I should probably just stop being a petulant brat (I am in my mid-thirties, after all), but it still bugs me when I hear people (often it’s my own students) refer to the Bible as an instruction manual. My temptation (to which I fall about half of the time) is to ask the metaphor-abuser at hand whether 2 Samuel 11 is an instruction manual for a good married life, and of course the answer that I get is always something along the lines that the story of David’s adultery, cover-up, murder, and assimilation of Bathsheba into his harem is some sort of negative exemplar. Fair enough. But stories like the Genesis reading this week seem (to me at least) to lose much of their impact if one approaches them with the aim of finding some sort of direct instruction for the reader.
After all, this is the story of someone who, although three generations into the Abrahamic family drama, still doesn’t have much to go on beyond “respond willingly to the strange voices that come to you.” A pair of unusual births, a few run-ins with Egyptian monarchs, and some genuinely odd theophany stories are all that Jacob has at this point in the story, a state of affairs that, for most people reading Genesis as the first book of an established canon of Scripture, can only imagine, and then only by negation. It’s the same kind of imagination needed to read the story in Acts when Peter has his vision of the foods-made-clean and immediately comes to the conclusion that including Gentiles in the Christians’ practice of burial-baptism and in the Christians’ common meals must be the point of the vision. It’s the same kind of imagination needed to imagine Paul’s thought process in Athens, In all of these cases, one must imagine a moment, an intellectual and rhetorical context, in which there is no possibility for bad-faith dismissal of the Bible but a genuine vacuum in the spiritual life (but not one that the players could name as a vacuum) where the Bible would be for the reader.
I note all of this because, among other things, the Bible is a collection of texts that has, for all but a few aberrant moments of the history of the Church since the canonization of the New Testament, been an undeniable presence, even when literacy was not common. I know that a game that Protestants especially like to play is the “that era did not know the Bible” game, but in most cases, practices of public reading make that claim basic nonsense. People framed the authority of the Bible differently in different ages, and sometimes I personally think that authorities in this or that age could have done a more adequate job of ordering their intellectual and political lives around its testimonies. But it’s always been there.
And yet what’s always been there consists substantially (not totally) of accounts like Jacob’s here, stories in which YHWH is doing genuinely new things, making moves that would become canon but in their moment cannot but be interruptions, occasions for someone to interpret what in their own moments must be indeterminate. Reading Jacob’s perfectly sensible reaction to his dream, his building of an altar using his stone-pillow, I can’t help but see anew just how scandalous particularity is: of all the possible reactions to a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven (I’m going to resist saying a stairway), the one that constitutes the Holy Scriptures is this one. And the reaction to the execution and resurrection and ascension of Christ that has become canon is the strange ritual of burial-baptism. And the extension of the ministry of Christ that has become the shape of the Church is the gathering around the table of the new passover, breaking bread and passing a cup. There’s nothing philosophically necessary or even anthropologically determinative about any of these things, yet they shape us as authority, as Scripture. Certainly theologians can and should articulate ways in which all of these stories and practices disclose reality that our sinful systems and warped wills would conceal and distort, but the particularity never goes away. This is no instruction manual for life as a “product” that requires “operation”: this is the tenuous and bold and particular moment when a man acknowledged that God is in this place.
And now, centuries of Bible-reading behind us, our own imaginations must stretch farther than ever to imagine these moments even as we grapple with folks who would regard the particularity of the Bible, whether in matters of revelation-claims or with expectations for the economy of the household or for prophetic critique of those systems that make claims above the household. We cannot in good faith proceed as if the God revealed in the Scriptures uniquely governs the universe and yet treat the Scriptures themselves as no more than one story among many. But the Scriptures themselves, the canon that tells stories of life before the canon, will not submit to being an instruction manual.
May our eyes remain open and our lives remain faithful, and may our readings of Scripture keep open both possibilities.