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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?

I 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 forgotten.

This 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.

Just 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.

Today 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.

As 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. 

Yes, 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:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame what is wise; God chose what is regarded weak by the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised, even the things  that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are.

So let us turn the superlative against itself, by telling  the story of the least important, the most completely forgotten characters in all the Bible.

In 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. 

First 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.

And 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.

On 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.

On 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. 

So 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.

Then 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.

Actually, 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 flood.

And 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. 

It 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 exceptions.

There 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 JerichoThat 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.

And 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."  

As 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.

And 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."

Yet 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.         

Finally, 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

The 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.

My 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.

Let 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.  Amen.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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