Danny was watching the Super Bowl on TV a few years ago when a fascinating commercial came on the tube. The setting was in ancient days, and the scene portrayed two battle lines drawn up ready for war. The soldiers, armed with shields, spears, helmets, and swords, were taunting one another. Suddenly a gigantic soldier walked out from one battle line and issued a challenge to the other side. “Goliath?” Danny mused. Sure enough, about that time a small boy clad in sheepskin and armed with a sling stepped forward from the other side. Without ever telling us that this was David, the commercial continued. David ran forward and fired his rock at Goliath, striking him in the head and sending him to the ground in a crumpled heap. David then ran over to the fallen Goliath and retrieved his stone. He turned the stone around in his hand and looked at the inscription written on the back of the stone, which read: Wilson Sporting Goods. For the first and only time in the commercial the narrator spoke: “It always helps to have the right equipment.”
What interested Danny was the fact that this commercial only worked because everybody in America knows the story (the narrative) of David and Goliath. Later he saw another commercial with Samson and Delilah as the characters. Samson was clad in his Hanesunderwear. Again the advertisement never identified the two people; they assumed we could identify the story by the appearance of the characters. These advertisers had reached into the Bible and drawn out two of the best-known narratives in the Old Testament as the settings for their commercials.
These two commercials remind us how powerful the stories of the Old Testament are and how much impact they make on people, both in and out of the Christian community. The stories of David and Goliath or Samson and Delilah are not the only well-known stories from the first half of the Bible. Other equally well-known episodes include the account of Adam and Eve in the garden, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah in the whale, Job’s trials, and Moses’ crossing the Red Sea. Hollywood has also found these stories irresistible, and in recent years we have seen them produce numerous movies about the life and times of David, Moses, Abraham, and Noah.
Truly the Old Testament has some great stories in it. Of course, there are some lesser-known narratives in the Old Testament as well, some of which are interesting and some even a bit strange. What do you think of Abraham arguing with God about how many righteous people in Sodom it would take to spare the city (Gen. 18:22–33)? Or how about the time when Balaam’s donkey speaks to him? And then Balaam answers back (Num. 22:21–41)! Puzzling things happen in the Old Testament. For instance, God appears to send a lying spirit to the king’s false prophets (1 Kings 22:19–23). Also, several grotesque events transpire, such as the account of the Levite in Judges 19:1–30, who cut up his raped and murdered concubine into twelve parts and sent one part to each tribe of Israel to call them to war.
Narratives (stories) comprise nearly half of the Old Testament, a hefty percentage of the Bible. Indeed, the following books all contain large chunks of narrative material: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai. Several other books have substantial amounts of narrative interspersed in the text as well: Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Obviously, narrative is an important genre.
We will use the terms narrative and story interchangeably to refer to the genre of this type of literature. Narrative is a literary form characterized by sequential time action and involving plot, setting, and characters. It is the story form of literature. The meaning of a narrative derives primarily from the actions of its characters. Rather than telling us how to live or how not to live, the narrative showsus how to live or how not to live by the actions of the characters. For example, rather than telling us to trust God and live by faith in his promises, Genesis presents us with the story of Abraham. Also keep in mind that God is one of the central characters in Old Testament narrative. We can learn much about him by studying his actions and his dialogue in the narratives. We will discuss God’s role in the narrative in more detail below.
To some people, the terms narrative and story imply that the events described may not be true, historical events. We do not use the terms in this way, for we believe that the narrative does describe true events. However, this literature is much more than just history. The Old Testament is giving us much more than just the history of Israel. The purpose of these stories is theological—that is, God is using them to teach us theology. Again, this does not deny the historicity of the texts, and the term theological history is an accurate classification. However, this theological history comes in a narrative form, and we prefer to use that term. We will also use the term narrator as a synonym for author.
Why did God choose narrative literature to communicate theological truth to us? Why didn’t he communicate everything through essays or law? Think for a moment about these questions. Try to list some advantages of using narrative to communicate theological truth to us. Compare your list of advantages with ours below:
|Advantages (Pros) of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth|
|1. Narratives are interesting, both to children and to adults.|
|2. Narratives pull us into the action of the story.|
|3. Narratives usually depict real life and are thus easy to relate to. We find ourselves asking what we would have done in that situation.|
|4. Narratives can portray the ambiguities and complexities of life.|
|5. Narratives are easy to remember.|
|6. God can include himself as one of the characters in the narrative. Thus he can teach us about himself by what he says and does in specific contexts.|
|7. Narratives are holistic; we see characters struggle, but we also often see resolution of their struggles. We see the entire character.|
|8. Narratives relate short incidents and events to a bigger overall story.|
Are there negative aspects to narrative? Limitations? That is, are there some drawbacks to using narrative for conveying theological truth? See if you can add any cons to our list below:
|Disadvantages (Cons) of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth|
|1. The meaning of the narrative can be subtle or ambiguous and not clearly stated; the casual reader may miss it altogether.|
|2. The reader may get enthralled with the narrative as a story and miss its meaning.|
|3. The reader may assume that since the literature is narrative, it deals only with history and not theology.|
|4. The reader may read too much theology into the narrative (allegorizing).|
The pros appear to outweigh the cons. Obviously the authors of the Bible thought so. At the core of the list of advantages are issues revolving around how the literature connects with people. In our opinion, God chose to use the literary device known as narrative as a major way to communicate his big story to us precisely because the biblical narratives engage us in such a powerful way. They challenge us, interest us, rebuke us, puzzle us, and entertain us. They stick in our memory. They make us think and reflect. They involve us emotionally as well as intellectually. They teach us about God and his plan for his people. They teach us about all kinds of people—good ones and bad ones, faithful, obedient ones and mule-headed, disobedient ones. They teach us about life in all its complexities and ambiguities.
The narrators of the Bible write with skill and power. Sometimes their meaning is clear, but sometimes the writers are subtle and the meaning of the text is not always obvious. We have a substantial interpretive river to cross when we read Old Testament narrative. The rest of this unit will help you to cross that river and take the Interpretive Journey from the Old Testament narrative text to application today. We will focus on how to read narrative passages carefully and how to draw valid theological principles out of those passages—principles that can be applied to life today.