Bible, we need a concerted effort to make the cultural leap from Western to Eastern thought forms. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Bible originates from an oral tradition, not a written tradition. The 66 books of the Bible span something like 2000 years. They are years of Middle East conflict: wars and massacres, exile and return, bloodshed and tyranny, poetry and politics, all mixed together. They are years of religious exploration: law-giving and law-breaking; slaughter either by, or in the name of God, to claim the Promised Land; ethnic cleansing (as we would now call it) by warrior kings to retain it; the rise of prophets whose insights call God’s people back to core virtues of justice, mercy and concern for the s0-called ‘alien in your midst’.
Returning to tonight’s Exodus account. The story, of course, is told from the perspective of the victors, as so many historical writings are: no good news for the Egyptian pursuers here. The Exodus narrative would pass by word of mouth from place to place, rallying the people, and strengthening, over time, their view of themselves as a nation. Did it really happen? Well, whether it is factual history or meaningful myth, it is, without doubt, stirring and dramatic stuff. And that’s what the Hebrew Scriptures set before us: the story of a people going through all manner of turbulence, but continuing, relentlessly, their search for the divine.
What may we take from this story? Well, one thing the Exodus account surely points us towards is the reality that we need not be bound by our past, especially if that past has been characterised by enslavement – whatever form that might have taken. It tells us of God’s passion that we be liberated from the things that bind us – guilt, failure, hurts, regrets, mistakes – and gives us the impetus to embark on a journey that leads from our own metaphorical Egypt to our own Promised Land. We may fear the journey, we might think we can’t hack it because of the risk, and even one step may sometimes seem too much. We may fear being overwhelmed by rising waters, our captors may well give chase, and it might often seem easier just to give in to them and go back, but this story insists a possible way forward lies before us.
The biblical books, like Jesus’ parables, have meanings and truths deeper than mere ‘facts’. Critics may become impatient with this approach in a post-Enlightenment and largely rational, scientific and secular culture, where the urge is to be able to ‘prove’ everything. But it may well turn out to be an approach which rescues the Bible (and perhaps even Judaeo-Christian tradition itself) from irrelevance in a modern society, opening up both Scripture and tradition into real words about real life. For this is the word of the Lord: thanks be to God!