Understanding Genre's - Old Testament Narratives

HOW TO STUDY THE BIBLE - Understanding Genre's
Old Testament Narratives

About 40% of the Old Testament is a variety of stories. The following books are Old Testament Narratives: Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai.

There's a variety of stories and characters and a variety of challenges. There's Abraham arguing with God on how many righteous people it's going t take to spare a city. We have a donkey talking to Balam; and if that wasn't enough, Balam is talking back to his donkey. There are plenty of stories that are just plain bizarre.

We also see challenging things in the picture of God because the narratives will challenge our idea of God. We have to remember that we can’t keep God in a nice neat little theological box. We need to make sure we open ourselves up and see a God that is shown throughout Scripture.

I am the Lord and I do not change (Malachi 3:6).

Let's look at some general guidelines for reading Old Testament narratives.

1. Old Testament narratives are NOT allegories filled with hidden meanings. Abraham getting a wife for Isaac is not a picture of Christ getting the church. As a rule of thumb, don’t read Old Testament narratives looking for allegories UNLESS the NT says to.

2. Old Testament narratives are NOT Intended to teach moral lessons; unless a Biblical author says we need to learn from it.

3. Old Testament narratives are NOT Intended to teach doctrine. Old Testament narratives may illustrate doctrine, but they are not meant as a teaching of doctrine. Though it's an illustration of the dangers of sexual immorality, the story of Bathsheba is not intended to teach a doctrine of sexual purity.

4. Old Testament narratives are NOT man-centered. We have to remember that God is the hero of the Bible. When you look at Genesis 39 and see Joseph fleeing from Potifers wife; this is not a story of fleeing from sin, though it’s a good illustration. When you look at that chapter, you see a phrase repeated four different times - “The Lord was with Joseph”. God is the hero of Genesis 39 and the story is showing what happens when God is with us. When we see this, we understand how Paul states that when we live by the Spirit we don’t practice the things of the flesh. When God is present with us, it affects everything in our lives.

5. Like much of the other books in the Bible, Old Testament narratives are stories written to a specific people with a specific purpose.

The narratives are not "rules of thumb". They are accounts of what happened, not what should have happened, or what will happen every time. Not every narrative is a good example for us. Many times it’s the opposite.

Just like the Gospels, narratives are Selective and incomplete. Not all the details are given in these accounts.

When reading Old Testament narratives, read the passage carefully and look for five basic points:
1. PLOT - Virtually every story in the Old Testament will have a conflict. There’s a development (or build up), the conflict, and the resolution.
2. SCENE - Take notice of the time and place the story is taking place. When and where are the events happening?
3. CHARACTERS - The characters of the Old Testament narratives are central to the story. Look for comparisons and contrast’s in the characters. For example, look at the contrast between David and Saul.
4. DIALOG - The author of the story will be telling the story and introduce dialog which is intended to help us understand what is happening.
5. NARRATOR - Look for the implicit meaning that the narrator conveys. The narrator is omniscient in the whole thing - He’s everywhere and knows all the details. Sometimes the narrator gives judgment or summary statements (sometimes obvious and sometimes not). Make note of these statements by the narrator. Look for irony that the narrator may be giving. Just because an event looks good, the narrator might be communicating something opposite.

Interpret each Old Testament narrative on three levels:
a. INDIVIDUAL history - This is exactly what’s going on in that story, at that time, with those individuals.
b. NATIONAL History - This is how the story fits in with what God is doing to the people of Israel.
c. REDEMPTIVE History - This is the whole picture of what God is doing

As an example of these three levels, let’s look at Abraham and Isaac. We have the INDIVIDUAL history in that it’s a man taking his son up the mountain for sacrifice and God interacting with him; providing a ram. We have the NATIONAL history as this is the promised heir and beginning of God’s people. Then we have the REDEMPTIVE history in a picture of God providing a ram of sacrifice for the salvation of His people.

Pay close attention to literary context. If you're studying Abraham, and something happened to him, you need to study all of Gen 12 - 25 as a whole at some point to see how it all fits in. At a minimum, read three chapters. Read the preceding chapter, the entire current chapter, and the following chapter.

Avoid these errors when interpreting OT narratives:
1. ALLEGORIZING - Don’t Try to find a hidden meaning beyond the text
2. DECONTEXTUALIZING - Don’t ignore the full historical and literary context
3. SELECTIVITY - Picking and choosing only the parts of the story you like
4. MORALIZING - Asking, “What is the moral of the story?” at the end of every individual narrative. Teaching us moral lessons is not their primary intent.
5. PERSONALIZING - By that I mean, thinking these narratives are all about you. That is a self-centered way of reading the Bible. The narratives are not all about you. Don’t walk away saying that the story of Balam talking to the donkey is saying I talk too much. Or The story of building the temple is a message to us to build a church. That is an abuse of Old Testament literature and misses the point.

As a Note - don’t play hocus-pocus games with the Bible. This is the act of setting a book down and allowing it to fall open to answer questions and such. This is going awfully close to pagan witchcraft practices that we should be avoiding. God will speak to you when you diligently seek after Him.

6. FALSE APPROPRIATION - This is misapplying the narrative to contemporary culture.
7. FALSE COMBINATION - Taking different points of the story and combining the elements in the narrative that are not directly connected by the narrator.

Some books are meant to be a type of sequel. We look at Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus - these are meant to work off each other; but not all books will do this. So, unless we are told to do so, keep each book within its narrative context.

8. REDEFINITION - This is redefining the story to accommodate what you wish it had said. Also redefining a story to show or prove a point for other portions of Scripture.
9. IMITATION - Looking at a narrations permission or obligation to act a certain way. We do not want to approach Old Testament narratives with a monkey see monkey do approach.

For each story, write down one or two sentences that answer “What does the story mean?”