“Once upon a time…” these cliche words start many of our classic Western stories. There are lots of similarities between the kinds of stories we are familiar with and the Biblical narratives, but there are also some key differences.
In reality, the Biblical narratives are just stories. Yes they’re true stories, but at a basic level we can read them just the same way that we might read a modern story. They share the same basic features of any story: characters, plot, and plot resolution.
Biblical narratives are a bit different to modern stories in several respects though. In some ways they are more like a play or movie in their construction, as they tend to develop in short scenes that only have a few characters in view at any one time. These short scenes combine to tell the larger story, like acts in a play or scenes in a movie. Also, unlike modern stories, they don’t spend much time in visual descriptions of characters or their surroundings. Any visual details that are included in a Biblical narrative are therefore more important than they would be in a typical modern story.
Like a Shakespearean play, a lot of the important details of the story are communicated in the discussions between characters. Often the details that are most important will be told several times (e.g. the repeated descriptions of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, or the way the Cornelius story from Acts 10 is fully retold by Peter in Acts 11). The conversations are central and often the very first thing said is the most important.
The power of Biblical narratives is that they show how God’s principles can be demonstrated in the lives of ordinary believers. That said, we must also bear in mind that just because a Biblical character did something, doesn’t necessarily mean that action is something to copy. For example, Gideon putting out his fleece to test God in Judges 6 isn’t something believers are told they should do. Gideon’s actions aren’t encouraged or commended, in fact it was a demonstration that he didn’t fully trust God yet and God just patiently humoured him.
Currently the traditional Christadelphian Bible Reading Planner is taking us through some exciting narratives in the books of Samuel. Try and keep some of these thoughts in mind as you read through the stories about the exploits of David.
While I’m preparing an in-depth post on the narrative genre in scripture, here’s some thoughts from “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”.
We conclude this chapter by isolating ten summarizing principles for interpreting Old Testament narratives that should also help a reader avoid certain pitfalls as one reads.
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 application.
4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite.
5. Many (if not most) of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect—as are their actions as well.
6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21:25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 111.
The Bible is more of a library than a book! It contains literature of all different genres and types. Just as you wouldn’t read a novel the same way that you read your new employment contract, we can’t read every passage of scripture the same way. We need to pay attention to the genre of the passage we’re looking at and make sure we appreciate the tools that particular genre uses to communicate. One writer uses the analogy of a board game:
… there are different “game” rules involved in the interpretation of the different kinds of biblical literature. The author has played his “game,” has sought to convey his meaning, under the rules covering the particular literary form he used. Unless we know those rules, we will almost certainly misinterpret his meaning. If we interpret a parable (Luke 16:19–31) as if it were narrative, or if we interpret poetry (Judg. 5) as if it were narrative, we will err. Similarly, if we interpret a narrative such as the resurrection of Jesus (Matt. 28:1–10) as a parable, we will also err (1 Cor. 15:12–19).(1)
How do all the different Bible genres work? We’re going to explore the main ones in our next few posts. First up we’ll look at historical narratives, the main genre of the Old Testament.
(1) Thomas, Robert L., A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules, (Michigan: Baker Academic, 1994), 77
Continuing our exploration of Bible study methods, we’ll be looking at genre next. Here’s a quote that explains the need to understand genre.
One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.
To interpret properly the “then and there” of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one also needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). The way God communicates the divine word to us in the “here and now” will often differ from one form to another. For example, we need to know how a psalm, a form often addressed to God, functions as God’s word to us, and how certain psalms differ from others, and how all of them differ from “the laws,” which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no longer in existence. How do such “laws” speak to us, and how do they differ from the moral “laws,” which are always valid in all circumstances? Such are the questions the dual nature of the Bible forces on us.
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 26–27.
When we read the writings of Christadelphians we are on much safer ground than when we read expositions by those who are not—we can have confidence about the doctrinal content of what we read. That does not mean to say, however, that everything we read will be correct. We should not expect that: in fact, if we find ourselves agreeing with absolutely everything we read, it may be that we are not being discerning enough. God wants us to search out His Truth for ourselves.
Equally, there is no cause for patting ourselves on the back when we find something with which we disagree—our own opinions could equally be wrong. Sometimes it is possible to hear brethren speak with what seems to be a kind of pride when they state their disagreement with another brother’s position or view about a verse. But Bible exposition is not about the human ego.
We have to strike a right balance in our attitude towards different interpretations of scripture, and this will come out in our response when we read books. We are not reading so that we might seize on the mistakes of others, nor so that we accept unquestioningly everything that they write. All must be weighed prayerfully and thoughtfully against the scriptures.
There are always greater depths to explore, further gems to be discovered, fresh Bible study to be done. We must have an attitude of reverence and humility whenever we approach anything to do with God’s Word. Our own opinions about scripture, and our confidence in the opinions of brothers we respect, must always be tempered with the knowledge that we might be wrong, and that God knows what He means, even if we are sometimes too dim to perceive it correctly.
Extract from a series called “A Christadelphian’s Bookshelf” by Mark Vincent in The Christadelphian magazine 1995, volume 132, p206
I recently came across the following points in relation to meditating from scripture. They come from a book called The Art of Divine Meditation by Joseph Hall.
– What is it (define and/or describe what it is) you are meditating upon?
– What are its divisions or parts?
– What causes it?
– What does it cause; that is, what are its fruits and effects?
– What is its place, location, or use?
– What are its qualities and attachments?
– What is contrary, contradictory, or different to it?
– What compares to it?
– What are its titles or names?
– What are the testimonies or examples of Scripture about it?
You can check out the original book for free on Google Books here: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=_9GzBjJd7r0C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
HT: Justin Taylor