Reforming the Biblical Narrative

Reforming the Biblical Narrative March 7, 2016


Guest Post by Nancy Hightower

I grew up going to Sunday school and church every Sunday. I was a wiz at Bible drills. All you had to do was read the beginning to a verse, and in less than thirty seconds, I could find it. I knew the story that went with the verse. I knew the lesson that went with the story. That’s what the Bible was to me, a giant lesson book that held all the secrets of the universe, and a list of the bad things I either did or was capable of doing. In the hands of my mother, the Bible took on a darker theme, and I lived in absolute terror of certain passages from Jude and the minor prophets. Everything was twisted to see if I was truly worshipping God or was secretly serving Satan. Hopefully, your story doesn’t veer even close to mine.

It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties and finishing up a PhD in creative writing that I began to revisit the Bible in such depth again, but not in the same manner as I did when a young girl, looking for a lesson to learn, a maxim to memorize. This time I let the stories and the characters speak to me, I let them tell me of their pain, their doubt, their own terrors and longings. I wanted to see their messiness and internal conflict, and in order to do that, I had to read the stories over and over, do a lot of cross referencing to see how they were talked about later on (if they were). The final product of that year was a book of poetry, The Acolyte, which I spent the next ten year revising. I especially wanted to find all the women in the Bible, the one’s not discussed in sermons or set up as examples of what not to be (Jezebel, for instance).

First, there are a ton of bad-ass women in the Bible doing whatever they need in order to save their nation, their town, or sometimes just their own skin. I love the story of Jael who nails Sisera’s head to the ground, thereby securing Israel’s victory over their enemy (Judges 4: 17-24). She doesn’t just slam the nail into his head, the verse specifies that she fastened his head to the ground. First, I will forever be intrigued by her choice of weapon and manner of attack—she had to get up close and personal to the person she was going to kill. That took bravery, yes, but also a certain kind of gothic creativity that still confuses and mesmerizes me. I had grown up learning how to be a “virtuous woman” based on Proverbs 31, but what if we started including all the other complex, innovative, women in the Old and New Testaments, such as Jael? What could we learn from her?

Tamar in Genesis 38 is another example. Joseph has just been sold into slavery, and then the narrative switches suddenly—for just one chapter—to Judah and his sons. Tamar is Judah’s daughter in law, and has not won herself the most stellar of husbands. It’s said that her husband is so wicked, God kills him. According to Levitical law, the second brother had to marry the widow so as the keep his brother’s name alive through an heir. But Judah’s second son makes sure that Tamar doesn’t get pregnant, so God kills him too. I wonder what it must have been like for Tamar, to have been widowed not just once but twice. I wondered if she felt cursed by God, forever unchosen. While Judah said he would give her his third son as soon as he was old enough, he didn’t (even he thought there was something cursed about her). Tamar could see that she was going to be quietly pushed aside and forgotten. Instead, she got creative. I won’t tell the rest of the story here, but she tricks Judah into giving her children, thereby starting the line of Christ. And when Judah discovered the con (there’s no better word for it), he tells everyone that she has been more righteous than him. She’s not only vindicated by Judah, centuries later, her name is invoked when the village blesses Ruth and Boaz and their future offspring.

My book The Acolyte is more evocative of the dark night of the soul, full of struggle and doubt that in some way, I hope offers comfort to those who are on a spiritual journey but don’t feel like they fit into Sunday sermon they’ve heard. You are not alone. God loves the freak. The Bible is full of freaks—it’s time to let them tell their stories.

The Acolyte can be found on Amazon. You can find more from Nancy over on her website, and follow along with her writings on Twitter and Facebook.

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