Intro to Reading Biblical Narrative
(Adapted from How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Fee & Stuart)
Understanding how to read Biblical (in this case, particularly Hebrew) narrative is vital for any attempt at reading through the Bible, as over 40% of the OT is narrative in genre.
Narratives are stories–purposeful stories retelling the historical events of the past that are intended to give meaning and direction for a given people in the present.
We must also keep in mind that this narrative is not so much our story as it is God’s story, one which he writes us into.
When reading Biblical narrative it is important to keep in mind that there are three levels of narrative at work throughout Scripture. The third, or top, level is the metanarrative: this is the over-arching narrative of God’s redeeming work throughout the whole of Scripture, beginning with creation and culminating in the new Heaven and new earth. The second level is the story of God redeeming a people for his own name. The first and final level is made up of the hundreds of individual narratives that make up the Bible, including compound narratives that include the entire story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, as well as the smaller narratives that make up this grouping. The important thing to think about while reading is, “how does this individual narrative (level one) fit with the story of God’s people (level two), and the entirety of God’s redemptive work in creation (level three)?
Also, remember that narratives are not…
- allegories filled with hidden meanings
- intended to teach moral lessons (unless specifically stated by the narrator)
- meant to teach explicitly, but rather implicitly illustrating lessons explicitly mentioned elsewhere in the OT
Characteristics of Hebrew Narrative
- The narrator is omnicient
- The narrator usually does not comment, explain or evaluate (and where he does, it’s important!)
- The narrator reveals the point of view of the narrative
- The narrative does not so much follow characters as it is a series of scenes which, in sequence, convey the whole story
- Characters are central to the scenes
- The narrator offers very little physical description of the characters, and when he does, it’s important to ask why. What is of more importance are matters of status and profession
- Characterization is not mainly accomplished by the narrator, but by the characters actions and dialogue
- Characters are usually shown in contrast or in parallel. When shown in contrast, the characters must be understood in relationship to one another. When shown in parallel it usually involves the second level of narrative, as one character is a reenactment of the other (John the Baptist–>Elijah; Mary–>Hannah)
- Crucial component of Hebrew narrative
- Character dialogue is a significant clue to the story plot and the character of the speaker
- Contrastive dialogue as a method of characterization (length of dialogue particularly!)
- Narrator will emphasize crucial parts of the narrative by having characters summarize it in a speech
- Plots may be simple or complex, with many subplots vying for attention
- Plot in Hebrew narrative moves rapidly, so when the pace of the plot slows, it’s a signal to the reader to pay attention!
Final Features of Structure
- Remember that the Bible was written not to be read, but to be heard. It was intended to be read aloud, so consequently there are many structures in Hebrew writing which lend themselves to be listened to
- Repetition is a key form of structure in Hebrew writing and can take several forms. The first, and likely most important, is the repetition of key words which point to the perspective of the narrator. Repetition is also included at the resuming of the narrative following an interruption. Another form of repetition is stereotyped patterns (see Judges).
- Inclusion is a form of repetition where the narrative is begun and brought to its conclusion on the same note or in the same way.
- Allegorizing (What hidden meanings are in the story?)
- Decontextualizing (Ignoring the cultural and historical context of the author and audience)
- Selectivity (Picking and choosing words and phrases while ignoring the rest)
- Moralizing (What’s the moral of the story?)
- Personalizing (Any and all parts apply to me and my group in ways they don’t apply to everyone else)
- Misappropriation (Appropriating the text for purposes foreign to the biblical narrative)
- False appropriation (To read into the narrative suggestion or ideas from contemporary culture that are foreign to the narrator’s purpose and point of view)
- False combination (Combining elements in a passage that are not directly connected in the passage itself)
- Redefinition (Changing the meaning of the text to match your own context when the plain meaning doesn’t have any immediate impact.
Principles for Interpreting Narratives
- An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine
- And Old Testament Narrative usually illustrates a doctrine taught propositionally elsewhere
- 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.
- What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently it is just the opposite.
- Most of the characters in the Old Testament were far from perfect–as are their actions as well.
- We are not always told at the end of the narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
- All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are given. What does appear in the narrative is everything 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 in other ways.
- Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually saying it).
- In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.