Melissa Florer-Bixler’s book Fire by Night: Finding God in the pages of the Old Testament is a must read for Christians who struggle to make sense of or to find meaning in the Hebrew scriptures. Though her theological and Biblical interpretation skills are clearly evident, Florer-Bixler writes in a wonderfully accessible, narrative style that I thoroughly enjoyed. There is a lot to chew on from this book, and she makes the texts that she expounds on in each chapter come alive thus piquing my curiosity to know more. I’m left with the impression from reading her book that she is undoubtedly an excellent preacher as well. (If this latter sentence shocks you, please know it wouldn’t have shocked Jesus or Paul at all despite what some interpolations and inauthentic writings would have us believe. See: Help Wanted: No penis required)
Like a well crafted and expertly delivered sermon, Fire by Night is infused with personal anecdotes, historical background information, and parallels between the stories in the texts and our postmodern lives. After reading the book, I have been inspired to dig deeper into these complicated texts that I have personally often overlooked in my own somewhat sporadic reading of the Bible in favor of delving deeper into the New Testament. Florer-Bixler’s description of God as revealed through the sacred Hebrew scriptures was the seed for that inspiration to dig deeper into the richly varied Hebrew texts:
The Old Testament offers a different picture of God. The arc of God’s story with the people of Israel is consistent – humans mess up and God is relentless in forgiveness and grace. Over and over Israel makes promises they cannot keep. Over and over again God is faithful. This narrative unfolds within the gritty details of vengeful, murderous, and at times disarmingly beautiful human lives. (25)
Florer-Bixler does a masterful job of contextualizing the texts that make up what Christians call the Old Testament both in providing social-historical context and in her descriptive language. “I can feel that dry heat blistering the words of Leviticus. They are written for a desert people who know want and survival, a people on the run. They are words that prepare them for a life they do not yet possess, a way of life that is yet to be.” (41) As Americans, we are worlds away from that brilliant description of blisteringly dry heat and life lived on the margins in harsh environs with a variety of enemies to beset us. The relevancy for today’s readers though is clear: “Leviticus invites us into a discipline to be disturbed by the right things.” (42) Those disturbing things are being forcibly thrust into our awareness now as the pandemic continues to ravage the nation and the sin of systemic racism and police brutality is on hideous display in cities across the country. (See: The Corona Apocalypse and Dear white people…).
Like the scriptures she is interpreting, Florer-Bixler pulls no punches in reminding herself and us of our complicity in systems of oppression that we are each “caught up in,” (60) and also that God as revealed in scripture, “can open our eyes, help us to see, and lead us to a new people, a new future, and a new world.” (69) That process of revelation starts in the very beginning of our Bibles in the book Christians call Genesis according to Florer-Bixler. Her description of what is happening when God creates humanity is both unsettling and wondrously reassuring at the same time due to humanity’s inability to pin down a God that is imminent and elusive. In contrast to the other gods of the Ancient Near East, who reflect the harshness and violence of that time and place, Israel’s God stands apart:
In Genesis, something else happens. God sets down human beings as a seal, an emblem of love. People become the image of God’s love, others revealing this love because love requires others. Our lives happen inside of this love, inside of a God who is love within God’s self, where creation echoes back that life is a response to being loved. The world is a gift, you are a gift, we are gifts to one another. It’s the story we tell to each other, this creation story, to say: “You were put here in love, to love, becasue you are God’s beloved.” What we have is a story where God slips into view and out again, known and unknown.
This book moved me to tears at multiple times with its explication of scripture and the personal stories the author shares. It inspired me and has stimulated my intellectual curiosity, giving oxygen to an ember that has been nearly extinguished in recent months by the events we are collectively living through at this moment. Florer-Bixler’s words are compelling, thought provoking, and important. It’s unlikely I would have known about her work had it not been for the modern miracle that is social media. I am grateful for the grace that courses through each chapter that reminds me that I am enough just as I am right now in God’s eyes. I am grateful for a better understanding and fuller, though necessarily incomplete, picture of who God is. In these days of civil unrest and pandemic, these reminders and epiphanies are a boon to my heart, mind, and body. Thank you Melissa.
Buy the book here: Fire by Night
For more see: Melissa Florer-Bixler