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Rules for Reading OT Narrative

May 18, 2010

I began studying and teaching through Genesis a few weeks ago.  It is such an important book, but one that is often greatly misunderstood.  As I have prepared and taught, I’ve had to remind myself and others of a few basic rules in dealing with Old Testament narratives.  Before I highlight a few of those rules, let me explain what I mean by a narrative.  First of all, I don’t prefer the term “story” when it comes to the Bible.  Stories can be confused with fictional events and made-up tales.  The word “narrative” helps to communicate the truthfulness of the accounts.  Given that clarification, here is a broad definition of an OT narrative: a Biblical account of an historical event, meant to guide and inform people in the present.  Examples of Biblical books that are primarily narrative include Genesis, Joshua, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Jonah (among others).

Common mistakes readers make when studying OT narrative*:

1. OT narratives aren’t usually meant to directly teach doctrine.  OT narratives typically will highlight or illustrate a doctrine specifically taught elsewhere in Scripture.

2. Not every narrative records what should have happened.  Remember, narratives are historical accounts.  Often Biblical characters do not make the correct decisions or act appropriately.

3. Narratives are not primarily meant to teach morality.  Like all of Scripture, narratives are meant to reveal and teach truth, specifically in relation to God.  Many people try to moralize narratives, when that is not their primary purpose.

Rules for reading OT narrative*:

1. Narratives are historical accounts.  The actions of the characters or the circumstances are not always meant to be followed.  Sometimes it is just the opposite.

2. Narratives are inspired, but often not complete accounts.  They contain the information that God and the author thought important us to know.

3. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions.  They may have theological hints, but often heavy theological teaching is dealt with in other areas.

4. Narratives must be read in the context of the whole Bible.  What is revealed about God, humans, actions, history, and everything else must be interpreted in the greater context of the Bible.

*these are adapted from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

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