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Bible Historical Narratives Interpreting the Literary Types

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The narrative is the most common type of literature found in the Bible, making up almost half of the total text.  Narrative are historical stories about the past that are meant to give us instruction and meaning for our present times.  In the bible, there are stories, or plots, within stories.  The larger story is that of God working to redeem His creation, so all other plots  must be evaluated within this context.  In addition, the stories may be further divided, so always interpret the smaller plots within the context (there's that important word again) of the larger (such as individual plots within the larger context of the particular book).

To put narratives in context, look for introductory, generalizing, summary and conclusion statements by the author.  These can usually (but not always) be found at the beginning or end of the narrative.  As an example, you may have heard many sermons preached on Mark 1:2-8 centering on John the Baptist.  Now, John is the subject of these verses, but we should always determine not so much the subject matter, but what the author meant by including this subject matter.  We see this in Mark's introduction of the narrative in verse 1, The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  So, the narrative must be interpreted within the larger context of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In Acts, Luke makes broad generalizations about the life of the Church at various particular times and places.  Other examples are Deut 34:91-12 (summary of Exodus thru Deuteronomy), Josh 1:1-2 (introduction to Joshua), and John 20:30-31, Luke 1:1-4 and 1John 5:13 (author's purpose for writing).

Other clues to watch for with narratives:  The author will sometimes insert his own comments such as “Jesus said this because...”.  Watch for interwoven sub-plots (the role of Judah in the story of Joseph).  Note the narrator's point of view, the perspective from which the story is told.  Watch for any unusual characterizations of the subjects, how they are contrasted or compared, and their dialogues (particularly repetitions and summations).

Despite the claims of the modern critics, narratives are not allegories or filled with hidden meanings.  They are real stories written by real people in real situations.  We must be cautious however, especially with OT narratives, not to push our moral conclusions too far.  These stories record both the accomplishments and failures of the characters involved, and some were primarily meant to chronicle God's historical dealing with Israel rather than to establish moral principles or doctrine.  Many did illustrate or imply principles that were explicitly taught elsewhere.  For example, the narrative in 2Samuel 11 details David committing adultery with Bathsheba, but makes no judgment (David is later admonished by Nathan).  The narrator expects the reader to be familiar with the Bible's previous prohibition on adultery (Ex 20:14).  This illustrates another principle regarding understanding narratives within context, that the writers expected his readers to evaluate his narrative in light of previous teachings.  The historical narratives in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles accept and build upon the narratives of the Pentateuch, Joshua and Judges.  Likewise, the NT narratives build upon the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT).

We've already stated that the rules of interpretation from our main Bible Interpretation Page should be applied to each literary type, but it bears repeating here that we should be careful not to read ideas and perspectives from our modern culture into Bible narratives.  We should determine first what the author was saying to his original audience, then determine how to apply his intended meaning to our situations.

Historical Precedent (Principle or Culture?)

A related principle to that in the above paragraph, and perhaps one of the most important cautions that we should keep in mind is that, the Bible narratives are not specifically about us!  They are about how God worked His plan of redemption through Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Paul and others.  We should not automatically assume that we are expected to do exactly the same thing that these Bible characters did.

This leads us to one of the most difficult determinations involving narratives, that of principle vs customs.  Is a particular narrative establishing a historical precedent or is it speaking to a local cultural issue?  A well known example (and still highly contested today) is the role of women in the church.  Discussion of specific issues is beyond the scope of this article, but we need to mention a few general principles that can be applied.

The first rule, as always, is to examine the context.  For instance, we find that most Jewish civil and ceremonial laws established in the OT are nullified (fulfilled by the Messiah) in the NT.  We must also ask ourselves, "Does the Scripture (based upon the author's intent) positively endorse or ordain an institution, or does the Bible merely recognize its existence?  Many people have accused the Bible of endorsing slavery, when it simply acknowledges its existence and offers advice on how to act within a bad situation, and it was actually Christian movements that were responsible for its abolishment. 

Next we should attempt to isolate the central message or principle in our subject passages from those items which merely support or illustrate the point.  The fallen state of man, the sinless life, atoning death and resurrection, the return of Christ are clearly part of the core message of the Bible.  We can also look for actions, thoughts or attitudes that the NT sees as inherently unethical or immoral.  Jesus' or Paul’s lists of sins such as  murder, adultery, sexual immorality, greed, homosexuality, drunkenness, theft etc always establish principles which transcend first-century culture.  Invariant and consistent statements about an action located throughout the NT is also a good indication of a timeless principle.

Another rule is that, institutions involving the creation plan (man and woman as male and female, marriage, divorce etc) should be taken as principle which transcends culture.  These and certain others were confirmed by Jesus and the NT writers.  We must also allow the text to speak for itself, avoiding reading our cultural norms or religious traditions back into the text.  On the other hand, where the text is unclear, ecclesiastical traditions developed by the saints as they wrestled with these issues with much prayer while seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, should certainly be considered.

To summarize, what is merely narrated or described in Scripture (not explicitly commanded) does not obligate us unless it can be demonstrated elsewhere that the author intended it to establish a precedent.  That said, if after a careful study, we remain uncertain whether a particular mandate is principle or custom, I prefer to err on the side of treating it as a principle.  It is much better to be a bit overzealous in keeping a custom than to ignore a precedent set by Holy Scripture.  We should also guard against the legalistic approach of requiring others to keep mandates when Scripture is silent or the interpretation remains unclear.

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