10 Principles for Reading OT Narratives

old testamentIt’s safe to say that “narratives” is the most predominant type of literature in the Bible. Leaving aside the New Testament, over 40 % of Old Testament are narratives.  Given that, especially in light of the New Year when a bunch of us will finally be tackling the OT again, it’s kind of important to know what you’re doing when approaching these texts, especially when reading for theological and moral content. For instance, what do we do with the story of Abram giving Sara to the king of Egypt out of fear and gaining great wealth (Gen. 12)? Is this acceptable behavior for us? I mean, he is a patriarch? Or what about the story of Gideon and the fleece (Jdg. 6)? Should we set up little tests for God in order to figure out his will for our lives?

With these sorts of problems in mind Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give 10 important principles to keep in mind when reading Old Testament narratives for moral and theological content:

  1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
  2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
  3. Narratives record what happened— not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
  4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us.
  5. Frequently, it is just the opposite. Most of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect— as are their actions as well.
  6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21: 25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
  8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
  9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.

Fee, Gordon D.; Stuart, Douglas (2009-10-14). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Kindle Locations 1866-1879). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

This is not a full-blown hermeneutic for reading Old Testament texts, but these are sound principles that can help clear up some of the worst pitfalls an untrained-reader might fall into.

Soli Deo Gloria

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