When my kids were small, I used to tell them bedtime stories. They would give me some prompt–a word, an idea–and I’d make up a story on the spot, some whimsical tale about how they and the other neighborhood kids foiled a robbery at the grocery store by making the bad guys slip on banana peels. True, getting them laughing and excited was probably not the best thing to do at bedtime; still, those are fond memories for me.
Parents tell stories to their children, to entertain and to bond. And they tell cautionary tales, too: stories about poor old Uncle Mortimer and the Big Mistake he made in life. The moral of such stories is usually clear and stark: Don’t make the same mistake, or something bad will happen.
There’s a tension in such storytelling. To some extent, once the story’s been boiled down to a pithy “moral,” the narrative background becomes nearly irrelevant. The story is mere illustration, and could be told to anyone.
But family stories are a little different because they are, well, closer to home. We are connected to Uncle Mortimer; we share genes and relations, inhabiting slightly different places in a shared universe of memories. Telling stories reestablishes unseen connections. We might distill a moral from the story, or we might not. Either way, the story itself is not to be forgotten.
In the Old Testament, there are striking examples of setting up moral teaching with stories of the past. These are not mere illustrations or moral fables, but a re-immersion of the audience into a shared family narrative: this isn’t just their story, this is our story. Remember. This is who we are.
The Israelites have spent a generation wandering in the wilderness, and have reached the threshold of their entry into the Promised Land. Moses calls the people together. And just before he reminds them of the Commandments the Lord had already given so long ago, he immerses the people again in the family story:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself. At that time, I was standing between the Lord and you, declaring to you the Lord’s word, because you were terrified of the fire and didn’t go up on the mountain. (Deut 5:2-5, CEB)
It’s not true, not literally. Moses is talking to the descendants of those who originally received the Commandments. They know it, and he knows it. That’s why he insists that they were the ones who stood at the foot of that mountain shaking in terror, the ones to whom the Lord thundered–they, not their ancestors.
I’m reminded of this when I read Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 10. The largely Gentile church of Corinth was no doubt familiar with the stories that we call the Old Testament. The question is what value those stories held to those who had not grown up with them. Were they more like Aesop’s Fables, or family stories?
I read Paul as wanting to immerse these Gentile converts into the story of Israel in such way that it becomes their story, shaping their moral imagination in ways that go far beyond obedience to religious rules. We’ll come back to that idea in the next post.