Text, Tragedy, and Transformation

What are Bible stories, and how do they communicate?

Deceptively simple, these questions have lain at the heart of my relationship with God for as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, I wanted to know what Bible stories mean, especially when so many of them seem (at a glance) to depict situations and behaviors that regular people are likely to regard as strange at best or morally repugnant at worst.

Nevertheless, through a series of unexpected twists, my doctoral work wound up focusing on biblical poetry rather than on biblical narrative. As the project unfolded, I fell deep within the pages of Isaiah—Scripture’s fifth gospel—and there developed an abiding love for the soul-stabbing rhetoric of the biblical prophets in general. Isaiah’s theological dagger seemed to penetrate my heart at every turn, exposing my abject need for God’s transformative grace.

The book keelhauled me. It eviscerated me. To paraphrase from Jeremiah 1, it tore me down and ripped me apart. But then, before too long, it began to rebuild what it had broken, to sow and to plant.

In the years since, I’ve taken what I learned from Isaiah and have applied it to those enigmatic Bible stories that first caught my attention as a boy: Joshua and Rahab, Jael and Sisera, Jephthah and his daughter, Hannah and Eli, David and Bathsheba, Elijah and the widow, Athaliah and Joash.

Often called the “Historical Books” and erroneously preached as a set of tidy moralisms, Joshua – 2 Kings is literature better described according to the Jewish nomenclature of “Former Prophets” (or so I began to suspect).

  • Might these texts, too, work in a manner similar to that of the “Latter Prophets” (Isaiah – Malachi)?
  • Might the dystopian book of Judges, for example, have been designed (like Isaiah) to perform a kind of catastrophic surgery on my broken heart?
  • Could 1 and 2 Kings have been crafted to uproot and to plant?

Perhaps the tragic book of 1 Samuel, too, works like a spotlight on my soul, breaking apart my idols and casting me headlong into a sea of grace.

My most recent, book-length publication is the second volume in a three-part series that covers Judges, 1 Samuel, and 2 Samuel (coming soon). Each of these “Christological Companions” invites its reader into a sober confession of his or her sin, but also, at the same time, into a fresh encounter with the transformative mercy of our incarnate, crucified, and resurrected God.

Gift of the Grotesque: A Christological Companion to the Book of Judges (Eugene: Cascade, 2022).

Tragedy of the Commons: A Christological Companion to the Book of 1 Samuel (Eugene: Cascade, 2023).

• Worship and Waste: A Christological Companion to the Book of 2 Samuel (Eugene: Cascade, forthcoming in 2026).


Excerpt from Tragedy of the Commons: A Christological Companion to the Book of 1 Samuel:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” - Matthew 5:29–30 

Gouge it out. Cut it off. A quick survey of efforts to make sense of these arresting imperatives, which appear in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and again in Matthew 18:8–9, suggests two dominant trends among contemporary interpreters. First is a tendency toward allegory. Here the eye stands in for lust and the hand for greed, the idea being that these sins rather than the actual body parts to which Jesus refers must be chopped away from the Christian’s life. Second is a tendency to see Jesus’s command as hyperbole designed to shake his disciples from their complacency. After all, followers of Jesus must be willing to endure hardships. Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58). 

No reconstruction of Jesus’s authorial intent can account fully for the incisiveness of the words themselves—something always goes missing in exegesis. And indeed, to their credit, both strategies identified above correctly perceive that the text supports neither religious flagellation nor a draconian form of pseudo-justice. Nevertheless, when considered in view of our market-driven culture, the widespread propensity to disavow the passage’s literality as quickly as possible suggests a red herring. Rather than selling everything (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22), Jesus meant only that we should be willing to sell everything, right? Likely our riches will be returned to us in the end, so no need to dispose of them in the first place. In the same way, our patient, loving Lord could not have meant that we should actually blind and maim ourselves, could he? And yet, if I take Jesus’s words seriously, I find that I cannot weasel out from under their severity simply by resolving to get tough on sin. Sell, sever, and scoop it out. Jesus does not explain. 

The key to this hermeneutical dilemma lies in realizing that Jesus of Nazareth aims in his New Testament sermon to accomplish precisely what the Old Testament identifies as Israel’s ultimate good: a broken, transformed heart (Deut 30:1–10). If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. But does the hand really ever do this? If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out. But should we assign that level of agency to the body’s lamp (Matt 6:22)? The more I ponder his words, the more I am convinced that neither of these appendages does what Jesus suggests that it hypothetically does, and thus I am led by the bare ferocity of his rhetoric into a deeper awareness of my need. A different body part must go. Clogged with pasteurized cream and refined sugar, it must be cut from my chest to make room for raw milk and local honey. And while this explanation may seem at first like a metaphorical crib tantamount to swapping eye for lust and hand for greed, a subtle but crucial distinction obtains between the two. From the perspective of modern anthropology, humans are animate chemical-bags who commit infractions against whatever ethical codes they may invent. The science of the material body, in other words, never overlaps with abstractions such as “sin” except where an individual’s psychology is concerned. According to biblical anthropology, however, we are integrated body-spirits. We are souls, the handiwork of a good, gracious, and sometimes terrifying God."

Daniel Stulac

Daniel Stulac serves Briercrest College and Seminary as Assistant Professor of the Old Testament. He has authored multiple works. He and his wife, Danielle, live in Caronport and have two delightful daughters, Abigail and Susannah.