I worked in a congregation years ago, where I ran into problems when I said that the Bible contained stories meant to tell us about who God is and who we are in relationship to God.
Now, I know that doesn’t sound especially controversial, right? I mean, if the Bible isn’t a collection of stories, what is it?
But when this woman heard me say “story,” what she heard was “made up fairytales.” She’d grown up in a conservative church, and had acutely calibrated antennae set to detect any possible weakening of Biblical authority, any potential attempt to claim the Bible isn’t 100% accurate.
She remained convinced that she held the self-evidently “Christian” position on the Bible’s essential infallible nature—and that anything that didn’t quite toe that line was an affront to God, and a threat to proper theological order.
It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that I thought she was wrong about any number of things, but about the Bible in particular.
What she didn’t understand was that by claiming the Bible is a collection of stories, I wasn’t making claims about their truth or falseness—I was merely calling attention to the fact that are the way we construct meaning. Narrative is the peculiarly human attempt to establish a world that is understandable and meaningful from what appears to be a series of random events.
When you meet someone for the first time, and they ask you, “What’s your story?”, you know they aren’t asking you to perform something from Dr. Seuss—they aren’t seeking information about your favorite campfire yarn. They’re asking about who you are. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of moments in your life, tell us the ones that give us a sense of what makes you tick.
It may not have occurred to you before, but that’s what history is. It’s not just the discipline of stringing together a bunch of facts about the world; it’s the act of combing through and choosing from the billions of episodes that have occurred in a given time period, and putting together a series of them to form a story that best identifies what it would have been like to have existed at a certain moment.
I tell my students that history is one of the most interesting subjects in the academy. And they give me this sort of dead-eyed gasp of incredulity—the one that says, “We knew you were old, but we didn’t realize you were also dumb.”
Usually one intrepid student will pipe up, “History is boring.”
But I, committed to the pursuit of the mind, plow on. “No,” I say. “Seriously. History isn’t boring; you’ve just had bad history teachers. History isn’t just facts and dates. History is merely a form of storytelling. And to the extent that you find history boring, it just means you’ve been subjected to bad storytellers. The Spanish word for ‘story’ is ‘historia,’ and the French word for it is ‘l' histoire.’”
History tells us where we come from, who our ancestors were, and what it means to have inherited a story that gives us a sense of who we are, and therefore, what’s expected of us.
That’s why history the way it’s typically been done seems so disconnected from our experience, so irrelevant to understanding our lives now.
What do I mean?
Until recently, the modern discipline of history has defaulted to the dominant historiographical method: “The Great Man Theory of History.” This theory is generally thought to be the brainchild of Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle who gave a series of lectures on heroism in 1840, later published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which he states:
>Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.
In other words, in order to understand where we’ve come from, we need to pay attention to great men, and the things great men were in the middle of: Politics, War, Economics, Philosophy, Art, and so on. If we tell these stories, we’ll not only know what happened, but what it means for us—where we come from, who our forbears are, and what it all means for who we are and who we’re supposed to be.
Okay, before the howls of deafening rage cause our newly plastered walls to crack, let me ask you this: Do you see any particular problems with understanding our history, and therefore, our identities, through the prism of “The Great Man Theory of History?”
There’s at least one glaring difficulty of understanding ourselves and our past as a product of “Great Men.” Turns out a bunch of us aren’t men—and even fewer of us are “great.”
Now immediately, when I say, “Not all of us are men,” especially coming on the heels of International Women’s Day, our minds immediately jump to the fact that a little over half the world’s population has no hope of being a man—let alone a “great” man. That is to say, telling history as a product of men, leaves out the contributions of women—whom, I hope we can all agree, are at least as important to where we’ve come from, who we are, and what are our responsibilities based on these stories.
Another thing, throughout much of history, most men weren’t viewed as “men.” Those people born male, but who didn’t own land, weren’t considered actual men. Indeed, the first draft of the Constitution of the United States in 1787, considered a slave three-fifths of a person.
So, to recap: Women weren’t men. The poor and landless weren't men. People of color weren’t men.
Consequently, The Great Man Theory of History should really have been recast as The Great White Man Theory of History. But since everybody already took for granted that the only history worth telling would have white men as the central characters, being explicit about it was not only unnecessary, it was redundant.
So, when white people complain during February every year that there’s no “White History Month,” and I say, “Oh yes there is; it’s called ‘the rest of the calendar,’” I’m not just being a smart-aleck, I’m being painfully literal.
But in the middle third of the twentieth-century, there arose a historiographical corrective. A new movement to construct history not from the lives and dealings of “great men,” but from the experiences of ordinary people, using things like popular culture, newspapers, menus, protest literature, and the artifacts of everyday life.
“People’s History” or “History from Below” is an attempt to tell the story in a way that doesn’t automatically assume that the folks who always seem to find themselves in history books are the most important figures for determining what’s important and what life means in a certain place and time.
Telling the story not so that it highlights the deeds of the great men, but centers the poor and the powerless, on the ordinary people, is precisely how God tells the children of Israel to tell their own history in our text for this morning.
What do I mean?
The first thing the Israelites are supposed to do when they occupy the land God has promised them is to take an offering of fruit, go to the tabernacle, and offer it to God. Then they’re supposed to recite their story before God:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”
Now, at first blush, that description—what Gerhard von Rad called Israel’s credo—sounds pretty innocuous. Not really any big deal to modern ears. But it’s important to know that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor”—a reference to Jacob—was an epithet. It was an admission that Israel came from a bunch of nobodies.
According to Brian Jones, "The Hebrew word translated ‘wanderer’ (abad) almost always refers to someone perishing and desperate, cut off from the community, and fading away. It is used elsewhere several times of strayed sheep, which clarifies the connection between wandering and perishing since a wandering sheep is very soon a dead sheep. Furthermore, in the author’s time, the term Aramean had a derogatory connotation. An equivalent expression today would be, ‘A destitute vagrant was my ancestor.’”
In other words, the story of the children of Israel was meant to help them understand that their history wasn’t merely an account of the deeds of great men, but a desperate community sustained by the love and care of God. Their “great men” were women and the poor. The noble births and fine breeding of the children of God came from those who haunted the back alley dives and homeless camps as imperiled refugees in Egypt.
Now if you begin your history with the exploits of the privileged and the powerful, it’s easy to justify organizing your political and economic life around the people born on third base—because those are the very people history is meant to recall, and their lives, therefore, are enshrined as the purpose and meaning of true life.
But if you begin the telling of your history by being reminded that you literally came from nowhere and that your ancestors were nobodies, that makes a difference in what and who you should value, doesn’t it?
Because here’s the thing: Our stories tell us not only who we are, but why who we are forms what we do and who we’re responsible for.
Notice what happens in our text after the people give their offering and recite their history. The offering isn’t kept in the tabernacle; it’s taken out to “the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: ‘I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you have commanded me.”
Do you see?
The reason the children of Israel tell their story about being the descendants of a “wandering Aramean” is to remind them that because the narrative of their past isn’t about the “Great Men of History,” but about a rag-tag band of vulnerable refugees, their responsibilities aren’t to the “Great Men of History,” but to the strangers in the land, to the orphans, to the widows—to all the people who get left out of almost every other history, but who occupy the very center of God’s heart.
And notice that the sharing of the first fruits with the most vulnerable isn’t an act of benevolence that springs from the goodness of the hearts of the well-to-do; it’s an act commanded by God. Offering food to those who don’t have it, according the to the story God’s people tell themselves about themselves, isn’t charity; it’s justice.
And let’s just be honest, none of this comes naturally. That’s why God enshrines it in the history, embedding it in the very DNA of God’s people—so that they don’t ever forget where they come from, and to whom they’re ultimately responsible.
What’s your story?
I’ll give you a clue. Before it’s ever anything else, your story, my story, the story of all of those claimed by God, is about a nobody from nowhere. And if we continue to tell it to ourselves, we’ll never be at a loss in figuring out not only where we’re from, but where we ought to be.