How to Read: Old Testament Narrative

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This is part of a series of posts based on the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. To see the previous posts in this series, click below:
Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?
How to Read: New Testament Letters


Narrative is the most popular literary style in the Old Testament. Roughly 40% of the entire Old Testament is narrative. Below are some narratives that you may be familiar with (and ones we often interpret wrongly):

  • Noah and the Flood
  • Abraham’s Migration
  • Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
  • The Exodus of Israel out of Egypt
  • Joshua conquering Jericho
  • Samson deceived by Delilah
  • David defeating Goliath
  • Daniel in the Lion’s Den

A narrative is simply a story. There are characters, plots, conflicts, and resolutions. The narratives of the Old Testament are about real people that lived real lives. As you are brought from scene to scene in the different narratives, there are three important concepts to keep in mind.

1. You are not the hero of the story, God is.

Unfortunately, many people read the Old Testament narratives from a man-centered perspective. What I mean is people try to place themselves into the story as the hero. One example of this is concluding that you are David and the problems you face are Goliath.

Let’s be real – You are not a hero. If you want to place yourself in the story, you would probably be the Israelite army who cowered behind the shepherd boy.

As you read the different narratives, keep in mind that the stories are meant to highlight the greatness of God – not the greatness of man. This is also true for the actual characters in the story.

Moses is not the hero of the Exodus, God is.
Joshua is not the hero in his conquest, God is.
Daniel is not the hero in the lion’s den, God is.
You are not the hero in your own story, God is.

2. Narratives simply record what happened – not what should have happened. In other words, they do not explicitly teach moral truths.

One of the reasons I treasure the Old Testament is how realistic each of the stories are. Rather than showing a highlight reel of each person’s life, God has inspired people to record all of it- especially the bad. From rape to murder, all of it is included throughout the narratives. This shows that we live in the same fallen world that David and Noah inhabited; one in which people do what is right in their own eyes and thus disregard God’s commands.

The problem is when people read a certain narrative in the Old Testament and conclude that is what God is calling them to do. There are some cases where a moral principal is explicitly taught but the majority of the narratives require you to have an understanding of the Law (the first five books of the Bible) in order to decide whether or not a certain action is moral.

One narrative that is often taken out of context in this regard is Gideon and his fleece. If you do not know the story, Gideon lays out a fleece in order to test God to see if God is really calling him. Many well-meaning Christians have concluded from this narrative that is is morally right to set out a “fleece” of our own and test God. When the narrative is read in its proper context and compared to the explicit moral teachings in the rest of Scripture, you will be able to understand that God honored Gideon’s fleece not because Gideon was righteous by doing so but because God is gracious.

This does NOT mean God will honor your “fleece” because you lack the faith to trust Him when He calls you.

3. Old Testament narratives do not directly teach doctrine.

The narratives in the Old Testament DO teach truths about God. Yet we need to keep in mind that these truths are illustrated rather than explicitly stated.

One example is regarding God’s faithfulness. As you study the rebellion of Israel in the Old Testament, many of the stories illustrate the doctrine that God is faithful. This is shown through the way he raises up Judges to deliver His people and the pattern of restoration given throughout the narratives.

On the other hand, if you are using a single Old Testament narrative in order to dogmatically believe in a certain truth, you are on extremely shaky ground.


I am only able to cover these principles very briefly in a blog post. For further reading and greater explanation, I highly recommend purchasing the book!

 

 

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