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Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative

Dennis Bratcher

About 40% of the biblical material is narrative, story, and is the most common single type of writing in the Bible. One of the primary faith confessions of both Christianity and Judaism is that God has chosen to reveal Himself in extraordinary ways in human history, yet in the ordinary events and circumstances in which human beings live and work. Those extraordinary encounters with God within ordinary human history are the heart of the Biblical witness to God.   This has led some to describe Scripture as "The Story of God."  This dimension of story is evident even in the early creedal faith confessions of the Christian community such as the Apostles' Creed, which incorporates a concise summary of the story of the Incarnation. This simply suggests that in interpreting the Bible, especially narrative material, we should take seriously this dimension of story as it is recounted in the form of literature.

Several principles and guidelines, both positive and negative, will help us focus on Scripture as a narrative about God.  (Some of the same observations and principles of interpretation apply to other biblical material, such as prophetic collections).

General Principles to Keep in Mind:

1) Most of the Bible is not so much trying to duplicate external reality as it is sharing experience and calling us to participate in that experience. The function of narrative is not to describe but to call forth a response from its hearers.

2) The basic elements of narrative, (a) setting, (b) characters, and (c) plot, are important to consider in hearing the story, but are not themselves the purpose of the narrative or the point of its message. They are the vehicle by which to communicate a larger truth to be understood in the story.

3) The setting of a narrative, or historical context, involves physical (specific places, objects, or activities), cultural (customs, social values, belief systems, world view, attitudes), and temporal (political, national, and world events) dimensions. These must be considered in relation and interaction with the characters and plot.

4) It is important to keep in mind the plot of the story: the point of conflict or tension, the characters in relation to that conflict, the flow and arrangement of the story, and how the conflict is resolved (or not). This plot will be directly related to the point (message) of the story. This suggests that Biblical narratives do not tell us everything about an event; they are selective and focused on those elements that contribute to the plot, and cannot be made to address every question we might want to ask of the story.

5) In Scripture, narratives exist only in relation to a larger whole not as isolated stories. The location of a particular story within a larger collection of stories or book (literary context) provides an additional setting for hearing the story. While the story itself may be studied on its own for its own message, the surrounding stories, the flow of thought of the larger work, as well as its historical and cultural setting affect how the individual story is to be heard.

6) As part of our engagement with the story and part of our response to it, we need to ask how the narrative engages human needs, wants, longings, sins, failures, ambitions, emotions, all of those things that are a part of human existence. How does it involve US in the story? The characters most often represent US in some way, nor directly, but as participants in human experience. Likewise, we need to ask how the story addresses those human dimensions from the perspective of relationship with God. In other words, we need to keep in mind in our response to the story that all biblical narratives are finally theology.

Basic Guidelines and Cautions:

1) God in always the central character of Scripture; it is God’s story.  This suggests that we should be cautious about making Scripture directly address modern political, social, historical, or scientific issues.

2) Narrative is not a comprehensive report of data and will not answer all the questions that we want to ask it.

3) The Bible does not always teach directly; it is not propositions about everything. Often, the "teaching" is indirect and interactive, calling for us to decide what is the point or message, and whether the characters in the story acted appropriately.

4) Not all narratives are positive messages. Since the narratives reflect real life, the characters are not always heroes. Sometimes they demonstrate what we should not be or do. Sometimes even elements like prayers are negative models and represent how people should NOT approach God.

5) Context is crucial. Every single statement or word does not necessarily have a moral all its own; the larger story is always the framework for deciding meaning, not single sentences or sometimes not even short stories within the larger narrative.

6) The narrative itself must be the starting point for understanding it, not elements imported into the story from outside unless they are directly part of the setting. It should be seen in a larger context, but not as a starting point.

7) The elements of the story itself are the guidelines to its meaning. There may be clues or signals in the story, or its immediate context, for example that it should be read sarcastically or ironically. If there are no such clues, then the story should not be seen allegorically or in some other way that moves radically away from the story itself.

8) Given the historical and cultural contexts, the narratives do not necessarily provide direct models for behavior today since we do not share those particulars of time and place. Actions of biblical characters do not directly present us with norms for our behavior today, although they may illustrate positively or negatively the consequences of certain behavior.

9) The application of the message of a narrative must be in a context that shares some dimension of the story. In other words, all narratives are not truth about everything; they are "incarnated" truth. A story cannot be used to mean something or address an issue that lies totally outside its original meaning or message.

10) Biblical narratives are not in and of themselves developed systematic theology or doctrine.  That comes as the community of Faith reflects on and processes the narrative story of God in light of later and different circumstances, ways of thinking, and needs of the community.

Sources used to develop these guidelines, and for further reading:

Fee and  Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Zondervan, 1982
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible As Literature, Zondervan, 1984
Phyllis A. Bird, The Bible as the Church’s Book, Westminster, 1982
Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense, John Knox, 1977.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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