God, Can I have a Bike?
A young boy asks his parents if they would buy him a new bike. Though they could afford it, the parents insist that he work for it. Arrangements are made to earn an allowance by doing chores around the house, taking out the garbage, cleaning his room, mowing the lawn and caring for the family dog. The boy eagerly accepts these responsibilities knowing he will soon have a shiny new bike to ride. Soon he becomes resentful of the time constraints the chores have on him and the fact that he cannot have the bike until he has earned the money. If his parents loved him, they should get him the bike and he can owe them.
The parents see this as an opportunity to teach their son a lessons in responsibilities and economics. They are not motivated by a source of cheap labor or the reduction of their own workload in the family function, but a desire to help their son learn a valuable lesson. Tension arises when the son resents the workload because there is no immediate payoff and the parents need to stick to their commitment to instill meaningful values in his life.
The boy sees only the need for a bike and does not understand what the parents are attempting to teach him. The parents risk family harmony and disruption by being committed to the lesson of hard work and reward. While the issue revolves around economic and political boundaries of material possession and familial responsibilities, the underlying issue is the relationship between parents and child. The nature of that relationship is core to the other components of a family dynamic. The parents can give in and buy the bike with no obligation from the son to earn it. They can refuse to buy the bike and not pay the boy for his chores as a lesson in the cost of disobedience, or they can remain firm in their effort to teach the boy about responsibility and obligation.
Like the story of Job, this scenario is familiar to most parents and it helps demonstrate the central ideas that theologian J. Gerald Janzen in his book “At the Scent of Water” uses to illustrate “miniature Old Testament theology”. As Janzen points out, the Book of Job is told as a fable in order to separate the reader from any actual events or issues that are implicit in real life. As Janzen puts it, “The effect of such an opening is to place Job at a distance from the reader, like stories that begin “Once upon a time” or “Long ago and far away.”[i] The reader identifies with Job’s struggle to understand God’s intent, his friend’s accusation and his own confusion about why he is being punished. Job must balance these opposing and incompatible elements to maintain a sense of order, justice and purpose in his relationship with God. Job, like most of us, is attempting to comprehend what God wants from us.
Stories like Job, or the boy and his bike, helps us objectively understand the problems and either resolve or manage them. What confounds us is that not everything can be comprehended, either in the present or in the future. The boy may come to understand what his parents are attempting to do, or he may not. Job may understand what God’s purpose was or he may simply accept God’s authority over Job. These imcomphrehensible ideas create a void in our understanding, a void we attempt to fill with our own logic or rational. We justify our own reaction because we do not understand God’s purpose.
This creates a “crisis of faith” which makes us settle for less than what God has intended for us. Janzen addresses this issue using the terminology of a computer’s “default settings” to illustrate the basic relationship between God and His children. Simply put, a computer comes equipped with preset settings by which it operates. Margins, font type, size, and other variables are permanently set as the template for the computer’s operating system. Even though we can change many of these settings to create a “customized default setting” the original default settings are a permanent part of the computer’s nomenclature. As Janzen points out, “Why is it important to distinguish between a customized default setting and the original factory setting? From time to time, users will discover that their computer has “crashed.”[ii] When this happens, the computer can be reset to the “default setting” allowing us to save the data and rebuild the documents we were working on.
The son was motivated by the prospect of a new bike, and while the parents were attempting to teach him important lessons in hard work and personal responsibilities, their true aspiration was neither economic nor political. Hard work and honest commitment would be rewarded in material gains yet these were the “customized default setting” which Janzen described. They are adaptations to specific circumstances that allow people to accomplish goals and agendas that benefit them. What motivated the parents was an act of love and nurturing, a desire to instill a sense of right and wrong in their child and to support him as he struggles with the incongruity of living. Thus, their motivation is the “default” setting that is the template for any modification or adaptation required in the routine of living.
Janzen illustrates these through the scriptures in Exodus 32 and the disobedience of the people by creating a golden calf. “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (32:9-10).”[iii] Janzen describes this as a “false system error” requiring reinitiating from the “default setting”. However when God declares he will “consume them” and from Moses He “will make a new nation “, this is equivalent in computer terms to a complete erasure of data and a “reboot”, deleting all the customized data that had been generated. Moses reminds God that it isn’t necessary to start completely over but to return to the default setting which was the promise God made to Abraham and his descendants. “Turn from thy fierce wrath [‘ap], and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever”‘[iv] Thus the “default” position is not an absolute adherence to God’s laws and total obedience. Nor is it an attempt to teach them a lesson. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to love, nourish and guide his people despite their disloyalty and insolence.
Job’s trials were not a test of his fidelity or patience with God. Job did experience a “crisis of faith” however; the experience was a lesson rather than an exam. Often people see trials such as Job’s as obstacles to overcome which impede our understanding of God’s purpose. This is why the boy asks, “Why can’t my parents just buy me the bike? Why must I work for it?” When we view trials as obstacles, we experience a “crisis of faith” which threatens the relationship we have with God, or a boy with his parents. As Janzen points out, “The question is whether he can any longer believe what his ancestors believed and what he himself had believed before his calamities.”[v] The challenge is to stay focused on the objective rather than be discouraged by the difficulties. This requires us to seek the “default setting” established by God rather than the “custom setting” which fit our desires. “Put in this way, the question is not only whether the biblical story about God can survive the crisis of Job, but also whether that story has been adequately understood.”[vi] Are we resolving our conflicts with a shallow interpretation of God’s purpose dictated by our culture, tradition and teachings or are we seeking a deeper understanding that comes from a real awareness of God’s purpose?
To comprehend God’s deeper purpose requires understanding the relationship we have with God. Is Yahweh a kingly God whom we serve as a subject serves a ruler, or is God a familial deity who serves us? Yahweh should neither be viewed as a personal god who serves and fulfills our own needs, nor should we elevate God to a benevolent caretaker, one that will protect us as long as we remain obedient and loyal. The Bible clearly demonstrates that despite our rejection and waywardness, love is God’s “default setting”. It lies at the core of our relationship. This does not imply that God will always placate our selfishness in a desire for harmony. God is sovereign and has ultimate authority in the world. God is both supreme ruler and humble servant. Janzen contends that human/divine relationship began and continues to be a family or ancestral affiliation. It is one in which a parent rules by nurturing love and compassion. Influenced by other cultures and political systems, God is often placed in a kingly position ruling by authority and decree. Though love is still at the core of God’s realm, as a king loves his subjects, politics drives the human/divine relationship. Old Testament scriptures often display a royal god passing judgment on ignorant and unruly subjects. The same scripture will also reconcile God’s wrath with a reminder of God’s parental love and compassion.
An example, which Janzen illustrates, is in Numbers 13-14. “There, the people fear to go up into the land that was promised to them, persuaded by the majority of the spies that the people in that land “are stronger than we.” So fearful are they that they resolve to choose another leader and return to Egypt (Num 13:31; 14:1-4). But this is another form of idolatry, for it implies that the gods of these people are stronger than YHWH their God (contrast Exod 12:12). God’s response is essentially like God’s response to the golden calf: to disinherit them and make of Moses a great and mighty nation (Num 14:11-12).”[vii]
Moses understood that, though powerful and supreme, God could be turned from his wrath to destroy the Israelites and compelled to fulfill God’s promises to “Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants”. In understanding God’s true purpose, Moses knew that Yahweh’s underlying desire was not discipline or obedience, but genuine love.
A young boy may not be as astute as Moses in understanding his parents real purpose in making him work for a desired bike. He may even be angry and defy his parents, believing them to be too difficult and demanding. Or he may commit himself to their demands, reminding the parents of their true purpose in making him work for the prize.
The relationship between the boy and his parents, like the relationship between God and the people of Israel, is founded on a promise. Moreover, the promise is made as an expression of love between a parent and child. It is not political or economic but real, genuine and human, nurtured in compassion and tempered by hope. As Janzen point out “…it is striking to note that the theme of God’s promises to the ancestors runs like a golden thread throughout the book…”[viii]
In the Old Testament God speaks to the people in various supernatural ways; burning bushes, swirling pillars of fire and dust, dreams and disembodied voices from the star filled night skies. God speaks to patriarch, judges, kings, shepherds and prophets, reaffirming Gods sovereignty and the promise of fealty.
In the New Testament God’s presence is human, first through the Son Jesus Christ then through the apostles. Though God reveals teachings in dreams and visions, meaningful encounters are made through human contacts; Peter and the Centurion Cornelius, Paul and Ananias in Damascus, Luke writing an account of the Gospel and the Apostles for Theophilus, Paul’s letters to young Timothy and the churches throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
The scriptures of the Old Testament are set against the backdrop of empires and great events. They involve tails of kings, warriors, patriarchs and prophets. The theology of the Old Testament is a simple message that God, while majestic and powerful is a loving God that simply desires to walk humbly with His children.
[i] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 73-74). Kindle Edition.
[ii] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 296-297). Kindle Edition.
[iii] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 514-515). Kindle Edition.
[iv] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 524-527). Kindle Edition.
[v] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Location 247). Kindle Edition.
[vi] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 249-250). Kindle Edition.
[vii] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Locations 578-582). Kindle Edition.
[viii] J. Gerald Janzen. At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job (Kindle Location 607). Kindle Edition.