The Big PictureA man with a great reputation for moral uprightness was seen slipping into a brothel late in the night. Those that didn’t know him well knew what the scoop was and spread the word of the man’s shame. Those that knew him well knew that he was a devoted doctor and weren’t a bit surprised when they learned he had been called out of his bed to attend one of the girls that had been badly burned. The big picture changes things.
1 Samuel 1 tells of Hannah’s troubles, her appeal to God and her promise; it tells of the gift God gives her and her faithful response. The chapter certainly speaks to the heart of all caring mothers (fathers too, I’d presume). The message might be phrased: From the very beginning, give your children to the Lord!
But the chapter has nothing really to do with Hannah—it’s about Samuel!
"It must be about Hannah and it’s true that we should give our children to God from the very beginning—even before the birth."
It’s certainly true that we should give our children to God even before they’re born and it’s also clear that this chapter would encourage us to do just that—it’s a glorious story; but it’s about Samuel and not Hannah.
"What difference does it make who or what it’s about if it embodies the truth about our devoting our children to God?"
Look, Israel ended up with a visible king and the underlying spirit that brought in a visible king was God-dishonouring (1 Samuel 8:7). How on earth could that have happened? Who brought in this human king figure? It wasn’t a power-hungry tyrant or a God-despising rebel—it was the one man in the nation that was utterly opposed to such a move! Samuel initiated the institution! And who was "Samuel" that dared to place the Davidic family on the throne over Israel? His qualifications were impeccable. Chapters 1—7 give us a picture of the man. The big picture changes things.
"But that’s not nearly as relevant to our needs as the call for parents to devote their children to God. We need to be concerned about what the text means to us."
Maybe the big picture is just as relevant and will change what we think is important. What the Spirit of God who supervised the creation of the text had in mind really matters and if it doesn’t matter to us, it should!
"What does the text say to us in our setting?" is a vitally important question; but it isn’t the first question! What the Spirit of God would want us to do with the text (given our current situation) should be given careful and prayerful attention but what the Spirit meant to say as he developed the Story is not to be dismissed as if it didn’t matter.
"Are you saying we mustn’t use a text for anything other than what the original writer had in mind?"
I am not! OT writers use other OT writers in new ways. NT writers use OT writers in ways that the OT writer didn’t have in mind. But to use an OT or NT text in a way that ignores the spirit and direction of the text is to misuse it. To completely ignore what a text meant in its own setting just so we can make a point of our own is hardly excusable. Especially if there are texts all over the place that do make the point we’d like to make.
This ceaseless asking, "What does it mean to me?" before we allow the biblical text to speak for itself is part of the reason we are ignorant of the "the big picture" in the biblical witness. The Bible becomes a cafeteria where we pick and choose according to our taste and felt needs. If this becomes our practice our hearts and minds aren’t shaped by the Drama and we lose our sense of "place" in it. Our view of "being a Christian" becomes nothing other than a non-stop search for what we should do in this or that situation. The Bible becomes a "source book" filled with "principles" on how to live a good life. We become obsessed with what we should do and simply by default our eyes are taken off what God has done is doing and will bring to completion. The Story isn’t about us! Well, yes it is, but it’s only about us because it is about God and how he has chosen to relate to us!
"Still, what does it matter who introduced the monarchy to ancient Israel? Is it not more important to speak to parents about their children?"
Well, there’s something on target about that question. Harry Emerson Fosdick was right in more ways than one when he said that no one now goes to church to find out what happened to the Hittites or Jebusites.
But it’s still a mistake to dismiss the earlier acts in a single drama because we aren’t especially interested in them. (Some people, I suppose, would happily rip Leviticus out of the Bible and the bulk of Numbers. They're boring, aren't they? Or are they? "They do nothing for us!" I'm sure that's true for many of us; but should it be so? Maybe if we grasped what they were saying we'd be different people.) God’s grand enterprise is a single enterprise! Each part of it lays groundwork for what follows and it’s dangerous to dismiss material as irrelevant, especially when we don’t know the Story very well. What if it turns out that what we’re dismissing is important to the structure of the Story? I don’t doubt for a moment that (especially) ministers of the Word should respond to the questions people are asking. I don’t doubt either that (especially) ministers of the Word should be teaching people the questions they should be asking.
Our questions and our "felt needs" are the result of our shaping.
"What kind of baby does this coming baby need to be in order to receive a welcome in my world?" That’s a common question.
"What kind of person do I need to be in order to welcome that coming baby into my world whatever ‘kind’ of baby it is?" That’s a prior question.
One is shaped by my circumstances and the Story shapes the other. One is often shaped by a "what’s in it for me?" spirit and the other is surely shaped by the Spirit who speaks to us via the Story, by the big picture.
Let me repeat: I'm sure it's the business of the minister of God's word to respond to the questions people are asking. I'm certain it's the business of the ministers of God's word to teach people so that they begin to ask different questions.