A number of years years ago I was traveling with my family from Charlotte, North Carolina, to our home in Kentucky — a nine hour trip. My daughter, Ellie, was two-and-a-half years old, sitting beside me in her Fisher-Price car seat and doing pretty well for a little girl on a long trip. By Asheville, though, she had grown tired of the toys and games we had brought to keep her happy. With five and a half hours to go, she began to whine. In the rearview mirror my wife’s expression was panicked and pleading, “Do something. Anything!” So I began to tell a story.
“Once upon a time,” I said, “there was a fisherman who lived with his wife in a tiny shack by the sea. One day, as he was fishing, his line suddenly went down deep into the clear water, and when he brought it up again, he saw that he had caught a large flounder. The flounder said to him, ‘Please let me live. I’m not a flounder really. I’m an enchanted prince.’ What could the fisherman do in a case like that but let the flounder go?”
I drew the story out as long as I could. I made all the sounds. I embellished the details. For fifteen minutes I talked about a little brown dog that had nothing to do with the real story. The real story is fairly simple: When the man came home to his wife and told her about the talking flounder she scolded him for not making a wish. “Go back,” she said, “and ask the flounder to give us a nice cottage instead of this miserable shack.”
So the man went, and asked, and when he got back home he found a beautiful little cottage where the shack had been. “Good,” he said. “Let’s be happy.” Yet, it wasn’t long before the wife began to want more. “Go ask him for a castle,” she said. When she got that, she wanted to be Queen, and then Emperor, and then Pope, and finally nothing would satisfy her but to be like God. “Go ask the flounder,” she demanded, “to make me like God.” Her husband, miserable by now, did as he was told.
When he got back home that time, he found his wife waiting for him in the same tiny shack they had started in. And, as the story goes, they are living there to this day.
It took about an hour to tell it to Ellie, and when I was finished speaking I asked her what the story was about. “That you shouldn’t want too much,” she said, “and that you should be happy with what you have.” This time my wife’s expression in the rear-view mirror was not panicked, but amazed. Two-and-a-half years old! Imagine that!
Looking back on that experience I am impressed by two things: one is the power of story to communicate. If I had told Ellie, “you shouldn’t want too much. You should be happy with what you have,” she would have given me a blank stare. But in listening to the story she easily understood: “You shouldn’t want too much. You should be happy with what you have.” The second thing that impressed me is that she never interrupted the story to make me aware of a simple scientific truth: flounder cannot speak.
Early in the tale of the fisherman and his wife the listener must decide: “Will I let the flounder speak, and go on with the story, or will I stop up my ears and quit listening to such foolishness? Will I, for a moment, choose to live in a world where unbelievable things happen, or will I stay in this world, where the things that happen are only too believable?” For a child, it’s not much of a choice. Ellie and others like her will go with the talking flounder every time.
Those of us who are better educated, more suspicious, less child-like, however, might choose to spend our time on something more . . . sensible. We might rather look at Time magazine or listen to the evening news. We might choose to talk about investments and interest rates and health insurance. Then, when we get to a passage of the Bible like this one from 2 Kings, we might have trouble.
It’s a story about Elisha, the great prophet, the man of God. At the beginning of chapter 6 some of his apprentices decide that they need more living space and suggest clearing some land by the Jordan river for that purpose. “Good idea,” says Elisha. “Come with us,” they say. And so he went. While he’s there an axe-head slips off a borrowed axe and falls with a splash into the Jordan. The man who borrowed the axe is distraught. “What will I do? What will I tell the owner?” But Elisha asks, simply, “Where did it fall?” “Right there,” says the man, pointing. And then, according to the story, Elisha cuts off a stick, throws it in the water, and the iron axe-head floats to the surface. “Fish it out,” says Elisha. The man fishes it out. And that’s the end of the story.
Here’s a passage from the Bible that calls for a decision: will you let the axe-head float, or will you slam the book shut? Will you allow yourself, for a moment, to exist in a world where such a thing could happen, or will you shake your head and turn your attention to something in the real world that makes more sense? It’s a question that must be asked when reading the Bible, because on almost every page there is something that will strain your credulity and force you to choose. It’s a strange place, this world of the Bible. It is a place filled up with demons and lepers, magicians and miracles. If you’re going to travel far in this world you will need to leave the burden of your disbelief behind.
Some people don’t. Some struggle through these sacred pages with disbelief pulled along behind like a plow, its sharp point catching on every stump, root, and rock in the text. When they get to a passage like this one they come to a complete stop, panting: “Axe-heads don’t float. Axe-heads don’t float.” And then they either turn back altogether, or begin to rework the story until it works for them, bulldozing the biblical landscape in the process. One commentator suggests that what really happened here “maybe that Elisha with a long pole or stick probed about the spot indicated until he succeeded either in inserting the stick into the socket, or, having located the hard object on the muddy bottom, moved it until the man was able to recover it.” It’s not a bad explanation, but it answers the wrong question.
The real question in this passage (as in most passages in the Bible) is not how the axe-head floated, but why. What does a floating axe-head teach us about God, or about ourselves? Why would the author think it was important to include this story? In this case Elisha is seen as a person through whom the power of God is visibly at work. Before such power even the laws of nature bow down. An iron axe-head swims up from the riverbed to pay its respect. What the story tells us is that our God is an awesome God, and that His power may even be found in such a poor excuse of a man as Elisha, who is most often referred to in these narratives as “the man of God.” To spend much time arguing about whether or how an axe-head might have floated is to miss the point. It is like wondering if the croaking of a flounder could be mistaken for speech.
To read these stories with understanding, then, we must let the flounder speak, let the axe-head float. Only then will we begin to answer the right question. Not the modern, Western question — How? — but the older, deeper question, the Hebrew question, the child’s question — Why? Why did God create the heavens and the earth, not how. Why was the Red Sea parted, not how. Why was Christ raised from the dead, not how. “Unless you turn and become like children,” Jesus said, “you will never see the Kingdom of God.” Why? Because it will be obscured behind all those grown-up questions; it will vanish before all those stern judgments about what is real and what is not. While we go dragging the plow of our doubt over the bumpy ground of the Bible our children will be racing through its fields, smelling its flowers, swimming its streams. They will find a richness of experience there that we will never find if we cannot unbuckle the harness and leave our doubt behind.
It is not my intention to dismiss the important and fruitful work of critical scholarship, but to remind us again that one of the reasons we love the Bible is that it speaks to us of a place where anything can happen, and of a God who can make it so. As we travel through the world of the Bible we discover many things more amazing than floating axe-heads. We watch a universe spring forth from nothingness, an empty sea fill up with life. Grass, trees, flowers spread across a barren landscape like color coming back into the cheeks of a sick child. We witness the birth of humanity, the death of innocence, the spread of sin, the flood of judgment. Burning bushes, parting seas, bread from heaven, water from a rock. Virgin birth and misconceptions. Crucifixion. Resurrection. In a world like that you might begin to believe that anything could happen for you, too. That wrongs could be made right, that last could wind up first, that death could lead to life. And you might come from that world to this one believing, with the stubbornness of a two and-a-half year old, that there are some things too good not to be true. And by the power of God, to your surprise and delight, you might live happily ever after.