What the Bible’s Heroes Were Really Like
By Nathan Nelson
I look forward to my Sabbath School class each week. I teach occasionally, but most often, I’m just an eager discussion participant. Part of what I enjoy so much is bringing a slightly different perspective to the class, and seeing which ideas resonate with people, and which don’t. Lately we’ve been digging into Matthew, and it’s interesting to watch the same patterns emerging from week to week.
What I’ve noticed, is that nearly all of us in my class have developed a few bad habits when it comes to the Bible. We like to whitewash things. We grow up hearing stories of our Bible heroes, how God loved them and blessed them, and we see the paintings in our children’s books that show them clean-cut, well-groomed and sometimes even with halos or shining rays of “God’s Glory” around them.
It’s pretty, and inspiring. But it’s not real.
One of the most poignant examples for me is Peter, Andrew, James and John, four of Jesus’ disciples that started off as fishermen. We hear their names, and quite often, I think the first picture we have is that of rather peaceful followers of Jesus. That may be how they ended up, but it’s not how they started.
According to the bible, Jesus recruited all four of them, apparently out of the blue. He walked up and said “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” It’s easy to imagine that this was a magical moment, that they were struck by the Holy Spirit, and moved to follow Jesus as a result. If that image works for you there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I’ve always thought that picture felt a bit inauthentic. So I try to imagine what that scene was really like. Think for a moment what they were doing. Peter and Andrew were casting their nets into the lake (Matt. 4:18), which means they were actively fishing. They weren’t sitting around talking about the day’s catch: they were in the process of catching. They were hard at work—and getting interrupted.
Let’s try to fill in the picture of that day a bit more. If you know anything at all about fishing, you know a few things in particular:
1. It’s extremely messy. Fish are slimy. They’ve been hauled out of the water violently, and frequently are still alive and panicking, meaning they’re flailing that slime everywhere. They’re also usually bloody from that violence, from hooks in their mouths or nets tearing their gills, and when they’re out of the water, they very quickly start smelling not so wonderful. The fishermen I know have told me you just get used to being covered in disgustingness a large part of the time.
2. It’s hard work. No matter how you go about it, you are hauling huge weights of fish out of the water, none of which are much inclined to come willingly. They’re fighting every step of the way. Doing it in volume with gill nets involves pulling in literal tons of fish at a time. There are stories in the Bible of catches so large they threatened to capsize the entire boat. Even using machinery to aid the process, it’s body-breaking work. It always has been, and likely always will be. You sweat and get very tired.
3. It’s dangerous work. Ropes under tension, knives, water, boats, hooks—even rival fishermen. This is dangerous work at its best. If you don’t get tangled in a weighted net, you could always drown anyway by accident. And the sea of Galilee, where so much of this fishing happened, is known for having some pretty impressive winds, which have a lot of energy, which its shallow depth doesn’t dissipate easily, making for very large waves. And if you survive all that, you still have to deal with all those fish, which involves knives and cutting, all while covered with the aforementioned slime. Let’s just say I’m certain cuts and serious injury were not unfamiliar to these men.
Now, imagine the type of men who make a living doing this. You actually don’t have to work very hard at it. Pull up a couple episodes of “Deadliest Catch” and take a look. There’s all sorts, but the one thing the successful ones all have in common appears to be a high pain tolerance, stubbornness, and determination, usually with a fair bit of attitude and “salt” sprinkled in.
We have this characterization confirmed in the Bible for us, too! Look at how impulsive Peter always was, flaring up at slight provocations. Look at James and John, the “Sons of Thunder”, and imagine the kind of brawls they got into that earned them that name. We already know they argued incessantly about their standing with Jesus. And we don’t get to back out of this “salty” image by imagining Jesus searched for the mildest or least imposing he could have chosen from. Keep in mind that as Jesus and his disciples spread the gospel, it took grit and stubbornness and determination to keep on going, even in the face of the Roman empire, of unreceptive audiences, of threats of violence. Look at how many of those disciples died violent deaths spreading the gospel. For that matter, consider that God recruited Paul, someone who had persecuted and killed Christians, to be one of his most energetic supporters.
No, Peter and Andrew, and James and John were no pushovers. These guys were gnarly.
And Jesus impressed them enough, they left it all behind—instantly!
With all that information, now put yourself in the role of a salty, grizzled, tough-as-nails fisherman, sweaty, breathing hard, and covered in fish slime and blood as Jesus walks up to you—in the middle of your work—to say:
“I’ve watched you work hard at this job. You’re among the best I’ve seen, you put everything you have into it. But doesn’t this seem pointless some days? You catch fish, break your body, then sell your catch at the market so people can eat. You spend the money you make on food for your own mouths, so you can be strong, so you can come back to this body-breaking work for yet another day. Your work never stops. But what if your work changed people? What if you could feed people’s souls instead of just their bodies? What if I could show you how to take that hard work you put into hauling those same nets every day, and put it into something far more valuable? You spend your life catching fish. I can show you how to catch men!”
Those words aren’t in the Bible. That may not have been what he said exactly. And I’m sure there was some back and forth. But you get the idea. Fill in the gaps for yourself until the conversation works; until you can just imagine those tough-as-nails fishermen hauling their catch home for the day — earlier than usual — and telling their co-workers and families, “Sorry guys, I’m done. I have somewhere important to be tomorrow, and every day after.”
Once that’s done, I’m willing to bet you have a slightly different picture of Jesus (and Peter and Andrew) than you had 10 minutes ago. And I’ll be even you might follow Him if he walked up to you out of the blue!
Now, try the same thing with some other Bible characters until each one pops into life in your head:
Picture David. He raised some truly horrible children, sent a man to be killed so he could steal the guy’s wife, and was renowned as a fierce warrior as well as a king. Imagine a man who could stand toe to toe with a giant, 9 feet tall, and kill him with a sling. He may have been trusting in God to help him prevail, but I guarantee you he wasn’t serenely singing hymns as he charged Goliath, killed him, and beheaded him. Armies don’t run away, not even from someone who kills their mighty warrior, unless that person inspires fear!
Imagine Jacob, the runt of his family, especially compared with his big, manly, hunter brother Esau. Imagine what went through his head when his mother came to him and said “You could steal your brother’s blessing, if you’re clever enough!” And when he succeeded, earning mom’s approval, and learned the lesson that brains can indeed beat brawn, he went on to develop that cleverness to razor sharpness, as he swindled Rachel and Leah’s father, Laban, out of his herds and his daughters!
How about Esther? Do you really think she simply walked into the king’s presence, hoping he was in a good mood? Maybe she did a bit more to make herself more “appealing” to the king.
What about Mary of Bethany? What was going through both their minds when Mary poured perfume on Jesus’ feet, and wiped it with her hair? That cannot have been a casual or insignificant moment for either of them.
The gospel of John ends with these words: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” We don’t know what those many other things are, especially when what little we have of the things that were written down are so fragmented, abbreviated, and incomplete. We haven’t been given all the details to know who these people really were.
But we do know there were normal, everyday people, just like ourselves. They felt the same emotions, they were just as intelligent, and for every moment of their lives recorded in the Bible, there are literally thousands of others that are not. Those people, in those in between moments, ate meals, stole kisses, had fights, told jokes, and cried. The Bible, in its many translations, elevates those simple acts to epic levels simply by using different words: they ‘wept’, they ‘jested’, they ‘were filled with wrath’ and so on.
The whitewashed, haloed, elevated version of these figures is largely something we have created ourselves. In real life, they were real people, doing real things. All we have to do is use a bit of imagination, use the clues we’ve been given, and what we know of how people are today, and these rather one-dimensional caricatures we have can come alive in our minds.
On the days when I’m feeling like I can’t possibly measure up, it helps to look at those Bible characters and see them as real people, instead of untouchable saints. After all, if God loved that batch of screw-ups, ne’er-do-wells, and thugs, well, maybe I still have a chance!
Nathan Nelson makes a living programming computers for Nike, the sports shoe manufacturer. He grew up as an Adventist but is not sure how to classify himself these days, perhaps “a non-member, semi-reformed, not-quite-backslider.” He writes from the Portland area.
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