The Barnabas Ministry

Old Testament Narratives
Most of the Old Testament is written in the style of historical narrative. The story of God and people unfolds through history, capturing major and minor events and details along the way.

This class will discuss the "Old Testament historical narrative" as a unique genre of literature and identify some methods for understanding these.

Three Levels of History
Old Testament history covers centuries of time. At its highest level, it tells the history of Israel from creation until the centuries just before Christ. At another level, it tells us of major eras along the way-- such as the time of the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the time of the kings of Israel. At its lowest level, it speaks of individual events-- such as the first Passover, individual battles and scores of events that fill in the details. Thus, we have three levels of history:

    1. Top Level- big picture
    2. Middle Level- major eras
    3. Bottom Level- individual events
In reading Old Testament historical narratives, one must consider the larger contexts of these historical levels to understand and appreciate why certain things happen and what significance they have.

Misconceptions Regarding Old Testament Narratives
There are several common misconceptions about the use of Old Testament narratives.

  1. They are not about people; they are primarily about God. Yes, certain people are the central human characters in various individual accounts. And yes, certain events focus extensively on human activity. But the point of these events is how God acted in response to man and how man acted in response to God.
  2. They are not allegories (stories where each object or event in the story "spiritually" represents something else). The objective is not to uncover "hidden meanings" or symbolism that "no one else has thought of" but rather to understand what the original writer intended to communicate about God and his relationship with people.
  3. They rarely teach directly. For example, the requirements of the Law of Moses might be discussed in the books of the Law (Exodus-Deuteronomy), but how people subsequently obeyed or disobeyed that Law will be discussed in the narrative books.
  4. There isn't always a "moral" to individual events. Sometimes they simply tell what happened, and the reader is expected to be able to understand what happened was good, bad or neither.
  5. They are about those people, not you. Don't try to look for something that applies to your life today in every event-- simply because your circumstances are considerably different than theirs.
Important Guidelines for Understanding Old Testament Narratives
Having considered common misconceptions concerning the use of Old Testament narratives, there are three important guidelines for understanding Old Testament narratives:
    1. Understand the scope and limitations of the genre. Remember the misconceptions list above; especially that narratives are simply saying what happened.
    2. Don't confuse "example" with "approved example." Not every action of an historical character is approved; in fact many (if not most) are not!
    3. Allow the passages to be illuminated by the larger historical context. Ask, "How does the story I am reading fit into the larger context?"
Read the book of Ruth. For background, see Leviticus 19:10 (gleaning),  Leviticus 25:47-50 (redeeming), and Numbers 27:7-11 (inheritances).
Copyright © 2000 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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