Story (as a genre) is extremely popular. Story vividly conveys truth, causing it to be memorable.
Much of Scripture is Story. God, in His infinite wisdom, deemed this best. We can all be grateful to Him for providing so much Story or “narrative” in the pages of His Word. A danger, however, is that story / narrative can be easy to abuse. I am indebted to many who have informed my handling of story / narrative so as to help me be more careful in the wonderful task of striving to understand God’s Word, especially story / narrative.
The following are reminders particularly useful when studying OT story / narrative:
1. OT Narrative does NOT directly teach doctrine; it usually illustrates doctrine taught directly elsewhere.
Narratives have great value because they flesh out doctrine and jump into a story that picturesquely makes a simple point (e.g. don’t be stingy and selfish is all taught in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), but we should be careful not to think of narrative as primarily didactic, academic, or doctrinal. It isn’t.
This is not to say that narratives are less Scriptural (they are certainly not moralistic fairy tales beginning with “Once Upon a Time”)—just lest propositional and direct than explicitly doctrinal genres.
Narratives teach a lot less information than Law and Epistle for example, but they teach it much more memorably.
2. Narratives record what happen (descriptive) not necessarily what should or should not have happened (prescriptive); they often contain examples we should NOT follow.
Their descriptive nature (they describe events they do not always comment on whether they’re right or wrong; hence the silence on polygamy e.g.). Even the prescriptions (or imperatives) that they contain are often said by a character in the story who may or may not be a trustworthy source. For example, if the queen in Alice in Wonderland says “OFF with his head” ; that’s a prescription, an imperative, but following it would miss that she’s the BAD guy!
Often, then, “self-help” sermons like “10 Lessons from Joseph on How to Grow Your Self Esteem…Finances…Personal Victory…” stretch the text – AT BEST, abuse it at worse, and nearly always make us the center of life rather than God and his plan the center of life
So, for example, when Joseph’s story from pit, to prison, to palace is presented as a sort of “rags to riches recipe” for us to follow in order to have it all in this life, the text is being strained and is severely missing the teaching of the rest of Scripture!!
3. Narratives do not always tell us at the end what was good or bad. We are expected to be able to discern this on the basis of God’s clearer teaching in the rest of Scripture.
Read them in light of clear commands, teaching, NT principles and precepts. Recognize the context and larger purpose of the narrative
4. Narratives are selective and incomplete. Furthermore, the entire narrative may teach one major life lesson.
Disconnecting them from the larger story-line will cause us to misunderstand the narrative. We don’t want to confuse “Scene 1” with the entire play because often even fairly lengthy narratives impress upon the reader a single point.
5. In the Final Analysis, God is the Hero of every narrative (as He is of all of life).
Remember that Scripture stories should ultimately point us to Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
KEY: This of course does NOT mean that we ignore MORALS in the text or that we READ INTO every verse Jesus (behind every rock and corner), but it does mean that we recognize our NEED for Jesus in every passage of Scripture.
6. OT Narratives are NOT allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings!
Unfortunately they are often preached that way. As an example, I’ve heard a number of preachers share what was going on in Joseph’s mind when he was in the pit (Gen 37). To this I respond, “Since the text does not tell me what was going through Joseph’s mind, only two people could actually know this—Joseph and God. Which one are you claiming to be?”
This is NOT to say that we cannot use some “sanctified speculation” but we must be careful to note when we are speculating.
*Remember—even though it’s not popular to say this—the goal in preaching (especially narratives!) is NOT to be creative, it’s to be faithful to simply saying what God has already said.
If we really believe that we can spice it up better than God can, we have an inflated view of self and a low view of God and His Word!
God’s recorded Word is wonderful, vibrant, and what we need for life and godliness. May we learn from Story / Narrative–even from the OT. (You can listen to me expound on this further here.)
Romans 15:4 “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”