“No, you didn’t,” I teased.
“Yes I did!”
“Camels don’t live in North Carolina.”
“Yes they do! I saw it!”
“Nuh uh. You’re just pretending.”
“No I’m not!”
Back and forth it went. My daughter does love to pretend, but when she’s called on it, she readily admits it. I enjoyed teasing her about the camel because I knew that she really did see a camel this week. Her grandparents took her to a living Nativity scene.
She told me about the cows and the goats and the sheep too, but the camel seemed particularly impressive. “You sure it wasn’t a horse?” I said. “How many humps did it have?”
“No, horses don’t have humps.”
“It was a camel!”
And so on. She was unswerving in her insistence that she’d witnessed a camel, and I was playfully unswerving in my insistence that this was impossible. “What on earth would a camel be doing in North Carolina?”
“Seeing baby Jesus,” she said.
“You saw baby Jesus?” I said. “Well now I’ve heard everything.”
When I read the Gospel of Matthew, I’m often tickled – and a little impressed – with how creative its author gets with the Hebrew Scriptures. It seems extremely important for the author of Matthew’s Gospel – for the ease of conversation, let’s call this author “Matthew” – to connect the story of Jesus with the stories of the Hebrew prophets. Matthew interrupts the narrative fourteen times to quote Hebrew scriptures and make the case that the birth of Jesus was fulfilling ancient prophecy. These scriptures are often a stretch. The most notorious of these is in Matthew 1:22-23. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmauel.’” Bu Matthew quotes the Greek translation of Isaiah, which translates the Hebrew word ‘almah into the Greek word parthenos. The Greek word clearly means “virgin” or “woman who has not had sexual intercourse.” However, this is not what the Hebrew word means; ‘almah means “young woman.” In fact, if you read Isaiah 7 in its original context, the child being born is a prophetic sign declaring victory in Judah’s war against Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:16). In other words, this prophecy originally referred to a pregnancy of that very moment, and that the attacking kings would be defeated before the child was bar-mitzvahed.
My other favorite moment of Matthew’s creative prophecy is in chapter 21 when Jesus makes his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem. Jesus sends his disciples into a village to procure a donkey and its colt. Matthew says, “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them, and he sat on them.”
This quotes Zechariah 9:9. Zechariah uses classic Hebrew poetic fashion, repeating a phrase:
…humble and riding on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Matthew, however, doesn’t seem to fully get the poetic device and translates this passage as “riding on a donkey and on a colt.” So when Jesus enters Jerusalem, he “sat on them.” In case you’re not clear, Matthew has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two donkeys at the same time so that it will fulfill his misreading of Zechariah.
Matthew’s appropriation of Hebrew scriptures are out of place and awkward. A lot like seeing a camel in North Carolina.
For some people, it might seem threatening to point out that Matthew’s scriptural support of Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic prophecies are all taken out of context. But I wouldn’t say that Matthew just takes all the Hebrew scriptures out of context; I would say that Matthew takes these scriptures and puts them into a new context.
This is exactly the work of faith, and all humans – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, everyone – do it all the time. I think Christians do it with such exquisite beauty and magic at Christmas time. I’m learning to love the ways that this lovely story teaches children to engage the richness of ancient stories in a new and contemporary context. As I said last week, the Christmas story is perfect for kids: it stars a little baby surrounded by fuzzy animals. My daughter lives in North Carolina, but because of baby Jesus, she’s seen a live camel. She lives in a world of lively stories: Curious George, Dora the Explorer, Spider-Man, Max and the wild things. Her entire existence consists of taking stories and living them out in her daily lives. She will learn to do this with the sacred stories of our faith tradition, starting with the Nativity.
It reminds me that I often don’t play with these stories with the same kind of freedom and openness. I’ve lived long enough to feel comfortable in having the stories figured out. I like to keep my contexts separate, my stories segregated. (God help me, I about blew a fuse when my spouse watched an episode of Game of Thrones and asked, “Is this Middle Earth?”) But I watch my little girl play with the baby Jesus and her dinosaurs side by side without any hesitation or cognitive dissonance and I long to recapture the same surrender to the fluid boundaries of unhindered narrative. If only I, too, could allow the story of Jesus to play alongside of every other part of my life.
This week, an eloquent preacher friend gave his intriguing take on a strange little passage in Genesis 5:21-24, which reads, “When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three-hundred years… Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” My friend told the story this way:
“Here’s how I imagine it. One day, God met Enoch and asked him to go for a walk. In the cool of the evening, they walked together until the sun set. Then Enoch said, ‘Well, God, this has been great, but I’d better get home.’ This went on every night for three-hundred years. And then one night, when they got to the end of their walk, God said, ‘Enoch, why don’t you come home with me tonight?’ And it was so wonderful, Enoch never came back.”
We walk side by side with our stories sometimes, and then we want to get back to the one that seems most comfortable. Maybe the call of faithful storytelling is to leave that home behind, to disappear into the rich mystery of a story that we haven’t fully heard just yet.
Faith is the interweaving of stories. The stories of our lives intermingle the stories of our ancestors’, the stories of our culture, the stories of our religions. We live out our own stories with the hope that they are also the stories of those who came before us and the stories of those who will come after us. We live our stories in the hope that they are also God’s stories, stories of redemption and liberation and healing. Perhaps on the surface these stories have nothing in common; perhaps on first glance the characters are nothing alike and don’t understand each other. But the work of human imagination is to interact with the stories of others and find ourselves in them so that our own experiences can take on a new meaning. Maybe the thousand-year-old stories of a small Middle Eastern tribe don’t seem immediately compatible with our American culture of technology and science and wealth. That’s why we play with them, soak them in, let the colors of one bleed into the colors of the other until a new picture emerges.
It takes a little whimsy and trust to let stories intermingle and converse. It takes courage and a suspension of belief. It takes… well, it takes faith. After all, who expects to see a camel in North Carolina?