Every journey has a beginning. So does every story. But sometimes, especially around popular stories, not everyone can agree on where the beginning is.
Take Star Wars for example.
(I suppose if you knew me, this is the point in which you would simply shake your head and stop listening, because you would say that I always bring Star Wars into the discussion. And you would be right. But this time, it is important.)
In 1977, Star Wars started off as a single movie. The way the film unfolded, it gave you the feeling that you were jumping in in the middle of a story in progress. Not everything was explained. People and places were referenced, but never fleshed out. It was even subtitled: Episode IV, a New Hope. There was mystery about what came before, and for those of us lucky enough to be kids during the original heyday of Star Wars, it was fertile ground for our imaginations to play in. Star Wars did so well in theatres that the 1 movie became 3. Then it began spinning off into cartoons, direct-to-TV kid’s films, books, and video games. While those all told stories not found in the movies, we could still all agree that the starting point for Star Wars was Episode IV: A New hope.
Then things got complicated. In 1999, a new Star Wars movie was released. It was titled, Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. This movie (along with the 2 movies that followed it) gave us information about the characters from the original films that we didn’t know. It explained how they got where they were, and what happened to them and around them that got them to the place where we were familiar with them. It gave us an origin story.
Today, if you ask a Star Wars fan where the story starts, you will likely get 1 of 2 answers. Chances are, if they were brought to Star Wars in the 70’s and 80’s, they will tell you that the story starts with the original trilogy (episodes IV – VI, and you can watch episodes I-III if you really want to). If you ask someone who came to like Star Wars in the 90’s or 2000’s, they will likely tell you that the story works best when you watch them in numerical order (I-VI).
Which is right?
Many of us have asked a similar question about our story. One author called it The Story We Find Ourselves In. For the ancient Hebrews, the beginning of the story was God. Strangely enough, the story didn’t start with God creating everything. At least not until later. Their story actually started with God showing up to rescue a broken and poor people, who would eventually be called Hebrews. The story started when a God who defends the weak and releases slaves was revealed. That story would later be called the Exodus, and is collected in the Bible.
Yet, most of us know that the Bible starts with Genesis (a book about origins) and not Exodus. Why?
Genesis is sort of like the Star Wars movies released after 1999. They aren’t telling the main story. They are telling the story of origins. You know that group of people who were rescued by God? How did they become slaves in the first place? Who were they? Where did they come from? Genesis answers those questions. And yet, Genesis was never there to explain things about “them.” That is because the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible were written by ancient Hebrews for ancient Hebrews, as records of their history and their origins. So the questions that were answered by Genesis are not, “who were THEY?” but instead, who are WE? Where did WE come from? How did WE become slaves?
It might not seem like it, but that is an important distinction.
When I was in 3rd grade, I started to ride the bus to school. I quickly noticed what most people of my generation know well. The cool kids sit in the back. Of course, I was far from cool, and so I sat far from the back. But I was always trying to get back there somehow. Because in my head, if I was able to sit in the back, I would feel cool. Accepted. Wanted. So one day, I decided to do simply make it happen. I got to the bus stop early and I was the first in line. When the doors opened, I rushed to the back, and claimed my seat, right in the back row. As the cool kids began to shuffle in, they tried to get me to move, but I was determined not to lose my place at the proverbial cool table. I suffered the sideways glances and the whispers as we rode on, but when the bus stopped, and everyone was exiting the bus, I was put in my place.
My thought was that I would exit the bus as soon as possible to avoid a confrontation with the kids whose seat I had taken. So I hopped up and started bolting for the door as soon as the bus stopped. To this day I don’t know who it was, but one of the kids behind me shoved me down, face-first into the isle. I was nearly to the exit. But not quite. I was literally stepped on by ¾ of the kids on the bus as they made their way off… and kicked a few times by the cool kids.
I tried hard not to cry as I limped to my first class.
What I really needed was someone to come alongside me and tell me something like, “Don’t worry about them. You don’t need them. You don’t need to worry about what everyone thinks of you. You can do whatever you want, be whoever you want. You are better than those people who don’t like you.”
But no one said that. At least not then. Later, I would hear about the God of the underdog. I would be driven to the God who lifts up the outcasts, the losers, the left-out. The God who believed in me. But at that moment, I had no one.
Now imagine for a moment that there was a Roman Emperor. Imagine that he was hated for how abusive he was. Imagine that he took advantage of everyone, especially the poor and the weak. Imagine that he indulged every whim, every indulgence, and that nothing was too evil for him to try. Imagine that those who spoke against him were killed, and that no one was safe from being tortured and killed under this madman’s reign. Now imagine if someone were to tell him the same words I wished someone had told me.
“Don’t worry about them. You don’t need them. You don’t need to worry about what everyone thinks of you. You can do whatever you want, be whoever you want. You are better than those people who don’t like you.”
The same words, those encouraging, uplifting, good words, when given to a different person, a different place, a different time, a different context, can become downright evil. If misused, good words can create a breeding ground for evil.
The same is true for stories.
Genesis, the story of origins, was written by and for Jewish people in a certain context. I f we are able to hear those words in a similar way as the original recipients would have heard them, they become nothing short of divine brilliance. But cutting those words and stories out of their original context and pasting them into a radically different context, or worse – trying to apply them universally, can be (and has been) disastrous.