All of us grew up hearing moral tales. Using simple characters and symbolism they taught us how to live by showing us the rewards of virtuous acts and the consequences of foolish acts. These stories ingrained in us morally acceptable behaviors. If we learned their lessons well, our lives would be better.
The “boy who cried wolf” taught us those who make a practice of lying will not be trusted – even when they desperately need to be to avoid becoming lunch.
The “ugly duckling” taught us true beauty isn’t immediately apparent to the eye.
The “tortoise and the hare” taught us that slow and steady will ultimately defeat over-confident and speedy.
Even some of our favorite films are essentially moral tales.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” taught us true beauty is not external but rather internal (Unless you’re the girl, in which case it seems the external still matters).
“Rocky” taught us hard work and persistence will eventually pay off no matter who you are.
“Liar, Liar” – starring Jim Carrey – taught us that career success is empty apart from the love of a family.
We seem to secretly enjoy good moral tales. Not only do they aid us in passing our values down to our children, but there is something gratifying about walking away from a book, television show, or movie that entertained us while righting our moral compass. Unfortunately, we enjoy moral tales so much we often take the Bible – especially the Old Testament – and turn it into one.
Take the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17. In this famous story known by Christian, Jew, and atheist alike, the young king-in-waiting David sees the Philistine army and their champion, Goliath, striking fear into the hearts of the Israelite army. David decides to trust God and face Goliath on his own, armed only with a sling and five stones. Goliath laughs when he sees the boy approaching but David kills him with a stone to the forehead.
It is hard for us to resist turning this into a moral tale. We assume the author of 1 Samuel wanted good, godly behavior from his readers. So we cast ourselves as David and re-imagine Goliath as any number of “giants” we may be facing from a disease to a job situation to family problems to financial struggles to persistent heartburn. The moral of the tale of David and Goliath is if we trust and obey God He will empower us to overcome the challenges in our life.
The problem is the story of David and Goliath isn’t allegory. David doesn’t symbolize us – he symbolizes the real, historical future king of Israel from whose line the Messiah will come. Goliath doesn’t symbolize difficulties in our life – he symbolizes a tall, heavy, sweaty man with a sword that can cause serious damage. If the author intended this as a moral tale the climax of the story would likely feature David, the Lord or a comment from the author announcing that God will always defeat the giants of those who trust in Him. But that’s not what happens. Instead, at the climax of the story, David declares to Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:46-47:
This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.
The message of David and Goliath is not that God will defeat our giants – since that idea is found nowhere in the text. The author speaks through the character of David and tells us in the climax of the story what the message is: that all the nations may know the God of Israel is the true God who saves those who trust in Him. The message is missional – all the nations must know of this God. It is messianic – David is the Lord’s anointed, pointing us to the reign of Christ. It is God-centered – He receives all the glory because He saves apart from man’s strength. The hero of the story is the Lord and His messiah as represented in the character of David.
This story is just one example.
We take the story of Jonah which is about God’s heart for the nations and make it about the importance of obeying God lest He test our swimming skills.
We take the story of Jesus calming the storms which is about the power of the Son of God over creation and make it about Jesus fixing the troubles in our lives.
We take the story of Samson and Delilah, which highlights the failure of Israel’s leadership and the need for a messiah, and make it a warning about pursuing our lustful desires.
Converting the Scriptures into moral tales is problematic because we impose our own truth on the Bible. If, based on David and Goliath, I believe God will defeat the giants in my life through my obedience and faith, what happens when God doesn’t? What if I lose my battle with cancer, go bankrupt with debt, or see my marriage fall apart? Did I not have enough faith? Is God a figment of my imagination? Or is He simply unhappy with me?
We turn the Bible into moral tales because we ultimately believe the Bible is about us. We think it is life’s instruction manual and that it exists to tell us how to live. We become the hero of its story as we faithfully obey all its commands and win the favor of the God it describes. But the Bible isn’t about us. The message of most of its stories – including David and Goliath – is the glory and character of God. The hero of its story is Jesus Christ who steps into our sin and failure and saves apart from anything we could ever do. When we understand this, we’ll cease to see the Bible as a rulebook full of morals for us to learn and start to see it for what it is – the unfolding revelation of the God of the universe and His glorious plan to save humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.