It was my first week and my first class. We were just getting to know each other. Students and teachers. The class was team-taught by our Hebrew and Greek professors to give us an introduction to both parts of our Scripture. We read them concurrently: The Succession Narrative in the Hebrew Scripture and Luke in the Greek Scripture. This is what I was looking forward to.
Even so, what I received surprised me. To understand why, I’ll need for you to imagine what I experienced.
The Succession Narrative is found in two books of what we formerly called the Old Testament. It is most of 2 Samuel and the opening chapters of 1 Kings. It is the story of David’s sons and their fight for position to succeed David as king.
It is a strange story to start with, isn’t it? It is in the part of the Hebrew Scriptures which we refer to as the histories and is not the stuff of Sunday school stories. It isn’t even really about David directly. It isn’t David vs. Goliath, for instance. I was confused by this strange story and why we should begin there. This strange story, however, reveals important pieces to our understanding of scripture.
Our professor, Dr. Gordon Hamilton introduced an important idea about our scripture the church spends next to no time discussing: that it didn’t arrive fully formed. He pointed us to research suggesting that the Succession Narrative was a unified story, an old story, adapted over time into a bigger story. That early compilers of our Scripture used this existing story as part of a bigger story they wanted to tell.
This opened a whole new world for me. And it upended church because this was so fascinating to me, so important. This answered questions I always had, but didn’t know how to ask. And, more importantly, the church wasn’t eager to answer. Even when my Dad was my priest.
Then we dug in further.
The Succession Narrative is a captivating story of deceit and treachery. It raises deep questions about GOD’s relationship to humanity and what it means to be chosen. It is a truly challenging text for the person of faith to wrestle with. I’m sure that was another reason Dr. Hamilton chose it. This opened a second door for me. With this class we were able to see that wrestling with scripture is par for the course. Not just normal, but the expected median. If you don’t wrestle enough, you’ll be over par. To birdie, eagle, or ace the course, you would really need to learn how to wrestle with more than the text itself: you’d need to wrestle with what the implications: what it would mean to believe in practice this stuff that is being revealed.
The third revelation came next. It was the game-changer.
A close reading of this text revealed strange inconsistencies. Not in the timeline (we’d learn about those in the next semester when covering the Torah), but in the tenor and intention of the text. In one chapter, we are discovering how great David is, how the people love him, and how he truly is GOD’s gift to humanity. We can imagine him walking around with a halo above his head, birds tweeting on his shoulders, and sparkles following in his wake.
Then we turned to the very next chapter and read about what a wretch David is, how he ignores GOD, and that he serves as GOD’s punishment. The whiplash of the narrative is disconcerting when we read it slowly, prayerfully. So unlike the speed reading I did of Scripture before seminary. I never noticed this. Or I just absorbed it subconsciously.
This inconsistency is chalked up to two different narratives woven together. Or perhaps, more accurately, one narrative heavily edited with new content. In other words, this old story had at least two primary writers with opposite intentions. One to raise up David as the fulfillment of GOD’s promise. Another to cast a shadow over what that fulfillment ultimately means. That David was all too human and the people were all too far from GOD.
It was hard to articulate during seminary how profound this study had on my faith. Those who have gone through Education for Ministry (EfM) can no doubt speak to a similar experience of awakening.
I have since realized that I needed to see that the wider church wasn’t ignorant of the problems with scripture that I could see from the pews. And I needed to have the scales removed from my own eyes. But this experience wasn’t entirely academic: it was relational. It was about me and my GOD and me and my church.
It has since awakened a third relationship for me: my GOD and my church.
The church has often failed to encourage our wrestling with the Scripture. It has failed to give us the freedom to preach the terrifying beauty of a much more complicated scripture than the simple: “God is Love.” It has failed to be a safe place for this, or to be a community that reinforces exploration. We have failed to help people understand that this is essential to our faith!
I encourage you to join me in an experiment in reading scripture.
My good friend (and former bishop) Todd Ousley is producing a series that will take us through the Hebrew Scriptures in one year. It is called The Biblical Wild and I encourage you to check it out at The Biblical Wild website, thebiblicalwild.org.
This Bible Study will provide daily devotions at home, online, and in small groups. I invite you to consider joining me or some friends for a weekly gathering. One will meet in the Kemper Room between the services on Sundays starting January 4th. Another will be offered on Thursday evenings at 5:30 pm beginning January 8th.
To get started, watch the intro video:
And find the first reading list: