003 - Stories, Myth, and the Bible
Season 1, Episode 3
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
I want to begin with the idea of story. For this reason: that as humans we fundamentally learn, think, communicate, everything we do happens through stories to the very heart of who we are. And we could unpack in another time how I would argue this grows out of who God is in the image of God in us. But stories are absolutely central and always have been in human experience. If you think about this entertainment, leisure, education, business, commerce, history, they’re driven by story. Now, facts are important. Propositional truth is important. Information is important, but fundamental to the human experience is story.
The Bible predominantly comes to us in story form. Unlike many other religious books in various religions, which tend to be collections of wisdom or theological principles or collections of wise sayings, very little narrative. More than half of the Bible we would put into the into the genre of historical narrative. That means this: in story form, real events that really happened in time and space. All the other genres in the Bible–wisdom, prophecy, law, theology, letters–it all happens, and it all only makes sense in the larger context of what goes on in the narrative, historical narratives of the Bible. And that’s especially true of the Old Testament.
So you take the stories out, you take the story out of the Old Testament, you’re not left with very much that makes sense. So the whole thing has to go together. I like the way Jeff Myers says this. Jeff Myers is with Summit Ministries. I’m going to quote him several times throughout. He’s had a big influence on my thinking in my life about this, but I like Jeff Myers who says it this way, that “the Bible tells the story of the world to which God’s very existence is the whole prelude.”
But just think about what a story has, a good story, at any rate. Bad stories are bad stories because they’re missing or have underdeveloped parts that we’re going to name here. So, think about what a story has. It’s a narrative that has a plot, it has a theme. And good stories have both a main theme and then sub themes that kind of weave in and out together and slowly build toward one single coherent whole part. A good story has a very clear theme that draws the reader along.
Good stories have conflict and resolution. There’s some kind of tension that has created, characters that have competing voices or views. And as the plot unfolds, that tension gets worked out. OK, so a theme, conflict resolution. Good story, good narrative, also has diversity within unity. There’s a multitude of all kind of different details, not only in the plot and the subplots, but in different character groups, major and minor characters, different things going on with setting. Different kinds of setting, different conflict threads that we through that, right? So there’s all this diversity in a good narrative. But a good story, a good storyteller, can weave all that together in a single unified body of work that by the end of the story has come together.
The most fundamental pieces of a good story: a beginning, a middle and an end. The story starts somewhere. And the story has a middle in which things are developed, and explored, and expanded. And you’ve studied this in literature. Remember the rising action and what does rising action lead to? The climax and the falling action as you move toward the end? So, these are these are the basic pieces of any good story.
The Bible is such a story. As a whole. Not only Bible, the stories in the Bible, but the Bible itself. Genesis to revelation, we find all of these elements in here. So, we can see the Bible is a whole story, but it’s a very particular kind of a story. It’s a story of historical events. But the Bible is also a different kind of a narrative beyond just historical events.
For this we come to the concept of metanarrative. A metanarrative is the story behind the story or the story behind, beyond the story. There’s something bigger, more foundational going on in the kind of story that a metanarrative is dealing with.
Another way we can think of metanarrative — and here we are kind of moving out of literature into philosophy, but this is important and it really is central to what we are doing in dealing with in the Bible — a metanarrative would be the story that helps all the other stories in life or in a culture or in society makes sense. Right? That metanarrative is the one that kind of helps hold everything else together.
Every culture, every religion–and this has been true from the beginning and if you get into sociology, you get into literature, especially if you love ancient literature, you find this, right?–every culture, every religion has at its center such a metanarrative, some kind of a story that explains all other stories within that culture within that religion. All worldviews tell such a story, have such a metanarrative and explanation of the world as it were, even if those worldviews do not think they’re presenting it that way.
Another term for a metanarrative could be, depending on how it’s used, the concept of myth. And I mentioned this in the context of the Old Testament, because if you get into reading biblical scholarship or books about the Old Testament and what it is, especially if you get into reading people who are critics of the Old Testament or adversaries of the Old Testament, a fairly common trope is the Bible, the Old Testament, especially, is just simply one myth among all the other myths of history of human history. There’s nothing any different.
Then, of course, when you think myth, you think mythology and most of us would be familiar with mythology. If we start talking about Greek mythology or Roman mythology, Norse mythology, Egyptian mythology. You find mythologies in every culture so all these things are connected. So when we talk about Roman mythology or Greek mythology, underlying that mythology and its cast of characters is a story, a narrative that essential to those cultures that they use to explain how their world works.
That surfaces when we get into the New Testament because in the Roman world the Roman myth about how the world works and the story that was central to the Roman culture of Jesus’s day becomes quite significant in understanding what is happening with Jesus, and especially Paul and the gospel. So this idea of myth really, even though we’re not used to using that word, it really does run through the entire biblical text.
So, a good way to think about a myth in this conversation, so meta-story, meta narrative, myth. These are all same kinds of things. But a myth in a literary sense that we’re using it here — because we often hear myth and think it’s a story that’s not true. We’re going to be a little bit more precise. okay? A myth in the literary sense is a worldview that comes in the form of a narrated story. It’s a worldview. How does the world work? Why is it the way it is that is presented in the form of a narrated story.
Let me say this another way. When we talk about metanarrative, when we talk about myth — and I’m using different language, but I want you to understand these are all the same kind of thing. What we’re talking about are stories that explain the way that a culture understands who it is, where it came from, how it works, and why it thinks the way it thinks. Every culture, every religion has some kind of an explanation to answer those basic things. And at the heart of every religion or every culture is a metanarrative, in other words, an explanation of that in story form of some kind
Now this is a great point to talk about the thoughts and the influence of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis on this very point, because these guys had a lot to say about this. These two guys are, were really good friends. Both literary professors. Tolkien had significant influence on CS Lewis and his conversion to Christianity. Both these guys coming out of the literary background, this idea of myth and how cultures explain reality, the idea of myth was really significant to them.
And so both Tolkien and Lewis — and Lewis is the one that made the statement a little bit more famous — but both of these guys made this argument about the Bible.
You have all of these other myths and culture, all of them purporting to tell some kind of a story about how the world came to be the way it is. And in that sense, the Bible is myth. It is giving a story, a metanarrative about how the world came to be, why it is the way it is, and what’s going to happen with it. It explains reality.
The difference is, Tolkien and then Lewis both argued, the Bible is myth that happens to also be true. It’s not merely just a story that explains the origins of the world and why the world works the way it is. It happens to be historical fact as well.
So, in other cultures, when we look at metanarratives, we look at their myths, we look at their worldview stories, what you find is the stories really just kind of play an inspirational role and an explanatory role. It’s not, we’re not concerned whether those events and those stories are factual. It’s really just the explanation they provide. We just use the explanation. But the stories themselves? We don’t really worry about whether or not they’re true. They’re metaphorical.
The Bible is radically different. This is what separates it from all other sacred literature, if we want to use that term. The Bible is doing both. It is offering to us a metanarrative, a broad, grand overarching story about where the how the world came into existence. What happened to it? Why it is the way it is, and what’s going to happen to it in the future. That’s a metanarrative.
And the Bible is that. And it’s a grand story capturing the lead. But it’s also historical. It’s also real events. It’s also claiming to say, this is actually how it happened. It’s not just an amusing story to help us kind of make sense. It’s actually how it happened and, therefore, it is presenting reality itself. And that calls our attention. Because if that if that’s the case — if the Bible in fact is that — we now have in front of us the explanation for all of reality in absolute concrete form.
Well, we find similar stories in the Old Testament in other cultures. For example, versions of the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh or in other Mesopotamian cultures. We find flood stories in various ancient Egyptian meta narratives and mythologies, and therefore that means all these all of these ancient sources were borrowing from each other.
This is how the argument goes. Therefore, that story in the Old Testament is intended. Here’s the truth. You can find aspects of truth in other narratives and other worldviews and other religious stories. But they’re all giving incomplete partial snapshots of a story that only in the Bible do we find told in its full, complete version. The Bible itself reveals that in full. And at the heart of this is this claim: it’s not just a, it’s not just a grand overarching story; it’s not just a metanarrative. It’s the story in which God himself has come to say, let me reveal who I am and let me reveal not only why the world works the way it works, but what I intended for it. And so that revelation, this story leads us to the author of Life itself.
What we’re dealing with as we embark on this journey through the Old Testament is not just a collection of biblical principles. It’s not just a collection of theological truths. What we don’t want to do is just go through and mine facts and propositions, because that’s not how God himself revealed all of this to us. But he’s come to us and said, let me let me show you reality itself in the form of a story. That invites us to enter into this story and understand and see all of the parts, all of the complexities.
And so, we approach the Bible first and foremost as the idea of the story, which means it has a scene. Which means it has a plot. Which means it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Which means it has conflict and resolution. It has all of these pieces.
So, here’s Jeff Myers: “the books of the Bible put together, tell a single story, single coherent story and it unfolds the story of human history.” And I would add to his quote, human destiny from beginning to end.
Let’s kind of try to break down just a little bit more what that means. And so, what I want to give you here is a framework for where we’re going the rest of the rest of this series. I think best in big picture. This is the Bible’s grand story broken down, I like the six act way of thinking about the Bible’s big story. In its most fundamental form, we can reduce the story of the Bible down to these three words: creation, fall, redemption. We’re going to keep coming back to this time and time and time again. That’s a great thematic way to understand what’s happening, but we need to unpack that a little bit more to help us to give us a better structure for the narrative flow of the Bible story, so that’s where the six acts comes in. Creation, Act one. This is Genesis 1 and 2, and 3. The Fall. Genesis 4 through 11. That’s Act 2. Well, you see, the first two acts only have taken us through a third of the first book of the Bible.
Act 3. We’re primarily talking –and I just simply call this Israel, okay? But that’s primarily the main character, if you will, in focus. And Act 3 about Israel is Genesis 12 through the rest of the Old Testament. So, Acts 1 and 2, very little. Act 3, a big chunk of the Bible. Act 4, we call this Jesus. Primarily the four gospels. Act 5 is about the church. It’s the rest of the New Testament, except for Act 6, which is the Book of Revelation. And that that’s kind of it. In one sense, the narrative of the Bible is a fairly simple structure to kind of get your head around.
I want you to hold two things side by side as a part of this story. The first is the theme of Creation/Fall/Redemption. In terms of explaining what the Bible is about as a whole, you can boil it down to those three words. Somebody comes along and says, man, the Bible’s a head scratcher, the Old Testament is a head scratcher. What’s going on with that? That’s easy? It’s the story of creation, the story of what happened at creation and fall, and the story of what God is going to do about it – redemption. That’s it.
But lay alongside that creation, fall, redemption theme, the theme of kingdom. It’s not the only way to look thematically at the Bible as a whole. You can find different versions. Covenants, the theme of covenant is a big one. Different versions of that, but I think for our purposes, the kingdom is one of the most significant.
My big reason for this being a primary focus for me is when Jesus goes about beginning his public ministry, he goes all around through Galilee, proclaiming and preaching repent and believe, for the kingdoms at hand. And Jesus himself talked about the kingdom more than any other topic. So I think there’s good reason for that, as we find.
So, as we go through the Acts — 1, 2, and 3 in this series — we’re looking at creation, fall, redemption. That’s the underlying theme of what God is doing. But we’re going to lay alongside of that the idea of kingdom as a way of understanding what God’s intention and design and work in the world is all about. I would simply put it in these terms. Okay?
When we talk about redemption, we’re talking about God putting something back together. So God created something. Something happened to it all. God is putting it all back together, redemption. The question, of course, is, what is he putting back together? What did he create? For me, I have found kingdom is the most useful explanation for us in this context. So, creation, fall, redemption. But it’s all about the Kingdom.
So, what we’ll see in acts 1, 2, and 3: the Kingdom created, the Kingdom fallen. Then, in the Old Testament — and here’s where we can begin to break the narrative of redemption into smaller pieces — in the Old Testament, what we find is the kingdom promised.
One of the reasons that studying the Old Testament is of great importance, absolute importance to us to understand fully who God is and what he is doing. The New Testament by itself is incomplete. You need both. The New Testament gives us answers to questions it doesn’t ask. The New Testament gives US solutions to a problem that it doesn’t present. The New Testament gives us completion of something that didn’t start in the New Testament. So it’s the Old Testament where you find the problem. It’s in the Old Testament where you find the question. And it’s in the Old Testament where you find the promise.
Let’s add a little bit of flavor to this before we turn our attention to Genesis. I want to expand just a little bit more before we go on in terms of a theological summary of the Old Testament. And I’ll be very upfront with you: studying the Old Testament is a theological exercise. It’s not just about interesting people in places, and it’s not just about interesting narrative. Because this is the story of reality and this is God revealing something about himself and what he’s doing, which is the very definition of theology.
So, to kind of help lay that foundation, I want to give you just a real simple four word theological summary. There are the four words. There’s a promise. It’s going to show up right in Genesis 3. Out of that promise, God is going to lay forth and begin to implement a plan to bring that promise to fulfillment. That’s the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, where that is beginning to be laid out.
As soon as we leave the Pentateuch behind and we move into the historical books, we encounter a pretty major problem, and that’s the primary theological focus that runs through the historical books. Something is getting in the way of God’s plan. And then the 4th main theological theme in all of this. Is God’s preparation to do something about the problem and that is primarily the focus of the prophets?
I know that’s a lot of Ps. Promise, Plan, Problem, Preparation. And this just it jumps right back to what we had said just a moment ago. The New Testament is providing a solution. Where’s the problem? The New Testament doesn’t really tell us that. It assumes we already know what the problem is because we are students of the Old Testament. And there you go, that’s exactly what the Old Testament is going to lay out
Let me go back to promise. In Promise, what’s going on? Well, we have the goodness of creation. We have man’s rebellion and its effects on breaking that creation. God promises to restore that. Genesis 4, but sin begins to grow and rapidly expand across the face of the globe. God has a response to that. God does something with that and out of that radically sinful human world, God is going to choose a family. And so, the promise is, I’m going to do something about all of this. That’s promise, the book of Genesis.
So, the Plan. Well, what’s God going to do? How is he going to do it? Well, God’s plan to redeem is going to begin with a family. It’s going to lead to a nation and it’s going to be through that nation that he’s going to bring about his ultimate plan of redemption. This part of the Old Testament’s theological story that involves Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and numbers, and the wisdom books, we can add in that. Primarily about that nation being formed – Israel, ow God leads him to the place that he’s going to establish them, and the expectations for the kind of people they are supposed to be as God’s chosen special people.
And so, the question that now shows up in the plan is, I’ve called, I’ve chosen you. You’re a part of my plan. How do we live? What does it mean to live faithfully as the people of God? And that’s significantly what the wisdom books are all about. How do you do that? What’s that mean?
Okay? Well, part three in terms of theological summary. Beginning with the book of Judge, repeated, flagrant cycles of disobedience on the part of the people over and over and over. Repeated failure to be the people that God had just, had told them how to be in that previous section.
The main characters in focus through this – primarily, not exclusively, but primarily — wicked kings and false prophets. And the fundamental problem is idolatry, and we could add to this sexual immorality and those two things go hand in hand. We’ll get to that.
But the problem is actually quite a bit more basic. They are simply unable to be on the inside what the law had demanded they be on the outside. You can reduce the problem of the Old Testament down to this. God expects us to live with him to be like him and be in fellowship with him, and we can’t. We aren’t unable to. Is there any hope? Is it even possible?
And that’s kind of where the Old Testament ends. But not quite. So, here’s where that fourth theological theme comes into play through the prophets, running alongside of this repeated problem that shows up over and over and over again. We cannot be what God wants. God begins to speak to his people, to the problem through the prophets. And a new promise is given.
And a new promise centers around — in contrast to the wicked evil kings and the false prophets that are so central to the failures of Israel — the prophets come along and say, here’s a new promise. God is going to bring along one who will be a perfect king, a perfect priest, and a perfect prophet who will help you do what you are unable to do. And the promise is, the prophets are preparing the way when the day will come, when God will enable his people to fulfill the law spiritually.
And so over and over again, you find in the prophets this kind of language. This king, this perfect prophet, this priest will write the law on your hearts, not on your external behavior. And whereas God’s presence in the Old Testament is primarily seen and established through the physical temple. The prophets point the way, lay the foundation for the day that will come when God inhabits not a temple of stone, but a temple of flesh. But that’s all still to come. But that’s the fourth major component theologically and what is happening in the Old Testament?
So, let’s zoom back out. Theological summary. If you get nothing else out of what’s the Old Testament about theologically: Promise, about what God is intending for his creation. A plan for what he’s going to do to bring that about. The problem that is encountered in order for that plan to happen. And how God is going to prepare the way, what God is doing to prepare the way to deal with all of that.
That’s the Old Testament.