Detective Stories from the Bible

Detective Stories from the Bible

by J. Ellsworth Kalas

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When we think of a detective story, we often think of murder mysteries. But the Bible contains some different kinds of detective stories. How is it, for instance, that some of the key personalities in the Bible story slip into the story almost unnoticed—like Judah, for example, an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ. How did the symbolism of blood in

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When we think of a detective story, we often think of murder mysteries. But the Bible contains some different kinds of detective stories. How is it, for instance, that some of the key personalities in the Bible story slip into the story almost unnoticed—like Judah, for example, an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ. How did the symbolism of blood in Communion get started? When Cain was warned that the ground would no longer yield for him because he had killed his brother—did that set a precedent for connecting moral behavior with environmental harshness? These themes and many others are investigated in this study, accompanied by a discussion guide.

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Detective Stories from the Bible

By J. Ellsworth Kalas

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4267-0256-3

Chapter One


When someone discovers a corpse and it's clear that the death is not by a natural cause, the trained inspector then determines if the death is by suicide or murder. If the signs point rather surely to a murder, the detective begins seeking clues that will lead to the perpetrator—or the perp, as crime writers and television cops like to say. The same rule applies to theft, assault, or those sometimes subtle violations of the law that we identify in that more sophisticated category called "white-collar" crimes: you know that somebody must have done it.

By the way, if you figure that white-collar crime (such a nice name, isn't it!) doesn't quite fit into our story because there's usually no blood at the crime scene, only a meticulous spreadsheet—well, let's just say that it's eerily appropriate that we refer to financial losses as "red ink." If your resources are wiped out, that red ink looks like blood flowing at the bottom of the page. And sometimes, as you know, it even leads to blood, whether in a murder or a suicide. (And while I'm thinking about it, it occurs to me that Jesus attacked what might be called "white-collar sins"—the thoughts and intents of our hearts—more than he did the more obvious sins. That's probably worth thinking about some more.)

Anyway, whatever the crime, we want to know who is responsible, because only then can we bring the perpetrator to justice. And also, not so incidentally, only then can we get the person off the streets before still more harm is done. Sometimes—perhaps even most of the time—the perpetrator moves from one victim to another. We have a term for it if the crime is murder: serial killer. And if the crime is fraud, sometimes the thief simply moves from one victim or community or industry to another, leaving behind a trail of broken people and bankrupt businesses.

There's no use in my trying to be subtle. You want me to get to the point. All of us know that something malevolent is loose in our world. And it's been this way for a long time. How long? Well, if it's murder we're talking about, the Bible would take us all the way back to the first family, where murder came to birth between siblings Cain and Abel. And if it's white-collar crime, you can go back almost as far to another family scene, where a younger brother, Jacob, swindled his older twin, Esau.

But when we look for the perpetrator, we slowly realize that the story is older than either of these crime scenes. Cain and Jacob are really pretty small potatoes. There's somebody more involved, because this is a much bigger deal than a murder here or a fraud there. There's something twisted right at the heart of things. All of us know it, and from as far back as we can imagine, the human race has known it and has sought a name for it. We know there's some master perpetrator, some evil genius at work beyond our imagining, a mind so conscientiously evil that we see evidences of his activity everywhere, in every part of the world, in every culture, and without regard for race, sex, age, or color.

We have a name for him—several names, in fact. Satan. The devil. The serpent. Lucifer. Beelzebub. Belial. In more recent times, Mephistopheles. And, of course, nicknames have developed too, because anybody as familiar as this character is tagged with names that make him more manageable, like Old Nick or Old Scratch. Which is to say, if we were to post a villain's description in a plan for apprehending, we'd have a long list of aliases. And of course I've stuck pretty much to the language of the biblical world and the Western world, and haven't even approached the names you'd find in some cultures of Africa, South America, Asia, or the islands of the sea. I suspect, however, that we'd find appropriate names in all of those places, with definitions basically not too different from our own.

As I see it the most descriptive name is the basic biblical term—the adversary. That is, the ultimate perpetrator; the one who really has it in for us; the one who wants most to discomfit, disrupt, disassemble, and destroy us. The adversary. The one so much against us that when passing adversaries appear on the scene, even so transient and unimportant as the person who crowds ahead of us in the checkout line, we figure the devil has had something to do with it. That's why we laughed so readily a generation ago when a comedian developed a character who always excused her conduct by saying, "The devil made me do it." The comedian made us feel better about the little acts of nastiness that seem to mark most of our lives at one time or another: we can say that somebody gave us a push. The language gives an almost cozy, playful quality to the villain.

And "villain" is of course the right description. The human story is so ideal, almost impossibly so, until this villain appears. The man and the woman—let's call them Adam and Eve—are so happy that the man says, "At last! This is what I've been waiting for: bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23, paraphrased). They're both naked, but they're so comfortable with themselves, with each other, and with their total environment (we call it Eden: paradise) that there's no shame. Shame is something you feel only if you're uncomfortable for some reason or other, and there was nothing here to destroy comfort.

But then came the villain. He didn't look it. But the writer tells us, flat out, that he is "more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made" (Genesis 3:1). He's so crafty, in fact, that—well, you've heard the old line about the salesman who could sell refrigerators to people in the Arctic? This character moved into perfection and convinced the man and the woman that he had something that would improve on perfection—something heretofore lacking, so that the persuasive villain's offer would put all other wonders in the shade. He put up one small minus sign that made all the pluses of paradise seem a deficit.

The writer of Genesis doesn't give this villain a name. The writer simply refers to him as "the serpent." But when we get to the end of the story—or perhaps I should say, to the beginning of the endless-end of the story—the writer of Revelation picks up the same name. He calls this villain "the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan" (Revelation 20:2, italics added).

But I'm not intending to give anything away by hurrying you to the end. While there's something very comforting about the end, we're still dealing with the perpetrator right now, and it seems clear that we'll have to do so as long as this earth is in its present state. So let's pick up the story where we left off.

After Adam and Eve bought the serpent's offer, they lost their home. They were left with zilch. Not only were they put out of their home, they were put out of the whole lovely Eden, and the door was locked so they'd never get in again. The only thing they had left, which they conveniently passed on to us, was a memory of what life in Eden had been like. Thus we humans keep thinking things should be better than they are, and we keep dreaming about levels of happiness that no one has ever experienced—at least not for more than a fleeting moment—but that we somehow think must be possible. And worse, it is a perfection that we want to pursue, because the instinct for such happiness is somewhere in our souls, a lost chord that some inner ear keeps trying to identify.

Now here's a predicament. We're introduced early to this disturber of our tranquillity, after which he seems to go underground—though there's continuing evidence of his activity. We have a murder as the story unfolds: the older son in this infamous first family (Cain) kills his younger brother (Abel). But there's no mention of the serpent. You get the feeling that, having posted some ineradicable venom in the human race, the serpent can now slide along his way exercising little effort of his own because humans are doing the job for him. It gets so bad, in fact, that the epic historian says that "the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5).

Mind you, goodness kept reasserting itself, no matter how rampant the odds against goodness. But here's the rub: even the residents of virtue are not immune to the evil that has been let loose. So Noah, a perfect man in his generation, is hardly off his redemptive voyage before he humiliates himself in a drunken stupor. And Abraham, the repository of hope, lies about his beloved Sarah, putting her in danger. And Jacob, one whom God seemed especially to bless, cheats his brother and deceives his father.

But I'm getting ahead of my story, because you want to know how this serpent, this villain—the one we call the Adversary—you want to know where he (or it) got its start.

If possible, I'd just as soon not get into this part of the story, because it's all so speculative. But I have no right to skirt the subject. I like the language of that seventeenth-century detective John Milton: "... what time his pride / Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host / Of rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring / To set himself in glory above his peers, / He trusted to have equaled the Most High." In brief, Milton saw the Adversary as a creature who had once been part of the heavenly host but whose pride caused him to organize a group of rebel angels, expecting someday "to have equaled the Most High."

Milton had built his idea around the insights of a much earlier detective, the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of the "Day Star, son of Dawn" who had "fallen from heaven" after saying, "I will ascend to heaven; . . . I will make myself like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:12-14). And Milton no doubt found help in some other able early detectives—like Origen (A.D. 185–254), Jerome (ca. A.D. 347–420), and Augustine (A.D. 354–430) to name just a few. Augustine acknowledged that Isaiah was speaking of the King of Babylon, but that "of course" those references were "to be understood of the devil."

Now of course you find this rather vague. You want a sharper description of the perpetrator, and because he seems to be a criminal hardened beyond change with a record that stretches across all of human history, you want to know what made him like this. And since such hard data is lacking, we tend to resort to language that obfuscates rather than reveals. That's what another pretty good detective, novelist Flannery O'Connor, warned against. "Our salvation," she wrote to John Hawkes (November 20, 1959) "is played out with the Devil, a Devil who is not simply generalized evil, but an evil intelligence determined on its own supremacy."

Madeleine L'Engle offers a similar clue: "Evil is not simply the absence of good, as some say, but a positive force for evil. It is trying to snuff out the light." She points out that Lucifer, who was meant to be a light-bearer, became instead the source of all evil because he wanted to be the light. And Kathleen Norris, that sensitive observer of our contemporary scene, reminds us that this malevolence invades even sacred places. "Evil is real," she writes, "and not theoretical. Scratch the surface of any ordinary church congregation and you will find not hypocrites but people struggling with demons."

But let's turn to the ultimate authority on the Adversary, the One so opposite in nature that he could read Satan's nature with utter clarity. Listen: "He [Satan] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). Tough language, especially coming from Jesus. Jesus made the point in a story about a landholder who sowed good grain in his field, "but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat." When the corrupted field revealed itself, the owner's workers asked how such a thing could have happened. The landowner replied, "An enemy has done this" (Matthew 13:24-30). Enemy is the right word. Martin Luther, in the hymn for which he is best known, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," referred to Satan as "our ancient foe" who "seek(s) to work us woe." So Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns against thinking of the devil as "a convenient metaphor for extreme wickedness" or "a kind of symbol" or an "externalization of inner conflicts." He is "not a symbol from our conscious imaginings, but something that waits for us."

I pause too at Jesus' story of a farmer who is sowing seed. Some of the seed (which, Jesus explains, represents the word of the kingdom) falls on the pathway, and almost immediately "the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart" (Matthew 13:19). This is the primary business of "the evil one," to prevent us humans from accepting the redeeming message. Since he is the "father of lies," nothing disturbs him more than the prospect of our getting the truth. Most of us recognize the Adversary best when he comes in the form of disaster or trouble or pain. But for our Adversary, these are only means to an end. The goal of the Adversary is to keep us from truth. Because, of course, the ultimate goal of our enemy is to keep us. The truth will set us free. We must therefore, by all means, be kept from the truth.

Three of the Gospels tell us of Jesus' particular encounter with the Adversary, and Luke—whose report is the longest—concludes by saying that the devil "departed from him until an opportune time" (Luke 4:13). As I read the gospel stories about Jesus, I suspect that there were "opportune times" without end. In my mind, the most instructive element in this story is in the very fact that the Adversary dared to approach Jesus, and did so repeatedly. Here we have a measure of the arrogance of our enemy and of his unceasing ambition. Having lost his place in the heavenlies because of his prideful rebellion (as Isaiah and his interpreters tell the story) but having then succeeded in ruining Eden and setting up a beachhead on all human souls, the Adversary obviously saw no reason he could not also seduce God's Son, now that the Son was made vulnerable by inhabiting human flesh.

If the Adversary is so arrogant as to approach Jesus, we shouldn't be surprised that he constantly harasses us. After all, each time the Adversary wins some measure of victory in your life or mine, he has mocked the sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary. I suspect that the greatest saints are those persons who are most sensitive to the fact that they have an enemy and that they have the power from Christ to cope with that enemy. But they have also learned that they need help in dealing with this Adversary.

This is a sharply abbreviated biography. There's so much more that could be written. The documents from any given day on our planet would pack solid the average county courthouse. The Adversary's crimes range all the way from murder and betrayal and incest and child abuse—the evils that we most easily abhor—to ennui (such a subtle foe!) and normal greed ("I've got my rights," we say) and arrogance and unseemly pride. And of course we have to remember that all of us find it nearly impossible to tell the difference between seemly and unseemly pride. That's why the great Augustine—who knew a good deal by experience about sin—insisted that "pride is the beginning of all sin."

I should tell you that this Ultimate Perpetrator will eventually be apprehended. Justice will be done. The report was so real to the writer of Revelation that he tells it as something already done: "the devil" (John notes again that he is a deceiver) is "thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10). Incidentally, I'm glad that the book of Revelation ends not on this graphic note of destruction but with a description of the beauties of the new heaven and the new earth, and God's invitation to "everyone who is thirsty" to come (Revelation 22:17).


Excerpted from Detective Stories from the Bible by J. Ellsworth Kalas Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

J. Ellsworth Kalas (1923-2015) was the author of over 35 books, including the popular Back Side series, A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament, Strong Was Her Faith: Women of the New Testament, I Bought a House on Gratitude Street, and the Christian Believer study, and was a presenter on DISCIPLE videos. He was part of the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary since 1993, formerly serving as president and then as senior professor of homiletics. He was a United Methodist pastor for 38 years and also served five years in evangelism with the World Methodist Council.

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