The Narrative Tapestry of the Bible (How to Read the Bible Series)

What if I wanted to tell you that when God created the heavens and the earth, everything that he created was good. But then we humans decided to define what is good for ourselves, which brought death and destruction into God’s perfect creation. But God has chosen to work with and through human beings in order to restore creation to its original glory.

I could just tell you that. Well, I did just tell you that.

But what if I didn’t want to just tell you that? What if I wanted you to experience that? What if I wanted you to live in that truth, to discover that truth for yourself, to deeply reflect on it until it did something to you, until it changed you in some way, or caused you to think about the world in a new way?

Well, then I might tell you a story. Or maybe I would tell you a few different stories. Stories about the goodness of God’s creation. Stories about perfect relationships between God and his creation. Stories about the breaking of those relationships. Stories about choices, and wisdom, and betrayal, and shame, and murder, and violence, and hope, and rebirth, and second chances, and more brokenness, and evil, and purpose, and family, and love, and promises, and plans, and more hope, and confusion, and lying, and faith, and restoration.

This is, I believe, what the biblical authors do when they weave together narratives.

The author of Genesis could have given us a list of propositions outlining the fall of humanity and the rise of Abraham’s family. But they didn’t. What we have in Genesis is a series of narratives. But somehow it’s more than a series of narratives. It’s a weave.

Let me try to demonstrate the difference.

In the picture above, you can see someone weaving fibers to create a beautiful piece of fabric. Do you see the difference between the colorful portion at the bottom and the unwoven fabric at the top? The woven portion has been purposely arranged and ordered to create something out of the weaver’s materials. They are fulfilling a certain purpose. The unwoven materials at the top are not yet ordered. But they do have potential. We can anticipate what the weaver is going to do with the rest of the fabric.

That’s how I think these stories work. By themselves, each individual story is a strand of fiber. But the biblical authors, or redactors, have a purpose in telling and arranging these stories. When I say it’s more than a series of narratives, I mean it’s more than just strands of fiber side-by-side. It’s a beautiful and intentional weaving.

The Kaleidoscope of Creation

Read Genesis chapter one, and then read Genesis chapter two. What did you just read? Two different accounts of creation? They even seem to contradict each other at points. It’s not really a series, because there are parts of Genesis 2 that take place at the same time as Genesis 1, and there are parts of Genesis 1 that take place at the same time as Genesis 2. So what’s happening here?

Maybe the storyteller that compiled Genesis took these two stories and put them side-by-side because they both describe creation and the storyteller couldn’t decide which narrative was the right one. But I think there’s something more profound going on here.

Maybe creation is something impossible to describe with words. Maybe one story isn’t enough to fully explain what’s going on. If the biblical authors were trying to create an experience for us, maybe there’s something in between these two stories that help us to think about the world around us in a different way. Like a kaleidoscope, the more we turn it in our hands, the more depth and beauty and potential we see in creation.

Maybe I’m looking too much into it, but I think it’s interesting that the Bible starts out with two seemingly opposed accounts of creation. It’s almost like a warning to new readers.

Beware all who enter into this artistic tapestry, because it’s going to require you to really enter into this artistic tapestry. If you’re looking for a book full of simple propositions, a book to give you a list of do’s and don’t’s, a book full of answers to all your toughest questions, a book that tells you how you should live your life, then put this book down, because this book is not that book. Go look in the ‘Christian Living’ section at Barnes and Noble.

But if you’re looking for a book that asks more questions than it answers, a book that reveals something deep about the nature of God and creation, something that can’t really be put into words, a book that is difficult and confusing, a book that you’ll have to read over and over again and still not fully grasp, a book that lead to lots of wrestling, a book that requires a community to discuss with, argue with, laugh with, cry with, question with… then buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

East of Eden

Then Genesis two naturally leads into Genesis three, which leads to chapter four, and five, all the way through chapter eleven. What we see is a downward spiral as creation spins out of control. The sin and destruction getting worse and worse with each turn. Humanity is getting further and further away from God.

Where do Adam and Eve go? East of Eden. Where does Cain go? East. Where do the people go when they build Babel (which is Hebrew for Babylon, by the way. Lots to dissect there, but like the biblical authors, I’ll just leave you to chew on that)? Yep, East.

With all of these stories, one after the other, we seem to be moving quickly through history. We’re like a rock skipping across a lake, swooping down to barely scratch the surface of the water before we jump back up. The various genealogies we run into in between the stories help to give us this sense of speed. Everything is moving so fast. This person fathers this person, who fathers this person, who fathers, who fathers, who fathers. Generations are flying by before our eyes, we’re getting further and further and further away from Eden, we’re moving east, we’re watching entire nations rise and fall and expand and grow, and then…

Abraham. The author pulls the emergency brake. If you’ve studied literature, you might recognize this technique. When a fiction author moves quickly through time, and then slows everything down to focus on one day, or even one hour, that’s a big red flag that something important is going down.

So what do we see with Abraham? For the first time in many generations, we see someone moving west. What’s to the west of human civilizations? Eden. God’s presence. God’s original intent for creation.

The stories of Abraham and his family stretch from Genesis 12 to 50, covering the rest of the book. And there’s something so different about them. They have a different flavor than Genesis 1-11. They have a different literary style. They have different vocabulary. It’s like they’re completely different works of art.

And yet they’ve been placed here intentionally by the authors. Set side-by-side with the spiral of Genesis 1-11, causing us to reflect on the differences and the similarities. Somehow we can see that throughout both sections of Genesis, physical space is important to God. His plan is to dwell with his creation in this land that was promised to Abraham, in a land that was lost to Adam and Eve. We see that even through the faults of Abraham’s imperfect family, God is doing something through them. More than that, he’s participating with them. He’s inviting them to work with him to fulfill his purposes. What?! Why even bother? Didn’t God read Genesis 1-11? Doesn’t God know that the hearts of human beings are inclined toward evil?

But God also saw all that he created and it was good.

But Abraham lied and cheated and defined with his own limited wisdom what was good. He tried to take things in his own hand and fulfill God’s plans without God.

Yet God saw all that he created and it was good.

But Jacob was a deceiver who weaseled his way through life and even wrestled with God.

Yet God saw all that he created and it was good.

But look at Joseph. As far as we can tell, he was good. But look at all that happened to him. Jealous brothers threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery, and lied about his death for years.

Yet somehow God still used that for good.

Because God saw all he created and it was good.

And here we are, at the end of Genesis, and God’s people are in Egypt, not in the promised land, and the book just ends. We’ve seen westward movement, but we’re not where we thought we’d be. Aren’t narratives supposed to have happy endings? Or at least satisfying endings? Or at least some kind of ending? Which brings us back to the warning label from chapters one and two: abandon all hope ye who enter here for easy answers.

Throughout the book, these narratives give us a push and a pull. There’s a certain rhythm to it, even if it’s one that we can’t necessarily put a finger on. And boy have people tried. There are so many books full of scholars debating on the structure of Genesis. But I don’t think these narratives have been woven together so that we can explain the tapestry. They’re not here to dissect. They’re here to experience.

So what do we do with narrative tapestries? We sit with them. We chew on them. We read them over and over again, live with them, turning the kaleidoscope in our hands this way and that way, digesting the truths that can’t be described with words because they’re always hidden in between the lines.

Okay, let’s put a pin in that. The truths described in these narratives cannot be spoken because they are hidden in between the lines. Hold onto this idea, because that’s a great segue into the next post in the series: ancient Hebrew poetry.

One thought on “The Narrative Tapestry of the Bible (How to Read the Bible Series)

  1. I was able to go along with you all the way through your beautifully written piece until this line, “The truths described in these narratives cannot be spoken because they are hidden in between the lines.”
    It seems as though the ancient Hebrew theologians felt those truths could be discerned, were in fact meant to be discerned; and after all, it is their culture and heritage from which these stories sprang. In fact, some of the truths were spelled out really carefully, like the denoument of an excellent novel, such as Genesis 50:20, the apex of the entire book.
    I agree with your analogy of a tapestry, carefully woven, but I don’t think it excludes also being able to understand the truths in the stories. It is a “both/and” proposition, which is uncomfortable in our western, linear thinking culture, but true nonetheless, from what I’ve read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: