Mark Roncace, God’s Story: The Bible Epic from Abraham to Exile (Pittsburgh, PA: Hartline Literary Agency, 2015).
You might think you know the old German fairy tales told by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 collection Children’s and Household Tales: Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and so on. But if you read those stories in their original form, you will find that your popular reminiscences have been, more often than not, based on the sanitized retellings of our modern age. As my daughter says, these popular stories have been “Disneyfied”.
Take Cinderella as an example. For generations the 1950 Disney movie has been the standard. How very different is the original telling by the Brothers Grimm. Did you know, for example, that in the original both step-daughters manage to fit the glass slipper onto their foot? However, each only does so only by mutilating her foot: the first amputates her big toe whilst the other crushes her heel. In each case, the prince is only made aware of their deception when he notices blood squirting from the shoe. And that’s only one of the many differences between the “Grimm” original and the sunny and sanitized Disney retelling.
The fact is that the Brothers Grimm fairy tales are very different from their popular retellings. The originals are frequently brutally violent, sardonically ironic, and inexplicably cruel. And it is not long before the contemporary reader is forced to confront the reality that these so-called “children’s” stories were the product of a culture with very different sensibilities from our own.
The church has long done to the stories of the Bible what Disney did to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. They’ve been cleaned up and sanitized for a general audience. This kind of selective reading appears to be informed by prior theological and bibliological assumptions (e.g. divine perfection; biblical inerrancy; plenary inspiration). It is exacerbated by the shifting sensibilities of our modern age. To cap it off, the text is hopelessly hobbled by the insertion of chapters and verses which present endless interruptions into the narratival flow. (Imagine how difficult it would be to read your favorite novel if every sentence or two were numbered.)
The result is that Christians have handed over the biblical narrative with all its violence, shock, and unique power and exchanged it for a collection of insipidly palatable, preachable pericopes.
Enter Mark Roncace, a Professor of Religion at Wingate University and author of Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About. (I reviewed Raw Revelation here and previously interviewed Mark on the podcast here.) In his new book God’s Story: The Bible Epic from Abraham to Exile, Roncace wants to acquaint the contemporary reader with the shock and power of the biblical narrative while focusing in particular on the history of Israel beginning with Abraham (Genesis 12) and culminating in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36). God’s Story reproduces the biblical narrative that tells the history of Israel shorn of material that interrupts the flow of narrative like law, genealogies, and those insufferable chapter and verse designations. Mark then edits the result with some modest literary embellishment to animate the characters and stitch together the resulting narrative into a seamless whole.
The first reaction I had was compulsive readability. This book is a page turner and even well worn narratives take on a new depth and vibrancy in this form.
The second reaction I had was shock and distaste. Mark’s approach to the narrative frees us from those palatable, preachable pericopes, but that doesn’t make it easy reading. In fact, the content is frequently shocking. I can’t begin to count how many people were stabbed in the belly, beheaded, dismembered, sacrificed, burnt, raped, and massacred.
The violence shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. After all, I’ve frequently written and lectured on the topic (and I’m currently writing a book on it). Despite all this, there was an undeniable force in reading the entire narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings over a couple days (a feat made easy by this edition).
My third reaction was surprise at the sheer power of the narrative. When I completed a university degree in literature twenty years ago, I studied many founding classics of the western canon including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Beowulf, and so on. Having read God’s Story, I have a new sense that as a work of literary power, the narrative of Israel surpasses them all.
Like all great narratives, that of God’s Story has memorable characters. But when you read the narrative your reaction to those characters might surprise you. I was surprised, for example, over how the commander of David’s army, Joab, emerged as a fascinating persona in the narrative. (His speech rebuking David for showing such grief over Absalom’s death is riveting, for example.)
As for David himself, as a literary character in the narrative, to be honest I found him to be repellent. (A couple years ago a colleague of mine read through 1 and 2 Samuel and then observed to me that David seemed to be a “petty warlord”. That seems an apt summary.) Early in his career David murders two hundred Philistines so that he can give their foreskins to Saul for the hand of Michal in marriage. (And we worry that David murdered Uriah?!) Fast-forward several decades and David ends his career a wizened old man in bed with a young virgin (Abishag) to keep him warm. (Imagine how awful it would be for a young lady — in all likelihood a teenager — to be forced to cozy up in bed beside a seventy year old man. The very thought makes my skin crawl.)
And what about God? As a character in the narrative, he is above all unpredictable: frequently violent, occasionally kind and gentle, and often terrifying. God shows care and concern for barren Hannah and poor Naboth. But he also emerges without warning and attempts to kill Moses in the desert, an act only prevented by Zipporah’s desperate circumcision of her son. And when he is angered at Israel, he strikes out with a pestilence that kills 70,000 people. God is a character not to be trifled with.
As the story goes, when the English Renaissance humanist Thomas Linacre first read the Gospels in their original Greek he observed, “Either this is not the gospel, or we are not Christians.” Something similar might be said after reading God’s Story. Mark Roncace has given us a raw and powerful retelling of the biblical narrative which places the story of Israel in its rightful place alongside the greatest narratives of the western canon. Having confronted the shock and power of the narrative, the task is now for Christians to interpret and apply it in light of theological belief and liturgical practice.
Thanks to Mark Roncace for a review copy of this book.