How am I supposed to read the Old Testament????
Notes from How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart
- The Bible contains more of the type of literature called “narrative” than it does of any other literary type.
- For example, over 40% of the Old Testament (OT) is narrative.
- Since the OT itself constitutes ¾ of the bulk of the Bible, it is not surprising that the single most common type of literature in the entire Bible is narrative.
It is the authors presupposition that the Holy Spirit knew what He was doing when He inspired so much of the Bible in the form of narrative.
THE NATURE OF NARRATIVES
What Narratives Are
- Narratives are stories although the authors prefer the term “narrative” because “story” has come to mean something that is fictional as in “bedtime story” or “a likely story.”
- It also tends to mean a single story with a single set of characters and a single plot.
- The Bible on the other hand, contains what we often hear called God’s story—a story that is utterly true, crucially important, and often complex.
- The Bible is a magnificent story, grander than the greatest epic, richer in plot and more significant in its characters and descriptions than any humanly composed story could ever be.
- Bible narratives tells us about things that happened—but not just any things. Their purpose is to show God at work in His creation and among His people.
The narratives glorify God, help us to understand and appreciate Him, and give us a picture of His providence and protection.
Three Levels of Narratives
- It will help us as we read and study the OT narratives to realize that the story is being told, in effect, on three levels.
- TOP LEVEL—this level is that of the whole universal plan of God worked out through His creation. Key aspects of the plot at this top 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. This level is often called “story of redemption” or “redemptive history.” The ultimate narrative goes beyond the OT through the New Testament. When Jesus taught that the Scriptures ” . . . bear witness to me” (John 5:27-29), He was obviously not speaking about every short individual passage of the OT. However, He spoke of the ultimate top level of the narrative, in which His atonement was the central act, and the subjection of all creation to Him was the climax of its plot.
- MIDDLE LEVEL—focuses 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.
- BOTTOM LEVEL—Here are found all of the 100s of individual narratives that make up the other two levels.
What Narratives are NOT
1) OT Narratives are not just stories about people who lived in OT times. They are first and foremost about what God did to and through those people. God is the hero of the story—if it is in the Bible. Characters, events, developments, plot, and story climaxes all occur, but behind these, God is the supreme “protagonist” or leading decisive character in all narratives.
2) OT narratives are NOT allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. But there may be aspects of narratives that are not easy to understand. We are often not precisely ALL that God did in a certain situation that caused it to happen the way the OT reports it. 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. God simply has not told us in the Bible how He did ALL that He did.
3) OT narratives 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 vicariously to live through events and experiences rather than simply learning about the issues involved in those events and experiences. Narratives give us a kind of “hands on” knowledge of God’s work in His world, and though this knowledge is secondary rather than primary, it is nevertheless a real knowledge that can help shape your behavior. Narratives are both implicit and explicit in their teachings.
- Each individual narrative or episode within a narrative does NOT necessarily have a moral all its own. To try to find a significance for each single bit of data or each single event in the narrative won’t work. You have to evaluate the narrative as a unit.
PRINCIPLES FOR INTERPRETING NARRATIVES
- An OT narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
- An OT narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
- Narratives record what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time.
- What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite.
- Most of the OT narratives are far from perfect and their actions are, too.
- 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 that on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in the Scripture—see David & Bathshiba.
- All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (John 21:25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
- 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.
- Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
- In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.
EXAMPLES OF NARRATIVE INTERPRETATION
JOSEPH—Gen. 37, 39-50.
- Read the chapters and you will see that Joseph is the central human character at nearly every point. Indeed, he dominates the story.
- We read of Joseph’s rather haughty, critical style (ch. 37) stemming in part, perhaps, from his father’s favoritism. He is sold into slavery by his brothers. He later becomes a successful administrator for Potiphar.
- Why? Was it because of Joseph’s innate administrative skills? Hardly. The Bible very clearly identifies the reason: “The Lord was with Joseph . . .The Lord was with him, and . . .The Lord caused all that he did to prosper . . .”
- Whatever Joseph’s managerial skills may have been, they clearly played a secondary role to God’s intervention in his life.
- The inspired narrator is leaving no room for doubt as to the hero of the story or the moral of the story.
God is the hero. And the moral is that God was with Joseph.
- There are many implicit points in the book of Ruth. Implicit means that the message is capable of being understood from what is said, though it is not stated in so many words.
- The narrative tells us that Ruth converted to faith in the Lord, the God of Israel.
- The narrative tell us implicitly that Boaz was a righteous Israelite who kept the Mosaic Law, though many other Israelites did not.
- The narrative tells us implicitly that this story is part of the background to the ancestry of King David—and by extension, therefore, to Jesus Christ.
- The narrative tells us implicitly that Bethlehem was an exception town during the Judges period by reason of the faithfulness of its citizenry.
Narratives are precious to us because they so vividly demonstrate God’s involvement in the world and illustrate His principles and calling.
SOME FINAL CAUTIONS
- Why do people so often find things in the Bible narratives that are not really there—read into the Bible their own notions rather than read out of the Bible what God wants them to know?
- First, they are desperate—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 applies directly as instruction for their own individual lives. We are not to be a monkey-see-monkey-do reader of the Bible. No Bible narrative was written specifically about us. We can always learn a great deal from narratives, and from all the Bible narratives, but you can never assume that God expects you to do exactly the same thing that Bible characters did, or to have the same things happen to you that happened to them. Narratives as precious to us because they so vividly demonstrate God’s involvement in the world and illustrate his principles and calling.
So that you might avoid finding things in the Bible narratives that are not really there—here is a list of eight of the most common errors of interpretation that people commit in looking for answers from parts of the Bible.
- Allegorizing—instead of concentrating on the clear meaning, people relegate the text to merely reflecting another meaning beyond the text. There are allegorical portions of Scripture (e.g. Ezekiel 23 or parts of Revelation) but none of the scriptural allegories is simple narrative.
- Decontextualizing—ignoring the full historical and literary contexts, and often the individual narrative, people concentrate on small units only and thus miss interpretational clues. If you decontextualize enough, you can make almost any part of Scripture say anything you want it to.
- Selectivity—this is analogous to decontextualizing. It involves picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on, ignoring the others, and ignoring the overall sweep of the passage being studied. Instead of balancing the parts and the whole, it ignores some of the parts and the whole entirely.
- False combination—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.
- Redefinition—when the plain meaning of the text leaves people cold, producing no immediate spiritual delight or saying something they do not want to hear, they are often tempted to redefine it to mean something else.
- Extracanonical authority—by using some sort of special external key to the Scriptures—Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.
- Moralizing—this is the assumption that principles for living can be derived from all passages. Asking the question, “What is the moral of the story?” at the end of every individual narrative.
- Personalizing—this is reading Scripture in a way that supposes that any of all parts apply to you or your group in a way that they do not apply to everyone else.