Fire by Night:
Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament
Reviewed by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
I’m writing this review in a random hallway at JFK airport following the early morning Delta shuttle from DC. In a few hours I will board a flight to Tel Aviv and a week of pilgrimage and learning in Israel and Palestine. It’s my first trip to the Holy Land, which I’ve heard a number of people call the “fifth gospel” for its ability to break open the life and ministry of Jesus in powerful ways.
In addition to visits to the typical holy/tourist sites, we’ll receive briefings from a number of leaders and scholars of the peace process. I’m excited beyond measure—it’s a clergy bucket-list trip for sure—but I’m uneasy at what I will discover in this place that looms so large in the biblical imagination, yet is also such a fixture in the 24-hour news cycle. Friends who’ve traveled to the region have cautioned me, “If you don’t leave with more questions than answers, you did it wrong.” Meanwhile my iPad is crammed with books about Israel/Palestine, official reading assignments from the trip planners. I’m sheepish to admit I haven’t gotten very far in my study.
What I did read cover to cover, however, is Melissa Florer-Bixler’s lyrical reflections on the Hebrew Bible, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament . It may turn out to be a fitting preparation as I ready myself to walk the places where our sacred stories took place. Florer-Bixler, a Mennonite pastor in North Carolina, weaves contemporary stories with the narratives of scripture, and while the prose is seamless and elegant, the God we meet is anything but simple and sweet. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of the God we meet in the Old Testament: God of Memory, God of the Vulnerable, God of Friendship. (Lest you think the book is concerned solely with big sturdy “churchy” concepts, there’s also a delightful chapter called “God of Birds.”)
I admit to reading pastoral meditations on scripture with some skepticism, looking for the telltale signs that the book is essentially a series of sermons with some transitional filler to tie them together. I didn’t find any of that here; either Florer-Bixler imagined this material as a book from the get-go, or she did the careful work of putting considerable flesh and sinew on sermonic bones. Either way, it’s a rich and engaging read. Here you’ll find scripture sitting alongside the L’Arche community, the joyful reverie of a children’s bookstore owner, a birthday celebration in a women’s prison, a late-night star-watching party with a daughter, a friendship with a Muslim cleric, and a multi-lingual prayer meeting in a hospital room. (Disclosure: Florer-Bixler worked on this book while on retreat at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. I was there that week as well, and got a special kick out of her descriptions and insights from that place.)
Twentieth-century preaching giant Harry Emerson Fosdick famously chided fellow preachers that nobody comes to worship desperate to hear a fresh word about the Amalekites. I don’t disagree, but Florer-Bixler’s book may yet change our minds. It’s a disturbing story, to be sure; after recounting the Amalekites’ various crimes and infractions against the people of Israel, Moses (presumably speaking for God) thunders these words: “Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) It is a bracing command, to put it mildly, and one that polite, respectable Christian congregations would just as soon leave on the cutting room floor of many a lectionary or sermon series. But Florer-Bixler reminds us that Amalek was a descendant of Esau. It is the blood of a long-ago sibling that courses in the veins of these sworn enemies of Israel. What does this story have to tell us about the ways we long for vengeance? How do we read troubling texts as illustrative of a God of both love and justice? What do these stories reveal about a God who cares in a distinctive way for the poor and oppressed? As I read Fire by Night, I was reminded of the option Facebook provides for describing one’s relationship status: it’s complicated.
Many of us grew up in Christian traditions that read the Old Testament as nothing more than a scintillating, occasionally gruesome prelude before the “good stuff”: the coming of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who redeems the world in love. Many of us have learned better, whether through our own growth or through the persistent teaching of scholars like Amy-Jill Levine who help us root out the anti-Semitism in these interpretations. I only recall seeing one place where Florer-Bixler tiptoes up to the line: “I know my pastoral constitution is to want to clean up the violence, to justify God or those who misheard God. I’d like to let texts like these be subsumed into the loving arms of the New Testament’s portrayal of God as Jesus Christ.” After confessing the temptation, she resists it. In fact, she makes her thesis plain from the preface: “the God present in the Old Testament is the same God revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Rather than fall prey to the preacherly trap of delivering a sermon on an Old Testament text that brings in Jesus at the end like the dessert after eating one’s vegetables, Florer-Bixler does something much more nuanced: she reads these texts as a Christian, with a Christian lens, but steadfastly refusing a clunky coupling of Old and New. We see this careful and generous scholarship in a latter chapter, God of the Table, which centers around Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality toward three mysterious travelers. The Eucharistic resonances are there, but Florer-Bixler doesn’t need to connect the dots. Why should she? It’s the same God, as present at a makeshift tentside meal as in the Upper Room, as present in this bustling airport as God will be—and is—in the so-called holy sites I’ll be visiting this week.