|In Praise of Biblical Trivia
I understand that the hugely popular parlor game, Trivial Pursuit,
despite still selling at a rate of tens of millions of units each year, more than
two decades after its invention, is at last in decline. Well, I have good news
for those who still appreciate the allure of this icon of American culture. Those
who are drawn to the pursuit of trivia, can take heart,
as there is plenty of it in the Bible.
- What Old
Testament prophet called out the wild bears to maul a
group of teens who had mocked his bald head?
- What biblical leader asked for the
payment of 100 Philistine foreskins in exchange
for permission to marry his beautiful daughter?
- Who introduced the practice of the
holy kiss within the worship of the early church?
- Why is it true to say that the oldest
man in the Bible died before his father?
submit that there is a serious purpose that was served by Trivial Pursuit in its
time, and is still well served by the Bible. One's
fascination with trivia can be an effective cure for one of our more serious social
problems, one of our dire addictions. In
so many ways we are addicted to the superlative. We are habituated to the puffed‑up,
the self-important, and the over-stated. We unthinkingly opt for the weighty and
the overblown, relegating the ordinary and the commonplace to the realm of the
addiction to the superlative effects almost every realm
of our lives. Whereas we formerly went to the movies to
see stars and starlets, now people want to see the superstars. Whereas
we used to admire heroes and heroines, now there are a host of superheroes.
take a walk through the isles of your local supermarket. Today it's
almost impossible to find the small size in almost
anything. From soap to peanut butter, it seems that everything starts
with the large, and then proceeds by leaps and bounds to the giant, the gigantic,
and the gargantuan. With the growth in popularity of the SUV and its metamorphsis into
the Hummer, even in a time of global warming, one can see that our addiction can
have dire consequences for the entire planet.
it seems that everything and everybody
in this culture is put forward as the brightest and the best, the new and the
newest of the new, the famous and the most famous. So much so
that our very language is being debased.
an antidote to this runaway tradition of the superlative, I invite you to lend
me your ears while we study some of the least important
characters in the Bible. It is from the smallest detail, and the most insignificant
names, dates and places that the greatest lessons
are frequently to be learned.
the Bible has its superheroes, and we are familiar with many of them. We remember
Moses parting the waters of the Red
Sea, or David killing Goliath, and of course we remember Jesus. The
story of his life, death, and resurrection may well be the greatest story ever
told. But we shall not understand the Bible if we remember only the brightest
and the best. If we harken after the heroes and superheroes of the scriptures,
we are likely to miss out on its real meaning. God works in a mysterious way,
all wonder to behold. And the glory of God is revealed in the diminutive, the
ordinary and the obscure. As the apostle Paul put it:
let us turn the superlative against itself, by telling
the story of the least important, the most completely forgotten characters
in all the Bible.
our fast moving and modern world we are all too willing to include even the most
worthy human beings among the forgotten, and the Bible can be a much needed
antidote to our forgetfulness. You see the writers of the Bible knew that
memory is one of the strongest links we have to health and sanity. They went to
great extremes in providing little tricks to help people remember the most obscure
names, dates and places. For example, we have these long genealogies, these long,
long lists of names tracing the history of humankind all the way back to Adam.
there is Adam, and then Cain, and Cain knew his wife and
she conceived and bore Enoch. To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father
of Mehujael, and Mahujael was the father of Mathuselah.
Of course, many of us remember Methuselah, for he appeals
to our sense of the superlative. He is reported to have lived 969 years,
and is well remembered as the longest living person in the world. But you
probably don't remember Methuselah's son
Lamech, for he lived a mere 777 years. True enough, anyone who lived 777 years
in modern times would be counted among the superstars for sure. But in biblical
perspective, a mere seven centuries pales to insignificance.
there is some more tantalizing trivia that helps us remember Lamech. He was the
very first polygamist, for he had two wives, Adah and Zillah. Now Adah
is taken from the Hebrew word meaning brightness, and Zillah for the word meaning darkness. So Lamech found himself with a wife for whatever
mood he was in, a wife for his brightness, and
another wife for his days of darkness and depression.
a more serious note, it's interesting
that there have been whole sects and splinter groups throughout
the history of the church who have remembered Lamech so well that they have used
him as a precedent to establish polygamy in their own communities, the Mormons
being the most familiar of these groups in our own history. But the biblical
writers were not setting up Lamech as a hero and certainly they did not
intend that we take him as a modern day superhero.
the contrary, they were trying to show that God can use even the most flawed and
fallible creatures to good purpose, that God's
plan unfolds even in the lives of the most obscure, the most ordinary people.
the Bible is chock-a-block full of these aids to memory, these tools to help us
rescue the most insignificant characters from oblivion. There are the lists, and
there's the alliteration, the rhyme and the word play. Adah
and Zillah, for example, or the two brothers, Buz and Huz, who are remembered
through their descendants, the progeny of Buz were called the Buzites, and the
descendants of Huz were, you guessed it, the Huzites.
there's the memorable phrase or sentence that tells a story
in such a succinct and memorable way that we simply can't forget it. For example, in the fifth chapter of
Genesis we learn about the one man in the Bible who entirely avoided death. In
Genesis, chapter five, this sentence appears, "Enoch walked with God, for
God took him." The idea being that Enoch was such a holy man that we was "translated" directly
into heaven without tasting death. Later writers came to refer to this miracle
as the "translation of Enoch."
One suspects that his name is included in the biblical genealogy in large part
to show that the patriarchs were not an entirely
worthless bunch, and that God had some useful material to work with in shaping
the course of human history.
many of the characters in the Bible are best remembered for their spectacular
failures. Like Noah, the supposedly righteous one who gets roaring drunk on the
first night after the ark has landed, seemingly mocking God's wisdom in choosing him as head of the only family
in the world deserving enough to be saved from the general destruction of the
there's one of my personal favorites, Ahitopel; though he
was known during his lifetime as the smartest man in the world, it's his downfall that sets him apart from the crowd.
Ahithopel was an advisor to king David, a counselor who
rendered such good advice that it was widely believed his word was tantamount
to an oracle directly from God. Unfortunately, he became an ally of David's son, Absolom, who led a rebellion against the aging king. Ahithopel had devised a brilliant,
sure fire plan for the overthrow of the kingdom, but his advice was not followed
by Absolom, and the rebellion ended in failure. Wise enough to see his own
fate written in blood, Ahithopel went home, set his affairs in order, and hanged
himself. His suicide bears eloquent testimony to
the rule that intelligence alone is no guarantee of success.
Then, of course, there are the equally insignificant
characters in the New Testament.
too begins with yet another list of names, this time it's
the genealogy of Jesus. It begins on the very first page of the gospel according
to Matthew. "This is the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the son of David, the son of Abraham. And Abraham was the father
of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob,
and Jacob the father of Judah, and so
on down through the generations in strict biblical tradition, it is a list of
male names, all males in the genealogy of Jesus, with just three crucial
is first Mary the mother of Jesus, certainly no trivial player in the story of
Jesus. And second, there is Ruth. Since an entire book of the Bible is devoted
to telling her story, I can't list
Ruth among the most obscure. Third, and clearly the least known among the women
in Christ's ancestry is Rahab, the
prostitute, who practiced her trade in ancient
a common prostitute is specifically singled out for inclusion
in the genealogy of Jesus again underscores the belief that God can use
even the forgotten and the despised to accomplish what is truly unforgettable.
then there is Mary. There are six Mary's
mentioned in the New Testament and I have taken
the most forgettable from this long list. The most insignificant Mary is
not the mother of James, mentioned several times
in the gospels, not Mary the sister of Martha who gained stardom by sitting
at the feet of Jesus while her self‑righteous sister served dinner,
not Mary Magdalene, nor Mary the mother of Jesus, no, the most insignificant
Mary is simply mentioned in passing by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:
"Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you."
any leader knows, fair tribute needs to be given to those who may be completely
forgotten, who never grab the headlines, who do not seek the limelight or
the praise, but who are always found in the background, working hard. We
know very little about this Mary. We have no idea what she looked like; she
is not remembered as one of the most beautiful; she is not ranked among the
brightest and the best, yet she too has a place in God's plan for creation. She may have been counted among
the most trivial of all the characters in the Bible, yet she, and all of these like her, are of infinite value in
the eyes of God.
so likewise, the next person on my list, he is so insignificant
that his name is not even mentioned in the Bible. He is referred to simply
as, "the beloved disciple."
Yet he was perhaps the closest friend that Jesus
ever had. We see him at the last supper, next to Jesus as the Lord
was about to be betrayed, and again at the crucifixion, when Jesus needed someone
to look after his mother and he entrusted Mary into the care of this forgotten
one so that "from that hour he took her into his own home."
his name is not counted among the apostles. Surely this forgotten friend of Jesus
belongs on my list. He should be rescued from the ranks of the forgotten in spirit
if not in name.
last but not least, is the little know prophet,
the least famous among all the prophets of the Bible, the one named Agabus.
Unlike some of the more famous disciples of Jesus, Agabus did not perform miracles.
Unlike the superstars of the Hebrew Bible, he did not have a whole book written
in his name. His name is remembered simply because
in a time of famine, he urged that the church at
Antioch send relief supplies of food to the Christians
who were starving in Judea.
story of Agabus is seldom told, and his name is not remembered by most Christians,
yet his story may well set the pattern for Christian service in our time and place.
He did not work miracles, but he did recognize
that the gospel calls us to serve the real needs of real people, sometimes
in the most basic, down to earth ways, like feeding the hungry. So
last, but not least, I would like to rescue Agabus from the realm of the forgotten,
for in day when people hanker after the superlative and the spectacular, he
is one of the most worthy of remembrance.
list of names ends where it began, from Addah to Zillah, from Lamech to Mary,
the work of God can be seen not only in the lives of the celebrities, the stars
and the superstars; the works of beauty and grace are not accomplished alone
by the brightest and the best, but God works in a mysterious way, so that
the forgettable becomes unforgettable, the trivial becomes crucially important,
and those who are ignored and forgotten in the histories of this world, are never
forgotten by God.
us give thanks to God. For though you or I may not be counted among the smartest,
the strongest, or the best of all people, still God counts each and everyone of us as having value beyond all recokoning and compare.