A more complex view of the Bible

I was ten years old when the United Church of Christ published what was then simply called the new Curriculum. After the formation of the United Church of Christ, the education staffs of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Church were merged into a common group of educators for the new United Church of Christ. One of their first tasks was creating a comprehensive curriculum for Christian Education. The project was large and expensive. Staff writers created the books and resources. Many of the books were published as hard cover volumes. Care was given to the selection of artwork. Contemporary images were introduced. There was some controversy over the new resources, but they were widely embraced by the church. I am not sure when the congregation that I grew up in first embraced the new resources, but I was probably about a sixth grader at the time. My mother was among the representatives of our Conference who undertook the introduction of the curriculum to local congregations. We had many of the books that were a part of the curriculum in our home and I read a fair number of them as a child.

The approach to learning and teaching was carefully thought through as was the theology and biblical resources. The curriculum used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and was careful to turn to theologians and teachers to insure its biblical integrity.

This was a huge change from the resources that had been used by many congregations. No small amount of congregations of the United Church of Christ turned to the publisher David C. Cook for resources, which focused on short preparation times for teachers and often used comic book formats for student resources. The shift to denominational resources and a more academic focused approach was a big change for many congregations.

Because the change took place in my church during my Sunday School years, I have been shaped by the resources that our church used. In my early Sunday School years, many Old Testament figures were presented as heroes and the stories selected were usually the most dramatic and easiest to tell. Other stories were pretty much avoided. Then, as I became a teenager, we were introduced to academic bible study and more advanced tools for interpretation. I was intrigued by this approach and I am sure that it influenced my choices of study during my college and graduate school years.

As a young child, however, I thought of Biblical figures as heroes of stories. I and not sure whether I thought of the stories as fiction or history, but they were stories that seemed to be important to adults who I respected. I learned about David’s defeat of Goliath, but there was no lesson on his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. I thought of Biblical heroes as fairly uncomplicated characters and knew little of their flaws.

The story that was always taught about Solomon, as an example of his wisdom, was the famous judgement when two women, both claiming to be the mother of a child, were brought to him for judgment. The way that we were taught the story, Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting that the baby be cut in two, with each woman to receive half. My reaction to the story was horror. What a terrible idea, to cut a baby in half. I remember thinking that neither woman would have really accepted such a solution. Even the woman who was the imposter and not the mother would not have stood for the butchering of the child.

Many years later, I read the novel “God Knows” by Joseph Heller. In that book it is hinted that Solomon was not really all that wise, but rather that he really wanted to cut a baby in half. I know it is just a novel and not a book of biblical scholarship, but the image has lingered and when I study that section of the bible, my eyebrows are raised a bit.

In the first book of Samuel, Samuel is asked by the people to appoint a King. They want to be like other nations: “That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Samuel warns the people that they should be careful what they wish for. A king, he warns, will confiscate property, conscript sons and daughters, and impose taxes. (1 Samuel 8:11-17). Samuel’s predictions all come true. Israel becomes a more centralized state. Instead of a few highly regarded individuals taking on the role of seer, prophet, judge or military commander, usually on a temporary basis, Israel opts for a strong monarchy with a permanent and professional king, a military command structure, and all of the trappings of a centralized government. By the time of King Solomon, who builds the temple at Jerusalem, the official government was becoming nearly absolute in its power, with knowledge, wealth and power all being consolidated in one city under a single King.

This centralized structure doesn’t really work for the freedom-loving people of God. the monarchy becomes divided and eventually breaks up entirely. The nation is defeated by more powerful nations. The people are taken off into exile. And the prophets, who had warned of such, had to bit their lips and refrain from saying “We told you so,” as they offer comfort to the displaced and devastated people.

Our history is more complex than was presented in my childhood comic books. And some of the great heroes of our faith were the prophets who argued against centralized government for Israel in the first place.

The warnings of Samuel are prominently featured in the writings of 17th and 18th century English and North American writers who were resisting the growing power of the Stuart monarchy and the efforts of the British Empire to exert its power over the North American colonies. Those warnings are equally relevant today in a time of immensely centralized governmental power.

Fortunately for those of us who don’t want to see babies cut in two or families torn asunder, there are more voices in the Bible than that of Solomon and more wisdom than a single story.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!