As I mentioned in this previous post, I am writing a series on interpreting the Old Testament. This post is in that series, and specifically this one is about learning to read the narratives, framed as historical, in the Old Testament.
The first genre we are exploring in this series on reading the Old Testament is the genre of narrative. Narratives take up 40% of the Old Testament. It is important to understand how to read these narratives, as they are a part of the entire Christian narrative, and the narratives of the Old Testament would have been the narratives Jesus had known, worked from, and related to. But it is probably good to start at the beginning.
What are narratives?
A narrative is a story. Some narratives recount historical events or events that should be considered historical and formative in that fashion. These are the stories of the Old Testament, as they helped constitute the people of Israel as the people of Israel. Every nation, every person, has a narrative about who they are. These are sometimes called national myths — but this is not necessarily in a disparaging way. They are stories that tell us who we are and how we should respond to events in the world around us. These stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it. To be absolutely clear, narratives may or may not be “historically” true. Either way, they may still convey meaning and truth. When it comes to the narratives of the Scriptures, the decision to consider something historically true is a hermeneutical question (one of interpretation), so I am going to bypass it for now and turn to elements that are important for interpreting the meanings of narratives in Scripture.
Different Levels of Narrative
In reading the narratives of the Old Testament, it is good to be aware of the different levels that narrative can operate. There is the metanarrative of the redeeming work of God from the creation to the completion and perfection of all things: the Heilsgeschichte of it all. The second level is the story of entire Old Testament, of the constituting of the people of Israel, of God’s redemption and covenanting with them, of their falling away from their covenants. And finally, there is the narrative we read, e.g., the story of Jacob, filled with its own details, characters, dialogue, and plot. Through recognizing the different levels that narratives simultaneously operate on, our interpreting of them can be more informed and more nuanced.
Pitfalls in Understanding Narratives
In developing more nuanced and truth-filled interpretations of the Old Testament narratives, there are several mistakes to avoid.
(1) These stories are not allegories, or stories filled with hidden meanings. The story of Jacob is not a hidden message about the life of Barrack Obama or Pope Francis or Angela Merkel or whomever someone may choose. Personal narratives may have similar themes (false imprisonment, vindication by faith, etc.), but Old Testament narratives are not referring to other meanings beyond themselves in an allegorical way.
(2) Old Testament narratives are not lessons in moral conduct. That is, the purpose of the story of Jacob and Esau is not praise trickery as a moral-upstanding thing to do. Narratives are telling the history of the people, relating the ways they came to be.
(3) Narratives show and do not tell. There may be explicit teachings elsewhere, e.g., “Do not commit adultery,” and a story that relates the consequences of someone committing adultery (the story of David, Bethesda and Uriah, — and one of them ends up dead). Being aware of this reinforces a clear understanding of (2).
We must remember that narratives are stories that tell the journey of the people of God through history — helping them and us understood who we are and who God is.
Elements of Hebrew Narrative
Now for the nitty-gritty. There are certain elements of Hebrew narrative that a reader needs to be aware of, so to help us develop good interpretations and understandings of these stories.
(1) The Narrator. There is some sort of narrator in every narrative, in every story that is being told. Sometimes, these narrators are trustworthy, omniscient, third-person perspective storytellers. In recent genres, narratives can be implicated in the story itself; think of Memento — Leonard is both the narrator, but he is also the one suffering from memory loss, making him unreliable. To take this particular example further, the director (Christopher Nolan) would be the “omniscient, third-person narrator” if we were to step outside the film. Anyways, in Hebraic narrator, the storyteller is this omniscient type of narrator and selects the details to include in the story. Christians believe that these human narrators are inspired by God, making God in some senses the ultimate narrator, but nonetheless operating in and through human beings with our faulty memories, and linear perspective on time. It is always good to be attentive to the narrator of the story, and how they weave details together and disclose the perspective we are approaching the story with.
(2) The Scene(s). Every story is made up of a scene or scenes. These are moments in which characters interactive or events happen to further the plot. In reading and in trying to understand a narrative, it is good to be attentive to the scenic nature and pivot points.
(3) The Characters. Every narrative has characters, and in Hebraic narrative these characters often appear in contrast or in parallel with one another. Their characterization is not usually by physical traits (and if these are given, they are somehow important to the plot), but by the character’s own actions and words (particularly the first words they speak).
(4) The Dialogue. Which, of course, brings us to the dialogue of Hebraic narrative. To restate the point above, the first dialogue spoken in a story not only usually gives us the essential character traits of the speaker, but often the essential tensions of the plot as well. Length of dialogue throughout is important as well, and there are moments that a character will summarize the narrative in dialogue to convey what the hearers or readers should take from the story.
(5) The Plot. In Hebraic narrative, plot moves every quickly. There are beginnings, middles and ends, including the conflict and the resolution given sometimes in a few verses. One of the reasons for this has to do with the structural features of Hebraic narrative.
(6) Structural Features. It is VITAL to remember in reading Hebraic narrative, that most people it was addressing would have heard it. These stories would have been read aloud in synagogues and meeting places. Not everyone had scrolls or books — in fact, very, very few did. So, to help hearers, they are places of repetition for emphasis and a return to the beginning at the end (called “inclusion”). There is foreshadowing and acknowledged patterns, in order to help people remember what they were hearing. These structural features help us discover what the narrator is trying to emphasize, and so what sort of message they were trying to convey.
In the chapter on narratives in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the authors close with a set of principles it is worth quoting at length here:
An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines 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.
Many (if not most) of the characters in the Old Testament narratives are far from perfect–as are their actions as well.
We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given. What does appear in the narrative is everything that 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 elsewhere in other ways.
Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.
God invites us into the stories that God is telling throughout human history. These are raw, violent, and often filled with less than appealing characters, but so is human history. What is remarkable, though, is the faithfulness of God to keep engaging in our stories, to keep engaging and loving us.
Happy reading and interpreting!