Reading OT Narrative

My intention in this post is to focus on practices that help a believer develop and mature in your Christian faith, namely, by reading the OT. In this post I want to provide simple tools to equip you to read your OT. I will discuss how to read your OT to know God. How do we know God through the Old Testament? I want to stress this point because learning tools for Bible study is not an academic, abstract, ethereal discussion. To know God, we need to know his word. To know his word, we need to know how to read his word. It is when we read God’s Word and understand it that we come to know him.

Old Testament Narratives

Our task this morning is to discuss OT narratives. OT narratives are books like Genesis, Samuel, and Kings. These are the books of the Bible where the layout looks like a book and not like poetry. A substantial portion, nearly half of the OT, is narrative.How do we read the OT narratives and make sense of them? At this point, it’s helpful to discuss briefly what OT is not. OT narratives are not the Aesop’s Fables of the OT. They are not moral stories intended to be divorced from a worshipping relationship with the one, true God. OT narratives do teach morality, and they make value judgments. These morals, however, are rooted in the larger story of God’s dealing with Israel and the nations. Therefore, one of the most basic questions I ask of a text, of any text, when I’m reading devotionally or preparing for a sermon is, “What does this passage teach me about God?”

The most important thing to remember is to read the OT as stories. In our media-driven, visual-dominated culture, many have a dampened the ability to read stories. I don’t mean that they are illiterate, that they cannot read, but they have little practice analyzing literary devices such as characterization, setting, and plot. I don’t say this as an insult but just an observation. I think, however, that we don’t necessarily need to be taught how to do this. There is an intuitive skill in humans that enable us to understand stories. There’s something about being human that makes this so. But more than that, you instinctively process stories. Think about when you watch a movie.

Six Tools for Old Testament Narrative

I want to give you six tools to help you read OT narrative.

Setting. There are two kinds of settings to which I am referring. One is what I’ll call the historical setting. The other is the contextual setting. The historical setting is the historical situations in which events take place. While you don’t need to be an expert in the ancient Near Eastern setting of the OT narratives, some background helps. But more important is the contextual setting. Where does a story take place? What happens before it? What happens after it? Why is it placed here? These are the kind of questions we want to ask. So, let’s look at the context of Gen 22. We notice that Gen 22 follows Gen 21. Gen 21 narrates the birth of Isaac. God fulfills his promise to bless Abraham with a son! Hagar and Ishmael are sent away but are graciously cared for by God. Now, all the hopes of the Abrahamic covenant are placed squarely on the shoulders of Isaac. He is the one. Look at Gen 21:12. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah because “your offspring will be traced through Isaac.” You might want to do more analysis of the context but this is sufficient for our demonstration. One tool in your tool belt is to understand the context. When we come to Genesis 22, we see another tool that we need to keep handy. Our second tool is the narrator.

Narrator. Sometimes the narrator gives the reader information relevant to the story, but this information may not necessarily be available to the characters within the story. The best way explanation, in this case, is a demonstration. Look at Gen 22:1. Moses writes, “After these things God tested Abraham.” That’s inside information given to us and it is information given to help us make sense of what we are about to read. It is a clue to understand the story. In a short phrase, we are given a piece of the puzzle. What we are about to read is a test. God is testing Abraham.

Now, at this moment we need to make a short digression and talk about how words have meanings. Words carry a general meaning within themselves. When I say, “dog,” you all picture a dog but I doubt we are all picturing the same dog. If I say, “cold,” I doubt we are all picturing the same thing. Words have a general meaning but they also have their meaning from their context. We know this. If I say, “cold,” we think of different things. If I say, “sick,” we think of different things. But the meaning of the word “sick” does not work in a sentence like when I say, “I saw this guy jump off a building and land on his feet. It was sick!” What do I mean? Do I mean he is now physically ill? No, I mean it was an awesome trick that I couldn’t believe happened! Words have meanings but also are given meaning by their context.

I say all this because we read that God is “testing” Abraham. The danger is to read into that word our modern understanding of testing. It’s not as if God doesn’t know Abraham or how he would respond. God is not pondering, “I’m genuinely interested in how Abraham would respond to this because I just don’t know!” This is not God testing a hypothesis. Instead, it is God “testing” Abraham. Why is it significant that the narrator gives us this information? First, we see that it is a divine testing about to take place, not a demonic one.[1] Abraham is about to enter a test in which something will be proven. It is not unknown to God, but it is, in a sense, unknown to Abraham.

The author wants us to know that God is testing Abraham. This is the beginning of the story and it also starts the plot. The plot will revolve around God testing Abraham. What kind of test? What is Abraham being asked to do?

Character. In narratives, often characters are described in a certain way. Authors use circumstances and dialogue to paint the portrait of their characters. Some are obviously bad, like Haman in Esther or Jezebel in Kings. Other characters are the “good” characters. We must say that many characters are complex. They are not simply good and bad. Abraham lied. David committed murder. The “good” characters are not always so “good.” When it comes to characterization, however, there is an important principle to keep in mind. As one author writes, “When discussing individuals who are considered to have existed in the past, like those in biblical narrative, it should be emphasized that we know them only as they are presented in the narratives, and it is to this alone that we can refer.”[2] Often the character gives us clues into the mental states of characters. This leads us to our fourth tool—the plot.

Plot. Any story worth telling has a good plot. This is not true only of novels but in everyday life. You tell stories with a plot all the time. Think about when you explain something that happened and you want to keep your listener interested. You almost instinctively use a plot. The entire Bible has a plot from creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. There are many little plots throughout the Bible. Little stories of loss, of triumph, or of sacrifice.

Dialogue. Think about this for a moment. For every word of dialogue, talking, that is recorded in Scripture—how much more has been left out? There’s no way that the words of Moses we have recorded in Scripture are the only words that he has ever spoken. All the words recorded are recorded for a reason.

Literary Devices. I want to bring two types of literary devices to your attention. These are perhaps the most common. First, is repetition. I would venture to say that repetition is the most recognizable, most used way that OT narratives work. The second literary device is a form of repetition, that is, OT narratives often have bracketing features. What I mean by bracketing is that a theme, or the repetition of a word, occurs at the beginning and end of a passage. A perfect example is Genesis 39. In v. 2, the text reads, “The LORD was with Joseph.” At the end of the narrative, twice the text says, “The LORD was with Joseph” (v. 21, 23).

In a Word: Selection and Composition

If I could leave you with one parting, summarizing thought, it would be this. There are two words that summarize all these tools. They are: selection and composition. Everything we have in the OT narratives were selected to be included. If emotions or motives are not supplied to to us by the author, then we should not speculate. As much as we may want to fill in the gaps, we must realize that the author didn’t give us information for a reason. The second word is composition. These are stories, composed and structured, written to be read as stories. Read them like a novel. We must slow down and take in the beauty of the narratives.

I hope this helps you as you read Old Testament narratives!

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapter 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 101.

[2] Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 47.

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