THE OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVES: THEIR PROPER USE (Part 6)
The Nature of Narratives:Over 40 percent of the Old Testament is narratives and since the Old Testament constitutes three-quarters of the bible it is no surprise that the single most common type of literature in the entire bible is narrative. Narratives are basically stories. Stories that we refer to as God’s story—a story that is ultimately true, crucially important, and often complex. Their purpose is to show God at work in his creation and among his people. The narratives glorify him, and give us a picture of his providence and protection. They also provide illustrations of many other lessons important to our lives.
Three Levels of Narratives: Old Testament narratives are told on three levels. The top level is that of the whole universal plan of God worked out through his creation. Key aspects to this level are the initial creation itself; the fall of humanity; the power and ubiquity of sin; the need for redemption; and Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. The top level is often referred to as the “story of redemption” or the “redemptive history.”
The middle level centers on Israel: the call of Abraham; the establishment of an Abrahamic lineage through the patriarchs; the enslaving of Israel in Egypt; God’s deliverance from bondage and the conquest of the promised land of Canaan; Israel’s frequent sins and increasing disloyalty; God’s patient protection and pleading with them; the ultimate destruction of northern Israel and then of Judah; and the restoration of the holy people after the Exile.
Then there is the bottom level. Here are found all the hundreds of individual narratives that make up the other two levels. Every individual Old Testament narrative is at least part of the greater narrative of Israel’s history in the world, which in turn is part of the ultimate narrative of God’s creation and his redemption of it. This ultimate narrative goes beyond the Old Testament and into the New.
You will not fully do justice to any individual narrative without recognizing its part within the other two. However there is nothing wrong with studying an individual narrative all by itself. But for the fullest sense you must finally see that individual narrative within its larger contexts.
What Narratives Are and Are Not:
1. They are first and foremost stories about what God did to and through people. The Bible is composed of divine narratives, God is the hero of the story.
2. Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. But there may be aspects of narratives that are difficult to understand. In other words, narratives do not answer all our questions about a given issue. They are limited in their focus, and give us only one part of the overall picture of what God is doing in history.
3. They do not always teach directly. They emphasize God’s nature and revelation in special ways that legal or doctrinal portions of the Bible never can, by allowing us to live vicariously through events and experiences rather than simply learning about an issue.
4. Each individual narrative or episode within a narrative does not necessarily have a moral all its own. Narratives cannot be interpreted atomistically, as if every statement, every event, every description could, independently of the others, have a special message for the reader. To try and find significance and meaning in each bit of data or each single event in the narrative will not work if not read in light of the larger context and story.
Principles for Interpreting Narratives: The following ten principles should help you avoid obvious errors in interpreting whenever you seek to exegete these and other stories.
1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
3. Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral of the story.
4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. In fact it is usually the opposite.
5. Most of the characters in the Old Testament are far from perfect and their actions are too.
6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We should be able to judge this from what God has taught us elsewhere categorically in the Scriptures.
7. All narratives are incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given. What appears is what inspired the author to think important to let us know.
8. Narratives are not written to answer all of our theological questions. They have particular, specific issues in which they deal with, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere and in other ways.
9. Narratives may teach explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually saying it).
10. In the final analysis, God is always the hero of all biblical narratives, and all narratives ultimately find their full purpose and meaning in Jesus.
Some Final Cautions: Why is it that people often find things in narratives that isn’t really there? First, it is because they are desperate for information that will help them, that will be of personal value that will apply to their own situation. Second, they are impatient; they want their answers now, from this book, from this chapter. Third, they wrongly expect that everything in the Bible directly is instruction for their own individual lives. Here is a list of eight of the most common errors people make when interpreting the bible. These all apply to narratives but are not limited to them.
1. Allegorizing. Trying to think of meanings beyond the clear intended message.
2. Decontextualizing. Ignoring the full historical and literary contexts, and often the individual narrative, people concentrate on small units only and thus miss interpretational clues.
3. Selectivity. Involves picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on, ignoring the others, and ignoring the overall sweep of the passage being studied.
4. False Combination. This approach combines elements from here and there in a passage and makes a point out of their combination, even though the elements themselves are not directly connected in the passage itself.
5. Redefinition. When the plain meaning leaves people cold, they often redefine it to mean something else.
6. Extracanonical authority. Using external keys to Scripture that claim to unlock the mysteries of truths not otherwise known from Scripture itself.
7. Moralizing. This assumes that a moral can be drawn from every passage. The fallacy of this approach is that it ignores the fact that the narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles.
8. Personalizing. This assumes that every passage applies to you specifically in a way that it may not to others. Do not forget that all parts of the bible are for everyone and ultimately for the Glory of God in displaying Him as the Hero.
No Bible narrative was written specifically about you. You can never assume that God expects you to do exactly the same thing that the Bible characters did, or to have the same things happen to you that happened to them. Narratives are precious to us because they so vividly demonstrate God’s involvement in the world and illustrate his principles and calling. But remember they do not systematically include personal ethics.
(This post is a summary and partial abridgement of Fee And Stuart’s book “How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth.” It is based solely on Fee And Stuart’s work and any help that this content gives should be credited to God’s grace through their effort. In other words, give God glory, thank Fee and Stuart and buy the book.)