Several things over the last couple of weeks have called my attention to time. My pastor preached about it last week, speaking of times of God’s extended silence. I lost some of it while being sick this week which always makes me a bit tense. Then I received a copy of 24/7: A One Year Chronological Bible, which puts Bible readings into a chronological framework. (I’ll get around to reviewing the Bible in a later post.) Finally I was asked about God’s answers to prayer and the frequencies of his miraculous intervention.
As Christians when we read scripture we need to be aware of these long periods of time. There are times to lose our sense of times, especially when our liturgy calls us to become more aware of eternity and less aware of the present. It is rare in my experience that the liturgy is successful in this call, but it is certainly worth it, and should be more frequent. But the very experience of eternity impinging on our limited, dare I say puny, time requires that we be aware of time.
Stories, on the other hand, tend naturally to give a false impression of time. You cannot tell a story of a long period of time whilst truly giving the full impression of the extended time of waiting involved. Frequently you’ll see phrases like “after a long time” or “after several months” or even “years passed.” For the reader, whether it is a few days or a few years, they are passed in just a moment.
Which in the ordinary course of reading a story is a minor issue. You know that time passed for the characters, and you’re glad you don’t have hundreds of pages narrating when they ate, went to bed, got up, or went to the toilet.
But when you go to reading scriptural stories, which provide us with an example (1 Corinthians 10:6), you need to think about this. How long was it between one thing and the next. Consider for a moment Judges 13:1:
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of teh Philistines forty years. (NRSV)
Now how do we normally read this story? Well, when I got it in church, I heard immediately about the arrival of the angel and then we wandered through the story of Samson as one overwhelming chain of miracles. Of course, with all this miraculous intervention by God, we also shook our heads over Samson’s terrible failures. How could he, when God was so obviously with him?
But that view of the story misses two important things. First, those forty years. Forty years ago it was 1978, and Jimmy Carter had been president for nearly two years. Forty years ago I was in college. Forty years ago the PC was a pretty marginal idea. Forty years ago there was no internet. Forty years is a long time, and the Israelites had been under foreign domination for that length of time.
Second, there’s the lifetime of Samson. While the story of Samson can be covered in a Sunday School lesson or so, at least as stories are commonly covered in Sunday School, we’re told that Samson judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 16:31). Twenty years is an awful lot of lifetime in which to hide those miracle stories. It may be that Samson spent years between those miraculous interventions wondering whether God was going to do things for him. Yes, we’re told he always had his strength, but it seems to have come into play only rarely. All things considered, I would guess that Sampson did often long for God’s more direct intervention
We can apply this principle to the entire Bible story. I’m frequently asked why God doesn’t act today in the way he acted in Bible times. Which Bible times? Do we refer to the hundreds of hears the Israelites spent in slavery in Egypt? Or perhaps we’re looking for century after century of the divided kingdom. Maybe instead we should think about the 400 years or so from the time of the return from the exile to the opening pages of the New Testament. Sure, we have a few interventions under the Maccabbees, but would you really want to suffer what those guys did in order to get a couple of divine interventions?
My point here is certainly not that we should pray less, or ask less of God, nor is it to cut off hope. More importantly, I think we need to cut off excuses. We shouldn’t claim that God is more absent from our lives than he was from the lives of people in “Bible times.”
Yes, there are moments in time when God’s intervention is pretty frequent, but even then remember that we are being told a few stories that cover a long time. The book of Acts, for example, relates around 30 years of the history of the early church. If we spread the number of miracles recorded in Acts over 30 years of the modern church, is it possible that people would complain bitterly about God’s absence?
Stories are wonderful. They can be encouraging or instructive. But in the Bible they form part of a history of how God has intervened. Understanding how they fit into time can be very important as we try to learn the lessons they offer for our lives.