By David McNeely
My childhood is filled with memories of Old Testament stories. I loved it. I was a rowdy, obnoxious, desperately-in-need-of-the-not-yet-popular-ADHD-medication kid and yet I would sit spellbound for flannel-graph vacation bible school story time.
Story captures our imagination. Story stirs our souls. Story has a way of bringing our minds and our hearts to the same location where belief is bred. The Old Testament historical books (Joshua – 2 Chronicles) are stories. Among them are some of the most well-known stories in human history: Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, just to name a few.
It’s relatively easy to see what we should and shouldn’t do in many of these stories but what in the world do we do with some of the bizarre stories in the Old Testament historical books? Bears mauling kids? A daughter being sacrificed? Body parts of a dead person being mailed to different places? Any clues on where to start on applying that? Uh…don’t do it…Any questions?
I want to draw your attention to some help on what to do with both the normal and abnormal parts of the bible called “Narrative.” This will help guide us as we read what composes the majority of the Scriptures.
Julian Freeman compiled 10 Principles For Interpreting OT Narrative from some really good books. You can go to the site for the whole blog or just read the 10 Principles below:
- A narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine but rather illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
- A narrative records simply what happened, not necessarily what should have happened or what should happen every time.
- We’re not always told at the end of the narrative what was good & bad; narratives invite reflection and thoughtful pondering based on other teachings.
- The things that happen in a narrative are not necessarily a positive example for us, even if the person is a positive figure by and large.
- Most people are far from perfection; so are their actions.
- All narratives are incomplete and selective in details; sometimes what is left out is as important as what is included (what is important is that we know everything the inspired author intended for us to know).
- A narrative is not written to answer all our theological questions and they are misinterpreted if we come with our questions, rather than the questions the narrator wants to answer.
- God is the real ‘good’ character and the hero of all biblical narrative; he is the only one always worthy of emulation.
- The historical narratives are always to be interpreted by the teaching material.
- Always remember that Jesus told us the story is about him; you haven’t finished understanding the narrative as a Christian until you see how it helps you to understand and know and love him.
Two videos of George Guthrie interviewing Bruce Waltke about OT Narrative are excellent. The first one is on why the Old Testament stories have stood the test of time:
The second addresses the bizarre story we mentioned above regarding a daughter being sacrificed:
When it comes to finding Jesus in the Old Testament, two books stand tall. The Jesus storybook bible is for children. We have used it heavily.
The second book is, in my opinion, the best book on the subject of Jesus in the OT. Jesus On Every Page, was written by David Murray for average people like me. You can read a review of the book from The Gospel Coalition.