select your character: identifying with bible “heroes”?
We are taught as early as Sunday school, and certainly in much contemporary preaching, to identify with the so-called “heroes” of the Bible.
Just as Moses trusted in God and performed great signs, so too can we if we trust God too!
Just as David slew Goliath, so too can we overcome our “giants”.
Just as Jesus challenged the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, so too should we challenge hypocrisy.
Now, I’m not necessarily denying the basic truth of these statements…
(on second thought, the first one is pretty simplistic… and the second one is adequate for maybe a six-year-old… and the third one is just asking for judgementalists to abuse it…)
Anyway, my point is this – why is it that we identify ourselves with these protagonistic biblical characters? Is it perhaps natural to identify with the perceived protagonists in a story, much like young boys want to be Superman/Batman/whoever-man when they watch those movies? Is it perhaps that we see the virtues of these characters and view them as an ideal goal for ourselves?
These are of course both legitimate answers. But they are not necessarily indicative of what is often the actual situation from which we read.
Take for example the characters of Pharaoh and Moses in the Exodus narrative:
Pharaoh and Egypt Moses & Israel
Imprisoned Foreign Slaves Freed Slaves
Benefited from Exploitation Were exploited and sought liberation
Controlled vast amounts of wealth Controlled little to nothing
Broke promises about setting Israel free Fulfilled their requirements
Remained within a place of security Became wanderers without a home
Refused God’s justice Cried our for God’s justice
I’m sure this list, which is rather shallow, could go on. I am not attempting to be comprehensive here, but I do wish to point out some issues with our identification with, say, Moses and the Israelites in this story (the default stance, in my experience).
It is well known that many African-American slaves adopted the Exodus story as a way of expressing their struggles in a new foreign land throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Their story was a fairly obvious equivalent to the Exodus narrative; they identified with Moses, the Israelite slaves and the theme of liberation because they found themselves in an analogous situation.
How is it then that people in a situation like me (white, middle-class, Western) can claim to identify with the same characters?
I think about current issues in Australia and I wonder who we really resemble in such stories. In the case of Australia’s refugee debate I think most Australians look far more like Pharaoh and Egypt than they do Moses and Israel (again, conceding that the depiction above is simplistic).
What about in the case of gay marriage? What about global poverty, and market exploitation? What about our involvement in unjust wars?
The same questions apply to the story of Jesus. How can we claim to identify with Jesus, who stood against evil and injustice to the extent that he was executed for upsetting the dominant “system”? We often look more like Pharisees, who concentrated more on ethnic and social boundaries than on compassion and inclusivity. Or perhaps we often look more like Sadducees, who were in bed with the dominant authorities and systems, and who enacted a stark conservatism in order to retain their social/political/economic power over the peasantry. Or perhaps we often like the Essenes, who largely withdrew from wider society in order to create their own exclusive communities of purity.
Is this meant to be a blanket condemnation of Christians, or the “Western Church”? Not at all. It is simply a reminder that we need to recognise our position in the world, the seat from which we read the Scriptures. When we have done that honestly we can start to ask ourselves a rather humbling question – who do I really look like in the Bible?
Having done this we might find we look more like Pharaoh than Moses, or more like Egypt than the Israelite slaves. We might find we look more like Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes than we do Jesus.
And the beauty of this discovery is not that we feel guilty, but that we can begin to change, with the Spirit’s help, to look more like those characters in the Bible we are led to admire. But this is hard to do when we are little Pharaohs convincing ourselves we are Moses.