When it comes to understanding the Bible, scholars generally fall into one of two choices: they either study the archaeology of the text (ancient pots, clay tablets, artifacts etc.) or they study the literary aspects of the text (irony, repetition, word-play, logic, etc.). As Evangelical Christians we are committed to the absolute historicity of the Bible (at least we ought to be). Adam was a real man. The Flood happened. Jesus of Nazareth was raised. But often we overlook, or downplay, some of the interesting literary aspects of how the biblical text is communicated.
For example, there are huge ironies in the Mount Carmel Narrative where Elijah has a showdown with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Really, the whole story packed with irony: King Ahab calls Elijah the “troubler of Israel” when it’s really Ahab who has brought God’s judgment (v.17); Elijah is just one prophet who goes up against 450 prophets of Baal, and wins (v.22); the prophets of Baal go into a frenzy trying to get Baal’s attention and they call out “Baal, answer us!” which is ironic because Ahab’s wife, the Baal-worshipping Queen Jezebel’s name literally means “Where is the Prince?” Or “where is he?” (v.26).
Now, if you read the passage without paying attention to the ironies, literary flourishes, and word plays, then you are missing some of the main points of the passage. But if you focus only on the literary aspects of the text and miss the point of the text in an even deeper way – Yahweh showed up in human history! God is active in the affairs of man! Fire fell from heaven!
But the real mind-blower here, as Jason Hagen chatted with me about this morning, is that really this teaches us so much about the mind of God. God wrote his story – history – using not a pen and ink, but using human lives and world events (wars, famines, floods, etc.) He is the grand story teller. He is the Author of life. And then – in his grace – he revealed himself by exhaling 66 books that convey his actions using stylistic, literary devices and word plays and that sort of thing. That is awe-inspiring.
That, by the way, is why the debates about whether Genesis 1 is history or poetry are utterly stupid. Is it really a coincidence that almost every time in Scripture when the original creation was spoken of we find poetic language (repetition, majestic imagery)? Likewise, when we hear about the New Creation as we read the Old Testament prophets (or even the book of Revelation) we again find this exalted poetic language (see, for example, Isaiah 66:17-25). Poetic language does NOT cancel out the history, the realism. No – Poetic language is used because it is the best method of communicating to convey such wonder.
Then to make it all the more glorious – God sent his Son to become a man – the climax of history. In this he revealed himself and the focal point of his entire story. And – what do you know – this God-Man is called “the Word.” Jesus is the Language of God. Jesus is God’s ultimate self-disclosure. Miss this and you miss the rest of his-story.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14 ESV)
So then don’t downplay the literary aspects of Scripture, for the story of the Bible, and the literary forms in which it is conveyed, is the same story that God wrote in eternity past in the history of mankind. Yes, Jezebel is an ironic name – “where is he?” It’s an irony communicated by Scripture and spoken into creation in the life of a foolish queen, all of which was predestined by the mind of God before the foundation of the world so that you and I would get the point of it all, turn from our worthless idols, and worship Yahweh – the God Who Is There.