TGOC Bible Class Curricula - How To Study The Bible (First Quarter) Lesson 13 – How To Read Biblical Narratives
The Bible contains a collection of stories and poems.
Question: Why do you think God chose to communicate His will to us much more in stories and poems than legal codes?
Undoubtedly, it is because stories and poems convey truth in a powerful way that other forms of communication do not. In this lesson, we are going to look more closely at the stories of the Bible and how to study them.
The Use of Narratives
The Bible is full of stories. Stories comprise half of the Old Testament. The Law itself is given in the context of a story (Israel's exodus), and there are stories within the books of law (Leviticus 10:1-2; 24:10-16).
There are also stories within the prophetic books (such as Daniel 1-6), and in the case of Jonah, the book is entirely in story form.
Stories also play a major role in the New Testament. The four gospels and the book of Acts recount stories about the life of Jesus and the spread of the gospel. Additionally, the New Testament contains the stories that Jesus told in parables.
How did God use stories to communicate His truth?
Stories are interesting and draw the listener into the action (think of Nathan's story in 2 Samuel 12:1-6). Stories are easy to remember. Stories appeal to the imagination and to the emotions and thus appeal to the whole person.
Characteristics of Narratives
The stories found in the Bible about the patriarchs, the apostles or Jesus are historical, but they are more than that. They are interpreted history. The stories in Scripture have three major characteristics:
(1) They are selective (John 20:30,31; 21:25). The biblical accounts of history do not intend to be encyclopedic. They provide all the information God intended, but not necessarily all we desire.
(2) They are arranged (Luke 1:1-4). Biblical writers carefully structured their material in keeping with the intended purpose of the writing.
(3) They are “point-driven”, that is, they are designed to make a point (notice again John 20:30-31). Our goal as students of the text is to discern what God’s intended point is.
Like any good story, the narratives in the Bible involve characters, a setting, and a plot.
The characters are the “who” in the story.
It is always important to remember that God is the primary character in every Bible story (as in David and Goliath – 1 Samuel 17:37).
Another character is the narrator, the one telling the story. From time to time in biblical stories, the narrator provides commentary (as in 2 Kings 17:7-23). In this sense, the stories of the Bible are prophetic, not in the sense of foretelling the future but rather explaining the past according to God's will.
The setting is the “where” and “when” of a story.
The setting of a story often plays a crucial role in how the story should be interpreted. For instance, in Mark, notice what events bracket the incident with Jesus in the temple (Mark 11:12-25). What impact does that have on how we should interpret the temple incident?
The plot is the sequence of events that moves a story forward.
This sequence usually contains:
(1) Exposition, establishing the characters, and the setting (Luke 18:35-37)
(2) Tension the moment of crisis within the story (Luke 18:38-39)
(3) Resolution (as in Luke 18:40-43). Since biblical stories are true to life, sometimes the resolution of a plot is not positive (Judges 11:39-40).
Interpreting Biblical Stories
The key to all interpretation is context – the historical context and the literary context.
Let's think especially about literary context.
Here are some things for which to look:
(1) Look for interpretive instructions from the author. Sometimes, the biblical authors point out what they want us to see in the stories that they tell.
For instance, the book of Judges opens with a summary of the rest of the book in Judges 2:16-23. Notice especially verse 19 – the people were “more corrupt” when each judge died. Thus as we read the book as a whole we should see not only a recurring cycle but also a downward spiral.
Many times Jesus' parables are preceded by an explanation of their purpose (as in Luke 18:1,9).
Look for comparisons and contrasts.
One of the longest extended narratives in the Bible is the intertwining story of Saul and David.
What contrast do you see in the description of Saul in 1 Samuel 9:2,10:23, and 16:11?
Saul was the tallest, but David was the smallest.
How does this detail color the story of David and Goliath? The giant of Israel should have fought against Goliath, but he did not.
Another good example of comparison and contrast is the story of Rahab and Achan in Joshua 2-7.
Both hid something (spies and plunder).
Rahab is a Canaanite but acts with faith as an Israelite, and she and her household are saved (Joshua 6:25).
Achan is an Israelite but acts like a Canaanite and he and his household are destroyed (Joshua 7:24).
Look for repeated themes.
For instance, read Genesis 27:14-29 and 37:31-34. What themes do you see repeated?
Think about the conversion stories in the book of Acts. There are two conversion stories that are told three times. What are they, and what do they have in common? (as a hint, look at these three statements – Acts 13:46; 18:6; 28:28). The answer is Saul and Cornelius. Cornelius is the first Gentile, and Saul is called to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
Look for how this story ties to the Big Picture of the Bible.
The odd story of Noah and Ham makes more sense when read in the light of Israel's preparation to conquer the land of Canaan (Genesis 9:18-27).
Since the story of the Bible revolves around Jesus, it is important to keep a Jesus-centered view of the Bible (like Matthew's genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17).
Applying The Narratives of The Bible
We need to avoid the tendency of reading the Bible as if it is nothing more than a guide for successful living.
The Scripture does teach us how to live, but it is a story that must be interpreted in context.
The root of a lot of misapplication of Scripture is forgetting that God is the central character, not us!
So as we move to apply biblical stories, here are some questions we can ask:
What does this story teach us about God?
How does this story fit into the big picture of the Bible?
In what ways is my situation similar to this story? In what ways are they different?
What lessons did God want His people to learn in the original story that would be applicable to my story?
For next time, read 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 and notice how Paul applies the stories of the Old Testament to the Corinthians. What did he say the stories of Israel taught the Corinthians about God? How did he say those stories fit into the big picture of the Bible? In what ways was the situation of the Corinthians similar to that of ancient Israel? In what ways was the situation of the Corinthians different to that of ancient Israel?
What lesson did God want His people to learn in the original story that would be applicable to us today?
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