The Old Testament narratives: Their proper use

These are my notes on Chapter 5 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Over 40% of the OT is narrative. The OT makes up roughly ¾ of the Bible. In the NT we find narrative in the gospels and Acts. Hence, narrative is the Bible’s dominant genre.

The nature of narratives

Narratives are stories with a plot and characters. In the OT narratives, the most special character is God.

OT narratives have three levels. The top level is that of the whole universal plan of God worked out through His creation. This is the story of redemption. The middle level centres on OT Israel as a nation in covenant with God. In the bottom level we find all the individual narratives that make up the other two levels.

The top-level narrative goes beyond the OT into the NT. So when Jesus taught that the scriptures “…bear witness to me” (John 5:27-29) he wasn’t speaking about every individual passage but of the ultimate top level of the narrative in which His atonement was the central act.

What narratives are not:

  1. OT narratives aren’t just stories about people who lived long ago. They’re first and foremost stories about what God did to and through those people. If it is in the Bible, God is the hero of the story.
  2. OT narratives aren’t allegories or stories filled with hidden meaning. Some aspects may be hard to understand; nor do they answer all our questions on a given issue. They have a limited focus, giving us one part of the overall picture of what God is doing in history.
  3. OT narratives don’t always teach directly. They often illustrate what is taught directly and categorically elsewhere. 2 Samuel 11 nowhere contains the statement, “David did wrong by committing adultery.” You’re expected to know Exodus 20:14.
  4. Each individual narrative or episode within a narrative does not necessarily have a moral all on its own. Many individual elements combine to constitute the narrative and to provide God’s revelation via the entire unit.

Principles for interpreting narratives

  1. An OT narrative usually doesn’t directly teach doctrine.
  2. An OT narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere
  3. Narrative records what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an identifiable moral of the story.
  4. What people do in narratives isn’t necessarily a good example for us.
  5. Most of the characters in OT narratives are far from perfect. The same goes for their actions.
  6. We’re not always told whether what happened was good or bad. We’re expected to be able to judge that on the basis of what God has taught elsewhere in scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given.
  8. Narratives aren’t written to answer our theological questions. They have particular, specific and limited purposes.
  9. Narrative may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without stating it). Implicit doesn’t mean secret. Implicit means that the message is capable of being understood from what is said, though it isn’t said in so many words.
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narrative

Some final cautions

Why is it that people often find things in biblical narratives that aren’t really there? One, they’re desperate for something that’ll help them personally. Two, they want answers now, from this passage. Three, they wrongly expect that everything in the Bible applies directly as specific instruction for their individual lives.

Here are common errors to avoid:

  1. Allegorising – ignoring the clear meaning to get to the one behind it.
  2. Decontextualizing – ignoring the historical and literary contexts.
  3. Selectivity – picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on, ignoring the overall sweep of the passage
  4. False combination – combining elements from here and there and making a point out of the combination, even though the elements aren’t directly connected.
  5. Redefinition – when the plain meaning doesn’t produce immediate spiritual delight, some tend to redefine terms, sometimes in such a way as to no longer be a threat to the person doing the redefining.
  6. Extracanonical authority – unlocking the mysteries of the Bible using some sort of special key to the scriptures.
  7. Moralising – the assumption that principles for living can be derived from all passages. This approach ignores the fact that the narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles.
  8. Personalising – Reading scripture in such a way that supposes that any or all parts apply to you or your group in a way that they don’t apply to everyone else. For example, “Balaam’s donkey reminds me that I talk too much.” No Bible narrative was written specifically about you. You can learn from them, but you can never assume that God expects you to do exactly what the Bible characters did, or have the same things happen to you as happened to them.
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