Interpreting the Narratives Portions of Scripture Part 5

Posted By Thomas Perez. December 16, 2010 at 7:16pm.

I. Introduction to Narratives

A. What are narratives? A narrative is a story told for the purpose of conveying a message through people and their problems and situations (see Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 128).

NOTE: The word “narrative” is preferred over the term “story” because “story” often carries the idea of something being fictional or not based in reality.

B. Elements of a narrative

1. Setting

2. Characters

3. Plot

These three elements are the vehicles chosen to communicate the larger purpose and truths of a narrative.

C. What are biblical narratives? Biblical narratives are God’s stories as written in the pages of the Bible. They contain two elements:

1. History The biblical narratives reveal real historical events and people. The events in history are not just “history-like,” they reveal real historical events and occurrences that actually took place.

2. Theology The biblical narratives reveal theological truths about God and His plans.

“Biblical narratives tell 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 him, help us to understand and appreciate him, and give us a picture of his providence and protection. At the same time they also provide illustrations of many other lessons important to our lives” (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 79).

D. Narrative is the most common type of literature or genre in the Bible. Over forty percent of the Old Testament is narrative (see Fee and Stuart, 78.) Plus large sections of the New Testament were written in the narrative genre.

E. The following books were entirely or largely written in narrative form:

1. Genesis

2. Exodus

3. Numbers

4. Joshua

5. Judges

6. Ruth

7. 1 and 2 Samuel

8. 1 and 2 Kings

9. 1 and 2 Chronicles

10. Ezra

11. Nehemiah

12. Job

13. Isaiah

14. Jeremiah

15. Ezekiel

16. Isaiah

17. Daniel

18. Jonah

19. Haggai

20. Matthew

21. Mark

22. Luke

23. John

24. Acts

F. There are three levels of Old Testament narratives:

1. The universal plan of God

a. Creation

b. Fall / Sin / Death

c. The need for redemption

d. The need for and promise of a Savior

2. God’s plans and dealings with Israel

a. The call of Abraham, the father of the Jews

b. The journey to and enslavement in Egypt

c. The exodus from slavery in Egypt

d. The entrance into the promised land

e. The rule of the judges and kings

f. The disobedience of Israel

g. The divided kingdom of Israel

h. The captivities of Israel

i. The return to the land

j. The promised restoration of Israel

3. Many individual narratives that play out the other two narrative stories. For example, the narrative accounts of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph partly reveal God’s developing plan for the nation, Israel.

II. Principles for Interpreting Narratives Many of the principles for interpreting narratives can be found in the previous sections discussing context, but below are some principles specifically related to understanding narratives.

A. Read through the entire biblical narrative to understand the plot, flow, purpose, and major themes of that narrative. “The basic method by which we are to study biblical narratives is simple: we are asked to READ them! Most of us have grown up with the Gospels or Old Testament history as isolated stories. We have seldom sat down and simply read them through to catch the drama and power of the stories as they fit together to form a holistic panorama” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 154). Thus, the first step is to sit down and read the entire narrative from beginning to end.

B. Remember that the biblical narratives were written by divinely inspired authors who had a purpose in writing their narratives. Do not try to interpret the parts of narratives apart from the big picture purpose of the authors.

1. Ex. John explicitly states that the reason he wrote his gospel was so that his readers might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (see John 20:31).

2. Ex. Matthew wrote to show that Jesus was the promised king of Israel.

“Every author has a certain message . . . to get across to the reader, and this is true also of biblical narrative. This point of view guides the reader to the significance of the story and determines the actual ‘shape’ that the author gives to the narrative” (Osborne, 156).

C. Have a good understanding of the historical-cultural contexts of the narratives you are studying. To understand what is taking place in a biblical narrative you must be familiar with the surroundings in which the narrative takes place. Consult a good commentary or Bible introduction book to help with this.

D. Remember that narratives are not just stories about Bible characters. They are stories about God and how God worked through the characters, plots, and events. God is the hero of all biblical narratives. Even in the book of Esther where God’s name is never mentioned by name, God is the hero behind the scenes. He preserved his people from destruction, thus keeping His promise that His people Israel would never be destroyed.

E. Remember that narratives often do not teach doctrine directly. This does not mean, though, that one cannot learn doctrine from biblical narratives. Instead of teaching doctrine explicitly and directly like New Testament epistles often do, biblical narratives often illustrate what is taught clearly in other portions of Scripture.

1. Ex. When Joseph ran away from Potiphar’s wife who wanted to commit adultery with him, he illustrated the principle of “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14).

2. Ex. In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego refused to bow down before the image of gold and thus illustrated the principle of “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exod. 20:3).

Keep in mind, though, that the main points of biblical narratives is not to highlight people like Joseph; it is to show the greatness of God as He worked in the lives of people like Joseph.

F. Remember that not everything a person does in a biblical narrative is a good thing or something that should be followed. Except for some rare exceptions like Joshua, Daniel and Jesus, most major biblical characters are shown to have serious flaws. Samson was carnal; David committed adultery; Elijah retreated as a coward from Jezebel; Abraham lied when he said that his wife was his sister; Jacob deceived his father for the birthright. It is a good principle not to apply directly what a Bible character did unless another passage of Scripture explicitly says to do such a thing.

G. Narratives record what actually happened, not what should have happened or what ought to have happened. “Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral of the story” (Fee and Stuart, 84).

H. By nature, narratives do not answer all of our theological questions.

I. Remember that biblical narratives are not biographies in the traditional sense. They are selective and focus on what the divinely inspired authors wanted to emphasize.

1. Ex. John explicitly admits that there were “many other things which Jesus did” that were not recorded in his gospel (see John 21:25).

2. Ex. Genesis 1–11 covers thousands of years while Genesis 12–50 covers just a few hundred years.

3. The gospels focus an unproportional amount of space to the passion of Jesus.

J. Do not try to find hidden meanings in narratives. For example, the Epistle of Barnabas wrongly declared that the 318 servants of Abraham mentioned in Genesis 14:14 was a type of Jesus on the cross.

III. Interpreting the Gospels Many treat the gospels as historical narratives and rightly so.

But since there are several unique qualities about the gospels it is also appropriate to view the Gospels as a unique literary genre. What is unique about the gospels?

A. Unique aspects of the gospels

1. The gospels are about Jesus but were written by other people.

2. Even though the gospels were written by others, there are large teachings sections in which Jesus is quoted.

3. These teaching sections are weaved into the overall historical narrative.

4. There are four gospels.

5. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a great deal of similarity. They record many of the same events in very similar wording. This means that when you are studying Matthew, Mark, or Luke, there is a good chance there will be a parallel passage in one of the other two gospels.

6. John is unique from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Nearly 93 percent of John’s material is different.

B. General principles for interpreting the gospels

1. Many of the principles of interpreting other narratives will apply such as understanding the historical setting and reading the Gospels straight through to get a greater awareness of the characters, plot, flow, themes, and purpose of these books.

2. Since the gospels contain many teaching sections of Jesus, the opportunity to gain direct theological insights is greater than in other narratives since Jesus often addresses how we should act and what we should believe.

3. Understand that the ministry of Jesus was unique and that Christians are not expected to duplicate the sign wonders that He did. Jesus did wonders to verify His ministry and give previews of the coming kingdom of God. This does not apply to every Christian.

4. Know that some commands and promises of Jesus were limited to His apostles. For example, the command to only preach the kingdom to the house of Israel in Matthew 10 is no longer binding. Also the promise that the twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28) applies directly to the apostles.

5. Keep in mind that a major theme of the Gospels is the kingdom of God.

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