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Literay Context—The Big Story

Earlier in the course we discussed the importance of literary context. We reiterated this point in unit 10 on the Gospels. So it should come as no surprise that we bring up this issue again in this unit. Obviously, it is important to locate the episode you are studying into the context of the narratives that surround it. Likewise, it is important to keep relating the parts to the whole. That is, when studying a small story within a particular book, it is imperative that you relate that story to the overall plot of the book. What role does your episode play in the big narrative of the entire book? The parts/whole interaction is important to keep in mind as you attempt to interpret individual stories accurately. Interpretations that do not fit into the overall story line are probably incorrect. Furthermore, a proper understanding of many events is only possible when they are read in light of the bigger story.

For instance, the smaller narrative of Numbers 14 describes the rebellion of the Israelites and their refusal to go into the Promised Land and conquer it as God had commanded them through Moses. How does this event relate to the larger narrative? God has promised this land to Abraham’s descendants way back in Genesis 12. All throughout Genesis this promise is repeated. In Exodus, God delivers the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery for the explicit purpose of taking them to the Promised Land. So, after he strikes the Egyptians with plagues, parts the Red Sea, enters into covenant relationship with the Israelites to dwell among them, and then miraculously leads them through the desert to the special land he has given to them, they refuse it. They do not want the land if they have to fight for it.

When we view the Israelites’ refusal in light of the overall narrative instead of just the smaller narrative, their behavior becomes outrageous. How could they refuse the land? Moving in to possess the land was the whole point of the exodus from Egypt! Possessing the land was the culmination of a plan God had been developing for centuries. Their refusal to enter, then, was not just another everyday episode of Israelite disobedience to God, such as we find throughout Numbers. It is the climax of their disobedience in this book.

Another passage illustrating the importance of literary context is the episode recorded in 2 Samuel 11–12 that we discussed in unit 4, that of David and Bathsheba. After David commits his terrible sins of adultery and murder, Nathan his prophet comes to him and rebukes him. David acknowledges his sin and repents sincerely. God forgives him, and he marries Bathsheba. At the end of 2 Samuel 12 David musters his army and returns to battle (where he should have been at the beginning of the story). If we stay in this chapter, all seems to be well. David has been forgiven and everything has returned to normal.

The overall story of 2 Samuel, however, throws a different light on this episode. The first ten chapters of 2 Samuel present David’s rise to power. He is continually victorious. He is the hero of the land, both militarily and theologically. He has corrected the disastrous situation described in the book of Judges, and he has the nation back on track. The narrator sums up the situation in 2 Samuel 8:15, “David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people.”

The second half of the book, however, is quite different. Starting in 2 Samuel 13 things start to go sour for David. His son Amnon rapes his half sister Tamar, only to be killed by another son, Absalom. Later Absalom leads a rebellion against David, and most of the country deserts their “hero.” At the low point of the story, as David flees, he is pelted with stones by a single man along the road (contrast with the earlier Goliath episode!). Absalom is killed, breaking David’s heart, but rebellion and political intrigue continue to plague David for the rest of his reign. Humpty Dumpty has indeed fallen, and no one in the story is able to put him back together again.

In other words, the first half of the book is wonderful for David, but the second half is disastrous. What lies in the middle? Adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah! How does the larger story help us understand David’s life-changing choices? What principle is the narrator really trying to present to us? God forgives David, but God does not return everything back the way it was. David finds out that his sin has serious consequences for his relationship with his children and his nation. When one repents of sin, God will forgive him or her of the sin, but the consequences of that sin will continue.

What application can we draw from this? Suppose that a Christian, under pressure from old friends, spends an evening drinking. Later, while drunk, he is driving home in his car and hits a four-year-old child who lives next door, killing the child. In the morning, realizing what he has done, he sincerely confesses his sin and repents. Will God forgive him of this sin? Most certainly! But the child is still dead, and the child’s parents will mourn that child for a long, long time.

Literary context is important. Placing the smaller narratives that we study into proper context within the overall story is crucial to developing a correct understanding of the passage. How is this done? How much text should we read in order to place an episode in proper context? We suggest the following guidelines, moving from the larger context to the smaller context:

  • Be aware of the overall story of the Old Testament. Explore how the character or episode that you are studying fits into the big picture.
  • Study the overall themes and message of the book of the Bible that your episode is in. Read a summary statement of the book in a good Bible dictionary. If possible read the entire book yourself. Look for connections between the episode you are studying and the rest of the book. What role does your episode play in the overall plot of the book?
  • We recommend that you read the entire larger episode. For example, if you are studying an event in Abraham’s life, then read all of the Abraham narrative (Gen. 12–25). Try to determine how the event you are studying fits into the larger episode. Remember to read carefully and look for connections.
  • As a minimum, read three chapters: the entire chapter in which your episode occurs, the chapter that precedes it, and the chapter that follows it.

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