43: Literary Layers & Ananias and Sapphira
Collectively, the Bible consists of complex literary layers stacked atop one another. Stories and motifs are recycled and re-used. When we read any individual story, we must read it as a single layer of a greater whole. The strange story of Ananias and Sapphira, for example, is written in conversation with a series of Old Testament stories as well as at least one other Ananias story in the Book of Acts. We aren’t reading it well unless we learn to read it as a literary layer.
Nate: Okay, so last time we talked about how there’s this copy and pasting that goes on; we looked at Psalms. Are there any other types of strategies that we see the biblical writers using?
Tim: Tons and tons. This episode I want to talk about what I’ll call layering. I’ve heard a scholar or two use a metaphor I think is pretty apt. For anyone who’s old enough to remember overhead projectors?
Nate: I remember! I remember, because I was a worship leader, having to print out on the overhead paper off of Word or whatever, I had the lyrics and you had to print it out on that so it could be used to project the words. I remember that.
Tim: Right. So for all you younguns out there, basic technology back ten, twenty years ago was you’d have a light shining through what we called transparencies, these transparent plastic sheets. And whatever you wrote in marker on the plastic would get projected up and then reflected mirror onto a big drop-down white screen.
Nate: [laughing] Remember would someone would write, instead of writing on the transparent piece of paper that you set on the thing, they would write right on the overhead projector?
Tim: Oh, it would always happen, like the substitute would come in and just—
Nate: And the teacher would come in and be like, “Argh!” It’s kind of like the equivalent, for younger people, it’s the equivalent of accidentally using a Sharpie on the whiteboard. It’s that.
Tim: Yep. Okay, so here’s why I think it’s a good example, is because you could stack transparencies on top of one another, and you could actually make multiple pieces of art by adding layers and layers and layers of new lines or figures or whatever on multiple transparencies.
Nate: Okay, I’m not done. Because that made think of when the teacher would do a couple of transparencies, and one would be like the waves, and then they’d do another transparency over it of a boat, and they would like move the boat to move on the waves!
Tim: [laughing] Yeah, so here’s why I like that example. What we see happening over the course of the Bible, from one chapter to the next, or one text to the next, is literary layering or echoing, where a story is told, say in Genesis, and then another story is told later in Genesis or in another book that is very similar, has all the trappings. The literary motifs are the same. Like you meet, or a young man meets a woman at a well and they get married; or there are two daughters, one of them is infertile, and there’s hostility between them. So you’ll have stories that become archetypal and they get loaded with meaning and then repurposed and refashioned later in additional stories. And what you’re supposed to be doing, first of all you’re supposed to notice that the stories have some things in common, they’re similar. One is supposed to remind you of the other. But then they’re supposed to act in conversation with one another. So in our opening conversation, Nate, I had brought up in Leviticus, where you have that strange story of Nadab and Abihu sandwiched in between the laws offering this sacrifice, and something was weird about the way they performed it, something was weird about the fire that they built, and so they got killed for it. And you had said that you had mistaken that story with the story of Uzzah.
Nate: Oh, yeah, the guy who touches the ark and then he gets zapped, right?
Tim: Exactly. So we’ll explore that in a second, but that thing that happened in your brain? That’s what is supposed to happen in your brain. The writers have intentionally crafted similar stories so that when you read one you end up thinking about the other without even thinking that you’re thinking about the other. And then what we’ll see is that there are times when there are literally like multiple transparency layers where you can only really get the full picture, the full story, at the end by reflecting and meditating on the way that they all stack up and line up with each other. And something we’ll see is that this is something happening in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s actually something that the New Testament writers, especially the more literary books in the New Testament like the gospels, pick up. And they end up writing stories about Jesus that have this layering function; stories that are alluding to past stories; stories where pieces of them are supposed to trigger our mind and go, “Oh, that scene of Jesus here, or that scene of the disciples over here, it’s supposed to remind us of these literary motifs or these narratives that we’ve been reading since we were kids in the Hebrew Bible.” And if we think of those things while we read this story about Jesus and the disciples, it will load all of this meaning onto it. It will be like someone left that earlier transparency on the projector, and then the gospel story is a new transparency over the top of it. So what’s possible is you can ignore or discard or be ignorant of all of those past versions of the story, and you can just read the latest layer, say in one of the gospels, and be blind to all of the allusions. And you can just read it straight up as it’s own stand alone story. But if the author has intentionally connected or woven or stitched this story to past stories, then we can’t be confident we’re getting the full meaning. There are times when we can’t even be confident that we’re getting any of the meaning or the right meaning at all, and actually to really get what the author’s to get, we’ll have to go and stack up all those layers and read them in conversation with one another.
Nate: Is this kind of like when we talk about Harry Potter as an example, and we say you could just jump into—and I haven’t read the Fantastic Beasts series at all, but—you could just read that book and enjoy it for what it is, but you can’t say that you understand the whole Harry Potter world and universe because you didn’t actually read the Harry Potter series.
Tim: It’s something like that, but I think when we say that, usually we mean, “If you didn’t read the beginning of the story, you just don’t know the background, the characters, how Harry ever got to Hogwarts,” that kind of stuff. You’re missing pieces of information that will set you up to misinterpret later pieces of information. This is an even more complex literary practice that would be more akin to, say if you read Shakespeare or some of the Greek tragedies, where you have clear archetypal motifs. So I’m actually reading a book of fiction now that’s kind of a play on Achilles and the Trojan War, and it is putting in this book one of the literary motifs that is very common in Greek tragedies, which is the idea that some characters and the audience has information about what’s going to happen in the future based on some prophecy or oracle, and all of the characters want to keep that event from happening, but their actions to keep that event from happening, like their own death or the death of someone they love, are ironically the very actions that bring them about. So that’s one motif; you can probably think of some Shakespeare plays, or some Greek myths or tragedies, that have that motif in them, and it’d be like every time you read a new version of that thing playing out, you’re supposed to go back and think about those other stories and what’s happened in those stories. And then, and this is where the Bible is really just different than anything else we’re talking about in terms of literature; it’s a canon of texts, right? And part of what I think having a canon of literature does is it emphasizes those connections. So when somebody writes a book about Achilles in 2016 or 2017 and is playing on ideas from Greek literature written a couple thousand years ago, there is a sense where the author expects that the readers will get those connections, but the author probably also knows that there are going to be a lot of readers that miss it. But if the author had published this new book on Achilles and all of Homer’s work like the Odyssey attached to it, literally, so when you buy your book you have to read Homer, read some of the Greek tragedies, and then read this new book on Achilles, then I think it’d be fair to expect that your responsibility to notice connections and to reflect on the connections is elevated. Right? It’s actually saying that this connects to this connects to this, and you can only understand one in context of the whole. You can’t just take a stand alone and try to read it for itself.
Nate: I think that’s really hard for a lot of people, because even when you say that, I’m like… If there was a book like that, as far as Homer’s work at the front and then you have this new work—I’m not smart enough, and I don’t think a lot of people are smart enough to make all those connections even with a book like that. And then if you’re saying the Bible is that plus other things that are going on as well, I think that’s really intimidating and really daunting, and I think that’s why, if we want to value the Bible and actually use the Bible, why people would go, “That’s not going to work. Let’s try to have it be something else that actually adds meaning to our life as well and value to our life that anyone can read.” I guess I’m just realizing how intense that sounds. Sounds like a ton of work. Not even like work that I know I could do but it’s daunting to think about doing it. I don’t know that even if I devoted my life to that, that my brain works in that kind of way based on the point in history I’m living in right now to be able to even do that.
Tim: Totally, I mean, we touched in the last episode that it can be disorienting to acknowledge how complicated the Bible is and how it’s meant to function, and there can be probably good justifications for trying to ignore all this stuff and simplify it down. One thing that’s provoked a lot of reflection in myself: we’ll get into what Paul is doing literarily later on, but in all of Paul’s epistles that we have in the New Testament, whether he’s writing to Jewish or Gentile audiences, he is constantly making subtle allusions to Old Testament that are meant to draw our minds back there. Now think about that. He’s writing to poor, oppressed, illiterate people who don’t have texts at home. They don’t have a Bible; they certainly don’t have a digital Bible to go look stuff up. And he’s writing to many of them who didn’t grow up with these texts, to Gentiles who, this stuff would be new to them. But the way he is writing is a way that is suggesting and implying, “If you don’t go and read these texts and reflect long on them, you won’t even know what I’m telling you about Christianity.” He’s loading all of these allusions in. Basically my point is that Paul’s expectation of the quality of reading and the kind of thinking and reflection that he expected of his audience blows away what we expect of our scholars and professors. One very quick and clear ramification of this ongoing conversation about how the Bible works is that the Bible expects us to be good readers, and it expects us to be growing in our capacity to think literarily, almost like literary critics, to draw literary, figurative, narrative meaning that is so much bigger and comes from more profound reflection than simply, “What does the Bible tell me? What is God saying to me to do? What are the doctrines? What are the rules? What are the la-di-da that I have to listen and follow?” It opens up this whole discourse of literary reflection that’s pretty new to most of us.
Nate: Hi friends, Nate here! Real quick, if you have any questions for this series or any other episodes that we’ve done, you can ask those at almostheretical.com. And then, we’re so thankful that a number of you help support our show, and if you want to do that as well, you can go to almostheretical.com and click on the Give button in the top right hand corner.
Tim: Let’s go through an example of reading the Bible with this layering in mind. A listener reached out with a question about Ananias and Sapphira. Should we read?
Nate: Yeah, I got it right here. It’s Marinna Dawn. She asked this on twitter. She said, “What are your thoughts on the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira? The problem with their choice is clear, but why the brutal punishment? I know God takes deception seriously but in this moment it sounds like he will murder to eradicate lying in the church.” And I this same question, too, because I’ve always heard this taught and I’ve taught this as we need to be really, really serious about how we approach God and whether we give all of our money or hold some back or all that kind of stuff, because He could strike you down with lightning at minute. Why is it—is it that? Or are we supposed to be seeing something else here? What’s going on?
Tim: Yeah. This is a good example of ways that reading one dimensionally, as if the book of Acts is not written in any kind of conversation with the Old Testament, and reading the book of Acts or the gospels as history—and we’ll have to cover this more in future episodes, I know this is a scary point for a lot of people—reading the books as history rather than literature… Now, I don’t mean that these aren’t true events, or that the things in the gospels or the book of Acts didn’t happen, but we’ve trained ourselves, it’s part of this framework around inerrancy, which is connected to the idea of reading it all literally, that we don’t think we’re supposed to read these as literature that would be using literary motifs. Here’s the thing: this story is one transparency placed on top of an entire stack of transparencies. So we actually have already mentioned Nadab and Abihu. So think about this. In Acts, you have this new community that has just experienced Pentecost, and you have the way Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is describing it is the people who are the disciples of Jesus are the new temple. They are the ones who God’s presence and Spirit has come to dwell in, and this new community is incredibly devoted to one another. That’s repeated twice in Acts 2 and Acts 4. And so what Ananias does, and his wife Sapphira is deemed complicit in, is an offense against this community, which is the new temple, and specifically against the devotion of this community. Everybody’s selling their things in an act of devotion to serve the poor amongst them, and Ananias and Sapphira break that devotion by lying and holding back for themselves some of what they make for the poor amongst the community. So we can just say, “Oh, yeah, God still kills people.” But let’s go deeper than that. What happens in Leviticus 10 with Nadab and Abihu that they get torched from heaven, essentially?
Nate: They brought the wrong, they’re the ones that brought the wrong fire, right? Or the wrong something?
Tim: Right. This Leviticus is the context of instituting the tabernacle and the whole system of worship, priestly worship, sacrifice, all that, so that God’s presence can be maintained amongst them in the tabernacle, which will eventually be in the temple. And essentially, Nadab and Abihu, who are Aaron’s sons, they’re the top priests, disobey God’s instructions for how to facilitate God’s presence in the tabernacle. They basically mess around with what the Old Testament deems is the most dangerous thing on earth, which is contact between God and humanity. They disobey and they mess with fire, basically, and they get burned for it. So this is kind of like an archetypal story of treating the sacred thing, the most sacred thing, contact with God’s presence, as light or even treating it in an offensive, sinful, unjust way. Remember I said that you were right to connect that with the story of Uzzah. But before we even get there, there’s another story in Joshua that seems to be playing off the same motif, where in Joshua 7 there’s a guy named Achan who stole some of the plunder. So they go out in a conquest of war—
Nate: Oh yeah, and then he hid it in the tent, right? They had to try to figure out where it was, and then they found it, and then he just died?
Tim: It’s this interesting play where it’s attaching both to the Joseph story where Joseph hid stuff in Benjamin’s bags, and it’s attaching to this story of Nadab and Abihu. So in context of Joshua, they’re told, “You’re going to go out to these wars, but do not plunder. Don’t take anything, people or objects, or cows and goats, from your enemies as goods to possess. They’re all to be devoted to destruction.” So it’s interesting, these things that they’re not supposed to take end up getting called a kind of devoted object; it’s almost like they’re sacred in the sense that they’re not supposed to touch them. Which has some clear parallels with how you’re not supposed to go into the presence of God and touch the ark. Achan ends up, it’s another one of these stories where he gets destroyed in this seemingly crazy act of God’s wrath. Why? Because he touched these off limits things. And then we get to the book of Samuel, or 1 and 2 Samuel, and it’s just loaded with allusions. It’s like this story of contact with sacred things and the way that people who contact it improperly are paradigmatic for getting on God’s bad side. So first, Eli is the new priest in the context, and there are very clear parallels between Eli’s two priestly sons and Aaron’s two priestly sons, Nadab and Abihu. And what happens to Eli’s sons? They end up getting on God’s bad side because they’re unjustly representing the priesthood. They have the sacred job to serve the people and they’re being unjust with it, and so they end up dying on the same day in this divine wrath. It’s a very clear echo of Nadab and Abihu. And then in 1 Samuel 6, first you have this event where the people look at the ark. Remember, the ark of God goes off, gets captured by the Philistines, and then they try to bring it back? So the ark is literally, it’s the thing that was in the tabernacle that Nadab and Abihu were overseeing in the first place, which is supposedly where God’s presence is dwelling, and these people are curious so they go look in it. The ark is just a box, by the way, so they go look in the box, and that’s another time where you see death and destruction and fire come down from heaven to torch people. They basically treated this sacred contact as casual, get torched for it. And then in the same chapter you have the story of Uzzah; seems like this poor dude. They decide to use the technology of a cart to help bring the ark back to Israel, and the cart wobbles, Uzzah goes to catch the ark from falling on the ground and is struck down for it. So again, you could read each of these stories on its own, but it seems very clear that this is a motif that’s being drawn out, that this realm of sacred space in which God dwells that is dangerous and it’s often encapsulated by fire, that is the motif. And the bigger picture idea is how humans interact with this presence of God. Okay? So to me, part one in understanding the story of Ananias and Sapphira is to say that the reason Luke has placed this story here is to make us think of what are the ways that the community of Christ followers, who have just received the Holy Spirit as fire, remember in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit comes as tongues of fire, in what ways is that community akin to the tabernacle or even akin to this box that God’s presence was living in? Okay, so before we get to, “Is God going to kill us at any moment if we do the wrong thing?” Just think of all the conversation we could have around, if Luke is trying to compare the community of the church to what the Old Testament likened to this ark of God that lived in this inner space within the tabernacle and the temple, that has a whole ramification of theological meaning, right? But he’s also equating Ananias selfishly looking after his own interests instead of devoting himself to the poor that are amongst the church community to basically the act of unjust or disobedient priestly work in the temple, like Nadab and Abihu or like Uzzah or like Eli’s sons. So then there you have this whole other conversation we could have of like, “Oh, whoa! What is the role or significance of sharing our wealth amongst other Christians, especially poor Christians, in the church community?” Luke seems to be putting this story here to say, to literarily compare being an unjust priest or a disobedient priest with being someone who takes care of yourself first rather than your neighbor in Jesus’ new community.
Nate: I love it all. I think that’s really good to draw out. I still think Uzzah got the short end of the stick. I’m sorry. In that case, maybe this isn’t even interpreting the Bible right, but he’s actually trying to help! He’s trying to make that a sacred thing by protecting it, whereas the other people weren’t. I don’t know, anyways.
Tim: No, but I hear you, but then I go, “Okay, why was that story ever written?” Was it written to be a stand alone story where we try to draw a moral principle from Uzzah getting killed? I don’t think it was. I think it was written in conversation with at least one if not two other stories that had already been taking place as a way of saying, “Look, this idea is getting rolled forward.” And when you see Uzzah touches something and gets zapped, you’re supposed to go back and think, “Oh, this is like what happened when the tabernacle was being set up. What does this mean? How do I now think of the whole story of Samuel and the building of the temple in Jerusalem? How do I think about that in new ways now, because I’m seeing the connection to other stories?” So we can think about the fact that Luke has God killing someone in the church and just think about that on its own and what that means. And this text has been used to push back against nonviolence; it’s been used to create pictures of a really wrathful, angry God; it’s been used to perpetuate massive amounts of fear in Christian people all over the world, right? My point is, is that even a fair reading, or do we need to see, maybe the reason this scene is put here is not to say God killed somebody primarily? It’s put here to attach it, to attach this story and the whole story that is being presented in the book of Acts, onto this past event, or onto these past stories.
Nate: Why though? Why though?
Tim: Okay, so here’s part two. Did you know there’s another Ananias in the book of Acts?
Nate: Uhhh… no, I don’t think so. I’d have to look again.
Tim: Okay, so here’s another piece. We’ll get into this in more detail later: names. There are some popular names. They’re in Second Temple period, so you see names like Joshua and Joseph often. I don’t know of any scholarship that says Ananias was a big name amongst Jews in the turn of the century. When you see two people with the same exact name in the same book just a few chapters away, that is very much a clue. These are being placed here in conversation with one another. So basically, Acts is telling the tale of two Ananiases. There’s a reason why Ananias is emphasized in the Ananias and Sapphira story. Sapphira, his wife, is basically framed as being complicit in it, but it’s mostly Ananias’ problem. That’s how it’s presented, and it’s because there’s another Ananias later in the book who basically functions symbolically and literarily as the opposite. So Ananias, remember he’s the one who gets this dream, and he’s supposed to go talk to Saul, or Paul, the guy who’s just been murdering all of the Christians, overseeing the executions? And he’s supposed to go talk to this guy in order to help him go through his conversion project. Do you remember that story?
Nate: Yeah, yeah. Okay.
Tim: So this guy Ananias is supposed to go to Straight street. I don’t think the point is that there was actually a street called Straight street! The point is, in the book of Acts, multiple times “straight” is a metaphor for being upright or righteous. So this guy Ananias gets called to go to Righteous street and risk his life—he literally thinks that Saul’s going to kill him because that’s what Saul’s been doing—risk his life to help bring another person into this new fellowship and community. So think about it: you have one Ananias who is presented as being a part of this self-giving community, it’s just coming in the context of everybody selling their things to help one another.
Nate: Who doesn’t give of himself.
Tim: Exactly, and he’s likened to the unjust priests or the disobedient priests who get shot down with fire from heaven. But he’s placed in literary juxtaposition with this other Ananias who will risk his own neck rather than protect himself. So if you’re not reading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in conversation with this other Ananias and in conversation with multiple strange Old Testament stories about God zapping people from heaven, then you’re honestly out on a limb just kind of guessing what this means. And then if you apply a rule about how we’re supposed to read this book literally, a rule that is foreign to the text itself, and all we come away with is, “Luke said this happened, and we just have to deal with the fact that this happened,” you actually are missing the entire point. So I think there are a lot of ways we can reflect on the meaning of Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira, but I’ll just say, if you’re not having the conversation on these two planes, seeing the way that this story is interacting with several other pieces, that it’s a part of a layered literary scheme, then your guess is as good as anybody else’s as to what Luke was actually trying to get you to think.
Nate: This is one more window into how the Bible works. Find out more about us and the series at almostheretical.com.