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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Retelling

Retelling of a story/text in the Word of God demonstrates the dynamic nature of the event of the God of the word. The God of the Bible is a God who reappears, reveals, re-presents, reimagines and repeats Godself to the creation in God’s own ways to each time and context.

The Future House of God

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
    and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord!

Having gone to church as a family all these years, and listening to his Dad lead the services, my sixteen-year-old son recently asked me, “Dad, I understand Christian faith is about justice and peace in the world, and why do you need to tell the same thing again and again from different texts in the Bible using different stories?” This question helped me to reflect on whether retelling the message of justice and peace as the gospel of Jesus Christ problematic? Or to put it in another way, what is the politics of retelling particularly in relation to the stories of the Bible? How do we understand retelling of words as the Word of God today?

The empires in the ancient times, did repeat their messages, which were messages of punishment and power. Once decreed by the powerful, their edicts were offered once and for all, to be implemented by their subjects. On the other hand, offering a message, a second time or retelling a word/story is a sign of powerlessness, for such a retelling from the sites of margins was anti-empire strategy. There is always a constant contestation which is happening on both sides, and such a contestation is itself a source of hope. 

But in the Word of God there are several instances of retelling of texts, right from the decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:4-21) to large portions of retelling the stories in the books of Kings and Chronicles and the whole synoptic problem of the Gospels in the New Testament. So, such a retelling of words and stories is a conscious anti-empire hermeneutic of conveying the message, for the Word of God embraces powerlessness and allows itself to be open-ended, offering hope by contesting hegemonic readings and writings of God’s word. The stories of the Bible before they were written, transmitted from one generation to the other through oral tradition and through retelling of the stories which has sustained communities with hope. 

The text from the Hebrew Bible for the first Sunday in Advent is from Isaiah 2:1-5, a message of hope and consolation to the pre-exilic migrant struggles of his community. Though we are distanced by time to this Isaianic prophecy, the words that Isaiah has ‘seen’ are very apt for our context today where we are longing for peace in times of war, conflict, desolation, hunger and injustice. Isaiah has seen the word among other things, that God will beat the swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks, and where nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Are we not longing to see such a world in our context today? 

It is interesting to note that the ‘future house of God’ that Isaiah had seen was retold and mimicked by prophet Micah in his prophecy as recorded in 4:1-5. Blake Hearson through an exegetical and comparative study provides the semantics and history of the two texts of Isaiah and Micah. However, what I am interested in is what does the Word of God demonstrate in retelling texts and stories on a repeat mode, in this case Isaiah 2:1-5 retold in Micah 4:1-5. In the retelling of the stories and passages, we recognise dynamism in the Word of God, for it offers the listeners to listen to the voice of God again and again, providing opportunities to be challenged in transforming the world, in this case by beating swords into ploughshares and by beating spears into pruning hooks. The politics of such a retelling of the text, is to emphasise the readers and listeners of this text, the need and longing for peace and justice in our world today

Proto-Isaiah and Micah are pre-exilic contemporary prophets who pumped hope to their contexts. While they were two different individuals with diverse prophecies, they also carried a similar prophetic message at one instance. Such a retelling communicates that it is the God-incidence of the Spirit of God that inspires different people and allows them to share the message of hope, and not a mere co-incidence that a text was retold again and again. The Word of God therefore doesn’t shy away to communicate a message twice. It is the Spirit of God that chooses two different people to retell the message of hope like Isaiah and Micah. 

Retelling of a story/text in the Word of God demonstrates the dynamic nature of the event of the God of the word. The God of the Bible is a God who reappears, reveals, re-presents, reimagines and repeats Godself to the creation in God’s own ways to each time and context.

God the Creator re-presents Godself as the God of Abraham and Sarah, re-presents as the God of the prophets, and re-presents as the God in Jesus Christ and continues God’s re-presentation in the Holy Spirit as God’s being for all generations. So, such a re-presentation is part of God’s identity, the event of God, and therefore any retelling of the Word of God, the message of hope by different people streams out of to reflect that very event of God. Gerard Loughlin, in his book, Telling God’s Story,’ while explaining God is known only as that which happens as an event says, “It is the ‘it happens’ rather than the ‘what happens’ that constitutes the eventhood of the event. Here it is God who happens; and in this happening a universe is given, a site for the beginning of a story” (179). So every telling of the word in the Word of God is a site for a beginning of a story that encapsulates the very event of God in history. 

Loughlin (190-191) explains that the Christian Bible tells the story of God in three ways: the story of God and the Hebrews, of God and the Christ of God, of God and the Church, and it is the retelling of God’s story ‘telling it as it is’ that weaves them all together. He explains, “stories are always told, and telling is always retelling, and retelling changes the story. Each telling is singular…Retelling is not a closing but an opening, and this opening – actually, concretely, historically – was and is an opening to the Church.” So, when the word that was prophesied by Isaiah was retold by Micah, each of the telling and retelling is a site of a beginning of a new story, revealing the event of God afresh, exhibiting the openness of the Word of God, embracing powerlessness and enabling the listeners to hear and rehear the message of hope in God’s oikos.

Lastly, in any reading or retelling of the word from the Word of God, the readers and tellers becomes part of the story, for in their retelling it becomes their story and each reader and teller finds themselves as one of the characters journeying in that given text or story. Rowan Williams, in his essay, “The Literal Sense of Scripture,” explains it succinctly when he says, “Christian interpretation is unavoidably in ‘dramatic’ modes of reading: we are invited to identify ourselves in the story being contemplated, to reappropriate who we are now, and whom we shall or can be, in terms of the story. So, as readers of today, in reading Isaiah 2:1-5 and its retelling in Micah 4:1-5, we become living characters in the texts, challenged and inspired to working with God in ‘beating the swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks’ and turn that prophecy into a reality for our times today. 

The politics of telling and retelling in Bible comes alive today by our re-enactment of the text, ensuring hope to be real, by calling our nations not to lift up swords against nations, to stop war immediately and to address the issues of the rising cost of living by investing in ploughshares and pruning hooks of agriculture so that food is available to all. 

Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for the Kairos of the Word becoming flesh to happen in our context. It is a season of retelling the story of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ afresh in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, reliving in the midst of growing hunger and poverty, and re-enacting it in the midst of growing xenophobia where the inflow of migrants and refugees seeking sanctuary are branded as ‘invasion.’[1]

The sparks of the Word becoming flesh are flashed in the retelling of Isaiah and Micah: For the mountain of the Lord’s house will be a place where all the nations shall stream to it (Isaiah 2:2) – is a call to retell and re-enact that the house of God will be in our nations serving as a sanctuary to all people of all nations as they flow like a stream towards it, offering hope, home and hospitality. Any language of ‘invasion’ for refugees is inhuman and unchristian. 

For the mountain of God shall be a teaching place of God’s ways and paths (Isaiah 2:3) – is a call to retell to our public spheres to re-enact the teaching of God’s ways and paths which is embodied in love, love for the other and the stranger. 

For God shall judge between nations, arbitrate for many people, beat swords into ploughshares, beat spears into pruning-hooks with nations not lifting up sword against nations and not learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4) – is a call to retell to our nations that God is the judge and let’s not judge the other, and to challenge our leaders and civil society to stop war in Ukraine, to turn guns, knives, and hatred into friendship, food and love. 

This season of Advent, just as Isaiah has seen the word and retold by Micah, let’s commit to see the word, to retell, reimagine and re-enact the story of God’s word relevantly in our contexts by loving the other and by caring our planet. 

By the way, I haven’t given up in retelling the story of justice and peace in God’s word to my teenage sons as they are now getting to grips with re-enacting it. 

[1] Recently the Home Secretary in the UK Suella Braverman has accused refugees as ‘invading’ the UK. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/nov/01/an-invasion-suella-braverman-refugee-crisis-governments-own-making

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