The King of Syria has finally gotten fed up. Elisha has been playing him for a fool, spoiling his efforts at conquest. Even from a remote distance, Elisha can see the king’s moves. With every re-positioning of troops, Elisha sends warning to the Israelite king and thwarts each strategy. Finally, the Syrian king gets fed up and sieges not the Israelite army, but the prophet himself, at his home in the town of Dothan.
Elisha’s servant awakes one morning to see that he and his boss are surrounded. Worried for his life, he brings the news to Elisha.
“Don’t panic now,” Elisha tells him. “There will be plenty of time for that later.” Then he prays, “O Lord, give my servant the vision that I have.” And the servant then sees that the God of Israel, the one who regularly shows up as fire, is surrounding them all, both Israelite and Syrian. God has arrived as fiery horses and chariots aflame. A different kind of army has shown up, and a different kind of fight will commence.
“The fiery God of the Exodus keeps leading us into unsettling territory, always aiming for our freedom.
“It will flame out,” Hopkins says of God’s grandeur. And even in the bright daylight, there it stands, twinkling as light across foil there in the countryside of Israel. God’s grandeur flames out for those with eyes to see. “It gathers to a greatness,” in surprising and unusual ways, ways that make a way out of no way.
Elisha has an uncommon vision. And having shared, through prayer, that same vision with his servant, he then prays that all of the Syrian army be blinded. He leads them through the countryside and into the gates of the capital city, Samaria. Elisha has brought them to their slaughter. Astounded at his good fortune, the Israelite king confers with Elisha: “Should I kill them now?”
“No, prepare a banquet for your enemy,” Elisha says. Truly the vision of God’s fiery army is changing Israel’s vision forever.
The whole episode plays with the idea of vision and sight. At issue, you might say, is the difference between seeing and having vision. The Syrians, for instance, or Elisha’s servant, move around the world with the aid of their eyes. But Elisha – the old seer, as the prophets were called – has vision. And as happens multiple times in the Bible, a vision of a fire out in the wilderness becomes a guide through both travail and victory.
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th-century English poet and Jesuit priest. “It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
In her excellent new book, Fire by Night: Finding God in the Pages of the Old Testament, author Melissa Florer-Bixler is at play with learning to see her own life, the life of the community where she is pastor, and the life of the God whose story is told in the Old Testament. She invites readers, over and over, into reading some key stories with her. She helps readers to see that the stories are reading us as well.
Early on in the book, speaking of the title character from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila, Florer-Bixler writes, “The Bible is unsettling because it knows Lila, and she knows it. It tells her story back to her in brutal and honest ways.” So it is with all of us who engage with the Bible. The fiery God of the Exodus keeps leading us into unsettling territory, always aiming for our freedom.
Among the gifts of Fire by Night is its patience. Each chapter walks unhurried into the inside of one text or story. There, Florer-Bixler shows us the cracks and the rough edges hovering around the words. He never shies away from them, nor does she panic faced with a difficult story. Instead, she offers memorable readings of troubling texts, like the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the Book of Job. And as the book explores the text, it also explores the world the text is speaking to. She has learned that joining in God’s liberative work in the world is an urgent matter, which makes the patient care of reading these faith stories all the more important.
Florer-Bixler draws on narratives from community organizing work in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she pastors, life in a L’Arche community, and paying attention to birds, among other things. These stories and others make plain how she has encountered the God of the Old Testament, the one who has engrafted Gentile Christians into God’s story of how to be free.
“At every moment, from the biggest stories to the smallest details, God awaits, calling in love.”
Florer-Bixler is not only a gifted reader of the Old Testament. She is also a superb writer. Her language crackles across the page. At times, it arrests readers with surprise or wonder, but always in service of the big story of God’s work in the world. Of the detailed instructions for life in the book of Leviticus, she invites us to receive a reminder that “God gets into everything.” Of those diverted from their work by the wonder of birds, she writes that they have been “distracted into tender regard.” At every moment, from the biggest stories to the smallest details, God awaits, calling in love.
“All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” Hopkins writes, but, “for all this, nature is never spent.” The fire still burns. Perhaps by surprise on a hillside. Or at night, while wandering through the desert. Or on the edge of the desert, where Moses learns that the work of liberation has begun, and that he is being written into the story. That wild fire burns still, always burns, ever pointing the way to freedom.
Those who still read these old, old stories find ourselves turning the edges of singed pages, walking together with ashen hands into a world still charged with flame.