Do the “Good Guys” Always Wear White Hats?
When we were children, many of the movies and television shows we watched, especially Westerns, had simple, basic plots. There were only two types of characters, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and it was not difficult to tell them apart. To make it even simpler for us to grasp, sometimes the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black ones. However, this simplistic world was mythical, existing only on the screen. As time passed, movies became more complex. Characters became more complex. Sometimes the bad guys had the audacity to wear white hats! Audiences were confused. A friend once complained, “I didn’t like that movie at all because I couldn’t tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.” The problem was that some of the good guys had a few bad traits, while some of the bad guys had a few good traits. The distinction between good and bad was still there, but it now required some thought and reflection to discern it.
The Old Testament is not like the old Westerns. Those old movies portrayed a mythical world with simple characters and no gray areas. The Bible deals with real life and with real people. People are complex, and so are the great stories about them. We should not be surprised to find complicated personalities in the Old Testament.
This observation is important because as we make the Interpretive Journey, we will derive many of the theological principles from the behavior of the main characters. Many of the characters will become models for us, providing patterns and examples of faithful living before God. It is essential, then, that we be able to discern the good guys from the bad guys. One of the most common errors made in interpreting Old Testament narrative is to assume that everyone in the story is a hero, a model for us to copy. This is simply not true. Many of the people are negative characters, and we need to be aware of this. If we mistake a bad guy for a good guy, we will be missing the point of the story.
Also keep in mind that most of the main characters (excluding God) contain mixtures of good and bad traits. Few characters emerge from the story as squeaky clean. The narrator expects us to read with sophistication and discernment. He does not identify his characters with white hats and black hats.
Solomon is a good example. Is he a good guy or bad guy? He seems to start out well. At times he appears to be a good model, trusting God. However, much of the time his behavior is questionable so that the narrator, as mentioned above, seems to be criticizing him rather than promoting him as a model. Ultimately, of course, Solomon’s standing is clear. He turns away from God and follows idols. He is a tragic character. For all of his great wisdom and wonderful building projects, he ends up a failure. He leaves a legacy of idolatry to his descendants, and the nation continues to follow his lead as they chase after idols.
What about Samson? Is he a hero or a bum? We should look for clues from the narrator. He tells us that God strengthens Samson, and he does some great feats of physical strength. Militarily he has some significant personal victories over the Philistines. He whips up on the bad guys (the Philistines). Doesn’t that make him a hero? The narrator answers in the negative. The entire moral and theological life of Samson is rotten. He ignores his call as a Nazirite and violates all of the Nazirite requirements. He blatantly violates the law and intentionally feeds unclean meat to his parents. He spends most of his time chasing after foreign women. He is self-centered and driven only by the pursuit of his own pleasure. He is not a positive model. He is perhaps a picture of squandered potential, one who wasted the power and opportunity that God had given to him by pursuing self-gratification.
As mentioned above, another important procedure to follow in interpreting these characters is to relate their story to the larger context. What is taking place in the larger story, and what role does the specific individual under consideration play in the big picture? How does Samson fit into the overall story of Judges? The book of Judges, remember, is basically a book chronicling the downward theological and moral spiral of Israel after they settle in the land. Samson is part of the downward spiral. Although God empowers him, he does not seem to care about serving or obeying God. The understanding of Samson as one who was gifted with great things from God but who nonetheless squandered everything through his self-centeredness fits into the context of Judges fairly well. So, although Samson accomplished a few good things for Israel, he is not one of the “good guys”; he is a negative model.
Throughout most of the Old Testament narrative literature, God is a central character. God is not aloof in the Old Testament, speaking only in shadows through the narrator. He is a major player in the story. A central feature of narrative is dialogue, and God is involved in over two hundred separate dialogues in the Old Testament! If we miss God in the story, then we have missed the story. Narrative is powerful and effective at revealing the character of the participants to us. One of the central purposes of this material is to reveal God to us. We have the opportunity to see God at work in numerous situations, dealing with various human-related problems.
This leads us to another important point. Let God be God. Too often we seek to systematize God. We fit him into neat theological or philosophical categories (God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc.). Certainly these doctrines are true, but they are abstract concepts, and if they are not balanced with the personal aspects of God, they tend to isolate us from God. If we are not careful, God will become an impersonal, distant, abstraction for us, like the Force in Star Wars. The narratives of the Old Testament reject this view of God. The Lord is not something abstract that you feel, but rather a person who speaks, relates, gets angry, hurts, changes his mind, argues, and loves. He relates to people on a human level, but he continues to be more than us, still above us. He is the hero of the story.
Many Christians come to Old Testament narratives with their God in a neat, small theological box. As they learn to read carefully, however, they are often stunned by his behavior because he does not act according to their preunderstanding of him. In Exodus 32:10, for example, following Israel’s construction of the golden calf idol, God says to Moses, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” In the next three verses Moses argues with God and convinces him to change his mind. Exodus 32:14 records the results: “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” How do we deal with a text like this? How can God, who sees all and knows all, change his mind?
We suggest that you let God be God. He has chosen to reveal himself to us in these narratives. Apparently there are aspects of his nature and personality that he wishes to convey to us through these stories. As you read Old Testament narrative, do not get bogged down with explaining away these troubling passages. Take them at face value and study them carefully to see what they reveal to us about the character of God. Do not try to keep God in a small box.
We have found that it is tough to keep God in the box if you read a lot of Old Testament narrative. He just keeps poking out of the box and refusing to be defined in a simplistic way. If people in real life are complex characters, how much more so is God! However, this complex God has chosen to relate to us personally and to reveal his character to us through these passages. If our goal is to know God, then it is imperative that we seek to hear what he is trying to tell us about himself in these narrative texts.