I struggle with the idea of children’s bibles.
I mean, I understand the idea. It’s nice to have an age-appropriate and reading-level-appropriate collection of stories, with all of the bits that are boring—or that would make Sunday school teachers uncomfortable—edited out. It’s nice to have a book of stories about how God, my child, loves you; about how you, my child, should love others; about how we, my child, should love one another.
My struggle with children’s bibles is that they are usually full of the G-rated bits of the Bible. And even if they venture into the other bits—the PG-13-rated bits or the R-rated bits—they bowdlerize those bits: they present G-rated versions of those bits.
And there’s nothing wrong with that by itself. But, too often, we forget to introduce our teenagers to the PG-13-rated bits or our emerging adults to the R-rated bits. And, too often, we end up with adults who think that the Bible is just the G-rated bits and maybe a few PG-13-rated bits: a collection of stories about how God, my friend, loves you; about how you, my friend, should love others; about how we, my friend, should love one another.
Children’s bibles are edits. And that’s okay. But the Bible is more than the edits.
And the truth is that we also make edits in church. You see, we spend most of the year hearing the scripture readings that some people chose to include in the Narrative Lectionary. And before we used the Narrative Lectionary, we spent most of the year hearing the scripture readings that some people chose to include in the Revised Common Lectionary. And lectionaries aren’t children’s bibles, but lectionaries make edits… and they tend to edit out the really hard bits.
There are whole stories in the Bible—there are whole books of the Bible—that you have almost certainly never heard in church.
And so we’re spending a few weeks in a short summer sermon series titled That’s in the Bible?! We’re spending a few weeks with the weird stories and maybe even with some uncomfortable stories. We’re spending a few weeks with the stories we don’t usually hear in church.
Ken eased us into it last week with a story where Jesus looked at a woman who needed help—a woman who was not an Israelite, a woman who was a Canaanite—and said, “I’m not for you.” And this week… well…
If our reading today was a movie…
We fade in on a man running through the streets. We fade in on a man running for his life. The music is syncopated drumbeats and punches of brass. We can see the sweat dropping down his face. We can hear the shortness of his breath. We can see the panic in his eyes.
The camera swings around as the man turns a corner. And just a little bit up ahead he sees a woman standing in front of a door. She waves her arms at him and whisper-shouts, “Quick! In here!” And we see the relief in his eyes as he ducks into the doorway… and the woman follows him… and the door latches behind them.
The woman sits him down in the corner of the room where he’s a little bit hidden away. She gives him something to drink. She covers him with a blanket. And after they chat for a bit, exhausted and safe, he falls asleep.
And as he snores softly, the woman tidies the room and checks the door. She tiptoes over to him. She doesn’t want to wake him. She pulls the blanket up around him and he snuggles in a bit. And then she pulls out a hammer… and she bashes his skull in.
A friend of mine is a Mennonite pastor. Like me, she foolishly chose to preach on this passage one week. She was reading the story and there was a kid sitting in the congregation, close enough to the front that she could see that he was paying attention to his phone and not to her. The words and music and prayers of worship swirled around him, but he was focused on, let’s say, Fortnite.
And when my friend got to the part where the woman bashed the man’s head in, the kid’s head shot up eyes wide.
Because while the Bible is absolutely about how God, my friends, loves you; and about how you, my friends, should love others; and about how we, my friends, should love one another… it is also about other things. The Bible has stories that surprise us. It has stories that trouble us. It has stories that make our heads shoot up eyes wide.
Because the Bible is about God. It is also about people. It is often about people who are trying to figure out if they are on the right side of God or the wrong side of God as they raise their children… and do business… and go to war… and do everything else.
People, in other words, who are a lot like us. And, sometimes, like in the book of Judges, that gets complicated. Judges is a complicated book. It is a hard book. It is a violent book. This is not a nice comfortable G-rated part of the Bible. It is a layered book.
The passage that we read today is about a woman straight up murdering a man on the run. If this were a movie, she would clearly be the monster and he would clearly be the victim.
What the edit that I gave you didn’t tell you was that this was in the days when the Israelites lived among other people in the land of Canaan… and that the man was the general of a Canaanite army that had been oppressing the Israelites… and that the woman was a Kenite, an ally of the Israelites, who was helping the Israelites… and that God had promised to free the Israelites from oppression.
If this were a movie, the man would clearly be the monster and the woman would clearly be the plucky rogue saving the day.
But what that additional detail didn’t tell you was that the reason that the Israelites were being oppressed by the Canaanite army was that they were being punished. They had forgotten their covenant and started worshipping the gods of their neighbors in Canaan.
If this were a movie, the man and the woman would both be pawns in a grander scheme that they cannot comprehend… the scheme of a benevolent God trying to make the Israelites into a holy people.
But what that additional context didn’t tell you was that the only reason that the Israelites had neighbors in Canaan in the first place was that they had disobeyed God’s clear command to drive the Canaanites out and take their land. For God had brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and given them the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and that meant that the people who already lived their had to go.
If this were a movie… it wouldn’t have an obvious good guy or an obvious bad guy or an obvious lesson.
And it would just keep going. There would always be more detail, more context, more information. You see, that’s the problem with children’s bibles and lectionaries and readings in worship and even, maybe, with scripture itself: there is always more to the story. We never get to see the whole of what is. We just get an edit.
That’s also true of reality. We never get to see the whole of what is. We just get edits.
Reality television edits. Social media edits. The news edits. Our memories edit. Our senses edit.
Sometimes, those edits are little. Our eyes have a blindspot: a little spot where the optic nerve connects to the retina. Imagine a camera lens, but there’s a wire right there, so the lens can’t pick up what’s right there. And our brains just kind of fill it in. Our brains tell us what they think is going on right there.
Sometimes, those edits are big. There are still history books that will tell you that the Civil War was about industry vs. agriculture or states’ rights or anything except for the thing that the Confederacy said that the Civil War was about: slavery. And there are still media networks that will tell you that there might be little pockets of racist bigotry here or there, but that structural racism does not exist.
And there aren’t just folks who will edit out racism. There are folks who will edit out climate change… or wealth inequality… or patriarchy… or homophobia. There are folks who will edit out sin. There are folks who will edit out anything that doesn’t fit in their version of an orderly world and tell us to play a nice game of, let’s say, Fortnite.
But every so often, on the edges of our hearing and out of the corners of our eyes, we get a story—maybe even a story like the one that we read today—that makes our heads shoot up eyes wide. And if we’re lucky and attentive and willing to work, then maybe, before someone gets in and makes the edits, we can get the detail and the context and the information.
And, sometimes, there might be a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. And, more often, there will be people caught up in grander things that they cannot comprehend. And, maybe most often, there won’t be an obvious good guy or an obvious bad guy or an obvious lesson.
I’ll be honest. I don’t think that this story about Sisera and Jael has an obvious good guy or an obvious bad guy or an obvious lesson. I think that this might be one of those moments when a thing happened… and it was good for Israel… and so people told the story and said, “See? God liberated us from oppression!”
And the people who told the story that way weren’t wrong; God liberates us from oppression. I’m just also not sure that this thing that happened was about that.
But that is also an important lesson. Sometimes, the Bible presents simple truths that are hard to do: God, my friends, loves you; you, my friends, should love others; we, my friends, should love one another. And sometimes, the Bible is about things that happened—things that make our heads shoot up eyes wide—that we just have to try to make sense of.
And there is struggle in that. And there is beauty in that. Because God’s story, our story, isn’t a nice G-rated morality tale. It’s a life and a relationship and everything that comes with being a life and a relationship.
And that means that there is always more.