The Old Testament narratives are stories and they make up about 30% of the Bible. Yet this precious portion can become a complicated burden for Christians. Many people read them carelessly and miss the intended message. But it is worth understanding how narrative 'works' to gain a greater appreciation for our spiritual history.
Books mainly comprising narrative material include Genesis, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jonah, and Haggai.
What narratives are
Hebrew narrative has its own intricacies and customs; although it would be easily understood by the Israelites during Old Testament times, it is very much foreign to contemporary Christians. It invariably becomes hard work to understand and relate to them.
It is important to appreciate that narratives are 'purposeful stories retelling historical events' with the aim of giving 'meaning and direction for a given people in the present'. In the Bible, the story being told is God's story of the creation of mankind in his own image, redemption from sin, and final restoration in 'a new heaven and a new earth'.
This story is told on three levels. The third level, known as the metanarrative, is concerned with the universal plan of God worked out through his creation as mentioned above.
The second level is the story of God redeeming a group of his followers for his name. This happens twice, by a former covenant in the Old Testament and a 'new' covenant through Jesus Christ. The former covenant is the story of the people of Israel: the call of Abraham, bondage in Egypt, God's deliverance from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, the promised land of Canaan, the destruction of Israel and Judah, and the restoration of the nation after the exile.
Then there is the first level: the hundreds of individual narratives that piece together to make up the previous two levels. It is important to understand these individual narratives, and to appreciate how they fit into the bigger biblical story. Hence when Jesus said, 'These are the Scriptures that testify about me', he was speaking about the metanarrative, in which his atonement for our sin was the central focus, and not every individual narrative in the Old Testament.
What narratives are not
These passages 'vividly demonstrate God's involvement in the world and illustrate his principles and calling' and are precious for this purpose. However, they are less suited for other uses. For example, they are not stories with hidden meanings. We need to assume that they had meaning enough for the original audience, and not create allegories to give them meaning for ourselves. Thus the account of Moses ascending and descending Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-34 'is not an allegory of the descent and ascent of the soul to God'.
Similarly, we often dissect out moral teachings from these narratives, with no grounding from that passage to give it that meaning. We must remember that the purpose and reason for the individual narratives is to tell of what God did in the history of Israel. They reflect what really happened, rather than the ideal, and not all are examples for us to follow!
The teaching of the harmful consequences of King David's adultery in 2 Samuel 11 is implicitly understood because the audience is expected to know that adultery is wrong, since this is explicitly taught in Exodus 20:14. The narrative does not deal systematically with adultery, and hence cannot 'be used as the sole basis for such teaching'. However, it acts as a powerful illustration if used in conjunction with other parts of the Bible that deal specifically with morality.
A dangerous pitfall is the tendency to personalise the passage, supposing that parts of it apply only to yourself or your group in a way that does not apply to everyone else. An example would be 'the story of the building of the temple is God's way of telling us that we have to construct a new church building'. No biblical narrative was written specifically about you or me; the Joseph narrative is about Joseph and how God did things through him. The Ruth narrative glorifies God's protection of Ruth and the Bethlehemites – not me. We can always learn a great deal from these narratives, but never assume that God expects us to do exactly the same thing, or to have the same things happen to us as in the narratives.
This article has addressed a few common pitfalls to avoid. With an understanding of how narrative 'works', go right ahead and read them for yourself to find out about the colourful characters in biblical history. But as you contemplate the roles they played, remember that 'in the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives'!