I used to think that every story in the Bible was historical. Abraham came out of the land of Ur. Moses parted the Red Sea. David was a king of Israel. As I learn more about the Old Testament, I’m persistently faced with the perplexing suggestion that these stories may not be completely true. Some are historical legends, with strains of truth and layers of tradition woven together. Others are folklore, expressing truths about the Israelite’s God and defining the Israelite identity. A daring few could even be categorized as fictional.
Such propositions startle me. If something is fictional, how can it be scripture, the inspired word of God, infallible, with truths for me? I’ve come to enjoy good literature, and have become comfortable gently teasing out truths about the human condition and honest questions about the world, even in secular works. I never thought that I could approach scriptures that way, though. It wasn’t until I revisited C.S. Lewis’ views on the connection of myth and Christianity that I came to understand that Biblical literature can be read similarly. He said,
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”
Myth and truth are not mutually exclusive. There can be, should be, and is truth in myth, according to Lewis.
One work of literature where I’ve recently seen this manifested is in the book of Job. I remember being shocked upon hearing that a serious Christian that I respected regarded the story of Job as fictional. I realize now that believing otherwise raises unanswerable questions about the nature of God and “the Adversary.” Instead, the book of Job is an excellent case study for reading Biblical narrative, and getting more out of it that way.
The version of Job I am reading has a cover with an illustration of Job and his “friends.” This image led me to the discover that William Blake created some delightful illustrations from the story of Job. Below are some of my favorites.
“And they lifted up their eyes from afar and did not recognize him, and they lifted up their voices and wept, and each tore his garment , and they tossed dust on their heads toward the heavens.” (Job 2:12).
“A laughingstock to his friend I am, who calls to his God and is answered, a laughingstock of the blameless just man.” (Job 12:4)
“And Elihu the son of Barachel spoke up and he said:
I am young in years, and you are aged. Therefore as I awed and feared to speak my mind with you…It is not the elders who are wise nor the aged who understand judgment.” (Job 32:6, 9)
“And the LORD answered Job from the whirlwind and He said: Who is this who darkens counsel in words without knowledge?” (Job 38:1)
“Who fixed its [the earth’s] measures, do you know, or who stretched a line upon it? In what were its sockets sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:7)
I don’t know if its idolatrous to have images of “God,” but we’ll just give it a whirl[wind.] Haha. Ha.