This past week in my hermeneutics class, we have been studying historical narrative. Today, I thought I'd edit a post I wrote for my own blog three years ago. I'm thankful that much of what I wrote then has been re-iterated by my prof, and that I have learned even more.
Historical narrative makes up most of the Old Testament. What, exactly, is it? Is it just historical fact? Is it theology? I'm going to start with what it isn't.
It is not allegory. The account of Jacob watching a ladder to heaven is not an allegory of the Christian's ascent to God. It was something Jacob actually saw. The account of Adam and Eve in the garden is not just a picture of sin; it actually happened.
Secondly, the Old Testament narratives are not moral stories. While morality is depicted in the accounts, their primary purpose is not like an Aesop's fable, to teach morality.
Thirdly, Old Testament narratives are not doctrinal lessons. It is true that we can discern God's character throughout the Old Testament. That is actually one excellent way to read the Old Testament, to look for aspects of God's character. But again, that is not their primary purpose. The stories will highlight and support doctrinal teaching, but their purpose is to tell a story; a true story. Their purpose is to provide an account of history which demonstrates a theological truth.
Narratives have plots, characters, conflict, tension, themes, and resolutions. God is the ultimate protagonist, and Satan is the ultimate antagonist. In their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart say this:
The basic "plot" of the biblical story is that the Creator God has created a people for his name - in his own "image" - who as his image bearers were to be his stewards over the earth that he created for their benefit But an enemy entered the picture who persuaded the people to bear his "image" instead, and thus to become god's enemies. The plot resolution is the long story of "redemption," how God rescues his people from the enemy's clutches, restores them back into his image, and (finally) will restore them "in a new heaven and new earth."
There are three levels of narrative. There is the overarching narrative of God's plan for his creation. That is what Fee and Stuart are referring to in the above quotation. Then there is the level of the redemptive history of man, through the covenant people of God. And there are the individuals narratives, stories like the account of the Exodus, or the story of the Judges. When Jesus talks about the Scripture testifying to him (John 5:39), he means that first level of narrative.
When we apply Old Testament narrative, we should look at that those first two levels, yet we are often tempted to restrict our applications to what we have learned from the third level of narrative. That is not going far enough. We need to reflect on the other two levels if we want a theological application.
Restricting our application to the third level of narrative alone is an example of moralizing. For example, I may think to myself, "Sarai followed Abram without question when God called him out of Ur. She was a good wife. If I want to be a good wife, I need to be like Sarai." That is moralizing. It is a noble thing to be a good wife, and there are other places in Scripture which support the principle of being a responsible wife, but this account of Sarai and Abram leaving Ur is not about marriage. Esther is not about how to be manage a difficult husband. Every story about Moses cannot be reduced to a lesson about effective leadership.
What we want to do is look at the God of the biblical characters, and put our faith and trust in him the way they did. Their God is our God. Instead of, "Dare to be a Daniel," dare to trust Daniel's God (that is an example my prof used). One of the downsides of moralizing is that it tends to forget about the relationship of those individual stories to the entire canon of Scripture. We miss out on so much if we forget about those aspects; we miss out on seeing the Bible as a unified whole. And that is part of what is so beautiful about the Bible.
Everyone loves stories, and the stories of the Bible are wonderful, exciting stories. But they are unlike any other story because they happened. And they are a part of a grand narrative orchestrated by God. Let us not forget to read them in that light.