Today, I want to talk about historical narrative. What is it and where is it found? The Old Testament, of course, is almost all historical narrative, as are parts of the gospels and book of Acts. I'm talking today about Old Testament narrative.
First, what are historical narratives not? They are not allegories. The account of Jacob watching a ladder to heaven is not an alleogory of the Christian's ascent to God. It was something Jacob actually saw. The account of Adam and Eve in the garden is not just a picture of sin, but it actually happened. Secondly, the Old Testament narratives are not moral stories. While morality is depicted in the accounts, their primary purpose is not like an Aesop's fable, to teach morality. Their purpose is to provide an account of history, which I'll get to. Thirdly, Old Testament narratives are not doctrinal lessons. It is true that we can discern God's character throughout the Old Testament. That is actually one excellent way to read the Old Testament, to look for aspects of God's character. But again, that is not their primary purpose. The stories will highlight and support doctrinal teaching, but their purpose is to tell a story; a true story.
Narratives are historical accounts, told in story format. Narratives have plots, characters, conflict, tension, themes, and resolutions. God is the ultimate protagonist, and Satan is the ultimate antagonist. Fee and Stuart say this:
The basic "plot" of the biblical story is that the Creator God has created apeople for his name - in his own "image" - who as his image bearers were to be his stewards over the earth that he created for their eneit But an enemy entered the picture who persuaded the people to bear his "image" instead, and thus to become god's enemies. The plot resolution is the long story of "redemption," how God rescures his people from the enemy's clutches, restores them back into his image, and (finally) will restore them "in a new heaven and new earth."
There are three levels of narrative. First, there is the overarching story which is referred to in the above quoted passage; it is the universal narrative, the plan God works out through his creation. The second level is the redemptive history of man, a story of God redeeming a people for himself. This is the story which begins with the covenant with Abraham, and which is fulfilled in the new covenant, ushered in with the death and resurrection of Christ. And then, there are the hundreds of narratives within the Scriptures, like the story of the Judges, the story of Ruth, and the account of David's family dysfunction. All of these smaller narratives play a part in that big narrative, and when we read the Old Testament, one of the questions we can ask is how those smaller narratives contribute to those other two narratives. As Fee and Stuart say:
Thus, when Jesus taught that the Scriptures "testify about me" (John 5:39), he was speaking of the ultimate, top level of the narrative, in which his atonement was the central act, and the subjetion of all creation to him is the climax of the plot.
When we read narratives, we can read them like we would read any good book, paying attention to things such as the characters, the setting, the conflict, and the resolution. Hebrew narratives are "scenic" in nature, like scenes in a movie, which drive the story. The narratives don't contain everything that happened at those times, but they do include what is essential. In particular, we should pay attention to the dialogue of the people. Very often, that is what reveals the motives of the characters and drives the plot. Taking a look at Joseph, for example, tells us a lot, and moves the story. From his initial boasting about his family bowing down before him (which aggravated his brothers and was a catalyst for getting rid of him) to the confession at the end when he meets his family again, the dialogue is important. The dialogue is also often repetitive, which is another important characteristic of Hebrew narrative. Remember, these stories were oral stories; repetition in word and phrase, as well as repetition through patterns was a way for these stories to be remembered.
There are some cautions in reading Old Testament narrative. Fee and Stuart's book detail these things very well, but I'm only going to mention a few that I think we all recognize at times. First, there is moralizing. As mentioned, these stories are not moral stories. They present morality that is supported elsewhere in Scripture, but that is not their purpose. The story of David's sin with Bathsheba does not come out and say "adultery is a sin." That was indicated in Ten Commandments. We're supposed to assume that. The story does support that principle, but the reason for the story goes beyond that. The consequences for the nation of Isreal in light of David's sin is much more crucial than is the adultery which prompted it.
Another caution we need to be careful of is personalizing things. A common example of this is taking the story from Judges 6:36-40, and using it as a way to discern God's will for ourselves by putting an actual fleece out. This is not only personalizing, it is taking something out of context, another common error. I actually know someone who did this. We likewise cannot look at the story of Balaam riding a donkey to conclude that I shouldn't talk too much. I must laugh as I type this, seeing as my own tendency is to be too chatty. If I want an instruction about that, the book of Proverbs is full of advice for such a thing. I don't need Balaam's donkey for that.
Again, Fee and Stuart:
Perhaps the single most useful bit of caution we can give you about reading and learning from narratives is this: Do not be a monkey-see-monkey-do reader of the Bible. No Bible narrative was written specifically about you.
I think our goal needs to be to discern the plain meaning and original intent, and then see how these stories fit into the larger contexts. The fortunate thing about this is that we know what the theme of the Bible is already, so much of the work is done.
If you want even more detail about the elements of Hebrew narrative, Leland Ryken's book How to Read the Bible as Literature has a much more detailed explanation, including the types of stories we find in Scriptures, i.e. tragedy, epic, comedy, heroic. Also really helplful for interpreting the stories is Robert L. Plummer's book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, especially the chapter "Do All of the Commands of the Bible Apply Today?"
Another really good book is one by Graham Goldsworthy, called Gospel and Kingdom, which is an excellent guide on how to read the Old Testament with the kingdom theme being the focus.
I think reading and understanding the Old Testament is something I have not appreciated enough until the past couple of years, as I have been attending a bible study where we have been going through the first five books of the Old Testament. I'm seeing so clearly how I read them all wrong before, and I've taught them incorrectly as well.
Next week, I hope to look at another aspect of historical narrative, the book of Acts.