Is God a character in your story or are you a character in His?

bible-4

How do you answer the big questions of life? What are the big questions?

Well you go to the Internet of course. Aren’t all of the answers there?

  • 6 Things Intersex Folks Need to Know About How We Perpetuate Anti-Black Racism
  • Why Saying ‘It’s My Choice’ Doesn’t Necessarily Make Your Choice Feminist
  • 3 Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me That My Consent Didn’t Matter
  • 3 Ways Men Who Loved Me Violated My Consent – And What This Says About Rape Culture
  • 17 Lies We Need to Stop Teaching Boys About Sex
  • 5 Things Your Activist Friend Wants You to Stop Doing (Because You’re Wearing Us Out)
  • 4 Ways to NOT Respond to Celebrity Intimate Partner Violence
  • 9 Strategies for Dealing with Body Dysphoria for Genderqueer and Trans Folks
  • 6 Ways to Tell If You Need to Be Called Out
  • 5 Things You Don’t Realize When You Defend Cultural Appropriation
  • 8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated – And Why It Matters
  • 7 Things We Need to Stop Saying to People Taking Anti-Depressants
  • Here’s What Every Sexually Active Survivor Deserves in Their Sex Life
  • The Terrible Invisibility of Being Bisexual and in Poverty
  • Why Is It So Hard To Be a Good Man?

Haven’t found your question answered? Don’t worry. There is a website that estimates the size of the Web every day. Current guestimates are between 45 and 50 billion webpages.

What Do Churches Do?

Questions people ask, and advice people give have been around far longer than the web. Some churches like this one major in a far smaller book called The Bible where we have conversations that touch in big questions of life.

  • What is this world like?
  • Are people good? Are they safe?
  • What is good in life? What does it mean to be a good person?

The Bible also deals in God. God is a complicated subject right now in the world but it hasn’t always been this way. We live in an unusually skeptical age where we feel embarrassed to talk about God, or nervous to talk about him because there is so much disagreement and by its very nature dealing with God makes conversations ultimate.

I don’t think we need to be quite so sheepish about this. People have been having these conversations for thousands of years and part of what the Bible does is put us in touch with these conversations.

When people say to me that we can’t talk about God because we don’t all agree, or that we could only talk about God where there is agreement, I ask them if they apply these same rules to politics, or economics, or morality or just about anything else that is interesting in our world. We are awash in disagreements but that doesn’t stop us from talking or acting or voting or buying.

Churches are places where we talk about God and trying to live within stories, stories from the Bible. We don’t literally live out those stories but we try to live in that world.

This might seem strange to you but don’t you all the time see people trying to live within Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. People who live in those games usually really don’t quite believe they are doing it. It’s kind of play acting. In church we live within a story, together with a large community, and we, to a certain degree, not as much as we think we ought to, try to live within its story.

I can understand if you think this is weird. It looks that way to our culture right now. It hasn’t always looked that way. It doesn’t look that way to everyone.

Israel and Philistines

Any time you pop into a church you jump into the middle of a story. It is the middle of the church story, and in this case the middle of the long story of the Bible.

The Bible is really more than just a book, it is really an anthology, a book of books. In our walking through this story we have arrived at place called 1 Samuel 4-6.

The Bible tells the story of Israel. Israel is a people with its own story. Why should we care?

Just like Harry Potter books don’t just tell us about Harry and his friends, so also the Bible tells us about Israel so that we can learn about life, about what it is a human being, about what matters.

1 Samuel 4:1–2 (NIV)

1 Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. 2 The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.

Now this might sound like Lord or the Rings or Game of Thrones but it does because those try to sound like history. Who are these people and why are they fighting?

The Israelites are a small, not very powerful group of people who were chosen by God to re-connect the world to himself after we have done to the world what we always do to it. We take a beautiful world and make it a place of pain and strife. God rescued Israel from Egypt and invited that if they would embody his vision for this world he would make them glorious. Israel, however, is made up of people, like us. And they do the kinds of things that we do. God rescued Israel from Egypt, brought them to the promised land, but they kept getting tripped up in the things we do as people and they kept falling under the power of their more powerful neighbors.

We don’t know a lot about the Philistines but we believe they were the dreaded and feared “Sea Peoples” who left islands in the Aegean Sea to colonize different areas around the Mediterranean. These were people with world class technology for their time in navigation, commerce, communication, and military technology. They had metal working technology while the Israelites literally had stones and pointed sticks.

Israel had left Egypt and settled in the Promised land but mostly kept to the hills, mixed among the various other people groups in the area. The Philistines settled on the coast, good land near where they arrived and built strong cities.

In the ancient world there were two ways to eat, grow your own food or let your neighbors do all the hard work and after they’ve harvested and accumulated it all swoop in and take it from them, along with women and children that you might be able to enslave. This was pretty much common practice all around the world even to this day. This was what the Philistines were doing to Israel but Israel was too weak to resist.

Where is God? 

1 Samuel 4:3–9 (NIV)

3 When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. 6 Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?” When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. 8 We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. 9 Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”

It’s important to understand the kind of relationship gods had with people in that day. Gods were imagined to be rather fickle super heroes. These were like Captain America or Iron Man. They were usually men and women, they had more gender balance than the Marvel movies, and they could intervene or hinder the aspirations of a people or individuals.

These gods had things they cared about. Statues, boxes, offerings and things could get gods to do what people wanted and so religious things, priests, temples, idols and the like were powerful tools of statecraft for the nations.

Last week we learned about Hophni and Phinehas . These were two priests who were particularly successful at employing their craft to use the LORD, the Hebrew’s God, to their advantage. They were able to use the tent/temple they had get food, sex, status, power, whatever it was that they wanted.

When Israel lost the battle, quite predictably against the Philistines, it was time to bring out the LORD, the big guns. The LORD had a reputation for being powerful because he had sent plagues upon Egypt and defeated the gods of Egypt. Hophni and Phinehas, experts in manipulating and employing the LORD decided to play their trump card, bring out the portable ark box which was imagined to be God’s throne. You might have heard about it in Raider of the Lost Ark. Bible nerds complain that Spielberg broke canon a bit in his film but I’ll not go into that now.

The Philistines knew the stories from Egypt, and they had respect for Egypt’s power and the power of her gods. Everyone knew that for a people to become a great empire they must have the greatest gods so when they heard that Israel was bringing the ark they had to psych themselves up for battle. They knew that if they lost then they would be doing the hard work and have Israel come in and take their gold, food, wives and children for slaves.

The Lord Doesn’t Show Up

1 Samuel 4:10–11 (NIV)

10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

But, like in any good story, there are twists and turns. The ark doesn’t work and the LORD doesn’t do for Israel against the Philistines what he did against Egypt. Why not? What happened? Why didn’t it work?

The tension isn’t broken right away. As you know if a story is going to be real to you you need to care about the characters. The Bible works this too. We’ve learned about Eli and Samuel and Hannah in previous chapters. Now the focus of the story will switch to regular people. This will be a scene like you see in movies when there is a great military defeat and regular people are being slaughtered or die of distress.

1 Samuel 4:12–22 (NIV)

12 That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dust on his head. 13 When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry. 14 Eli heard the outcry and asked, “What is the meaning of this uproar?” The man hurried over to Eli, 15 who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes had failed so that he could not see. 16 He told Eli, “I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.” Eli asked, “What happened, my son?” 17 The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years. 19 His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains. 20 As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention. 21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

Ichabod, The Glory has Departed

The ark didn’t work. God’s project of reclamation has failed. As was often the case in the Bible names mean something and in this case it is utter catastrophe. The presence of the LORD, also known as the glory of the LORD, sometimes manifest in a cloud, sometimes in fire was gone. Israel was abandoned and all is lost.

We are left to wonder “what kind of person is this god, the LORD? Why did he leave? Will Israel now fail and be dissolved into the obscurity of history?”

Over in Philistine Land

1 Samuel 5:1–5 (NIV)

1 After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.

It was customary when you defeated a people, and by proxy their god to take their god as a prize captive for your god. The ark of the LORD was brought to the city of the Philistines and placed as a trophy in the temple of Dagon, but then strange things started to happen.

Now the Philistines of course believed in their god, that their god was real, was powerful, was the key to their prosperity and power and glory, but they also understood that statues don’t move and that all of the religious symbolism was important but not in a machine way. What happened then to their statue, their idol of Dagon was deeply disturbing. They had interpreted their victory of Israel as the defeat of the LORD by Dagon, but here in Dagon’s own house he seemed to be being owned by the LORD. And then things started getting even worse.

1 Samuel 5:6–12 (NIV)

6 The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors. 7 When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” 8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?” They answered, “Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel. 9 But after they had moved it, the Lord’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” 11 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy on it. 12 Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.

Heavy

Now when we read the Bible it is helpful to remember that it was written in a different language than English and that Bible translators do the best they can. Inherent in translation, however, is having to make choices because you can never really translate anything perfectly. One of the choices they had to make was how to talk about what the LORD was doing to the Philistines because in a very nerdy way it connects this story, again, to the story of Egypt.

Some of the old translations like the King James version are not helpful in some ways but very helpful in other nerdy ways. Verse 6 is an example of this. It translates it this way.

1 Samuel 5:6 (KJV 1900)

6 But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.

The word I want to point out is “heavy”. This is a word that pops up in the story of the confrontation of the LORD and Pharaoh. That’s a famous story because a number of times the Bible famously says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and this offends us because 1. we think God can’t penetrate our mind and heart space (philosophy nerds might call this the buffered self) and 2. because it seems unfair. Why should God punish Pharaoh for what he can’t help.

The picture the Bible paints, however, is way more nuanced than that. The Bible wants to say that Pharaoh had a choice, not disconnected from God, but still a free choice and that in the end Pharaoh decided to get stubborn, entrench, and continue going toe to toe with the LORD hoping to overcome him, which he of course famously failed to do. It was a very bad decision by Pharaoh and one he should have known better to take. He should have known  he couldn’t go toe to toe with God. He should have cried “uncle” and let Israel go, but he didn’t. He didn’t know who he was, who the LORD was, and how they compared in authority and power. It was a catastrophic error of judgment.

Now the text invites us to compare the Lords of the Philistines with Pharaoh. What will they do? Will they learn? Will their hearts grow hard? How can they communicate with this God and how will they relate to him when he hasn’t really revealed himself to them like he did to Israel? How will this God respond?

“Uncle!” 

1 Samuel 6:1–12 (NET)

1 When the ark of the Lord had been in the land of the Philistines for seven months,2 the Philistines called the priests and the omen readers, saying, “What should we do with the ark of the Lord? Advise us as to how we should send it back to its place.” 3 They replied, “If you are going to send the ark of the God of Israel back, don’t send it away empty. Be sure to return it with a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and you will understand why his hand is not removed from you.” 4 They inquired, “What is the guilt offering that we should send to him?” They replied, “The Philistine leaders number five. So send five gold sores and five gold mice, for it is the same plague that has afflicted both you and your leaders. 5 You should make images of the sores and images of the mice that are destroying the land. You should honor the God of Israel. Perhaps he will release his grip on you, your gods, and your land.6 Why harden your hearts like the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When God treated them harshly, didn’t the Egyptians send the Israelites on their way?7 So now go and make a new cart. Get two cows that have calves and that have never had a yoke placed on them. Harness the cows to the cart and take their calves from them back to their stalls. 8 Then take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a chest beside it the gold objects you are sending to him as a guilt offering. You should then send it on its way. 9 But keep an eye on it. If it should go up by the way of its own border to Beth Shemesh, then he has brought this great calamity on us. But if that is not the case, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us; rather, it just happened to us by accident.” 10 So the men did as instructed. They took two cows that had calves and harnessed them to a cart; they also removed their calves to their stalls. 11 They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, along with the chest, the gold mice, and the images of the sores. 12 Then the cows went directly on the road to Beth Shemesh. They went along, mooing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left. The leaders of the Philistines were walking along behind them all the way to the border of Beth Shemesh.

Now this was a miracle. They knew that naturally the cows would want to stay by their calves so for them to go, automatically back to Israel meant that the LORD was master of the cows even against what we commonly see in nature.

Also notice how the Philistines tried to communicate with the LORD. This is the LORD who famously said “you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image of anything in heaven above, or the earth below…” The Philistines make little tumor idols and little mouse idols and put it in the ark.

Also notice how they handle the ark. Israelites weren’t supposed to handle the ark. You might know that this becomes a big deal in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They read the stories. Yet the LORD seems to understand the ignorance of the Philistines and not take offense, at least in this way. He was engaging in a conversation with the Philistines in ways they could understand, even though they were the area near Greece and didn’t know anything that God had said through Moses. This tells us something about this God, about his heart, about what he wants.

Back to Israel

1 Samuel 6:12–20 (NET)

12 Then the cows went directly on the road to Beth Shemesh. They went along, mooing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left. The leaders of the Philistines were walking along behind them all the way to the border of Beth Shemesh. 13 Now the residents of Beth Shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they were pleased at the sight. 14 The cart was coming to the field of Joshua, who was from Beth Shemesh. It paused there near a big stone. Then they cut up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, which contained the gold objects. They placed them near the big stone. At that time the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five leaders of the Philistines watched what was happening and then returned to Ekron on the same day. 17 These are the gold sores that the Philistines brought as a guilt offering to the Lord—one for each of the following cities: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. 18 The gold mice corresponded in number to all the Philistine cities of the five leaders, from the fortified cities to hamlet villages, to greater Abel, where they positioned the ark of the Lord until this very day in the field of Joshua who was from Beth Shemesh. 19 But the Lord struck down some of the people of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord; he struck down 50,070 of the men. The people grieved because the Lord had struck the people with a hard blow. 20 The residents of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?”

This story invites us to talk about “who is the LORD” and “who is Israel”. What is strange here is that the ark isn’t the mechanical weapon or blessing machine that Hophni and Phinehas imagined it to be. There is a person behind the ark who is acting, choosing, able to relate to Philistines in ways different than Israelites depending on their relational history. This is not a sub-human being like a machine or a dog we might train, but someone above and beyond us. Someone not unwilling to write us into or out of the story.

Misery

Now you might find this a frustrating way to get your questions answered. You might prefer one of the 45 billion websites that offer advice.

You might prefer to be in a story where you get to decide. You might imagine that being the author of your own life is a good thing. You might also discover that you, like Pharaoh, are long on pretense but short on power.

In any good story there are comic and tragic figures, winners and losers, heroes and villains and while we enjoy the adventure of a good story from the safety of our living room or a movie theater we have a vicarious longing to be in the real story, even though the anxiety and drama of the real story too often feel unwelcome to the characters.

The kinds of big questions we want to ask and discuss really aren’t always easily reduced to morality or advice. We know that story locates us in ways that are greater than what we sometimes do or who we sometimes imagine ourselves to be in the moment.

Israel, the ones given the revelation, the status, the ark, the covenant, forget who they are and are then reminded in a terrible, painful way. “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this Holy God?”

Deliverance

In case you didn’t notice the hero of the story we told was the LORD. The people were characters. They had agency, importance, drama, feelings, fears and joys. The heart of the story is the relationship between this LORD and these people and when we in church talk about being part of a story it is this story that we live into.

For Christians of course, the answer to the question of who can stand before him is Jesus. But Jesus, like the Philistines, like the forgetful, irreverent, incautious people of Beth Shemesh is killed. He stands in that liminal space between the author and the characters being at once on both sides of the writing.

We got into this filled with questions about other people, about getting money or power or status or sex or fulfillment amidst the furniture of our homes. What we are then confronted with this that the real figure we need to pay attention to is not a tool or a means by which we accomplish our petty agendas but is instead the author of our stories and the movies of our lives, if we can claim that they are in any real way “ours” after we see him.

God is no tool that we can wield. He is no trophy we can display.

The one who stands before God is new Israel, the son. He becomes God’s victim so that we can become his friend.

Gratitude

So where does that leave you?

All the questions I started with have a story behind it. It is a concealed story that pretends not to be a story at all so that it won’t be examined. It wants to invite you to be the author of your story but these questions betray the fact that this story will bind you in the machinery of its morality. This morality will not die for you, you must sacrifice yourself to it.

What this story in Samuel reveals is that the author of the story, the one behind the ark is able to engage persons from where they are at. He can engage Philistines even if they are newbies and not nerds. He can engage Israelites and draw the deeper into the story, closer to himself. This the story of a hunter God, a lover God who wants to make you his own and you are terribly outmatched. He has offered himself to you. Will you take him? Will you allow him to take you? Will you live in his story?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is God a character in your story or are you a character in His?

  1. Pingback: Hope for a National Drug-infested, Suicidal Midlife Crisis | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Pingback: How the Pulse Tragedy Tempts CRC to forget their Confessional Scripts and Mimic the Competing Civil Religions of our Day | Leadingchurch.com

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