Fundamental to interpreting Old Testament narrative correctly is reading the passage carefully. Remember all the observation skills you learned back in part 1? You will need all of them as you read Old Testament narrative. Look back to unit 4 and review briefly. Do you remember how noticing all the small details in Mark 8:22–26 and in the surrounding passages helped you to interpret that passage? Likewise review our discussion in unit 4 on Genesis 11:1–9. That passage was constructed as a chiasm, remember? That complicated chiastic structure should be an indication to us that the writers of the Old Testament narratives can be subtle in their writing, and they can use some sophisticated literary devices to tell their story.
Recall as well the skills you learned in earlier on the Gospels. There are many similarities between reading the New Testament Gospels and reading Old Testament narrative. The skills you developed with the Gospels will also serve you well in tackling the stories of the Old Testament. One of the differences, however, is that the episodes in the Old Testament are usually longer than those in the New. In the Gospels most of the stories we looked at were only a few verses long. Furthermore, the context we analyzed was usually the paragraphs immediately preceding and immediately following. So our analysis of the Gospels was fairly compact. The episodes within Old Testament narrative, however, are usually longer, often involving entire chapters.
Moreover, the literary context that must be explored may be even longer, often involving numerous chapters. Don’t take shortcuts! Do not assume that these Old Testament narratives are simple stories! Observe! Probe into the text like Sherlock Holmes or a CSI team does into a crime scene. Look for repetition, comparison, contrast, movement from general to specific, and so on. Notice the small details and ask why the details are there.
Let’s look at a fascinating narrative text in Joshua 2 as an example. Open your Bible and read that chapter. In the early chapters of Joshua, the Israelites are beginning their conquest of the Promised Land. In chapter 1, God exhorts Joshua to be courageous and to lead Israel across the Jordan River to victory in the Promised Land. In Joshua 2, however, the story of the conquest slows down, interrupted by the episode about Rahab the harlot. This story is replete with details; the narrator (author) shares a tremendous amount of information about Rahab. We know her name and occupation (which should raise some questions). We are given numerous other details. For example, she hides the spies on the roof, where she dries flax; she talks to them about God, and she expresses faith in Israel’s God based on what she has heard about him; her family members are mentioned twice (2:13, 18); she gives the spies advice about their best escape route; she deceives the king’s soldiers (her own countrymen); in general she is a clever girl.
This in and of itself should set off some alarms in our heads, leading us to start asking a million observation questions. Why all the details? The roof? The red cord? Why even mention Rahab? Placed here at the beginning of the conquest story, the Rahab episode is given prominence. It seems to be stressed. Is this not unusual? The Israelites are ordered to annihilate everyone in the Promised Land, and yet the first story of the conquest is an exception—a Canaanite prostitute turns to God in faith and is saved. Certainly the location of this story and the emphasis placed on it by the amount of text assigned to it indicate that this is an important episode to understanding the conquest and the book of Joshua. Is Rahab an isolated individual, or does her character in the story represent a larger group—perhaps people of faith? Thus we plunge into Joshua 2, observing closely and asking questions.
Next we begin to explore the surrounding chapters, looking for connections and clues. Joshua 3 through 5 describes the Israelites’ preparations for their attack on Jericho (Rahab’s city). Joshua 6 describes the actual miraculous capture of Jericho. Rahab appears again in Joshua 6 (vv. 17, 23, 25), so we need to slow down and take a look. Note that once again her family as well as her possessions are mentioned: “All who are with her in her house shall be spared” (6:17), her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her” (6:23), and “with her family and all who belonged to her” (6:25). Also note how this deliverance contrasts with the fate of everyone else in Jericho, as described in 6:21: “They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”
Joshua 7, however, introduces us to a new character named Achan. This man, an Israelite, steals some of the loot that was to be devoted to God. Because of his action Israel loses the next battle. Joshua eventually finds out about Achan, and Israel executes him and his family, along with his cattle, donkeys, and sheep. Whoa! Alarms should start going off in your head. The cattle, donkeys, and sheep were also specifically mentioned in 6:21 regarding the destruction of Jericho. Is the death of Achan being compared to the destruction of Jericho? And what about the destruction of his family members? Recall that the deliverance of family members was stressed in the Rahab story. Is there a connection? Are Rahab and Achan perhaps being contrasted with each other?
Let’s take a closer look at Achan—with Rahab in mind. As we read through Joshua 7 we realize that Achan is the exact opposite of Rahab. Indeed, Rahab and Achan are the only two new major characters who are introduced into the story in the first seven chapters of Joshua. Their stories form bookends around the chapters dealing with the fall of Jericho (remember that this is the literary technique called inclusio). As we explore the details of the Achan narrative, we realize that many of the details in his story contrast with the details of the Rahab story. It seems as though the narrator is intentionally contrasting the two, with the destruction of Jericho as the background. Read through Joshua 2 and Joshua 7 again and list as many contrasts as you can. Compare your list with ours below:
|Canaanite||Hebrew (tribe of Judah, the best)|
|Should have died, but survived and prospered||Should have prospered, but died|
|Her family and all she owned survived||His family and all he owned perished|
|Nation perishes||Nation prospers|
|Hides the spies from the king||Hides the loot from God and Joshua|
|Hides the spies on the roof||Hides the loot under his tent|
|Fears the God of Israel||Does not fear the God of Israel|
|Has only heard of God, yet believes||Has seen the acts of God, but disobeys|
|Her house survives, while the city is burned||His tent is burned|
|Cattle, sheep, and donkeys of Jericho perish||Cattle, sheep, and donkeys of Achan perish|
|She becomes like an Israelite and lives||He becomes like a Canaanite and dies|
In essence, Rahab and Achan trade places. She becomes like an Israelite and lives among God’s people. She even shows up in the genealogy of Christ. Achan, by contrast, a member of Israel, dies like the Canaanites. In fact, the destruction of Achan and his family parallel the destruction of Jericho. The major difference between Rahab and Achan is their attitude toward God. Rahab takes God seriously, placing her faith in him and risking her life to protect the two Israelite spies she is hiding. Achan treats God as if he does not exist and assumes he can blatantly disobey God and not suffer any consequences.
These two narratives together bracket the destruction of Jericho. Note the irony. As we begin reading the story of the annihilation of the Canaanites by the Israelites (the conquest), the first two people we meet in the story are exceptions to the rule! The Canaanite Rahab lives and the Israelite Achan dies. The narrator is letting us know that there is more to the conquest than just the destruction of the Canaanites. There are critical issues of individual faith and obedience involved. Likewise, there is more to faith in God than just nationality or respectability. A Canaanite harlot can find it and a respectable Israelite can miss it. Thus you can see much of the theological meaning and application for us comes out of critical contrasting observations that these two characters present.
So, read carefully. Note the details. Observe! Read through surrounding chapters. Look for connections. Use all of the skills you developed in part 1. Ask questions of the text. Ask why the details are there. Keep reading and digging.