So…you decided to read through the Bible this year. Maybe it’s your first time, or maybe you’re an old pro, either way, when you’re reading narratives, like most of the book of Genesis, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, what is a narrative? Simply put, a narrative is a story. It tells the about an event, giving details such as the background, main character involved, and life lessons. There is a plot with an introduction and some sort of conclusion at the end.
Over the years I’ve made mistakes in understanding narratives. I’ve jumped to conclusions, wondered why God would allow certain things to happen, and questioned the integrity of certain God followers in the Bible. As time went on, I realized I wasn’t understanding the biblical narratives correctly. So I thought if this is something I have struggled with, maybe I should pass on some basic principles for interpreting narrative passages. Here are five principles from Mel Lawrence in his blog on “How Should We Understand the Stories of the Old Testament?” You can find the original post here.
1. We should read individual narratives in their specific contexts, but with the wider narratives in mind.
The story of Ruth, for instance, is a rich and poignant story within itself, about struggle, commitment, faith, and redemption. But then we learn that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, so she fits into the wider Old Testament picture. More amazing, this woman from Moab is listed in the genealogy of Jesus because of her lineage with David (Matt. 1:5). So the significance of the story of Ruth goes beyond her relatives and the harvesting of grain.
2. We should take Old Testament narratives at face value, reading for the natural sense.
The purpose of narrative is to tell us what happened and to help us understand the broad significance of what happened. Not every story has a moral. The account of Joshua leading the Hebrews across the Jordan River means exactly that. We should not assume there is some symbolic meaning to the river, or to Joshua, or to the place where they crossed. It is wrong-headed to impose a symbolic or allegorical meaning on a biblical story. It is misleading and it is arbitrary. It assumes there is a hidden meaning to biblical stories, which leaves the normal Bible reader to ask: “I wonder what I’m missing here?” No, we should assume the biblical writer meant something specific, coherent, and intelligible story by story. This is to read Scripture on its own terms, respecting the intentionality of the biblical authors. Taking Old Testament narratives at face value removes much of the anxiety we might have if we are always looking for some supposed hidden meaning.
3. We should also avoid moralizing or spiritualizing every Old Testament story we read.
What, for instance, might be the moral to the story of Jacob deceiving his brother Esau and later his uncle Laban, cheating each of them out of a fortune? The text does not condemn what Jacob did, nor does it endorse his actions. The narrative simply tells us what happened. The story of Joshua’s battle for the city of Ai does not mean we ought to obliterate our enemies in life. The story of Isaac finding a wife (Gen. 24) does not give us a method of dating. And Moses going into the tabernacle under the cloud of God’s glory is not a guideline for how we should pray or worship. These stories have great significance in the wider narrative of Scripture, but we reduce that significance when we go looking for a “moral to the story.” However, these stories do illustrate truths or morals that are taught elsewhere in Scripture. That is the best way to read them.
4. We should learn from the complex lives of the characters of biblical stories.
We could feel a lot of tension over the fact that even the great heroes of faith in the Old Testament had faults and overt transgressions. The narrative usually doesn’t come right out and flag what was honorable or despicable behavior. It is assumed we will figure that out based on the parts of Scripture that do teach morality. The Bible is wonderfully honest. The characters in the narratives are all sinners, yet they are part of the historic unfolding of the greatest story of Scripture: the story of God.
5. We should read through biblical narrative seeing it as the great story of God who is its central character.
The narrative of the Old Testament reveals the Creator of all things as the God of holiness and of love. In the stories we witness the God of holiness for whom right and wrong, good and evil, really do matter. And his love is seen in his patience, forgiveness, guidance, protection, and mercy.
What is true of all great narratives, and especially the narratives of Holy Scripture, is that every time we go through them, we will see something new. A detail here and there. An attitude in one of the characters. A sight, smell, or sound. A silhouette of an attribute of God. And we will see ourselves, not by imposing ourselves on the narrative, but when we recognize a hope we’ve had or devastation we’ve experienced. We see our sins, not just the sins of the characters in the story. And we see hope for all of us who would be without hope if not for the mercy of God.