Past Imperfect

I am amazed almost every time I open the volume we call the Bible.  Of course, there is the great moral teaching.  There is the supernatural power of God.  There is the superhuman exercise of love.  But among the most amazing things to me is the imperfection.

Surely you can’t mean the Bible is imperfect! 

I didn’t say that.  My attention is turned to the imperfect people that are mentioned on practically every page.  The obvious ones are frequently cited as negative examples of what not to do or how not to live: the jealous Cain with his less that excellent sacrifice and more than indignant reaction to his brother, the disappointing siblings, Nadab and Abihu, the self-centered greedy couple, Ananias and Saphira, the pure antagonistic evil of Jezebel…the list could go on for pages of such dark and nefarious characters.

But what is really interesting about the Bible is that many people who are later identified as faithful have their moments of less than perfect behavior.  Lot was called “righteous” even though he settled in the seething cesspool that was Sodom.  Noah was a preacher of righteousness, yet after the flood, grew a vineyard, made wine, and got drunk.  Abraham was a liar.  Moses couldn’t follow direction and became rather prideful.  Rahab was called a harlot (which may or may not have been true), but she also lied to protect the spies as they surveyed Canaan.  David coveted, committed adultery, lied, and conspired to the murder of one of his officers, and he was called a man after God’s own heart.  Again, the list could go on.

Just recently, I was reading from the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.  Near the end of Jacob’s life, he calls all of his sons together to pronounce blessings—or at least judgments—on them. 

Gen 49:3  “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the firstfruits of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.  4  Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch!”

Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben was praised for strength, but condemned because he had slept with one of his father’s concubines.  That moment of weakness overshadowed the fact that Reuben was the brother who was trying to save Joseph and planned to return and rescue him from the pit where he had been tossed by the jealous brothers. 

Compare that to what Jacob said of Judah.

Gen 49:8  “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. 9  Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 10  The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. 11  Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. 12  His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.”

This is the same Judah that convinced his brothers to sell Joseph to the Midianites, who then sold him into slavery in Egypt.  This is also the same Judah who slept with his widowed daughter-in-law, Tamar and impregnated her, after he failed to give her to his young son, Shelah.  But he was deceived by Tamar, you might say.  Yes, Tamar was disguised as a cult prostitute in Enaim, but no moral, God-fearing man should have been visiting prostitutes, especially not one associated with some pagan idolatrous practice.

But Judah’s family was apparently not what most of us would call the “best of folks”, either.  Tamar’s husband, Judah’s firstborn son, Er, was evil, and God decided not to put up with him.  He put Er to death.  Tamar was given as a wife to Er’s brother, Onan, so that Onan would raise up an heir to Er, and this would provide for Tamar.  Onan decided to use Tamar sexually, but refused to father a child by her.  God was not pleased, and Onan paid the price for it.

When you read the genealogy of Jesus, Judah’s illegitimate son by Tamar, Perez, is listed.  And Solomon, was there, the son of David and Bathsheba (described in Matthew 1.6 as “the wife of Uriah”).

I mention these things not to undermine the grand story depicted in scripture.  These people were not great because of their mistakes and weaknesses and imperfections.  They were made great in spite of them.  Their stories were woven into the rich tapestry of the one who would come to save humankind from its weakness and imperfection. 

The Bible tells a grand story, but it is not in any way sanitized.  People were shown as they really were, indeed as they really are, “warts and all.”  In a sense, it is that tang of reality that lends greater believability to the Judeo-Christian scriptures than so many other sacred texts of so many other groups whose gods were mere copies of human vice and frailty, writ large against a sullen, imperfect sky.

That so much imperfection was used in the crucible from which the earthly life of Jesus was cast is by no means an endorsement of the poor behaviors demonstrated by the players.  Their records are maintained to show us that that which is perfect can arise from imperfection, Truth can arise from the ashes of deceit, and honor can spring from dishonor.  In the broadest of strokes, the sins of the past need not dictate the condition of the present or the future. 

I have become an admirer of some of the contemporary Christian singers and bands over the last few years.  One particularly accomplished group is Tenth Avenue North, whose song, “You Are More”, is on my mind as I write this essay.  In the refrain, they remind a young woman that her less than perfect past is not the sum of all that she is.

 “You are more than the choices that you’ve made,

 You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,

 You are more than the problems you create,

 You’ve been remade.” 

Then, after telling of the struggle she faces to put that past behind her, the song continues,

“’Cause this is not about what you’ve done,

 But what’s been done for you.

 This is not about where you’ve been,

 But where your brokenness brings you to


 This is not about what you feel,

 But what He felt to forgive you,

 And what He felt to make you loved.”

The Bible is full of imperfect people.  The world today is full of them, too.  People like us.  But by accepting the grace that has been extended to us, we can become what Peter called “partakers of the divine nature.”  Of course, that means we will change our focus from living for self to living for others and living for God.  That’s as good as it gets here, but it’s only a sampling of what will be when all things are made new; when all of creation sheds its shroud of mourning and is remade; when being a partaker of that divine nature is fully realized.  The grammar of the story will move from past imperfect, to future imperative, to present perfect in that grand and satisfying resolution.  The story may be long and complex, but the ending will be worth the wait.  Keep reading.