Godtalk: The Bible as Parable


Open Bible
Bible by Adam Dimmick at Flickr

One of the great tragedies and errors of the way people have understood the Bible has been the assumption that what people did in the Old Testament must have been right 'because it's in the Bible'. It has justified violence, enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people; it has justified all manner of things we now cannot but as Christians regard as evil.

But they are not there in the Bible because God is telling us, 'That's good.' They are there because God is telling us, 'You need to know that that is how some people responded. You need to know that when I speak to human beings things can go very wrong as well as very wonderfully.'   

God tells us, 'You need to know that when I speak, it isn't always simple to hear, because of what human beings are like.' We need, in other words, to guard against the temptation to take just a bit of the whole story and treat it as somehow a model for our own behaviour. Christians have often been down that road and it has not been a pretty sight. We need rather to approach the Bible as if it were a parable of Jesus. The whole thing is a gift, a challenge and an invitation into a new world, seeing yourself afresh and more truthfully.

So God speaks to us by telling us stories. And God does this not just by giving a straight narrative but also by giving examples of how people reacted in their laws, in their proverbs and their songs. We hear his call to us by witnessing its impact on those human beings thousands of years ago. But there is one important difference between the parables and the Bible as a whole. Jesus' parables are simple, contemporary stories.

They are drawn from everyday situations. They deal with, in a very prosaic way for most of the time, the relations of very ordinary people. But the sweep of the Bible's history is much longer. And the Bible is not simply saying, 'Here is a story', but 'Here is your story. 'Your life began with Noah and Abraham and Moses. Your history goes right back to those beginnings. This is your past we are talking about and the people about whom the Bible stories are written are people who are our family.

A Bible story is, inescapably, about history. It is about how things came into being, and how those things that came into being are still shaping us here and now as Christians.  If we met Abraham we would probably be very surprised. Perhaps one day, in whatever sense God wishes us to do so, we may meet the remote figure who stands behind the sagas about Abraham.   

But it would be a little like meeting a long-lost cousin from a very distant country, with a very different culture and language. Yet it would be even harder than meeting our second cousin from Australia. This is our millionth cousin from prehistoric Mesopotamia. And our first thought would almost certainly be that we have no idea how to relate to him. Yet the Bible says, 'This man is your family and his story is the beginning of your story, and if it were not for him you would not be who you are now. So get used to it...'

This is why history does matter in the Bible overall, in a way that doesn't really apply in the parables. When Jesus says that there was once a man who had two sons Matt 21.28 we would regard as a nuisance somebody who put up a hand and asked, 'Where did he live? What was his name?'

Such questions a child might ask when told a parable. But with the Bible as a whole it matters that we are not just talking about an abstract case; we are talking about a story that unfolds in particular times and places, leading towards here and now; leading towards us.


Peter Knott SJ

Adapted from Being Christian by Rowan Williams