Study 18: Interpreting Story

For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

We are continuing our study on Hermeneutics: the art and science of Biblical Interpretation, this time focusing on Narrative.

Something that is uniquely human is that we process life through story. As we retell the events of the day, recall an important event from long ago, or try to illustrate a concept we begin to process, select and arrange those events as a narrative. Why? It’s the way we make sense of things.

God wired us for story. And in Scripture, God gave us stories.

Now while story is a human trait, it is expressed in various ways. The Western tradition of storytelling is quite different to the East; or more particularly, the ancient Middle-East. We need to cross a vast chasm of time (up to 4000 years), culture (most agrarian), geographic, political and religious. Moreover, the authors of Scripture employed a variety of styles and literary devices we may ignore and completely overlook their significance. 

Our intention in reading Scripture is first to discover the divinely intended meaning communicated by the original author to the original audience in their original context. The biblical narratives are masterful literature: every word, every element, every part of the structure is precisely chosen to accomplish the author’s intention. Remember that the creator of communication, God Himself, stands behind the text of Scripture. As He said in Isaiah 55:11 “So is My word which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

To interpret narrative, Walt Kaiser points out: “The place we must begin is with the plain, natural, original, historical meaning of the passage.  If we ever abandon that as our starting point, we will have forfeited all hope for arriving at any agreed sense of meaning of a text.”

The five key components of biblical narrative are the setting, the plot, the characters, the dialog, and the theological purpose of the story. Clear-headed Bible interpretation must pay close attention to all five. Let’s lay out the guidelines for interpreting narrative:

Pay Close Attention to the Setting of the Story

To interpret a narrative fully, it is vital that one have a firm grasp on the historical-cultural background and the geographic setting of a Biblical narrative. This is the backdrop on which the story plays out.

  • Is it mere coincidence that the sermon in which Jesus spoke about the relationship between His teaching and the Mosaic Law Code was delivered from a mountain (Matt 5:1)?  What Yahweh did at Sinai, Jesus did in Matthew 5-7.  The setting of the Sermon on the Mount is an Everest-like commentary on the authority of Jesus of Nazareth.
  • In teaching Genesis 12ff., to understand how Abraham’s faith was tested by time, it is vital to pay attention to the chronological milestones supplied by Moses.  Abraham was 75 (Gen 12:4) when God called him, 85 when the Hagar experiment was undertaken (16:3, 16), 99 when God promised him a son through Sarah (17:1), and 100 when Isaac was born (21:5).  A twenty-five year wait for the son of promise is a severe test of faith.

Carefully Outline the Plot (the Events) of the Story

Biblical stories follow the normal pattern of stories the world over.  They start with a peaceful situation into which a problem or tension is introduced. A solution to that problem is sought, and in the end, there is resolution, a return to a peaceful situation. Consider Daniel and the Lion’s Den:

  • Initial situation:  Because of his extraordinary abilities and integrity, Daniel is appointed as one of three commissioners over the entire Persian Empire. 
  • Tension:  Jealous enemies plot against Daniel, arranging his unjust execution. 
  • Solution:  God intervenes to protect Daniel from persecution by subduing the lions. 
  • Resolution:  The wicked persecutors become a meal for the great cats, and Darius circulates a decree declaring Daniel’s God to be the living, eternal God. 

To approach this, you will need to divide the story into its proper segments (don’t rely on the chapter headings!). Often the narratives consist of a series of shorter stories within a larger story. For example, the various miracle accounts within the overall story of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  To discover the smaller stories within a larger narrative, look for two things:

  • a complete problem/solution storyline
  • significant changes in time and place

 Note the example from the anointing of David:

  • Then Samuel went to Ramah, but Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul… (1 Sam 15:34)
  • Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah. (1 Sam 6:13)

Note the change in scene and the repeated phrase Samuel went to Ramah tells you quite clearly that the anointing of David is a complete story within the larger story of 1 Samuel, and should be studied and understood as a unit.

Note Important Details about the Characters of the Story

We hardly know what Abraham, Moses, David or Paul looked like. However, on occasion, the biblical author gives some details about a characters appearance or reputation. Take special note of this.

For example, the summary of Job’s character in Job 1:1 (blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil) is super important. It establishes from the start that Job did not suffer because of his wickedness; he suffered in spiteof his extraordinary righteousness. Some cautions, though:

  • The human characters of a Bible story are a flea on a lion’s back when compared to the story’s central figure: God. He is always the most important character in a Bible story—even in the book of Esther where His name is not mentioned. 
  • The actions of Bible heroes are not always included in a story because they are noble.  For example, David had multiple wives, committed adultery, and murdered to cover his sin.  Always allow the teaching sections of Scripture to inform your conclusions regarding the behavior of the characters in biblical narratives.
  • The events experienced by biblical characters are often one-time events, not intended to be re-experienced or imitated by believers today (Jesus walking on water, Moses speaking to God face to face). Narrative is not necessarily normative.
  • Be very careful not to impose a psychological or social interpretation quite alien to the Scripture on a biblical character’s attitudes and actions.

Daniel Block writes, “Much of what goes by the label of ‘biographical preaching’ is little more than the imposition of contemporary psychological theory or the latest thinking on leadership style upon biblical texts… Such approaches tend, on one hand, to lead interpreters to find what they are looking for, rather than what is actually there, and on the other hand to yield overly optimistic perceptions of the characters that appear in biblical texts.”

Pay Special Attention to the Dialogs in the Story

Biblical authors often tell their story and its theology by means of the words or dialogs of their characters. Especially pay attention when an insignificant character says something of theological importance.

  • In Ruth, the author could have stated in his own words that Ruth converted from worshipping the gods of Moab to serving Yahweh, the God of Israel. However, it was far more compelling to quote Ruth’s own words: “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).
  • David and Goliath: without the dialogs between David, Saul, and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17 would devolve into nothing more than an entertaining account of David’s improbable victory over a Philistine giant.  However, with those dialogs, it is a theological treatise on God’s power.
    • Saul: “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him.” (1 Sam 17:33)
    • David: “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine!” (17:37)
    • Goliath: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky 
      and the beasts of the field.” (17:44)
    • David: “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I 
      come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.”(17:45)

So when studying narrative, give special attention to the words of the characters. In many cases, their conversations or speeches reveal the theological point of the story.

Identify the Theological Message the Author wanted to Communicate

This is the point of your study. The biblical authors recorded history to teach theological lessons. In a very explicit example of this, the Apostle John says as much in John 20:31 “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Here are seven tips for getting to the Biblical Historian’s theological purpose:

  1. Direct Statements
    • Does the author directly state the theological lesson to which he hopes to draw your attention?  John 20:31, cited above, provides the classic example of this.  All the words, deeds, and miracles of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel were included to compel one to believe Jesus is Messiah and God. Naturally then, John’s purpose must shape one’s interpretation of individual sections.
    • See also 2 Kings 17:7-23 where the author summarizes the theological point of his report on the evil kings of the Northern Kingdom.
  2. Editorial Comments
    • Sailhamer notes, “Biblical narratives, in particular are noticeably reader conscious. In reading them, one rarely has the impression of being alone, the authors have their way of guiding the reader along…”
    • See how this plays out in Acts:
      • [They] began to speak the word of God with great boldness. (4:31)
      • Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (5:42)
      • And the word of God kept on spreading. (6:7)
      • Those who had been scattered went about preaching the word. (8:4)
      • [Paul was] preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. (28:31)
      • The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (2:47)
      • Many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand. (4:4)
      • All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (5:14)
      • So the church … continued to increase. (9:31)
      • And many believed in the Lord. (9:42)
      • The hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (11:21)
    • Luke wrote the book of Acts to show that the early church was faithful to obey Christ’s commission to preach the gospel and that God was faithful to bless their efforts with many conversions.  Luke’s theological message?  Whatever internal problems or external pressures threatened its progress, the church preached and the church grew.
  3. Significant Speeches
    • Speeches are like road signs to the theological lesson of the story. Note especially speeches by insignificant characters (who could have been left out of the narrative without anything being lost). When the author makes a point of quoting the words insignificant characters, you can be sure he is directing the reader’s attention to something important.
      • Nebuchadnezzar: “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth… He is able to humble those who walk in pride.” (Dan 4:35, 37). 
        Daniel didn’t need to supplement Nebuchadnezzar’s speech with a closing editorial comment. Nebuchadnezzar’s words summarized the theological lesson of Daniel 4 perfectly.
      • The widow of Zarephath regarding Elijah: In 1 Kings 17:1, a completely unknown man named Elijah suddenly appears in the court of Israel and tells King Ahab that it will not rain until he says it will. Then Elijah (who is as much a mystery to the reader at this point as he is to King Ahab) goes into hiding, staying with the widow of Zarephath.  After Elijah raises her son from the dead, the widow makes this declaration:
        “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is true.” (1 Kgs 17:24).  
        Although she is an insignificant character, the author uses the widow’s words to express the view of Elijah he wants his readers to adopt. 
  4. Structural Devices
    • Note the literary or structural devices the author uses to ‘glue’ his story together. After all, the chapter and verse divisions weren’t added until the Middle Ages and they often obscure the original author’s organizational designs. Here are some examples:
      • Sometimes biblical authors cluster groups of stories together to make one point.  The miracle accounts of the Gospels are obvious examples of this literary technique.
      • Chiasmus: in Genesis 7-8, Moses purposely structured the story of the Flood to emphasize God’s complete sovereignty over the number of days comprising each stage of the Flood:  7, 40, 150, 150, 40, and 7 days.
        Of course, Moses did not impose that chronological structure on the Flood. God did. And Moses’ intentional recording of God’s time schedule for this worldwide disaster is one of the key theological lessons of Genesis 7-8:  what appears to men to be an out of control catastrophe is, to God, a tightly governed event run on an exact time schedule. David summarized this in Psalm 29:10 when he said, The Lord sat as King at the flood; yes, the Lord sits as King forever.
      • Inclusio: this refers to the technique of “book-ending” a large block of text with similar words or themes to highlight the fact that everything in between the bookends works together as a unit.
  5. Repeated Words or Themes
    • In Jonah, the word compassion is used three times, in 4:2, 10, 11.  The repetition of the word compassion provides a clue to the book’s overall theological message:  God’s compassion on Gentile sinners.
    • Ezra 7:9, 27-28; 8:18-23, 31-32.  The repetition of the phrase the hand of our God (or its equivalent) highlights the theological message of this section of Ezra:  God’s providential care for the returning exiles.
  6. Rhetorical Question
    • A rhetorical question is a question, the answer to which is so obvious, the author does not supply the answer.  OT writers often employed key rhetorical questions to highlight their theological message. For example:
      • Pharaoh to Moses: “Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?  (Exodus 5:2)
        Yahweh will spend the next nine chapters showing Pharaoh who He is and why He should be obeyed.
      • God to Jonah: Should I not have compassion on Nineveh… ?  (Jonah 4:11)
        The question needs no answer.  It is perfectly appropriate for a God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in loving-kindness to extend mercy to the undeserving Ninevites.  In other words, Jonah’s account is not about a naughty prophet and a hungry whale.  Instead, it is a powerful theological lesson about God’s compassion toward undeserving sinners.
  7. Choice of Material
    • To find the theological lesson of a historical account, note what information the author includes and excludes. For example:
      • Why did the Gospel writers include so little information about Jesus’ childhood and youth? Why didn’t they tell us what Jesus looked like? Why do all four gospels dedicate so much attention to Jesus’ miracles, the passion week, and especially His death and resurrection?
        The Gospel writers ignored trivial information about Jesus’ physical appearance and childhood and chose, instead, to load their accounts with reports of Jesus’ miracles, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection, thus revealing their theological agendas.
      • In 1 & 2 Chronicles, the author wants to exalt the Davidic covenant and to idealize the Davidic line, so he ‘sanitised’ his report of David’s reign, excluding David’s adultery, murder, and family conflicts, so that David could be presented as the ideal king. The Chronicler employed the same technique with Solomon, skipping any mention of Solomon’s serial idolatry. The Chronicler was not being dishonest as he did this; he was simply excluding material that did not serve his theme: the benefits of a noble Davidic ruler who righteously implemented joyful Yahweh worship.

Let me summarize it in one place. To get the most out of a biblical story (to get the the theological message of the narrative), look out for:

  1. the setting
  2. important details about the characters
  3. the plot or events of the story
  4. structural (literary) devices
  5. editorial comments
  6. key dialog
  7. significant speeches
  8. repeated words or themes
  9. key rhetorical questions
  10. the author’s choice of material

This has been a long one. Well done for pressing on all the way to the end! No one said hermeneutics would be an easy exercise. But it will most surely bless your study of God’s Word.

2 thoughts on “Study 18: Interpreting Story

  1. Well-written and right on the money.

    Should this be excluding vs including?
    “The Chronicler was not being dishonest as he did this; he was simply including material that did not serve his theme…”


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