The Place of Story and Storytelling in Messianic Jewish Ministry: Rediscovering the Lost Treasures of Hebraic Narrative
“God made man because He loves stories.” (Elie Wiesel)1
W hy are story and storytelling so important for Messianic Jewish ministry? A principal reason is that Yeshua the Messiah used stories as his primary teaching method. He used stories to teach both the non-literate or semi-literate am ha aretz (the common folk) in Galilee as well as the most highly literate Torah scholars of his day in Jerusalem. He is the Master Teacher and our exemplar for our teaching vocations. Additionally, the concepts contained in any given category of systematic theology are embedded in the hundreds of stories found in Scripture. Telling these stories, leading group discussion of them, and using good questions that facilitate application to life is a more effective way to get people into the Bible and the Bible into people than lecturing on systematic or philosophical theology. Furthermore, the fact that about 70% of the canonical Scriptures are in the narrative genre suggests that we should give proportionally about 70% of our Bible teaching time to storytelling.
The influence of the Western conceptual and analytic approach to theologizing, homiletics and teaching has been prevalent in modern Western Christianity, which subsequently influenced the contemporary Messianic Jewish movement.
This approach is not to be disregarded or devalued. However, by retrieving some lost Hebraic treasures we can achieve more balance and holism in our ministry of the Word, and have deeper impact on the hearts and lives of our hearers.
In modernity, the focus has been on the following: the rational, scientific, analytic, logical, linear, and the technological. However, there is an ancient and continuous biblical and Jewish storytelling tradition—the Aggadic/Haggadic tradition—whose focus is on the literary-artistic, the aesthetic, the emotionally and relationally expressive, the holistic, and on metaphor, imagery and story. The “People of the Book” are the people of the Story. Yeshua said, “Every Torah scholar discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure both new things and old” (Matt 13:52, TLV). In this Jewish year of 5778, ending in “eight,” the number of new beginnings, I offer eight “narratives” toward retrieving these lost treasures and re-digging the wells of Story:
Narrative 1: The Theology of Israel is Based on Story
Narrative 2: The Hebraic and Jewish Roots of Story and Storytelling
Narrative 3: “Hear O Israel”: Orality Is Fundamental to Human Communication
Narrative 4: Hebraic vs. European Enlightenment Epistemology
Narrative 5: Jewish Midrash and Story
Narrative 6: The Power of Story
Narrative 7: Yeshua the Messiah: Master Storyteller
Narrative 8: Storytelling in Contemporary Jewish Ministry and Our Postmodern Moment
Narrative 1: The Theology of Israel is Based on Story
How did Israel come to know the Creator as Adonai Elohim, and as Avinu Malkeinu, and how did Israel develop its theology? The Creator called Avram in Ur of the Chaldees. Avram listened to the voice of God and began the journey. God continued to speak to the other patriarchs, revealing himself and his purposes. But contrary to the religions of the ancient Far East, inner subjective experience was not the major means of revelation. God’s objective outward acts in space-time history determined the content of inner revelation.
Mystical experience was not the focus, but rather the very earthy, participatory, messy, and concrete events in the living of real lives. These included Abraham’s journeying to a place and a destiny not fully undisclosed to him, his learning by struggle and trial how to respect his wife and the significance of an heir. Jacob’s wrestling with God to be transformed into Yis-ra’El, and later Joseph’s suffering at the hands of his brothers and his moral testing in Egypt, all in God’s providence preparing Jacob’s clan to be forged by blood, sweat, and tears into a nation. This is revelation in and through the real, tangible, stories of these lives.
After the patriarchal period, God began to reveal himself on a larger scale to the nation of Egypt and to the people of Israel, forming Israel into a nation by his mighty acts among them and for them. The powerful saving acts of God in the events surrounding the exodus from Egypt constitute the foundational narrative of Israel. History was the primary arena in which God revealed himself. History is never a bare record of neutral facts. It always includes the meaning of those facts. The telling of those revelatory events and their God-given meaning produced Israel’s theology. As the saying goes, history is “HisStory.”
G. Ernest Wright, who studied under the great archaeologist W.F. Albright and participated in excavations in Israel (then Palestine) in the 1930s and later was professor of Old Testament at Harvard University, has thoroughly researched and explained this theological formation process. He states,
[Theology] is fundamentally an interpretation of history, a confessional recital of historical events as the acts of God, events which lead backward to the beginning of history and forward to its end. Inferences are constantly made from the acts and are interpreted as integral parts of the acts themselves which furnish the clue to understanding not only contemporary happenings, but those which subsequently occurred. The being and attributes of God are nowhere systematically presented but are inferences from events.2
An example of this process of theologizing from history and story is from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) who taught the people of Israel that when they came into the land promised to them, they were to bring a tithe of the firstfruits of their produce in a basket to the place God designated. They were to offer it to the priest, who would set it before the altar. But then this striking practice is commanded,
Then you are to respond before the Adonai your God, and say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt and lived there as an outsider, few in number. But there he became a nation—mighty and numerous. And the Egyptians treated us badly, afflicted us and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to Adonai, God of our fathers, and Adonai listened to our voice heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. Then Adonai brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, and with signs and wonders. He brought us into this place and gave us this land—a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deut 26:5–9, TLV, italics added)
Note that this was an oral-aural community event, not an isolated individual reading a text in a study carrel. The people are commanded to annually recite, to tell the story of their father Jacob, of his family’s decent into Egypt, and then of the story of their great deliverance from slavery to Pharaoh which forged the Israelite peoplehood. The telling— or the storying— of the acts of God in their history formed the theology of Israel.
The stories of Genesis are archetypal and prismatic, but the identity of Israel is grounded in this bedrock story, the exodus from Egypt. This is Israel’s master story. And as Michael Goldberg says, “master stories not only inform us, they form us.”3 This story runs through Jewish tradition like a river. Recall how the liturgy for Shabbat Eve Kiddush in the Siddur retells it, “Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, who . . . gave us his holy Sabbath . . . a memorial of the exodus from Egypt.” This master story of historical events gives meaning and direction to the people in the present and hope for the future. Because God acted thus before, we trust he will so act again.
To the present time, each year at Passover, the Jewish people are commanded to tell their children the story of the nation’s founding, of God’s awesome deliverance from Egypt. “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Exod 13:8). The Hebrew verb is “vehiggadata”—to “tell.” Hence the Passover story and its oral re-telling through the “Haggadah” are an essential Jewish practice. The annual retelling of the story reinforces the Jewish people’s identity as a nation and people. And each Jewish feast or holiday provides an opportunity to recite and retell another story of God’s gracious acts on behalf of his people. This was the rationale for the pilgrimage festivals. Retelling and reenacting through ritual and liturgy was the way theology was formed and how it is transmitted from generation to generation.
Psalm 78 is a retelling of the story of Israel. This is a model liturgy for Israel, and is what is done in most Jewish feasts—telling and retelling the story and stories of Israel from generation to generation.
Psalm 78: A maskil of Asaf:
Listen, my people, to my teaching;
turn your ears to the words from my mouth.
I will speak to you in parables [Hebrew: “mashal,” a wisdom saying, poem, or story]
and explain mysteries from days of old.
The things which we have heard and known,
and which our fathers told us
we will not hide from their descendants;
we will tell the generation to come (vss 1–4, CJB).
Doctrinal formulation and a systematization of theology as propositional dogmatics were alien to the Hebrews/Israelites of the Biblical period. They favored the concrete and shunned the abstract. The theologians of Israel were narrative theologians. The modern habit of mind that reasons from axioms, principles, or universals to the concrete was foreign to them.4 Thus, the later way of Jewish formulation of doctrine during the Hellenistic and Talmudic periods was due to the influence set by the Athenian philosophical schools.5
Likewise, the theology of the earliest apostolic church (the early Messianic Jewish movement) grew out of the experience of practical ministry. Ministry preceded and produced theology (not vice-versa as is so often assumed in the modern West). As we read in the Book of Acts, Luke records the practicing before the preaching, the doing before the teaching. “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Yeshua began both to do and to teach …” (Acts 1:1). The New Covenant epistles, some of them systematic like Romans and Ephesians, were written ten or more years after the launching of obedient apostolic efforts to fulfill Messiah’s Great Commission.
Narrative 2: The Hebraic and Jewish Roots of Story and Storytelling
The Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant Scriptures comprise the master story of the universe by which all other smaller stories are given their meaning. The master story provides the necessary interpretive key for the other genre of Scripture by evoking the question—How does this passage or story follow the thread of God’s Master Story?
The Hebraic roots of storytelling pre-date the Written Torah by many centuries. The archetypal stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, of Noah and the Great Flood, of the Tower of Babel, the stories of the families of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were transmitted orally over generations by good storytellers before they were written down in the Torah.
As the literature of Israel and Judaism developed, two broad genres of writings emerged—Halacha and Haggadah. Chaim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934), by all accounts modern Israel’s most celebrated national poet, wrote in 1917 a now classic essay entitled “Halacha and Haggadah.” He observed how often the two genres are considered antithetical—law and story—as if they are irreconcilable opposites.6 Bialik writes,
Halacha wears a frown, Aggadah a smile. The one pedantic, severe unbending—all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable—all mercy. The one commands and knows no half-way house; her yea is yea and her nay is nay. The other advises and takes account of human limitations; she admits something between yea and nay. The one is concerned with the shell, with the body, with actions; the other with the kernel, with the soul, with intentions. On one side there is petrified observance, duty, subjection; on the other perpetual rejuvenation, liberty, free volition. Turn from the sphere of life to that of literature, and there are further points of contrast. On the one side is the dryness of prose, a formal and heavy style, and gray and monochrome diction: reason is sovereign. On the other side is the sap of poetry, a style full of life and variety, a diction all ablaze with color: emotion is sovereign.7
Quite a colorful, expressive, lyrical description! Bialik is a consummate poet. Often we in the modern West have been taught to dichotomize between reason (law, prose, philosophy, logic) and imagination (metaphor, poetry, story, drama). But Bialik insists that the two—Halacha and Haggadah—are interdependent and in dialectic relationship. He continues,
Halacha is the crystallization, the ultimate and inevitable quintessence of Aggadah; Aggadah is the content of Halacha. Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; Halacha is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled. As a dream seeks it fulfillment in interpretation, as will in action, as thought in speech, as flower in fruit—so Aggadah in Halacha.8
Bialik demonstrates, as only a poet could, that both these major genre of literature, both of these ways of teaching and knowing, are in Scripture and life; both are needed and need each other. He observes how in the collections of laws and manuals of instruction in the Torah (e.g., Leviticus) and Talmud, actually have “a kaleidoscope of pictures, large and small, of actual Hebrew life over a period of a thousand years or more.” He notes,
Do not open the Mishnah [the first major redaction of rabbinic oral law traditions, six tractates, mostly Halacha] with puckered brow. Tread leisurely among its chapters, like one exploring the ruins of ancient cities; ramble amid its rows of statutory enactments, set side by side as in a piece of masonry, flint-like in their compressed rigidity; look with a discerning eye at all the pictures, some small and some tiny, which lie scattered about promiscuously in their in their thousands: and ask yourselves whether you are not beholding the actual life of a whole people, ceased in its very progress and petrified in all the multiplicity of its detail.”9
Bialik asserts that behind every law or statute or instruction is a story. The laws are “bits of crystallized life.” If you look for the bit of life, the story, behind the law, it will be anything but boring. Will you ever look at a law or a precept the same way again?
Theology is embedded in the stories. Stories can be found in Scripture wherein are embedded concepts that will address any given category of systematic theology such as soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology, etc. Recalling the stories undergirding these more abstract concepts provides an anchor in the Hebraic narrative epistemology. Stories provide the grounded roots of the realities that are referred to or interpreted in the propositional statements. Story is always primary and primal; analytic propositions and deductions are derivative.
Narrative 3: Hear O Israel! Orality is Fundamental to Human Communication
At the conclusion of the Fall holiday cycle is the festival of Simchat Torah. Traditional and Orthodox Jews passionately celebrate the gift of God’s Word. To witness the exuberant dancing and singing while carrying the adorned Torah Scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem shames the paltry expression of devotion to the Word that characterizes most of us late moderns. This is exemplary affirmation of the Written Word of God. Yet, the Word of God is in three forms:
1) The Living Word (the “Memra” in Hebrew, comparable to the “Logos” in Greek), who became flesh (John 1:1–14)
2) The Written Word (in This Age, the final authority for faith and life)
3) The Oralized Word (Scripture brought to life through human communicators).
Oral language always embodies a personal address, the “I-Thou” dimension of personal relationship (Buber).10 God spoke into being all he created during the six days of Creation, including humans. Thus, humans came into existence by God’s oralized Word. An aspect of the image of God in humans, intrinsic to our personhood, is our capacity for speech. This embodies the intrinsic social nature of humans made in the image of God—humans are a bi-unity of two genders, reflecting the tri-unity of persons the Godhead.
Anthropologists and linguists have demonstrated that oral speech is the fundamental and essential nature of human language. Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) developed the study of phonemics, showing the way language is nested in sound, made up not of letters but of functional sound units called “phonemes.”11 Spoken language preceded writing by many millennia.
In the last decades of twentieth century, the academic world was newly awakened to the oral character of language and the deeper implications of the effects on human consciousness of orality and writing.12 Non-literate oral learners think and process information differently than highly literate people. Oral speech is primary; writing and reading are derivative. Oral expression can exist without writing, yet writing has never existed without orality.
Though it carries huge benefits, a downside of writing is that written discourse is detached from its author, the personal source of the message. The advantage of a book is that it provides the means for a speaker to be linked with a listener without being in the same room or the same century; the disadvantage is the loss of the personal dimension of a communication act.
Modern Western society is a literacy and text-dominant society. Israel was a hearing-dominant society. Though written or printed texts became important later in Jewish history, the Hebraic tradition involves the hearing ear more than the reading eye. Biblically, we see God speaking personally to his people, not writing to them. There are few times in Scripture where God or Yeshua wrote anything: The Ten Commandments, the handwriting on the wall in Daniel, and Yeshua writing in the sand in front of the woman caught in adultery; that’s about it. Yet the phrase “Thus says the Lord” is repeated over 400 times. The Shema reads “Hear O Israel!” not “Read O Israel!” That Israel was a hearing-dominant society is in harmony with the way humans are made and how they most naturally and personally communicate.
The God of Israel modeled for us how to embed something in the memory of a group or a peoplehood. When God instructed Moses about the ongoing tutelage of Israel, he told Moses the reason for the great “Song of Moses” (Deut 32). This song proclaimed God’s ways, his honor, his judgment, and his salvation. God wanted Israel to take this to heart, to internalize it. So he said, “I want you to write down this song and teach it to the children of Israel. Teach them to sing it, so it can be a witness for me against them” (Deut 31:19).
They were to learn it by heart. The “Song of Moses” is in memorable poetry and was to be formally articulated in ways to facilitate memorization by the community. It was to be sung, oralized. But it was also to be written down. The textual version of the poem was necessary for maintaining its permanence from generation to generation, to check its accuracy. Here we see the dynamic dialectic between the Written Word and the Oralized Word—the oralized word can be ephemeral, so must be preserved in writing. The written word is enduring, but must be oralized to complete its purpose.
The Pauline epistles were circulated and read orally aloud in the churches. When the Apostle John sent the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, here were the instructions, “Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (Rev 1:3). Reading the Scriptures, though, is not exactly equivalent to listening to God. To do the former is not necessarily to do the latter. Atheists can read Scripture. Israel was called to listen (Sh’ma) and obey.
The rhetorical and homiletical arts are always central to ministry. The oralizing of the Word described through the cluster of word gifts—teaching, exhortation, prophecy—are endowed by the Holy Spirit to equip the church for ministry (Rom 12:6, 7; 1 Cor 12:8, 10; Eph 4:11). Bible storytelling is an expression of the gifts of teaching and exhortation, but in a form often not recognized as real teaching due to our Western orientation to use lecture and monologue.
Why is orality (the oral-aural process) so singularly valuable? One reason is because of the interpersonal-relational contrasts highlighted by Table 1, next page.
Why is a joke always better told orally than when read from a page? Why is that that I can hear a song on the radio that I have not heard in thirty years, or an advertising jingle I heard in childhood on television, and still sing along word for word, never having written out the words, or read them? There are regions of the human brain that have neurons that light up and retain memory of story and song longer and deeper than most of the printed propositional prose that a person reads. God “wired” us as humans to connect at a deeper level than merely the cognitive.
We cannot reduce the Word of God to paper and ink in a book. The Messiah said to his contemporaries who revered the Book, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39, 40). The Written Word is the means to an end; making it an end in itself misses the point or even becomes bibliolatry. The purpose of the Book of the Lord is to know the Lord of the Book. The Written Word begs for oralizing and points beyond itself to the Living Word.
The Rabbis and Oral Learning and Teaching
The existence of the Rabbinic tradition of Oral Torah (“Torah sh b’ al peh”) with its expansions and explanations of the Written Torah is testimony to Jewish awareness of the need for texts to be oralized and for the Word of God to reach into and speak to the ongoing human situations that arise in the complexities of life in the succeeding time periods. The oral origins of Rabbinic literature and its study are quite clear:
Even when put into writing, it remained a record of oral discussions going on among multiple personalities. . . . In a rabbinic work, each contribution quoted comes originally from an oral context . . . and even if there are intermediate written sources, none of these sources has lost its oral atmosphere or its character as a record of oral discussions.14
Yeshua’s Oral Forms of Teaching
“In the beginning was the Logos” (John 1:1). In the Greek lexicon of the New Testament, the Greek word, “logos,” is denoted as an “utterance, chiefly oral.”15 In the modern West, we tend to think of it as a written word on a page. “The evidence from the Gospels is unanimous about the word word. When the context was the ministry of Jesus, logos (or rhema) denoted speech.”16
The oral origins of the four Gospels are evident within the Gospels. It was not until at least twenty years after Yeshua’s public ministry that the first written accounts were inscribed. Yeshua’s teachings were delivered orally and transmitted orally. His delivery system as a teacher was face-to-face and oral. His teaching methods were non-formal, mostly among the am ha-aretz in the villages and countryside. But it was also a highly intensive, twenty-four-hours per day, life-on-life apprenticeship model with much coaching and personal mentoring. It was, therefore, highly oral and without the aid of books or classroom lectures. Yeshua did not write a book, he did not need to. He stated, “The words I speak to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). It was sufficient for his oral texts to remain oral.
He taught using many questions and stories typically to a cohort of twelve adult learners for discussion learning. His method was effective, such that at the end of the three short years of training, he could report to his Father that, “I gave them the words you gave me and they have accepted them” (John 17:8). The young leaders he trained went on to change the world. We need to recover the lost treasures of storytelling, the oral, and relational teaching methods of Yeshua.
Narrative 4: Hebraic vs. European Enlightenment Epistemology
To compare and contrast the dominant modern Western epistemology (the study of how we know what we know, or the ways of knowing) with the Hebraic epistemology, I will first describe the Enlightenment epistemology and then contrast it with Hebraic epistemology. During the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a major epistemological shift occurred. Medieval knowledge and learning turned from reliance on external authorities (Scripture, religious tradition, established and venerated philosophers) towards empiricism and rationalism. Application of the new rational scientific method of inquiry to interpret empirically the data of experience became the primary source of knowledge.
The results of the new science then became the new dominant public source of authority in the West for several centuries, weakened only somewhat with the postmodern shift. The moral sources, in this case epistemological, become disengaged reason [Definition: The concept of reason or rationality disengaged from external, objective and transcendent verities and/or moral absolutes that had served as guideposts (touchstones, anchors, tethers) for the practice of rationality and the ascertaining knowledge] . . . and the deliverances of such reason via the highly acclaimed modern scientific method.17
Disengaged reason became supreme in Enlightenment thought such that all knowledge and any alleged authority had to pass the bar of this now presumed omni-competent reason. Starting from itself, this rationality assumed itself able to ascertain certain, universally true, and objective knowledge. Reason was presumed to be unconditioned and to operate from a totally neutral vantage point, as a sort of “epistemological Switzerland,” as Paul Weston put it.18 Reason could be applied instrumentally, but of course also amorally. Rationality thus becomes rationalism; science becomes scientism—both are reductionist. Paradoxically, exalting reason too highly, or making it the be-all-and-end all, reduces the scope of reason and knowledge, rather than expands it. As modernity progressed, a dichotomy developed between public facts (objective and neutral deliverances of pure reason via the scientific method), and private values (subjective and relative beliefs based on religious texts or experiences, viewed pluralistically). This became the standard modern view.19
C.S. Lewis’s Epistemology and Apologetics
C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) was a modern Western thinker who was able to critically detach himself from the dominant Enlightenment epistemology. Lewis is well known for his great imaginative gift for storytelling, but many recognize his strength was his ability to present the Christian Faith both conceptually and imaginatively. He was a master of both reason and imagination. Michael Ward, a Lewis scholar, writes,
His rational approach is seen in The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and . . . Mere Christianity. These works show Lewis’s ability to argue: to set forth a propositional case, proceeding by logical steps from defined premises to carefully drawn conclusions, everything clear, orderly, and connected. And his imaginative side, so the argument goes, is seen in The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and, at a more accessible level, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These works show his ability to dramatize: to set forth an attractive vision of Christian life, proceeding by means of character and plot to narrate an engaging story, everything colorful, vibrant, and active.20
Many scholars consider Lewis’s conceptual works and imaginative works to be dissimilar and distinct. They are two discrete modes in which he presented the faith. Often the imaginative works, the stories, are considered theology lite, or for children only. It is understandable that we would think this way. Ward continues,
The dichotomy between reason and imagination is how we have been taught to think ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Reasonable people don’t need imagination. Imaginative people don’t need reasons.21
This is far from Lewis’s views, for Lewis was far from being an Enlightenment thinker. In fact, Lewis is quoted as saying, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
When I developed storytelling as ministry several years ago, someone remarked to me, “Oh, how do you like doing children’s ministry?” I said, “I don’t do children’s ministry. I do Bible storying with adults. The Bible is for adults. It takes a lot of contextualization to bring it down to children’s level.”
Ward quotes from Lewis’s Selected Literary Essays,
“All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor,” Lewis wrote in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes.” Similitudes, seeing one thing in terms of another, finding meanings here which correspond with what we want to say there, are for Lewis the essence of meaningful thought. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth,” Lewis wrote, “but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination . . . is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” In other words, we don’t grasp the meaning of a word or concept until we have a clear image to connect it with.
For Lewis, this is what the imagination is about: not just the ability to dream up fanciful fables, but the ability to identify meaning, to know when we have come upon something truly meaningful.22
Lewis was closer to Hebraic man than to modern secular man. Lewis is an exemplar for us today, as we seek to retrieve the lost treasures of story, as we re-dig the wells of the Aggadic tradition and as we develop the arts of orality and right brain proficiencies for teaching and ministry today.
“Language is the house of being,” said philosopher Martin Heidegger.23 If Heidegger is correct, then we can learn about the “being” of Israel from the nature of the Hebrew language. We learn about how the Hebrews knew what they knew, and how they knew the world. Language is the means for things to be identified in historical time, as well as a testimony to their entry into being. The language of a people and their worldview and culture are integrally related.
The Hebrew language has at least these three characteristics relevant to story and storytelling. It is 1) concrete, 2) relational, and 3) it reflects experiential knowledge.
Hebrew is Concrete. From the very beginning, in the account of Creation, God pronounced the created physical world “very good.” (Gen 1:31). This has echoed down through Jewish history in the Jewish affirmation of life, “L’Chaim!” Marvin Wilson quotes George Adam Smith as saying,
Hebrew may be called primarily a language of the senses. The words originally expressed concrete or material things and movements or actions which struck the senses or started the emotions. Only secondarily and in metaphor could they be used to denote abstract or metaphysical ideas.24
Examples of graphic, vivid use of concrete language to communicate abstract concepts include the following: to look is to “lift up the eyes” (Gen 22:4); to be angry is to “burn in one’s nostrils” (Exod 4:14); to have no compassion is “hard-heartedness” (1 Sam 6:6); to be stubborn is to be “stiff-necked” (2 Chron 30:8); to be determined is “to set one’s face” (Jer 42:15; Luke 9:51). There are also the anthropomorphisms of the living God of the Hebrews. He is not a distant, ethereal deity, but “surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isa 59:1). Also, “the eyes of the Lord are everywhere” (Prov 15:3). These concrete images are common in Hebrew.25 Stories tell real events and actions through sensory experience. Often metaphors and similes from the vernacular are the most expressive terms at hand.
Hebrew is Relational in Terms and Perceptions. German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) in his classic work, I and Thou, explains that “I-Thou” encounters with persons are fundamentally different than “I-It” relationships with things.26 Persons know other persons by encounter. A major theme of Buber’s book is that human life finds its greatest meaning in relationships with other persons. Storytelling is inherently relational. A story is told by someone to someone. The hearers of the story vicariously encounter the characters in the story, identify with them, and have emotional and moral responses to them (positively or negatively), sometimes in life-changing ways.
Hebrew Reflects Experiential Knowledge. When thinking about God, Hebrews don’t ask, “What is divinity?” (the philosophical essence of divine being). Rather they ask, “Who is God?” . . . “Who is Hashem?” The Hebrew word, “yada,” refers to an experiential knowing, more than to mere cerebral cognition. Genesis says, “Adam knew (yada) his wife Eve, and she conceived” (Gen 4:1). “This is eternal life that you might know (experientially) God and Yeshua the Messiah whom he has sent” (John 17:3). Stories relay real life experiences, encounters, first hand experiences, and often the accounts of eyewitnesses.
Narrative Epistemology: Story as a Way of Knowing
A story, in its telling and hearing, in its wholeness, imparts a quality of knowledge that is greater, thicker in description, comprehending more of reality, and fuller than all the sum of lists (or bullet points) of the summary phrases, or abstracted statements, propositions, or theses that could be derived from it. As someone has said, “We dream in story, not bullet points.”
American Protestant scholar Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933), widely considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last few decades, recognized the importance of narrative as a way of knowing. He is known for his advocacy and practice of “rhetorical criticism” which, together with written texts, studies how the elements of oral speech—in oral performances, films, and verbal discourse in general—work to affect and influence people through their imagery, symbols, body language, and other elements.
This, of course, has everything to do with orality and storytelling. Brueggemann’s emphasis on the importance of knowing through oral methods brought into question the categories of modernity and the Enlightenment and how Enlightenment epistemology has become a “tyranny of positivism” that generates “models of knowledge” that are thought to be objective and neutral, but are actually dominating. Brueggemann has championed that aspect of the postmodern epistemological shift that allows for valid ways of knowing other than the dominant modern scientific method.
Brueggemann scholar and psychotherapist Kevin M. Bradt has researched and written on story as a way of knowing. Much of his research focused on Brueggemann’s work on Israel’s storying. Bradt observes how that when Enlightenment thought became dominant,
Debates raged about the historical facticity behind the biblical texts while the study of Israel’s rhetorical practices, her long traditions of alternative speech, orality, and storying went into eclipse. Now all the wonderful, messy, contradictory narrative particularities of the biblical stories were seen only as intellectual embarrassments.27
Brueggemann discovered how a narrative epistemology could sustain a community’s sense of hope and history in the face of systemic repression and violence. Through Israel’s tradition of storying, a defiant, shared imagination powerful enough to activate an alternative future reality had been born.28
Here he refers to Israel’s sojourn as slaves in Egypt and how their alternative story transmitted from their patriarchs of God’s relationship to them defied the dominant mythic and ideological story propounded by the Pharaohs, which served to legitimate and absolutize their imperial state power. That mythopoetic ideology was the official sociology of knowledge that dominated the empire. For all others in Egypt there was no alternative story to that of the Pharaohs. But Israel lived by another story! This story empowered their dissent. Flowing out of their story to that date, the story of the Exodus occurred, the story of the birth of the nation that would change the world more than any other in history. It was the story—or more accurately, the true and living God of Israel’s story—that not only liberated and transformed Israel, but that defeated imperial Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth.
Furthermore, Bradt goes on to say,
The story of Israel and the land could not be reduced to a thesis. Only the narrative tension of the stories could hold together the complexity of the revelation of God’s relationship with Israel.29
For Brueggemann, the stories of the Bible reveal a relationship between Israel and her God that is so complex, inexhaustible, and fraught with all kinds of confusion, dark mystery, and shocking tensions that to try to reconcile what must ultimately remain irreconcilable can only be an exercise in futility and madness. . . . It is only narrative modes of knowing and relationship that can embrace and tolerate such ambiguity, wonder, paradox, pain, grief and surprise; it is only an alternative imagination called into existence through storying that can help us understand Israel’s situation as a model of our own in this postmodern age.30
Brueggemann calls story “Israel’s primal mode of knowing,” for it is the foundation from which come all other knowledge claims we have. . . . “[T]he story can be told as a base line.”31
The Hebrew slaves lived out of an alternative worldview, an alternative consciousness that enabled them to defy a totalitarian state power through faith in the God of their story. Their story has since empowered other oppressed people throughout history, e.g. the African American slaves in the antebellum South of the United States. Recall the “Negro Spirituals” which sang that overcoming faith. Think of “We shall Overcome,” a protest song that became a key anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968).
What Israel knows is that if the story is not believed, nothing added to it will make any difference—not more commandments, rituals, or laws. . . . Israel knows that pain like story, can never be abstract or universal, so she trusts the details of both. Israel knows that long after all the dissertations have been read, defended, and forgotten, her stories will remain. It is her mission.32
Story in Israel is the bottom line. It is told and left, and not hedged about by other evidences. . . . Israel understands them not as instruments of something else, but as castings of reality.33
In this vein, Michael Goldberg states, “there is no issue of theological substance detachable from the stories’ substance. That is, these recountings of the Exodus and the Christ are not fables, such that once their point or moral has been gleaned, the actual narratives can then be discarded.” We cannot cash in the stories for some abstracted universal timeless truth that leaves the story behind.
Narrative 5: Jewish Midrash and Story
The Jewish hermeneutical tradition that goes by the acronym PaRDeS (peshat, remez, darash and sod) relates to story.35 The Hebrew word for “orchard” is “pardes,” which offers the helpful image of the Bible as a fruitful orchard, with truths to be picked from the tress. I will focus here on peshat and darash methods (or levels) of Biblical interpretation. In Hebrew, the practitioner of peshat was called a pashtan. The practitioner of darash was called a darshan. The interpretive product of the darshan is a midrash. Midrash is from the Hebrew root drsh meaning “to search, to seek, to examine, to investigate.”
Pashtan and Darshan
The pashtan and peshat exegesis, like the modern evangelical “historical-grammatical” exegete, aims to uncover and elucidate only what he believes to be the authorial intent and original meaning of the passage, what it meant to the first generation of its hearers. This meaning is usually thought to be a one-and-only-true, authentic meaning. The tools of the pashtan are technical and objective—philology, grammars, and lexicons of the original languages and historical, cultural, and archeological studies. The goal of the pashtan approach is to arrive at the accurate and final, best reading of the text.36
The tools of the darshan tend to be more subjective—he applies creative imagination to the text in order to squeeze out more meaning. As he deals with the narrative genre, he will not be limited by the strict rules of the pashtan. He knows that every Bible story has large holes—there are things that are not told in a sparse ten or twenty or even a 100-verse story. To use the anthropological term for detailed cultural description, the Biblical stories are not “thick description;” they are often thin-on-the-ground. What are the features, the motives, or goals of this or that character? How does he view his fellow characters? What psychological, cultural or other factors in the biography of each character influence him or her in the story situation? As Israeli literary scholar Meir Sternberg, a master of the literary art of the Biblical narrative states,
From the viewpoint of what is directly given in the language, the literary work consists of bits and fragments to be linked together in the process of reading: it establishes as system of gaps to be filled in. This gap-filling ranges from simple linkages, which the reader performs automatically, to intricate networks that are figured out consciously, laboriously, hesitantly, and with constant modifications in the light of additional information disclosed in the later stages of reading.37
The darshan aims to bring the real people and events in the story to life for the present generation or audience. He believes it to be the right and obligation of every generation of Scripture interpreters to uncover meaning that is relevant to the hearers of any generation. He believes the threat of misinterpretation (which the pashtan fears) is less dangerous than the threat of irrelevance. He believes Scripture has a dynamism that is translatable to the needs of people of all ages and situations in life. The needs of God’s people call for the manna of fresh midrash, applicable to present needs of hearts and lives. A good example of the kind of existential pressures of life that provoke new meanings and answers is when the matriarch Rebecca was bewildered by her unusual pregnancy (the battling fetuses) and sought Adonai, “v’ tilech l’drosh et Adonai”—her need moved her to inquire, search out, seek the LORD (Gen 25: 22, note the same root drsh as for midrash). Adonai answered her and gave her meaning.38
Midrash Haggadah, Broadly Considered
For an example of gap-filling, consider the story of Noah and the Great Flood. The story comprises eighty-five verses (Gen 6:1–9:17). Eighty-five verses cover decades of tumultuous life as Noah is commissioned to oversee the overwhelming and daunting task of God’s nearly complete genocide of the human race, the destruction of the world. For this story, as for all the others, the darshan seeks to fill in the gaps, through imaginative reconstruction of the gaps in the text. Another way to describe a midrash is as a narrative commentary (as opposed to a critical, analytic commentary, with lexical studies, etc.) Such imaginative reconstruction, together with drawing out applications and relevance to today, is called midrash, or a midrash haggadah. Midrash halakhah is a different style, which this essay will not address.39
Jewish writers and producers Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel put an example of a midrash on the Noah story to the big screen in 2014. Simply called “Noah,” and starring Russell Crowe in the lead role, the movie is a visual midrash. The Noah story is an epic, archetypal story and begs for midrash. In the movie, after Noah has heard from God, his wife asks him, “Noah, what did he say?” Noah says, “He is going to destroy the world.” What kind of man was this, entrusted by the Creator with overseeing such a daunting, overwhelming venture? The human drama of this for Noah and his family, their relatives and neighbors would have included times of high anxiety, tension, and emotion. These were real flesh and blood people. That Noah got drunk and naked in his tent after it was all over is surely human realism. After years of high stress, Noah unwound, released his inhibitions, his inner moral restraints had collapsed. Compare this with the Sunday School sanitized versions of saintly old Noah with his long white beard, with all the gentle animals, represented by this children’s song,
The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky . . . The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky . . . Build it out of gopher barky, barky, children of the Lord.
These are surely crafted and edited versions of the story, more distant from the way it most likely really was than is Aronofsky’s and Handel’s visual midrash. Brad Jersak commented on the “evangelical panic” caused by the movie in his blog after “Noah” was released,
I don’t think anyone should be surprised at the usual course of Evangelical reactions decrying the movie for its “biblical inaccuracies.” . . . Of course, citing inaccuracies implies that the measure of faithfulness to Scripture is somehow photocopying Genesis 6–9 into the screenplay in a sort of word for word depiction. It’s this paint-by-numbers mentality that keeps many an Evangelical trapped within the lines of their own assumptions—as if taking the text literally was remotely akin to taking it seriously. Not so!40
Those who love Scripture and want to see its stories reach the broadest possible audience have cause to applaud this visual midrash, the “Noah” movie. The Christian Post reported in the days following the release of the movie, “Two of the most popular online destinations for Bible readers reported robust increases in traffic in the first book of the Old Testament following the release of ‘Noah’ last week.”41 YouVersion reported that “in the days after Noah hit theaters, people opening the Noah story in Genesis 6 increased about 300% in US & 245% globally on @YouVersion.”42 Bible Gateway reported that “visits to the Noah story in Genesis 6–9 at Bible Gateway saw a 223% increase over the previous weekend.”43
The Christian Post reported that “in addition to YouVersion, an app of the Scriptures which hit 100 million downloads last summer, and the website, BibleGateway, Google trends also showed a spike in substantial increase in search queries for the Old Testament text” as a result of the Noah movie.44 “Film analysts believe that ‘Noah’ attracted a wider audience, and not just the religious, due to Hollywood touches given to the film by Aronofsky.”45 “‘It certainly feels like the “biggest” film of 2014,’ Tim Briody, analyst for Box Office Prophets, told USA Today.”46
The movie stimulated the public interest in the story of Noah, making people wonder what the real original story is about, and why it is so compelling. It stirs people to go home and look it up in the Bible. Because this was a mainstream Hollywood film, the number of people and the demographic segment of people reached by this movie was far greater than would have been by a Christian movie about Noah. This gives Bible-believers opportunity to tell the more accurate story to those with awakened interest in the home and work places of social life. The producer of “Noah,” Aronofsky, is not a follower of Messiah Yeshua. This begs the question—What if Messianic Jews would produce movies, which would be even more accurate to the Biblical text than Aronofsky’s production, but that would have as large a public impact?
“Noah” was controversial and featured much imaginative reconstruction, some of which piqued some people’s sensibilities.47 In the Jewish style of midrashic discussion, if one does not like someone else’s picturing of events to fill the gaps, they can offer their own; in synergistic conversation milking the story for all its true worth. This, while always avoiding notions that flatly contradict the text of the story, or the kind of fanciful allegorizations such as those spun out from the parables by many church fathers.48 (See Narrative 7, page 27.)
Known among some in the broader guild of Bible teachers are two helpful alliterative rules-of-thumb that provide hermeneutical tethers to restrain midrashic exploration, if we want to still consider a midrash within the pale of an application of the inspired Scripture. A tether is a rope or a leash that restrains, usually an animal. An interpretation, application or imaginative reconstruction of story may be tested by these “Four P’s” and “Four D’s”:
Probable OR Debatable
Phiction (Fiction) Deniable
When the midrashic exploration reaches the “Phiction” and “Deniable” zone, that is to say, it clearly contradicts the Biblical text, then the storyteller-teacher must state unambiguously that this no longer draws from the sacred story; it is outside the pale of the Biblical account. One is free to write fiction, but such should no longer be considered an application of the Word of God.
We will always need careful pashtans, the strict exegetes and their technical tools to stay loyal to the historical meaning of texts, especially for the non-narrative genres. However, Messianic Jews and evangelicals today need to recover and ply the approach of the darshan—imaginative reconstruction of the Bible stories, using good questions to search out, and to squeeze out more and relevant meaning from the inexhaustible treasures of the Word of God. We need to fear less a misinterpretation of the historical-grammatical one-and-only true meaning (if there is such in stories) and fear more the relegation of Scripture to irrelevance. The stories are rich and deep, having multiple applications; they should not be reduced to or frozen to one exegete’s one-and-only true best rendering.49
A good storyteller-teacher (darshan) will be able to guide a group’s discussion if it gets way out of hand. We can trust the story itself and the work of the Holy Spirit to attend to his Word, applying it to the needs of the hearts and lives of any group who hears it, across cultures and generations, in multiple and various applications. Such formative work is divine and out of the pashtan’s or the darshan’s hands.50
Narrative 6: The Power of Story
Victor E. Frankl (1905–1997), Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, is well-known for reporting that concentration camp inmates who maintained hope and meaning were likely to survive longer. Those who lost hope and meaning were likely to die sooner. A story is often what gives a person meaning and hope. So there is truth to this saying,
The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.51
Stories are innate and primal in human nature and experience. All human civilizations ever studied have had their bards and storytellers, persons who were repositories of the stories that gave meaning and identity to a people. Everyone loves a story. Every person’s life is a story, with plot twists and a parade of interesting characters. Sharing stories brings people intimately together. When we hear stories, we identify with characters in the story who faced situations like we face. We learn vicariously through the truths we draw from the story. A story features real life, concrete situations like our own. A story touches us at deeper levels than abstract propositions or stated principles can. A story can penetrate our imagination, conscience, and emotions, touching us at a deep personal level. As someone observed, “If a picture is worth a thousand words; a good story is worth a million pictures.”52
Insights from Rabbis about Story
According to a well-received Jewish tradition, it was King Solomon who, if not invented, popularized the parable, at least in Israel. Rabbi Nachman commented in the Aggada,
The Torah until Solomon’s time was comparable to a labyrinth with a bewildering number of rooms. Once one entered there, one lost his way out. Then along came Solomon and invented the parable that has served as a ball of thread. When tied at the entrance to this labyrinth it serves as a secure guide through all the winding, bewildering passages.53
Taking up the thought, Rabbi Nachman’s colleague Rabbi Hanina said:
Until the time of Solomon the Torah could have been compared to a well full of refreshing water, but because of its extraordinary depth no one could get to the bottom. What was necessary was to find a rope long enough to tie to the bucket in order to bring up the water. Solomon made up this rope with his parables and thus enables everyone to reach to the profoundest depths of the well.54
Indeed, Story gives us “a rope long enough” to reach the depths. So actually, re-digging the wells of Story may actually mean simply reaching the bottom of the already existing “wells of salvation,” as it were. Poet Emily Dickinson put it well in saying, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” Often modern Western preachers and teachers think of stories as mere illustrations or “icing on the cake” of a lecture type sermon. The real cake, the substance, they think, is the more abstract, propositional content told in bald statement-of-fact form. Rabbi Hanina knew that stories were the rope that reaches to the profoundest depths of the well.
Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz of Dubno, known as the “Dubner Maggid,” was a Lithuanian-born preacher who lived from 1740 to 1804. “Maggid” is Hebrew for storyteller (from the same Hebrew root as “Aggadah” or “Haggadah”). A contemporary of the Vilna Gaon, the Maggid was famous for explaining Torah concepts by using a mashal or parable. Moses Mendelssohn named Kranz, “the Jewish Aesop.”55 The Dubner Maggid was once asked, “Why do you always tell stories? Why are stories so powerful?” Kranz’s legendary reply was to answer by telling the following story. It is a story about the power of stories:
There was once a poor old woman. She was, well . . . ugly . . . very ugly. She had a bent back and hooked nose. Her chin was covered with warts and pimples. Her eyes bugged out. Her mouth was crooked and her teeth broken. She dressed in old rags that smelled. No one would listen to what she said or even look at her. If they saw her they would run away . . . slam doors in her face. So she was very sad because all she wished for was some company, some companionship. But no one would pay attention to her or talk to her. So she wandered from place to place looking for friends.
She crossed a great desert and came to a city in the middle of the desert. She thought to herself “Surely I’ll find friends in this city. People in the desert know how hard life is and will take pity on me, and I’ll find a friend.” But, alas, this city was like all the rest. People ran away and slammed doors or closed their shutters. No one would talk to her or listen to her. She became very upset. “Why go on? What’s the point? Life is too hard. I think I should just give up on life” So she wandered out of the city and sat down on the dusty road just outside the city. She waited, watching life pass her by.
Before long a good-looking young man dressed in beautiful clothes arrived in the city and received a great reception. The people came out to shake his hand. Some even hugged him. They brought him food and drink and lavished him with gifts. The old woman said, “Life is so unfair. When you are young and good looking, everyone loves you, but when you are old, ugly and sick, they forget you and ignore you. It is so unfair!” After a while the young man gathered up his gifts, said “Good-bye,” and headed out of the city. He stopped on the dusty road and sat down opposite the old woman to pack up his gifts.
The old woman could keep her tongue no longer, “What is going on? What’s with you? Is it like this everywhere you go? Do you always get treated so well?”
The young man blushed and said, “Well . . . yes . . . I guess . . . Everywhere I go they treat me well.”
“Well, why? Why?! You must be someone special! Someone extraordinary,” said the old woman.
The young man said, “Oh, no, Ma’am! Actually, I am quite ordinary.”
“I don’t believe it. You must be an emperor, a king in disguise, or a prince or a general,” she said.
“Oh no . . . I am not like that . . . I am very common. You find me everywhere—me and my type,” he said.
“Well then, what are you?” said the old woman. “Who are you that people are so happy to see you when you come along?”
“Well, I am a Story, and I think I am a pretty good Story at that. Because people like a good story they are happy to see me. But, old woman, what are you? Who are you? Why don’t people like to see you?” asked the young man.
“Ah, that is the problem. It’s what I am. I am Truth, and nobody likes to hear the truth.”
(Narrator: This may seem a bit strange to some of you . . . but when you think about it what the old woman said is really true, isn’t it? . . . If someone said to you, “I’m going to tell you what your friends really say behind your back. Do you really want to hear it? If you are destined to die a horrible death, or to die early, do you really want to know the truth about that? No, some truth is ugly, especially truth about ourselves. We avoid it, we resist it, we don’t want to know it. We welcome Story, but reject the Naked Truth.)
The young man said, “I’m sorry about that.” He then began to think how he could help the old woman. “I’ve got an idea, old woman,” he said. “Let’s team up . . . let’s journey together! You and I can travel together and wherever I go, you’ll go. Anything I am given, I’ll share with you.”
“That won’t work,” she said. “They’ll see me. They’ll take one look and run away from both of us!”
“No, you don’t understand! You’ll hide behind me—behind my cloak. Whatever they give me I’ll share equally with you. Let’s try it.”
The woman agreed, and they partnered up and travelled together. Wherever they went, the old woman hid behind the young man’s cloak, and anything he was given he happily shared with the old woman.
This worked out so well that their arrangement lasts to this very day. That is why to this very day the truth always hides behind a good story.
“Let Me Write the Songs of a Nation”
Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes their laws.
Let me make the ballads of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.
The above are two variations on this saying are attributed to Andrew Fletcher (1653–1716), a Scottish writer, politician, and patriot. As a politician he was a keen observer of what it takes to start a movement of social change, even revolution, in a society. Songs are surely more effective than laws to change the hearts and minds of the masses.
A good story is powerful in itself. Put it to music and verse and it heightens the power to cast vision, to inspire, and to motivate social groups. If you want to know what people hold as valuable, look to the songs.
King Saul, Israel’s first monarch, found this out as the increasingly storied David was celebrated in the streets, the women singing and dancing to,
Saul has slain his thousands,
David his ten thousands.
The story became a ballad that permeated and mobilized the whole culture. King Saul correctly observed after this, that “Now what more can he [David] have but the kingdom?” (1 Sam 18:6–8). The songs of the people overtook Saul’s “law.”
For a culture-change phenomenon from our times, consider how powerfully the music of the 1960s (the debut of rock and roll to the masses) both expressed and shaped the culture then and until the present time. It is often underestimated just how powerfully that music shaped late modern culture. Award-winning British documentary film maker, Leslie Woodhead, produced a documentary entitled “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” aired by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).56 In 2009 WNET produced a documentary showing how the Beatles’ music was a strong factor contributing to the collapse of the USSR. The film argues persuasively that their music—banned in the USSR and bootlegged by teenagers—inspired dreams of hope and freedom of expression for a whole generation, which eventually led to the demise of communism. Little did the dour old totalitarian rulers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics know that their iron laws would be brought down (at least in part) by songs.
The Psalms are Israel’s Song Book. They have been profitably put to music ever since the days of King David, by Jews and Christians. The Psalms express “an anatomy of all parts of the soul,” according to John Calvin.57 This feature of the Psalms is a major reason for their endurance and widespread popularity in every Jewish and Christian tradition. They help us express our souls vertically, to God. What if we could put the stories of Scripture into the contemporary and beloved and popular forms of music as inspired ballads, and into more dramatic visual and film media to express these stories (which reach all parts of the soul) horizontally to society today and to each generation?
The Nathan Principle
What follows is a Biblical example of truth hiding behind a good story. Imagine with me: Had Nathan the prophet approached King David, after his sin with Bathsheba, and told him the propositional truth—“You have committed adultery and murder, O King. You have broken four of the Ten Commandments.” Would the King have readily received this truth? Likely not. He may have rid himself of this troublesome prophet. Off with his head! He did not want to hear the ugly, naked truth. But instead of presenting him with the naked truth, Nathan told him a story,
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him. (2 Sam 12:1–14 ESV)
This story brought David into a house and opened a window for him to see. He could see vividly the injustice done. David bought into the story. He was caught in the powerful rhetorical trap of the story. The King became enraged and said, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die! . . . and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5, 6). David thus judged himself. Nathan said, “You are the man!” Nathan opened a window, which became a mirror to David. Herein is the power of story to bring truth home to the heart and core of a person.
A story is an oblique way of coming at truth and helpful in getting past the defenses of a hearer or audience. Bible storyteller and trainer Dorothy Miller calls this “the Nathan Principle,”58 and adds this word as explicating its effect, “See, the Word of God is alive! It is at work and is sharper than any double-edged sword—it cuts right through to where soul meets spirit and joints meet marrow, and it is quick to judge the inner reflections and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12, CJB).59 Direct route communication and processing uses argumentation; peripheral route processing circumvents argumentation to a deeper place in the heart. This is critically needed in Jewish evangelism because of the high resistance among Jewish people to direct communication of the Gospel. This is the “The Nathan principle.”
Narrative 7: Yeshua the Messiah: Master Storyteller
In the Western tradition, especially following the Enlightenment, serious theology largely developed in the form of ideas held together by logic (linear, syllogistic logic) and reason. The more intelligent the theologian, the more abstract his writing became and difficult for the average person to understand—think of the German theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whittaker Chambers commented on the deadening nature of much of this,
Theology is jawbreakingly abstract and its mood is widely felt to be about as embracing as an unaired vestry. . . . God has become, at best, a fairly furtive presence, a lurking luminosity, a cozy thought.60
We can term these academic systematic theologians, conceptual theologians. This is not to say that conceptual theologizing and writing is wrong or without value. But in the modern West, we have majored on the conceptual in theological education, to the neglect of the more Hebraic concrete and narrative approach. Yeshua, by contrast, was not a conceptual theologian.
Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. That is, his primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable, and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than like philosopher.61
In fact we are told, “He did not say a thing to them without using a parable; when he was alone with his own talmidim he explained everything to them” (Mark 4:34, CJB).
Was Yeshua then but a simple teller of folktales for fisherman and farmers? Hardly. Could Yeshua have given the most erudite, learned, scholarly lecture of any of his contemporaries? Or ours? Of course he could have. When he was twelve years old he amazed the learned rabbis in the Temple with the profundity of his knowledge and wisdom (Luke 3:46). He was the most profound of theologians. But his primary teaching method was through stories, word pictures, and metaphors.
A metaphor communicates in ways that a rational argument cannot. Recall C.S. Lewis’ insight, “reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”62 A word or concept takes on meaning when we have a clear image with which to connect it. Recent studies in neuroscience confirm this—specific parts of the brain light up when meaning occurs, when words stimulate images in the brain.
And when the listener or disciple discovers the meaning himself (the “Aha!” moment), then he or she retains that truth much better, “owning” that truth. If facts are spoon fed by lecture or monologue to a more passive mind or a mind that cannot connect a concept to an image (imagine it), they may “go in one ear and out the other,” as the saying goes.
Yeshua’s use of stories as his primary teaching method was not merely due to his cultural context; story is a more universal means of communicating. Stories are what stick in hearts and minds, because they address both intellect and imagination. In short, stories grip the heart, and as the proverb says, “out of the heart are the issues of life” (Prov 4:23).
Another major reason Yeshua’s method of choice for teaching is story is that a lecture often only speaks to the mind; it provides data or information that may, or may not, not effect that person’s heart or will. By contrast, a story with its characters with which the story-hearers will identify, either positively or negatively, evokes response. The choices of the characters evoke a heart response (emotions and conscience). Thus the story stirs and stimulates moral responses that can lead to change and character growth in the listener. Yeshua was after moral decisions and character transformation in his followers.
If theology were only a matter of intellectual conceptualization, then unbelievers could be as good at teaching theology as are people of faith and devotion to God. All one would need would be a bright mind and a will to work. But Yeshua taught that there is a moral pre-condition or prerequisite to really understanding God and his ways. He taught this truth through the masterful parable of the sower:
When Yeshua was alone, the people around him with the Twelve asked him about the parables. He answered them, “To you the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given; but to those outside, everything is in parables, so that ‘they may be always looking but never seeing;
always listening but never understanding. Otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven!’” [Quoted from Isa 6:9–10]. Then Yeshua said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How will you be able to understand any parable?” (Mark 4:10–13, CJB)
Yeshua taught that this moral condition—a truth-seeking heart—is the key to all theological understanding, light and truth.
Yeshua did also make propositional statements and teach concepts, but he did so with those whose hearts were inclined to the truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” he said (Matt 5:8). Jesus gave an example of a very clear propositional concept, actually an axiom, when he stated to the seeker Nicodemus,
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:19–21 emphasis added)
Only those who love the light and truth will come to see and understand it. As Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) deftly observed, “Things human must be known to be loved: things divine must be loved to be known.”63 And “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of. . . . We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”64
The Parable as a House
Often in the Western preaching tradition, preachers use stories as “illustrations” to exemplify, or represent an abstract idea, principle, or proposition. As Bailey points out,
A metaphor, however, is not an illustration of an idea, it is a mode of theological discourse. The metaphor does more than explain meaning, it creates meaning. A parable is an extended metaphor, and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea, but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.65
Expanding upon Bailey’s metaphor of a parable as “a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence,” that person is then urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of the residence. We could say that the parable creates a worldview of its own and that the listener is encouraged to examine the human predicament and the worldview created by the parable (with its cultural and historical context).
In Western tradition, the parables of Yeshua have been abused in two major ways. First, in the early centuries, allegory reigned supreme. The Church Fathers applied allegorization to the parables. Their fancies ran wild. The fatted calf in the Story of the Two Sons (or “The Prodigal Son,” Luke 15) came to be a symbol for Christ, because Christ was killed. Consider Augustine’s treatment of the Story of the Good Samaritan. Every detail of the story, in his reading, possessed allegorical meanings; indeed, these special meanings kept accumulating over time. Here is a list of Augustine’s allegorizations:
The man going down to Jericho = Adam
Jerusalem, from which he was going = City of Heavenly Peace
Jericho = The moon which signifies our mortality (This is a play on the Hebrew terms for Jericho and moon which both look and sound alike)
Robbers = Devil and his angels
Stripping him = Taking away his immortality
Beating him = Persuading him to sin
Leaving him half dead = Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God
Priest = Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)
Levite = Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)
Good Samaritan = Christ
Binding of wounds = Restraint of sin
Oil = Comfort of good hope
Wine = Exhortation to spirited work
Animal = Body of Christ
Inn = Church
Two denarii = Two commandments to love
Innkeeper = Apostle Paul
Return of the Good Samaritan = Resurrection of Christ66
One quickly sees the problem. How could this story have meant any of these things to the original hearers? With no hermeneutical tether or controls, it is a fanciful free-for-all.
Secondly, and in reaction to allegorization, the twentieth century interpreters argued for “one point per parable.” They swung too far in the other direction to protect the parable from wild allegorizations. But their one-point-per-parable approach is also in error. If a parable is “a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence” then the one who takes up dwelling in that house will find that there are a variety of rooms in the house, from which he or she can look out on the world from different windows.
Among the audiences who listen to the story, there are various needs, concerns, perspectives, and issues going on with and in that person. As the listener hears the story, he or she (with the aid of the Holy Spirit) relates aspects of the story that speak to his or her needs. There are rich moral and theological treasures in a Bible story or parable. Bailey calls this “the theological cluster” of themes in a given parable.67 Each theme is in creative relation to the others. A hearer latches on to that theme that resonates with his/her situation or need.
The content of the “cluster” (so as not to be wild allegorical fancy) must be controlled by: 1) What Yeshua’s original hearers could have understood from the story, and 2) by what is consistent with the content of the whole story. In digging out the treasures in the story, we should not find things that are not there (like the church fathers did) or contradict the story. We can ask, “Do you observe that in the story? Where do you see that in the story? Is the story really indicating that?” In application questions we can ask: “Are there situations today in which people say, do and/or act the way the people in the story did? If so, what does that look like today?” And, “How does this story address that? What guidance, correction, or hope does this story offer for people in such situations today?” In the application, the Holy Spirit may apply an aspect of the story to hearts in ways the original hearers could not have anticipated.
It is said that, “Story invites you into the room, but does not tell you where to sit.” You choose to sit near to, and to look out from, the window on to the world from the direction or angle of your needs, concerns, interests or situation in life. In this way the story, and the teacher through the story, gently respects the free will and dignity of the hearers. This is the genius of the story or parable as a teaching approach.
Narrative 8: Storytelling in Contemporary Jewish Ministry and Our Postmodern Moment
In this eighth and last “narrative,” I want to bring this essay home to a landing in practical application. Am I too presumptive to hope that maybe those who take this essay to heart and into practice might catalyze some “new beginnings” (the meaning of the number eight) in Messianic Jewish practice? We shall see. First I will describe how our postmodern (or late modern) era has created good prospects for effective storytelling impact. Then I will discuss storytelling in Jewish ministry. The philosophical and cultural trends that began in the Enlightenment (rejection of religious authority, utilitarianism, disengaged reason issuing into rationalism, scientism, and secular liberalism) played out to a crisis in the 1960s disillusionments, revolutions, and moral decline. The baby boom generation was the first to experience at the popular cultural level the consequences of what is called the “postmodern shift” or “late modernity” (because the postmodern is still also modern).68
The consequences of the postmodern shift are mostly morally and spiritually negative from a Biblical worldview perspective. But the cultural shift also proffers opportunities. Sociologists concerned with the postmodern shift describe our times as being characterized by “incredulity to metanarratives.”69 The grand metanarratives that have driven modernity— Progress and the Perfectibility of Man through Science, Industrialism, Communism, Fascism, and other “isms”—have largely become “wasms” at the turn of the 21st century; they have lost their compelling power, no longer holding the same credibility.
Thus, the Western world is searching for a new metanarrative. In the Middle East, Islamism, especially in the ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) movement, advances a powerfully renewed metanarrative of the seventh century caliphate that shall rule the world by the sword. Western angry young men are susceptible to being recruited to this story because of the loss of a vital and better story envisioning and energizing them in the late modern West. There is a receptive climate in the twenty-first century in which to communicate God’s master story.
Daniel Pink has argued that our postmodern moment in Western history is a time of “right brain rising.” To put very simply the argument of his book: “Left brain direction” (rational, scientific, analytic, text-oriented, logical, linear, sequential, detail-oriented) was dominant during modernity. “Right brain direction” (artistic, aesthetic, emotional and relational expression, literary, synthesis, non-linear, context-oriented, big-picture, holistic, image, metaphor, and story-orientation) is rising in postmodernity out of human hunger for its lack during modernity. Right brain aptitudes are increasingly desired and needed. Left brain direction remains necessary, but it is no longer sufficient. We need a “whole new mind,” a holistic mind.70
The larger metanarrative is the coming of Kingdom of God, his glory among the nations, inaugurated by Messiah’s first coming, advancing now throughout This Age, the restoration of Israel, and to be consummated as his Second Coming and into the Age to Come. A spiritual renewal of the Zionist story and the American founding story infused by the Biblical master story can bring national revitalization to Israel and the United States. Thus, our moment in history is an auspicious one for a renewal and revival of storytelling in Messianic Jewish ministry and for reaching the world.
From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg
Another dimension of the momentous shift of our times is the communications revolution. Our current digital revolution is certainly a cultural megashift. Communications theorists tell us that the world has experienced only three major communications eras. There have been only three inventions that have served as hinges of communication history: 1) Writing and Reading 2) Printing 3) Electronic Media. The printing press changed the world and marked the end of the Middle Ages and opened a portal to the “Gutenberg Galaxy.”71 The personal computer, made accessible to the masses, opened the portal to the “Digitoral Galaxy.”72 Note also that the “Digitorality Era” has more similarities with the Orality Era than it does with the Textuality Era. This led Thomas Pettit to describe the Textuality Era as more of a “Gutenberg Parenthesis,” a mere interruption in the broader arc of human communication. Our digital media culture has brought us back again to a more original orality. The new kinds of literacy needed for the digitorality era are in some ways closer to the orality era. The three communication eras are compared in the following table:
TABLE 2 – THREE COMMUNICATION ERAS
Invention of the alphabet & writing (circa 2000 BCE)
Invention of movable type printing (Gutenberg, 1437)
Invention of personal computers and the Internet (1980s)
Post- or Late Modern
Images, Stories, Ideas
Oral communication by all,
Storytellers, oral tradition.
Books, newspapers, libraries, printed matter.
Television, personal computers, plethora of electronic i-devices, etc.
Right Brain Dominant
Left Brain Dominant
Left & Right Brain Needed
When media changes, people change. A question many observers are asking is—will our dependence on this new media rewire our brains? Younger generations today, though they are literate, have been conditioned by the digital revolution to prefer to get their information not from reading print, but from other electronic media. This mentality is termed “secondary orality” by orality and literacy theorist Walter Ong, a term he coined for the new electronically mediated culture of spoken, as contrasted with written, language.73 The new media advances secondary orality, and secondary orality in turn is decreasing print literacy. This is not an entirely happy development,
One thing seems clear and constant however. Humans are homo narrans. All humans are hard-wired for story, as part of the Imago Dei within us. Story and storytelling will always matter. And it matters more in the “Digitoral Galaxy” than it did in the “Gutenberg Galaxy.” Late modern people do not, will not read their printed Bibles as much as they read their smart phones. But they will engage with oral, face-to-face Bible storytelling, and through Facebook, YouTube, and Ning. Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, so Samuel Chiang of the “International Orality Network” deftly termed the transition we are experiencing as, “From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.”74
It is of interest that that Zuckerberg is Jewish. Jewish people, especially gifted in communication, have always been at the vortex of history-making movements and part of intellectual and culture-change movements. From the Hebrew prophets and apostles, to journalist Theodore Herzl’s envisioning and writing “The Jewish State,” to the modern building of the Hollywood movie industry, Jewish people have been in the communications business, and in the storytelling business. May the contemporary Messianic Jewish movement be at the vanguard, at the vortex, leading the way in creatively re-telling God’s master story to the masses! The “People of the Book” are the “People of the Story.”
Storytelling in Jewish Ministry
Story and storytelling is not everything in the teaching and ministry of the Word. But, have we missed something in our homiletical and teaching approaches? If 70% of the Bible is in the story genre, a good rule of thumb may be to use storytelling in 70% of our teaching. The Hasidim were outstanding storytellers. Like Yeshua, they knew that stories can be life-changing. Storytelling constitutes a life-giving act in itself. Here is one retold by Martin Buber,
A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, was asked to tell a story. “A story,” he said, “must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.” And he told this story: “My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher (the Baal Shem). And he told how the Holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather, though he was lame, rose as he spoke, and was so swept away by his story that he began to hop and dance to show how the master (the Baal Shem) had done it. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness.”75
The above Hasidic story about the Baal Shem illustrates a point: stories can help us transcend our current condition or circumstance. It is important to distinguish between a story told with a moral, or to illustrate, like this story (or an Aesop’s Fable). These stories have value, and can even affect inner change. But if it is a Bible story, it is the Word of God. It can impart faith for healing and transformative change by the Holy Spirit. “So then faith comes by hearing, hearing the Word of God” (Rom 10:17).
By “storying,” or Bible storytelling, I mean the entire process of the oral and visual communication of a Bible story (not folk tales) followed by group discussion—learning, interpretation, application, accountability to the truth in the story, drama, and/or song and the retelling of the story such that the story is internalized by the group and can be retold to others. The approach can be called oral inductive Bible study.
It needs emphasizing that the story should be told, not read from a book. It should be told with the appropriate emotion, tone of voice, eye contact and eye movements, hand gestures, and body movements; all that best communicate the story. The story should be brought to life. When a story is read from a text (especially if in expressionless monologue) and then dissected and analyzed verse by verse, something is lost.
Miller uses this illustration in Simply the Story training workshops. Suppose you see a beautiful butterfly. You admire its beauty, so you decide to take it home and dissect it on a cork board. You pull out its wings, and put them together. You pull off its legs and put them in a pile to analyze them. You pull out it antennae—but what has happened in the process? You may learn more about the class of insects in the order Lepidoptera, and there is a place for that, but in the dissection, the butterfly dies. You can no longer enjoy its living beauty. Let the story fly in its living beauty or something is lost.76
Storying is Jewish-friendly. No matter how religious or secular a Jewish person may be, virtually all, even if Biblically illiterate, know intuitively that these stories of the Hebrew Bible are their stories, the stories of their people, the stories of Israel. They are thus non-threatening and find a welcome response.
Storying is seeker-friendly. People of any faith or none can participate and not feel preached-to, or lectured-at. Anyone can hear and discuss the story. Seekers feel on a more level playing field, because everyone in the group is discussing the story just told. All are looking for the treasures in the story together. And then the story does its work of speaking to hearts.
Conversational storytelling is a non-threatening, engaging means of Jewish evangelism. Simply described, conversational evangelistic storytelling is done on the go, in the streets and marketplaces. You are standing in line at Starbuck’s, or waiting to collect your luggage at the airport baggage carousel, you make small talk, looking for an opening to say, “Hey that reminds me of a story, do you mind if I tell you one?” Virtually every one will agree to hear it. You tell a five-minute version of a Bible story, and ask a question about it—and listen for the person’s answer. Then you respond to that answer, and you will find yourself in a conversation about God. You let it go where it, or the Spirit, wills. Seeds are planted in that heart, a person is moved closer to Truth, to Yeshua.
Storying bypasses the pitfalls of apologetics and argumentation that go nowhere. Jewish people, and especially those schooled in Rabbinic thought, can argue and debate you to a standstill over who is the Messiah and over theological issues. Head-to-head Messianic vs. Rabbinic apologetics is the “naked truth” approach. It becomes a fencing match, with each debater thrusting and parrying and unwilling to lose the match. However, reflecting upon a story, and keeping the group focused on drawing out its treasures, shifts the matter to a whole different dimension. We let the story do the work of speaking to hearts, rather than us trying to convince the defensive rational mind.
We live in a moment of history that calls for a recovery of the lost treasures of Story and storytelling in the ministry of the Word. We need to re-dig the wells of Story, of Hebraic narrative epistemology that have been plugged by modernity’s forces and trends. In this “Digitorality Era,” a major way the Messianic Jewish movement will advance the Kingdom of God and be a “light to the nations” is through creatively re-telling the Biblical Story and stories of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to these late modern and the succeeding generations until Messiah returns.
In Conclusion: “A Rope Long Enough?”
Recall Rabbi Hanina’s counsel that what is necessary to reach the depths of the well of Torah, of the “wells of salvation,” as it were, is “a rope long enough.” He states that that “long rope” is parable and story.
Narrative 1 of this essay asserts that Israel’s theology is story-based. As we read, write, and teach the “-ologies,” let us recall that every systematic theology category is at least one step abstracted from its primal source in story. For Israel, story is the bottom line.
Narrative 2 asks us to apply Bialik’s counsel thus,
Halacha is the crystallization, the ultimate and inevitable quintessence of Aggadah . . . Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; Halacha [read: the abstract & analytical, doctrine & dictum, points & propositions, rules & regulations] is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled.
Systematic theology is the expression of a generation, or a century or a historical era. That work is a “crystallization” of a generation’s and/or a region’s work of abstracting and summarizing their theological beliefs as a “resting place” for their time and context. But when historic changes occur, often the old “resting place,” is bypassed, causing that theological formulation to no longer speak with the same relevance, as history moves on.
The general culture and the Jewish experience changes over time and differs from one country to another; note for instance the differences in American Messianic Jewish theology and practice from Israeli Messianic Jewish theology and practice. Let us allow our hearers, with our help as teacher-storytellers discover those truths afresh in and for their life situations. If they discover the truths themselves out of their current aggadic “heart’s yearning,” they will own and apply those truths to their personal lives.
Narrative 3 calls us to consider that God said, “Hear O Israel!” not “Read O Israel!”… The Written Word must continually be accompanied by the Oralized Word, in order to complete its intended divine purpose to change and transform lives to conform to the image and likeness of Messiah.
Narrative 4 inquires as to whether or not we can transcend the still dominant European Enlightenment way of knowing enough to go “back to the future,” to a Hebraic epistemology where story truly is a way of knowing.
Narrative 5 sketches out what a contemporary expression of an oralized midrashic tradition might look like. Let’s produce more visual midrashim and post them in YouTube, make them accessible to the masses. Adonai told Moses, “Teach them to sing it” (Deut 31:19). “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes their laws.” Let us find more speech-places, in thousands of venues, in the highways and byways, at Starbucks hang-outs, in churches and synagogues, to oralize these stories— in informal conversation at Starbucks, as performance art, with or without media technology, in sermon and drash times, formally and informally, in family devotions, in men’s groups and women’s retreats. People everywhere will listen to these stories.
Narrative 6 suggests that in Jewish apologetics and Jewish evangelism, that we use “the Nathan Principle,” using story as an oblique way to skirt and subvert Jewish resistance to the Gospel. Head to head confrontational apologetics, delivering “evidence that demands a verdict,” as to the identity of the Messiah generally produces “thrust and parry” fencing matches where no one wants to lose and be shamed. As the story from the Dubner Maggid shows us—People welcome Story, but resist the Naked Truth.
Narrative 7 poses a challenge—do we late great moderns think we can do better with our monologue-lecture approaches to teaching than Yeshua, who was primarily a metaphorical theologian, and who used stories and questions as his primary teaching method?
Narrative 8 queries whether or not, in our postmodern moment, we can we transition from the “Gutenberg Galaxy” to the “Digitoral” Galaxy, from “Gutenberg to Zuckerberg” by using media to oralize and portray the ancient yet ever new stories of God?
The Hasidic story evokes promises of the life-giving, healing and transformative power of the Ruach-ha-Kodesh who inspired the writing of these stories of Israel and the Jewish people and our Messiah, who still attends to their telling, the Word becoming fresh again in human lives.
Is our rope long enough?
Bill Bjoraker (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) met and married his wife Diana while both were serving as singles in Israel in the 1980s. Bill was pastor at Beit Immanuel Congregation in Tel-Aviv-Jaffa for four of the eight years they lived there, helping the congregation transition into Hebrew language and Israeli leadership. From the 1990s to the present he has continued in Jewish outreach in the greater Los Angeles area and teaching Messianic Jewish studies in several seminaries and schools of ministry. Bill & Diana live in Pasadena and have three grown children.
1 Rosemary Horowitz, ed., Elie Wiesel and the Art of Storytelling (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), 208.
2 Ernest G. Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital, Studies in Biblical Theology (London: SCM Press, 1952), 57.
3 Michael Goldberg, Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight: The Exodus and the Passion-Resurrection (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1991), 13.
4 In God’s providence the New Covenant Scriptures are written in Greek. There need not be dissention between Hebraism and Hellenism. There is a harmony between the best in the Greek use of reason and Biblical faith. The integration of faith and reason has served in the successful development of Western civilization and in the best university tradition. We can be grateful for this for this integration, as we have reaped the fruits of human flourishing in modern science and technology. This is a gift of the synthesis of Greek and Hebrew thought. However, as modern Western secular humanism advanced, Hebraic treasures were left behind.
5 Raphael Patai, The Jewish Mind (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), 67.
6 Aggadah or Haggadah (Heb. הַגָּדָה, אַגָּדָה; “telling,” “narrative”), one of the two primary components of Rabbinic tradition, the other being halakhah or halacha, usually translated as “Jewish Law.” Halakhah (literally “walking” so “how to walk”) contains the legal rulings of the rabbis, law codes, customs, and ethical rulings of the Talmud. Though the categories are broad with fuzzy boundaries, Haggadah is generally the non-legal literature of the Talmudic body of literature, the “Sea of the Talmud.” Broadly, “The aggadah comprehends a great variety of forms and content. It includes narrative, legends. Its forms and modes of expression are as rich and colorful as its content. Parables and allegories, metaphors and terse maxims; lyrics, dirges, and prayers, biting satire and fierce polemic, idyllic tales and tense dramatic dialogues, hyperboles and plays on words, …” “Aggadah or “Haggadah” in:
7 Chaim Nachman Bialik, Revealment and Concealment: Five Essays, trans. Zali Gurevitch (Jerusalem: Ibis Editions, 2000), 45.
8 Bialik, Revealment, 46.
9 Bialik, Revealment, 75
10 Marin Buber, I and Thou. A New Translation, with a prologue and notes by Walter Kaufmann (New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons) 1970.
11 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1982), 5.
12 Ong, Orality, 5.
13 Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 88, 89.
14 Hyam Maccoby, Early Rabbinic Writings, Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World 200 BC to AD 200, Vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 8.
15 Walter Bauer and Arndt Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “Logos.”
16 John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 127.
17 William D. Bjoraker, “Faith, Freedom and Radical Individualism in Late Modern America: A Missiological Evaluation” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2007), 365-66.
18 Paul Weston, “The Making of Christendom,” Zotero, accessed December 13, 2014, https://www.zotero.org/groups/westminstercam/items/itemKey/WGKTDRUI.
19 Bjoraker, “Faith,” 355-56.
20 Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics.” Christianity Today 57, no. 9 (October 2013): 38.
21 Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way,” 38.
22 Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way,” 38.
23 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 1977), 213-66.
24 Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 137.
25 Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 137.
26 Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Touchstone Books, 1970).
27 Kevin M. Bradt, Story as a Way of Knowing (Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1997), 127.
28 bid., 129.
29 Ibid., 131.
30 Ibid., 131-32.
31 Ibid., 15.
32 Ibid., 157.
33 Ibid., 162.
34 Goldberg, 15.
35 Peshat (פְּשָׁט)—“plain” (“simple”), literal, direct meaning; the historical-grammatical interpretation.
Remez (רֶמֶז)—“hints” at a deeper (allegoric, symbolic or typological) meaning beyond just the literal sense; type and anti-type.
Derash (דְּרַשׁ)—Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”)—the interpretation, applicational teaching (midrashic) meaning (a “darasha” is a homily or sermon)
Sod (סוֹד)—“secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical, esoteric meaning. Proceed with caution at this level. The Kabbalah is rife with this approach and needs tethers, controls, and discernment.
36 Noam Zion. “The Origins of Human Violence and the Crisis of the Biblical First Family: Cain and Abel in Torah, Commentary, Midrash, Art, Poetry, Movies, and Thought.” Notes from a class taught at the Shalom Hartman Institute (Jerusalem, 2014), 22.
37 Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 186.
38 Zion, “The Origins,” 22.
39 Other archetypal Genesis stories which have been treated in the form we may call a literary midrashic genre, broadly considered, are Genesis 3, the Fall of Man in Eden, by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667); Genesis 4, Cain and Abel, by John Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden (1952); and Genesis 27–50, the Joseph Story, by Thomas Mann in his massive Joseph and His Brothers (1943).
40 Brad Jersak, “Noah: Who Are the Watchers and Why the Panic?,” Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, March 31, 2014, accessed December 14, 2014, http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2014/03/noah-who-are-the-watchers-and-why-the-panic-by-brad-jersak.html.
47 The “watchers” in the film were shocking to some. They were sort of sci-fi creatures, having fallen from heaven into molten lava. When the lava hardened to stone, they were lumbering rocky creatures. The angelic “watchers” are mentioned in canonical Scripture in Daniel 4:13, 17, and 23. They are featured in the apocryphal books of I Enoch and Jubilees. The New Testament epistles of Peter allude to angels who were disobedient in the days of Noah who had fallen (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-5; Jude 6). The epistles state they are kept “in prison” and “Tartarus,” (in 2 Pet. 2:4, a term borrowed from Greek mythology, for a place lower than Hades), whereas Aronofsky and Handel’s movie has them wandering the earth, helping men, and some return to heaven in light form, escaping their stony condition. Jude cites 1 Enoch in Jude 14-15 directly (probably 1 Enoch 1:9), stating that Enoch (the great-grandfather of Noah) himself had uttered these prophecies. If Peter and Jude can allude to them, surely a visual midrashic version of the Noah story can legitimately do so and imaginatively depict what they were like. There is enough mystery here to allow speculation. No one owns or has copyright to the Biblical stories; they are surely in the public domain. And if they were thought to have ownership, they belonged to the Jewish people before ever they did to evangelical Christians.
48 The teacher-storyteller is responsible to clarify and correct when a midrash or interpretation of a story is offered that does clearly contradict the authoritative inspired written text of a Bible story. In the case of the Noah movie, the most glaring dissonance with the Biblical story was the way the character of Noah was portrayed as having so badly misunderstood the Creator that he believed that he and his family were also to be destroyed and only the animals were to be saved, this to the extreme point of planning to kill his two granddaughters to help the Creator exterminate every last human being. These notions clearly reach the zone of “Phiction” and the “Deniable” and the tethers apply (See alliterative “Four P’s” and “Four D’s” above). This confusion in Noah was perhaps because, in the movie, God never speaks audibly or in clear language to Noah. This contradicts the authoritative Biblical story that states in Genesis 6:9b “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” (ESV). And it states God spoke clear and intelligible instructions to Noah, quoting the words of God, which included the promise of a covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:13; 7:1; 8:15; 9:1, 8, 12). However, considering the possible choices by the characters in the story, choices they could have made but did not make (such possible, hypothetical ones as portrayed in the movie), illumines on the choices they did make (as told in the Bible). Noah could have acted as confused as he was in this movie version, but did not. God could have been as silent as he was in this movie, but he was not. What light does this midrash then throw upon the way they did speak and act in the Biblical story?
49 In Jewish tradition there is the notion of “Shiv'im Panim l' Torah (שִׁבְעִים פָּנִים לְתוֹרָה)—“‘The Torah has 70 faces.’ This phrase is sometimes used to indicate different ‘levels’ of interpretation of the Torah. ‘There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it’ (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15). The Torah is a work of literary art, written by the LORD Himself, and therefore shares characteristics with all other works of art.” (Parsons, John J., “Hebrew for Christians,” accessed Dec. 14, 2014, http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Articles/Seventy_Faces/seventy_faces.html.) This should be interpreted as hyperbole for those accepting the authority of the New Covenant Scriptures. Controls and tethers must be applied so as not to fall into a Kabbalistic, esoteric mode. However, the notion of the “70 Faces of the Torah” jars us away from the only-one-true meaning literalist mode when dealing with stories, and is a reminder of the depth and riches of the inspired Word of God. When interpreting the non-narrative genre, like the law codes of Deuteronomy or Pauline epistles, careful historical-grammatical exegesis must be used; but stories have multiple, many-faceted interpretations and applications.
50 A missionary to Africa tells of the African bush lady who heard the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. She heard the story and then said, “I've never seen a man turn down such an opportunity. I want to know the God behind this man. This God must be very powerful to help Joseph turn down such a temptation.” The storyteller reminded her that this story was not evangelistic, but God used it to bring her to faith in Yeshua. The authorial intent of the Genesis story was to show God’s power to preserve Joseph through the testing of Joseph’s character to by resisting temptation, but the nature of story allows it to be used evangelistically. (As told to Larry Dinkins by African indigenous Christian leaders in a “Simply the Story” summit meeting. Hemet, California, 2014).
51 Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel. Illustrations by Tom Pohrt (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 48.
53 Nathan Ausubel, ed., A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People (New York: Crown Publisher's, Inc., 1948), 56.
54 Ausubel, ed., Treasury, 56.
55 Eliezer Steinbarg, ed., The Jewish Book of Fables (Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture, 2003), xii.
57 John Calvin, A Commentary On the Psalms of David (Oxford: Talboys, 1840), 1: vi.
59 Dorothy A. Miller, Simply the Story Handbook (Hemet, CA: The God’s Story Project, 2012).
60 Os Guinness, When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image. Trinity Forum Study Series (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 2000), 208.
61 Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 279.
62 Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way,” 38.
63 Philip S. Moxom, “The Insufficiency of Religious Toleration,” in Addresses Before the New York Conference of Religion, ed. James M. Whiton (New York: The New York State Conference of Religion, 1903), 93.
64 Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees (New York: Dutton & Co., 1958), 282.
65 Bailey, Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 280.
66 Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1994), 46.
67 Bailey, Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 282.
68 Bjoraker, “Faith,” 9-74.
69 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
70 Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).
71 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).
72 Charles Madinger, “A Literate’s Guide to the Oral Galaxy,” Orality Journal 2, no. 2 (2013).
73 Ong, Orality, 11.
74 Samuel E. Chiang “Learning from My Own Mistakes,” Mission Frontiers, May-June 2014, 4, accessed December 14, 2014, http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/from-the-guest-editor.
75 Buber, I and Thou, xvii.
76 Miller, Simply the Story.
TABLE 1 – CONTRAST BETWEEN READING AND LISTENING
Read marks on a page
Attend to the sound of a voice.
A lone person with a book, written by someone miles away, or dead, or both.
An interpersonal, relational act.
The book is at the reader’s mercy. The book does not know if I am paying attention or not.
Listener is required to be attentive to the speaker, at speaker’s mercy. The speaker knows if I am paying attention or not.
The reader initiates the process; the reader is in charge.
The speaker initiates the process; the speaker is in charge.
Images in life: The stereotype of the husband buried in the morning newspaper at breakfast, preferring to read scores of yesterday’s sports events, and opinions of columnists he will never meet, than to listen to the voice of the person who has just shared his bed, poured his coffee, and fried his eggs, even though listening to that live voice promises love and hope, emotional depth and intellectual exploration far more than what he can gather informationally from the New York Times.
Images in life: All Israel assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai as Moses addresses them…. A first century Pauline congregation gathered to hear the oral reading of a letter from the apostle Paul… A soldier standing at attention, listening to the commands of his drill sergeant…. Boy Scouts around a campfire listening in rapt attention to a storyteller tell a ghost story… A family Passover Seder dinner, in which the father animatedly tells, once again, the Great Story of our Freedom, the children ask questions, the symbolic foods are eaten, and the songs are sung.
(Created by Bjoraker drawing from prose source in Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles.13)