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How to Understand Old Testament Narratives

The Old Testament contains many true stories about people who lived hundreds of years ago. These narratives are probably the easiest part of the Old Testament to read and understand. However there are a few things we should be aware of as we read.

Setting

This is the time and place where the story took place. Often the setting is given at the beginning of the account. There may also be cultural elements to consider, which will have an impact on our understanding of the narrative.

Characters

Each story has a main character, and often has secondary characters. The most important character in all O.T. stories is God himself, even though his actions may often be unstated, as he acts behind the scenes. The story often has the purpose of revealing God’s nature and character.

We can learn about the character through the author’s direct descriptions, the way other people respond to him, and what the character says about himself. A person’s character is also revealed through their actions and speech, whether positive or negative, or even through what is not done or said.

Often the author will use a contrasting character to heighten the goodness or evil of a main character. The end of the story will often give a direct or implied evaluation of the character.

Plot

The plot is the main story line, the actions and events that take place in the story. We need to note the main events, and their progression. It is often helpful to note any contrast between the beginning and end of the story, and whether any evaluation of the events are made at the end of the story. We should also note any conflict and resolution, and whether the events of the story have a lasting effect in the lives of the people.

Three levels

When reading the Old Testament stories we should think of where the story fits on three levels

Firstly, these stories describe how God revealed his character to ordinary individuals in Old Testament Israel, and worked in and through their lives. The Bible does not attempt to cover over their weaknesses and failings, but instead shows God working often in spite of these, in order to bring about his purposes. Through these stories we can learn much about the nature and character of God, especially his loving faithfulness and almighty power, and how he relates to individuals.

Secondly, each individual story should also be seen as part of the history of Old Testament Israel. We should become familiar with the overall thrust of Israel's history to see where the particular story fits in. The actions of the particular individual often had a profound effect on the following generations, either positively or negatively.

And thirdly, we need to consider how this story fits with God’s overall plan of salvation. Many of the events in the Old Testament in some way foreshadow the coming of Jesus, his death on the cross, and the salvation he will bring.

What narratives are not

We should note that narratives are not allegories. We should not try to identify some profound hidden spiritual meaning from every small detail of the story.

Narratives do not normally give explicit teaching or instructions. The lesson is normally more implicit from the actions and experiences of the characters in the story. Narratives do not always tell us whether the actions were a good or a bad example, but often leave it up to the reader to decide. This can be done from knowing the principles taught in the teaching passages of the Bible, particularly the law. For example, in the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah (2 Sam 11), we are not told until the end of the story that God was displeased (11:27). This was when Nathan the prophet was sent to David. However explicit teaching against adultery and murder is found in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:13-14).


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