Oversimplification. Exaggeration. Outright fabrication. Where will you find all this? Aside from the obvious answers, I’d like to add a couple more: Church sanctuaries during the Sunday morning sermon. Bible studies. Youth groups. I can’t count the number of times a Bible story has been subtly (or not so subtly) tweaked to better convey a point the speaker wishes to make. I’ll bet you’ve had similar experiences: Maybe it’s David, the master of bare-handed bear and lion wrestling, portrayed as a tiny weakling (think Tiny Tim without the crutches), or maybe it’s this dude who’s been crippled his entire life being held up as a world-class example of whiny whiners. A complex individual who really existed is twisted, warped, and reduced to a single characteristic (which may or may not even be true), all for the sake of making a point.
There are a variety of reasons to avoid this sort of scholarship, but here is a big one: it’s dishonest. No sermon or lesson, no matter how good, is ever worth dishonesty, especially from the pulpit or another position of biblical authority.
The point being made is often a good point. It could be that “Man looks at the outside appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Perhaps that complaining doesn’t change anything. It might be anything, any true and excellent life-tip, theological insight, or what have you, except for one thing: a point is no stronger than the premise it’s built on. If it occurs to your listeners that you’ve built your point on false statements, then your entire lesson is weakened, almost to the point of irrelevance. Using a false or exaggerated statement to make a point does not make the point stronger, it merely introduces a crucial weakness into your previously strong lesson.
Let’s go back to David. When people hear that David was out “watching the sheep,” they imagine a little kid playing a harp or something while watching fluffy white sheep bounce around the pasture. Maybe the kid is singing, maybe he’s teaching the sheep to dance, I don’t know. But let’s hear David’s account of his life as a shepherd.
“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and killed him. Your servant has struck down lions and bears.” 1 Samuel 17:34
Bears, people! And lions! David killed lions and bears with his bare hands! That means that any attempt to imply that he is weak, or puny, is not just a misleading exaggeration: it’s a blatantly false statement.
And here’s the important bit, the really, really important bit: David was a real person. He really lived. He was really a shepherd, the youngest son of Jesse. He really did throw down with bears and lions. He is not a parable. He is not an object lesson. He is not a made-up character in a made-up story.
That’s the real problem: we like to think of them as parables. We like to think of David and Peter and Gideon and everyone else in the Bible as characters in stories that are told primarily for our benefit. And so we can easily fall into the trap of telling a story not to get at what’s really there, but to get at something we want to talk about; since the story doesn’t naturally convey what we want to talk about, we have to twist the story a bit, make it fit.
And so we oversimplify, and say that Gideon was too busy throwing himself a pity party to do what God asked him to do. Or we exaggerate, elevating one characteristic of a biblical character far above its proper place, because it’s easier working with caricatures than people. Or we outright fabricate and paint a picture of David that’s entirely devoid of bare-handed death matches with wild animals.
In doing so, we slowly weaken the relationship the Bible has with reality. After all, we’re apparently not worried about what actually happened in the Bible, so why should our audience be concerned? If David and Peter and everyone else are just fables, characters to be twisted for our benefit, what can we really learn from them? The Bible becomes just another story divorced from reality, not suited for consultation in our day-to-day lives. But if David was a real person who did what God required of him, if Peter and Gideon were real people placed in difficult situations–then we can learn. Then the Bible can give us hope and comfort in times of trouble. Then, and only then, the Bible is alive, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”