The majority of the Christian Bible is in what is known as the Old Testament, or maybe Hebrew Bible. And, within this portion of the Bible, a significant portion of text is devoted to narrative. Narrative is a genre that communicates story. The story of the Bible is ultimately God’s story, the story of God’s faithfulness to his creation in purposing to bring about restoration and reconciliation, which the New Testament records as being completed in Jesus Christ. Yet, sometimes, is seems the Old Testament narrative can be difficult to read. Why is that?
For starters, there is a lot of stuff in the Old Testament that can be difficult situating into such a vastly different time and place as the modern West. Many of the people groups listed in the Old Testament are only encountered in ancient history books. Individuals with whom much of the narrative is focused lived thousands of years ago in a distant land with, seemingly to us, strange customs. Even the language and idioms sometimes fall on deaf ears. Despite these difficulties (which, I believe can be overcome by committed study of the world of the Bible…something I need to do better), there is still the “purely practical” (thanks, C.S. Lewis https://takingeachthoughtcaptive.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/c-s-lewis-and-the-purely-practical-purpose-of-scripture/) element of Scripture. It communicates what is essential for our malady, and provides the light we need to see our next steps. Allow me a personal example.
In Joshua 1, leadership of the nation of Israel is in transition. Moses, the prophet, priest and king of Israel for forty years is dead. Joshua is about assume leadership. Now, it needs to be clearly understood that Joshua knew this day was coming. He was chosen by the Lord as Moses’ successor. Since people don’t live forever this side of eternity, Joshua knew at some point Moses would die and the responsibility of leadership would befall him. The day has come, and Joshua is afraid. Even knowing the future, Joshua still had fear. Sound familiar? It does to me!
Joshua was told three times in the span of nine verses to be “strong and courageous.” Reptition, by the way, is a Hebrew narrative signpost to that which is important. Joshua’s fear and the Lord’s command to not be afraid is an emphasis in this chapter. Why was Joshua afraid? After all, he knew this day was coming. Here’s why. He had quite the task before him! Joshua 1:2-4 records the Lord telling Joshua to take the entire Promised Land. That’s scary. Yet, again, Joshua is told, don’t fear, be strong and courageous. Now, how in the world would Joshua naturally conjure up strength, fortitude and courage? Here’s what the text says, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Josh. 1:5) Did you hear that? The Lord said, “Joshua, I know you are scared, but I’m going to be with you just like I was with Moses.” How, might we ask, was the Lord with Moses? Here’s how the Bible says it, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.” (Ex. 33:11)
The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, and now He has promised that same face-to-face presence to Joshua. What could’ve been more encouraging to Joshua? According to Ex. 33:11, Joshua would stay around the tent after Moses left. Joshua knew the affect the Lord’s presence had on Moses. Joshua must have been encouraged. The rest of Joshua (the book) seems to confirm this as Joshua went forth to accomplish the task given him (though, admittedly, with setbacks and without final completion).
That alone has been encouraging for me to write. But, this post wasn’t simply an examination of Joshua 1. This post is to consider ways in which Old Testament narrative still has a “purely practical” application for modern believers. Here is mine.
During my spring break of my seventh grade year, my father died. It was late March 1999. My family and I were outside playing around the world. As usual, my dad won. After he won, he proceeded to head indoors. It was my goal to stay outside to practice the final shot required to win the game (you know, to be ready for the next time). Well, I quickly realized I was wasting valuable Starcraft (…sigh…) time. While sitting on the computer, my mother rushes to the sun-room to tell me something was wrong with dad. We tried CPR until the paramedics arrived, but it was not successful. My father, the Lord’s servant, was dead.
My father wasn’t Moses, and I’m not Joshua. Like Moses, however, my father was the prophet, priest and king of the family. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that I was scared. And, technically I knew that one day he would die (though not at 48). I also knew I’d have new responsibilities at that time, but not as a middle-schooler. Yet, there I was. He was gone. The next morning the sun rose and life had to continue.
Fast forward to June of 2000. Cancer had returned for my mother. This was round three and it was aggressive. She had her first battle with cancer at the age of 24. Now, at 48, cancer won. My mother, the Lord’s servant, was dead.
I hadn’t even begun high school yet. Scared would be a word to describe my new emotion. High school can be a mean place. I know this for a fact, not only as a high school graduate, but now a high school teacher and coach. Life beyond high school doesn’t get easier. My parents never met my wife, nor my daughter. And, I’d be flat out lying if I said there weren’t plenty of times of the years I just wanted to call my dad and ask his advice, or sit and talk with my mom. But, my parents, the Lord’s servants, are dead.
Like Joshua, I was afraid. Joshua 1 no longer was a dry, historical account of a conversation thousands of years ago. Joshua 1 described my situation with great accuracy. The “purely practical” purpose of this text was to tell me to “be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh.1:9) You know what? The Lord has been with me. I don’t have the space here, but the Lord did incredible good out of the evil that we experienced. Within a matter of a year of my mom’s passing, I met the girl would would become my wife. Early after the death of my parents, the Lord worked in all things for the good (Rom. 8:28). The same promise the Lord gave to Joshua, namely the promise to be with him as He was with Moses, is given to all his people. How do I know that? It’s the same promise Jesus gave to his disciples (Matt. 28:18-20). On top of that, Jesus also called us his friends (Jn 15:15).
Joshua 1 is an Old Testament text. It is narrative, meaning it is story. But, it is not simply a story told long ago with nothing to gain from it now. No, the God who spoke to Joshua words of encouragement in the passing of his mentor Moses is the same God who spoke words of encouragement to a boy who buried his father and mother before his first day of high school. When you read the Bible, read the Bible to learn the grand story of Scripture, the story of God promising to redeem this fallen world and then redeeming it in Jesus. But, within that story, your story is included. As a Christian, as one being redeemed, this story includes you and me. The words of encouragement, hope, love, peace, and joy spoken to the saints of old are just as true for you as it was for them. How can you be sure?
Look at Jesus. The fullest and clearest picture of God is in Him, the God-man, fully-God, fully-man, savior, Jesus Christ. And, when I look at Jesus I hear Him say, “I will be with you, even to the end of the age.” What Jesus said in Matthew, He said to Joshua when he said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). What Jesus said in Joshua (and in Matthew), he said to me.