Wouldn’t it be great if there was a reduced Bible company? You know, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but performing shortened and hilarious versions of books of the Bible? It was this thought that led me to today’s experiment (not on Psalms, that’s tomorrow; I was getting a little ahead of myself) on 1 Samuel 1-5.

After all, this is a busy world, who has time to read actual scripture? What we all need is nice little summary, someone else can put in the hours. In fact, perhaps this is where I can make my fortune: the condensed Bible! I’ll call it ‘the Bible lite’, or the electronic version; the i-ble.

Actually, I think it already exists, and it’s a rubbish idea. If you shorten it you take out the poetry and probably a lot of the prophecy, just keep the stuff in that makes ‘the story’ flow. I bet a lot of the women’s stories get axed as a consequence! So, don’t take this too seriously (as opposed to all other posts, which are gravely serious), but here’s my reduced 1 Samuel 1-5, for your enjoyment:

Chapter 1: Hannah wants a child she prays to God and gets one; enter Samuel future Nazarite.

Chapter 2: Hannah sings; Eli’s (the high priest) sons are naughty; God gets angry; Samuel grows.

Chapter 3: Samuel hears voices and it turns out it’s God; phew! But God’s going to kill Eli’s entire family; not so phew!

Chapter 4: Israel goes to war, the ark of the covenant is captured, Eli and his son’s die (big surprise) but their daughter in law gives birth; every cloud has a silver lining?

Chapter 5: The Philistines have the ark, but discover it comes with a large helping of terror and tumours. After passing it around to various unwilling cities, they soon decide it’s not worth the trouble.

So there you go, that’s it in a nutshell, no need to read it yourself now, if there? Well, okay, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the whole text…

This was an interesting experiment. It feels a bit like a task out a textbook in school ‘read the first five chapters and then briefly summarise…’ It was amusing, and I’m all for Bible reading being fun but it felt a bit mechanical and that’s not really what reading the Bible is about is it? This exercise shows me that just knowing what it says isn’t enough. The feeling I got with this experiment in contrast to the one in my (very long) last post, where I wrote the whole thing out as a story, is markedly different. I feel sort of flippant about the first five chapters of Samuel, whereas I felt so emotionally engaged with the story of Joseph. So it’s not enough just to read, or just to regurgitate. The reading requires something of you, asks you to invest and to empathise.

Today’s experiment seems to have kept these stories distant and their protagonists imaginary. Perhaps a better way to do something like this would be to give each actor a sentence to say. Hannah’s might be “I have made a blessing into a sacrifice and so I have been more blessed” (see 2:18-21), or Samuel might say “How is it that I hear God? Who am I and what does he want with me?” Instantly I feel more engaged and I hear God speaking through these lives.

The Bible is a book about people. What an obvious thing to say, yet it seems to me like a revelation. It is a book, of course, about God, but all is expressed through the words, the lives, the experiences of people. It shows a glimpse of the Almighty, but it also shows us the breadth of humanity. And I, in my humanity, am discovering a new way to be with the Bible. There are so many voices in these texts, waiting to be heard. Perhaps this has a wider meaning.

We wait for the voice of God to speak to us like he does to Samuel; loud and clear and from the sky. But perhaps he is always speaking to us through the lives and voices of others, just as these lives written down in the Bible speak to us. Perhaps if we paid attention, we’d hear him everywhere…

Dear reader, in yesterday’s post I let y’all know that I would be trying out a few different things this week. I want reading and thinking about the Bible to be a creative act. So in today’s experiment I’ll write a story. Now, I’m kind of cheating, as it’s a story you’ve probably heard before. Well, you’ve definitely heard it if you’ve read Genesis 40-43. My idea is to read those chapters and then write out in the story in my own words, without referring back to the text. Here’s the result:

 

Joseph, the betrayed brother, the beloved son of Jacob now found himself wrongly imprisoned in a foreign land. He had found favour with the prison warden, who gave him charge over other prisoners. But sometimes favour just feels like extra work though, doesn’t it? He still dreamed, still hoped in God, on the brighter days.

Now there came a time when employees of the Pharoah were thrown into jail, and Joseph was to wait on them. These men were nice enough, the wine-taster and the baker, and he got to know them a little, enough so that he noticed one morning when their expressions changed for the worse. The men had dreamt dreams, but who would interpret them?

Joseph knew, unlike others around, that it was not a special skill you needed to interpret dreams, but a touch of faith. So he told them that he, with God’s help, would reveal their dreams meanings, and somehow they believed him. So each in turn told their dream. The first of thee vines and a cup held by Pharoah himself, the second of three baskets and bread pecked by the birds. The first dreamer found joy in his interpretation, and this had made the second brave, but he would find despair. For one would live and one would die, and on the third day, like so many proofs after, it came to pass, just as Joseph had said.

“Remember me.” was Joseph’s simple request to the wine-taster, the living man, and for a while hope fluttered in his heart. Any day now he would be free by command of the Pharoah, his innocence would be known and, perhaps, he would return to his father. But the day was long in coming, and just as he had begun to forget his hope, his touch of faith paid off. He was called to his destiny, but first he needed a shave.

The Pharoah had dreamed dreams, dreams that  the fate of a nation, of a world. Seven sleek and fat cows being eaten by seven starved ones, seven healthy ears of corn devoured by seven hungry ones. No one knew what it meant, until Joseph was remembered, and called. Of course, he did not know either, but God did and he knew God.

There were to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity. The only way to survive was to plan; they would need to collect a fifth of all that was produced in the next seven years. Joseph knew this, he had always had a knack for organisation, with his father, with his former master, even in prison. Somehow the Pharoah saw this in him. Joseph, was, after all, the only one who could interpret his dream.

And then it seemed to happen all at once. From being prisoner Joseph was suddenly second in the land. This Hebrew boy was given a grand home and a chariot, power and authority, and a wife, a beautiful wife. He loved her, and she bore him two sons. He began to forget the pain of the brothers who had left him for dead; his family was here now. He wanted for nothing. But still, a part of him ached.

Perhaps he was not surprised when, in the time of famine when all were coming from near and far to find food, he saw the ten figures approaching. Men from the land of Canaan, Hebrews, he was told. But he knew already who they were, and he was overcome. With what? Anger. Grief. Perhaps worst of all, love.

There they were, his brothers. Bowing before him now, just as in his dream. The thought flickered across his mind that without the dream its prophecy wouldn’t have come to pass; it was that which pushed his brother’s jealousy over the edge, that made them abandon him.

He longed to be recognised, but when they looked up at his face they did not see. How could they? He was grown and he was alive. How would they see their brother’s ghost in the face of this Egyptian. His name and his language had changed, he wandered what part of him, the beloved son of Jacob, still remained.

It was then that he panicked. Where was Benjamin? His mother’s only other son was not among them, had they killed him? Or left him for dead too? He had to know, so he concocted some story; they were spies and to prove their story they would have to bring their brother back. But they should leave a brother as collateral.

He saw their fear of him, they called him themselves his servants, and then he heard them speak. He had not heard his mother tongue for many years, just the familiar tones brought tears to his eyes. And what they were saying; that this misfortune was a punishment for their mistreatment of their brother long ago. How true it was, yet they did not know and he could not tell them, not without Benjamin. He went away to weep, his control could stand no more.

When he returned he selected Simeon as their guarantee and sent them home, but not before he had ordered for their bags to be filled with wheat and their money returned to them. Of course, they could not know the reason for this. Yet.

And then Joseph waited. Meanwhile the brothers travelled home. Reuben repeated what he had been saying for many years. If only they had listened to him and cared for their little brother; God would not have punished them so. It was perhaps Reuben, the firstborn, who had carried the most guilt all these years; he could not stop it and now he watched his father wither away with grief, clinging unhealthy to Benjamin; the only son of his beloved Rachel left in this life.

And, of course, Jacob would not give up his youngest son to this unknown Egyptian, however hungry they were. His sons pleaded with him but it was only when the food ran out that he yielded. He was bereaved, he said, as he watched them leave again. Since the day they had returned with the torn cloak of his dreamer son he could not bear to watch his sons leave.

When they returned Joseph was waiting. He ordered them to come to his house. Now course, they were afraid and they began their interaction with him by offering gifts and explaining the mistake with the money; they had meant to pay for his grain. They were not thieves, they were his humbled servants. But they were surprised by his easy manner; he had received the money, they need not worry. They were to eat with him, and their brother, Simeon, was returned.

They joy that Joseph felt on seeing Benjamin seemed to blind him. When his brothers were seated around their table, ordered from oldest to youngest, he longed to take his place among them. But it was not yet time. Instead he made his excuses and rushed away, to weep again, like he had done these many weeks, waiting. He had been trying to stifle his hope, afraid that the brothers would never return. But they did not leave Simeon as they had once left him. Perhaps they had learned.

So Joseph took his place at the Egyptian table, but he sent portions to his brothers, and the biggest by far to the little one, whom he had once seen in his mothers arms and was now grown. He would spoil him for all those times that he had missed…

To be continued!!

 

Well, that was fun. I hope you enjoyed it. But was it a good experiment?

Yes, definitely, I feel like this story, which is very familiar to me, has been refreshed. Writing it out like that made me really connect with the emotions involved, especially for Joseph, but also for Reuben and Jacob. I also noticed that, for me, the dream interpretation and the getting all rich and stuff is not the remarkable part of the story; it’s the family stuff that really gets me. I got a sense of Joseph’s longing for home even through his great success. It also hit me how every misfortune led him to the amazing place he finally finds himself.

Wow, I’m actually raring to go now, can’t wait to read the next part, think I’ll probably use this exercise again. But there’s a whole week of wonder to come before then. And I wonder what I’ll do tomorrow with the Psalms…