When I started reading Fire by Night, I expected the usual Old Testament topics: gore, war and law, with the author’s new insights. Or, might it be a book-by-book review from an Anabaptist perspective. Neither was correct.
In a confessional moment, author Melissa Florer-Bixler tells the reader what the book is not: 1) full of easy answers; 2) a reading strategy to get through the difficult sections; 3) an essential interpretive principle. (I would add that it is not a survey nor an in-depth research project.)
However, she promises this:
“I invite you to follow after God as Israel followed through the dark, God as the fire lighting the way, ablaze in awe and fear, wonder and hope. One metaphor for God in the Old Testament is fire. Unwieldly and uncontrollable, common and extraordinary, bringing life and death, at the same time a gift of life and a source of fear, making light and revealing hidden places, burning up and burning away. The Old Testament smells of smoke.”
On this promise, she makes good.
Open this book at nearly any page and there is a provocative sentence that grabs your attention. For example: “I have a penchant for biblical losers.” Florer-Bixler then goes into an extended discussion of the Amalekites through the Jacob and Esau saga. She gently but surely leads the reader through the generational wandering of the Amalekites. The focus on the Amalekites is not so much about that people, she says, as about the revelation of who God is.
Let’s try a tease about the drama of the Old Testament. Florer-Bixler writes: “Leviticus can come across as an oddity, a list of old and nonsensical rituals. The challenge for contemporary readers is to scrutinize the world of Leviticus for the places where social norms are dictated by healthy, Israelite males, where punishments are meted out unequally and where slavery is normalized. Leviticus invites us into a discipline for being disturbed by the right things.”
I was drawn to Florer-Bixler’s insights on Leviticus because they are so contemporary. Touching deeply on the sin of racism, she engages the reader in a scholarly and pastoral study of a book that gets quoted in current debates about the “mixing” of races and human sexuality. She offers a helpful clarifying history about holiness codes.
This idea was new to me: God of birds. Florer-Bixler writes: “With its wide expanses of crevices and cracks, the temple was ideal for an incursion of birds. It was in this vast space of the temple where birds made their nests that God’s life ran free.”
Reread that sentence: God as an expanse (that’s good); God as nesting bird (that’s new); God as temple spirit (that’s true); God as creature that flies into life’s spaces (that’s wonderful).
Florer-Bixler’s ability to capture a new metaphor in a few words is remarkable. She urges the reader to pay attention to Psalm 84 and then to birds. We follow her own discovery of birds in the Bible to a discussion of Christians in the Middle Ages and “books of nature,” called bestiaries. She uses the description of a crane, able to stay awake for long stretches of time, as an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ admonitions for the disciples to stay awake in the Gospel of Mark (13:35).
Florer-Bixler has written a book about God. She invites the reader to consider what it means to worship a God of reckoning, a God of darkness and a God of the table (as well as a God of birds). She also leads the reader into a theological reason for her Old Testament study, to an extensive look at Job and to pondering the mystery of the Trinity.
This book is a gift for thoughtful Christians tempted to dwell in the New Testament and zoom through the Old with nary a glance. Why do we miss two-thirds of the Bible? Florer-Bixler does not let us get by with a casual view of Bible study. Let’s get real and play with fire.
With footnotes to explore further, this book a great option for a Bible study class, youth or adults. The chapters sound like an excellent sermon that begs for conversation, even conversion.
Florer-Bixler is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, with degrees from Duke University and Princeton Theological Seminary.
A study guide would be a helpful addition to this excellent, accessible book.
Dorothy Nickel Friesen is a retired Mennonite pastor and denominational minister. Her book, The Pastor Wears a Skirt: Stories of Gender and Ministry, was published in 2018 by Wipf and Stock.