Christ in Literature: Old Testament Lessons (pt. 2)

I have recommended The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones in numerous posts on this blog. That doesn’t mean I think it is perfect, or perfect for everyone. In some ways, what makes it useful—its strong narrative voice and creative illustrations—actually end up taking kids farther from the original Bible text. And in that way, I can see how it might be a stumbling block to some children. But one thing this book does do in an extraordinary way is to help kids find Christ in the Old Testament. So, as a starting place for finding Christ in literature, I thought it would be good to talk through today a little of how Jones works her magic.

Christology can get pretty complicated. Sidney Greidanus has written a book on the subject, which includes a detailed look at how Christians’ views of Christ in the Old Testament have changed over the past 2,000 years. Pretty rich stuff. Plus, he then includes a careful look at seven ways that we ought to find Christ in the Scriptures, including analogy, typology, longitudinal themes, etc. If you want to go deep, Greidanus is your man. If you want something accessible but more studied from a Biblical perspective, I’d recommend The Gospel Coalition website devoted to the subject.

For our purposes though, it might be enough to begin by saying Christ can be found in the Old Testament both historically and symbolically. Perhaps the shortest way of explaining that is to contrast the beginning of Matthew’s gospel with the first paragraphs of John’s gospel.  Matthew begins with a genealogy. Christ is presented as part of a royal lineage, the consummation of thousands of years of history and promises to patriarchs like Abraham and David. Christ is here shown to be the Royal Seed, which God has guarded against the flaming arrows of hell,all the way from the gates of Eden to the stable in Bethlehem.

On the other hand, the opening of John’s Gospel sounds like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made…In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I hope it doesn’t seem too obvious or presumptuous for me to say that this language is more symbolic. It is certainly no less true than the historical teaching of Matthew, but it is true in a different way. (And of the caveats here, there could be no end. But you’ll need to see an expert mentioned above to get them.)

The extraordinary thing about the Bible, though, is the way these two broad ways of creating meaning come together. In our culture, stories and history are two distinct categories. But as Jones puts it, “The Bible is most of all a Story…It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!” Or if we look to C. S. Lewis, we find in his Pilgrim’s Regress the idea of “the one true myth.”  The Bible then is a story, with all the symbolic language we expect of a story—the metaphors, the poetry, the typology, etc.–but unlike man’s stories, the symbols in no way diminish the Bible’s historicity.

Clear as mud yet? Let’s see if Jones can help.

Abraham and Isaac: The History

Most of us know the story in Genesis 22, when God asked Abraham to take Isaac and sacrifice him in Moriah. When Abraham started up the mountain, he knew there was much more at stake than just the death of his favorite son. There was God’s promise in Genesis 21:12 that God was going to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation through Isaac. If Abraham were to kill Isaac as a sacrifice, not only would God seem cruel and unloving, but he would be reneging on his promise that “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

In The Jesus Storybook Bible, Jones sketches out two dramatic arcs for this story.  First, the historical.  She begins by reminding the reader of God’s Secret Rescue Plan–that is, that God was working and had been working to redeem His people ever since his promise to crush the serpent’s head.  She uses this framework to discuss the basic historical facts of the story.  She also embellishes it with explanations that are a little less than accurate (for instance, she says that animal sacrifices were a way of saying “I love you” to God, which doesn’t seem to sum them up in my mind), but the overall gist is correct:  she shows how God used this historical episode to teach Abraham that He could be trusted and that He was a God “who provides.”  Just as the knife is about to come down on Isaac, God stops Abraham and gives him a ram to sacrifice instead of his son.

Jones uses the idea of a Secret Rescue Plan throughout her Old Testament stories to help kids see–very effectively I might add–that in all the seemingly random events and stories of Israel’s history, God is working.  He is writing history to reveal His character and His sovereign will.  And because of that, history is going somewhere.

As she says in the context of Joseph’s many sufferings, “God had a magnificent dream for Joseph’s life and even when it looked like everything had gone wrong, God would use it all to help make the dream come true.”  (If the word dream here scares you, just remember that she doesn’t mean it like Oprah would use it.  There is no iffiness to her use of the word.)   God showed in the story of Abraham and Isaac that He can be trusted, despite all apparent evidence to the contrary, and He would preserve His lineage and rescue His people from death and sin in Christ.

I should add here that Christ is present in the history of the Old Testament as more than just a promise.  Many of the best scholars see Christ as The Angel of the Lord, as Melchizadek, and personally acting in the history of Israel in other important ways.  But these aren’t the focus of Jones’s book, thus I’ll leave them for another day.

The Symbolism

Abraham and Isaac were real people living in real time and space.  There are plenty of scholars throughout history who would deny that.  But unless we begin with the Bible as history, we cannot keep the symbolic.  Without history, the symbols of the Bible become gnostic sophistry–they may be twisted to mean anything.  But if we are first grounded in the history of His Word, we can begin to see what God meant by these historical events, more than even the original players knew.  The New Testament preserves for us Christ’s own teaching about the Old Testament, and there we find that His teaching about Himself in all of Scripture was a priority in His own ministry.  In one of his first appearances after the resurrection, we are told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Some of these revelations would have been historical.  But in the story of Abraham and Isaac, Jones bring out this symbolic meaning of the story–and specifically, it is typology in this case–by showing that Isaac was meant to be a small picture of Jesus for us.  She says, “Many years later, another Son would climb another hill, carrying wood on his back.  Like Isaac, he would trust his Father and do what his Father asked.  Who was he?  God’s Son, his only Son–the Son he loved.  The Lamb of God.”  Thus, she teaches children to see Isaac as more than just a historical figure; rather, she helps them see how he points to Jesus, who would be a far better sacrifice than Isaac ever could have been.

Implications

Jones says on the first pages of her book that “the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.”  I might prefer her to have said it isn’t just a book of rules or heroes, because it does contain those things.  But I think she is right in implying that even in its rules and heroes, the thrust of the Bible is upward.  It is God calling His people to Himself, calling as many as will believe to eternal life.

In my last post on this topic, we discussed the alternative to a world filled the presence of God: a world without God.  And that is far too often how we read the Bible itself.  I checked out a kids’ Bible story book from the library recently that was supposed to contain Bible stories.  But the applications of the stories were not even morals, but rather experiences the child could have.  One particular story stands out: in it, Joshua was pictured as walking around a city until it fell down.  The child was encouraged to walk around his or her blocks.  I can’t remember the exact text that went with it, but it was something like, “I can be like Joshua.  I can knock down cities too!”

Most religious folks are more sophisticated than that.  We read the story of Abraham and Isaac and we see that Abraham trusted God.  So since the Bible is about us, we see the story as teaching us to be like Abraham–to trust God.  And while it’s true that an important purpose of the text is to give us heroes of the faith to emulate (we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”), what have we lost in that interpretation?  By making the story only about us, we lose God!  We lose the story of what God is doing both in Abraham’s life and in our lives.  And we lose what’s at the heart of it all, what Jones calls “God’s Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”

So, next time in the series I’ll try to take this and see how we ought to apply this beyond the pages of Scripture.  Until then, let me know what you think!  I am not a scholar, nor would I want to pretend to be.  So please chime in if you think I’ve missed the boat somewhere, or if you have questions that I need to consider.

If you haven’t already, please see my original post in the series, Christ in Literature: Worlds Without God? (pt.1) or Christ in Literature: History (pt. 3).  You can also follow some of these themes in my True Grit and True Grace or Janie’s post Nice Jewish Girls and Learning the Holocaust.

 

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2 Responses to Christ in Literature: Old Testament Lessons (pt. 2)

  1. emily June 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    Thanks, Jennifer. Someone ought to make a story Bible out of that list!

  2. Jennifer Tubbiolo June 2, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Emily,

    Great post! This reminded me of that song about Jesus being in every book in the Bible. I have used it as a teachign tool to give my kids a different perspective on the Bible! Here are the lyrics:

    http://home.intekom.com/jason/jesusot.htm

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