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The power of parable: Old Testament parables

Crossan outlines challenges in stories of Ruth, Jonah and Job

September 7, 2012

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa

Author and historian John Dominic Crossan, one of the world’s foremost Jesus scholars, delivered a three-part lecture Sept. 1 at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant. The Faith in Reason seminar was sponsored by the church and by the D.L. Dykes, Jr. Foundation. Learn more at www.faithandreason.org.

Crossan’s most recent book is The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. During his lectures, he attempted to condense the book into three one-hour segments.

During his initial lecture, Crossan, an emeritus faculty member from DePaul University in Chicago and former priest, took his crowd through three types of Old Testament parables: Riddle, Example, Challenge. “If I could borrow from Paul,” he said, “the greatest of these is Challenge.”

  • Riddle parables, which in the ancient world aren’t childish at all. “It’s a warning that knowledge is important and your life might depend on it,” he said. An example is Sampson, “who had a lot of problems with anger management,” who riddles his prospective wife, “Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet,” a riddle so personal that even prospective life partners couldn’t have known the answer.
  • Example parables, “act like this or don’t act like that,” Crossan said, something like Aesop’s fables. The classic example is the anti-monarchy parable in Judges 9, where the trees want to have a king, but all the important trees in the region ― olive, fig, plus the vine ― are all too busy doing important things to be the king. All that’s left is the thorny fire-spreader, the bramble. The moral of the parable, according to Crossan: “The only king you get is someone with nothing better to do.”
  • Challenge parables “make us think about our most taken-for-granted beliefs,” he said. They don’t “challenge those beliefs, but they do want you to walk carefully before your God. It’s only a story ― why should it bother you so much?” The story-teller wants hearers to “delicately ponder your deepest convictions.”

Crossan cited three challenge parables from the Old Testament, each deeper than the one before: the stories of Ruth, Jonah and Job.

The Book of Ruth can be read “as a beautiful example parable of someone who is faithful to her family and tradition. She is magnificent, we’re all on her side ― but we’re never allowed to forget she is a Moabite.” And then the kicker at the end ― she’s the forebear of David. That’s what makes the parable a challenge parable, which Crossan defined as parables where the good guys do bad and the bad guys (or the outsiders, in this case) do good.

Jonah is a satire, a “lampoon of the recalcitrant prophet,” he said, with the “classic structure of the challenge parable: the prophets do bad, and the Assyrians do good. Then we watch all heaven break loose.”

That occurs in spades, of course, with Job, which Crossan called “one of the great masterpieces of world literature.” Job, the wealthiest man on Earth, is another outsider ― an Edomite. The satan who makes the bet with God early in Job is not patterned after the devil, Crossan said, and it’s God who starts the whole mess. “Have you seen my servant Job?” God says. The satan tells God Job is good “only to get his goodies.”

The problem with the four friends who try to help Job after he’s afflicted is that they’ve read Deuteronomy 28: “If you obey, all these good things will come to you. If bad things happen, you can be sure you have displeased God and are being punished.”

“Just repent and we can all go home,” they tell him. Crossan isn’t impressed with their suggestion: “It is gorgeous and lousy theology,” he said. “Poor Job says, ‘I don’t know what I did. I am quite ready to repent if I could just know what did I do that was so bad.’”

Most commentators are “terribly impressed with God” as God speaks to Job, but Crossan noted that God rarely allows Job to insert anything more than a sentence or two in the conversation. God wonders where Job was “when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

In the end, God tells Job that his friends are all wrong, in effect “putting a speed bump” on the kind of punishment and reward theology spelled out in Deuteronomy, Crossan said.

Israel was the most dangerous part of the ancient world, and it’s still plenty dangerous, Crossan reminded his audience. “To tell these people that invasion is God’s punishment is just not true. You might as well go out on the Interstate and think that it’s God hitting you with trucks.

“It’s absurd,” he said. “The Bible has the sense that’s wrong. The reason we are invaded is not because we have sinned. It’s because we’re living in a dangerous place.”

Mike Ferguson is a ruling elder at the United Presbyterian Church of Lone Tree (Iowa), a reporter for “The Muscatine Journal”― the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start ― editor of “Out and About, the enewsletter of the Presbytery of East Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

  1. Ive often wondered about the Jobe story. What was the point. What am I not understanding. It seems like the only one to take a beating was Jobe & his family.

    by frank noce

    March 9, 2014

  2. Mike, Great review. Sounds like an excellent conference. Thanks again for your work at GA. Val

    by Val Putnam

    September 14, 2012

  3. If you walk onto the interstate you will be hit by a truck - a consequence of your behavior. Israel was warned of consequences - God followed through with the invasion and carrying off.

    by Joanne

    September 7, 2012

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