A well-detailed historical narrative and documentation are essential in modern biblical interpretation to produce an authentic Biblical interpretation.
If not, there will be total negligence on Archeological researches and discoveries eg (dead sea scrolls), theological discoveries eg (sola scripture), bible lands and customs, even the conquests and settlements in Cannan and all over human ancient civilisation in every dispensationalism etc. The historical-critical method opened up new opportunities for interpreting the biblical text as a whole. The study and interpretation of the Bible are never finished; each age must strive to understand the sacred books in their own unique way, context and dispensationalism.
Have you ever wondered why God did not reveal His will, and plans to man entirely in rules and direct instruction? What is the value of the 80 per cent of the Old Testament that is history and poetry? Why do the Old Testament books consist mainly of history and the New Testament books primarily of epistles? The answer lies in the fact that learning does not only take place on a simple fact level. The highest levels of learning touch the will and emotions.
For this reason, God uses literary genres that reach beyond the head to touch the heart by genre we refer to a group of texts that bear one or more traits in common. We have already studied figures of speech relative to one verse and extended figures of speech that cover an entire text. Now we will study styles that dominate entire sections and books of the bible.
The most common genre is the historical narrative that is used in nearly 60 per cent of the bible. This genre includes most of the first seventeen books of the Old Testament (except Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and the first four books in the New Testament. Another common genre treated in the New Testament is “epistles”. Clearly, twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are actually letters written to churches or individuals. Learning to interpret historical narratives and epistles correctly will increase your ability to understand clearly and teach effectively the truth revealed in these literary genres.
Interpreting the Historical Narratives
When you finish this training, you should be able to:
- Demonstrate that you can use rules of hermeneutics to interpret examples of historical narratives.
- Select accurate descriptions of the advantages and limitations of using historical narratives in teaching truths.
- Suggest a pattern for interpreting an epistle.
- 1. After studying this article, read the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 and look for the narrator’s purpose, as well as the primary characters, plot, setting, and style.
- 2. Review the rules for interpreting historical narrative and epistles listed in the previous articles on this website.
- 3. Take the self-test and Review your answers incorrectly.
INTERPRETING THE HISTORICAL NARRATIVES
The power of the story genre to change lives is vividly illustrated by television and movies viewed around the world. In South America, the “story” in media has been blamed for the rise of crime and civil unrest. In the same way, a novel can exert great influence. A few years ago an Iranian leader offered a one million dollar reward to anyone willing to assassinate the author of a novel that allegedly defamed Islam. Obviously, the Islamic Imam recognized the power of one story to mould the reader’s opinions.
It is no wonder that three out of every five pages of the bible record the history of actual people and events. These stories influence the reader’s mindset as he identified with the characters. They provide a “hands-on” reality to the teaching of the bible that a list of laws and principles could never match.
Even the simpler reports that are not fully developed stories give our faith roots in facts. The historical foundation of Bible truth is a safeguard against the mystical error of removing the faith from everyday living. It is also a safeguard against the threat of the “anti-supernaturalist” who would degrade our faith and make it a religion without miracles.
Treat History As Fact
To interpret historical narrative accurately, the first rule is to recognize that the events actually took place—they are history. When the book of Jonah is studied as a historical narrative rather than as a symbolic allegory, the “big fish” and the “little worm” actually swim and wiggle (or swallow and chew). When the narrative of Balaam is interpreted as historical narrative, means that the rotation of the earth actually changed (or by some other means God joggled time).
The historical narratives of the Bible reflect a “purposeful” reporting of the facts, but never a deliberate lie or deceitful exaggeration. Its writers were repulsed by the mythology and legends of their time. They reported God’s actual interventions into the affairs of mankind.
Although it has been popular recently to discount the miracles or seemingly incredible stories of the Old Testament (the universal flood, the talking donkey, and the man-swallowing fish) as “myth genre,” it is interesting that the New Testament written and Christ treated these most “awkward stories” as facts (see 1Peter 3:20; 2Peter 2:16 and Mathew 12:40). Surely in light of the greatest miracles (the incarnation and resurrection), believing these unique miracles seem trivial.
Do Not Base A Doctrine Solely On A Historical Account.
Interpreting historical events in the Bible is by nature difficult because the stories teach indirectly and implicitly. Often the account does not even attempt to state a moral or purpose; rather, it allows the reader to draw his own conclusions by evaluating the words and actions of the characters in the story. Because of this characteristic, a doctrine should never be based exclusively on the record of a historical event.
An example is a fleece in the story of Gideon (See Judges 6). Some feel this story teaches how to determine God’s will. Taking Gideon’s experience as a universal pattern for knowing God’s will; he simply wondered about his own! His is an example of doubt, not of seeking divine guidance.
Coupled with a divine explanation of an event, the historical narrative does serve a role in forming doctrine. The actin history is often the fulfilment of a promise as well as the basis and expression of a doctrinal truth. The death and resurrection of Christ are obvious examples. The historical event fulfils Old Testament promises and is the basis of New Testament doctrine.
In the same way, the miracle of Pentecost continued is not based solely on one event. Rather, the event stands as a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy and as a historical anchor to direct teaching given later in 1Corinthians. Let me add that the repetition of the gift of Pentecost in multiple cultures over more than two decades of Bible history (The birth of the church to the writing of 1Corinthians in A.D.56) gives us an established pattern of worship in the primitive church.
Note that; To say that a doctrine should never be based exclusively on the record of a historical event means that
a) events like the resurrection have no place in forming doctrine.
b) the record of an event must be complemented by direct teaching or explanation before it can form the basis of a doctrine.
c) the historical narratives are less important in scripture than those sections which teach directly.
d) the interpreter does not accept the historical narrative as truly inspired by God.
Find the Narrative’s Central Theme
The narrator is the person telling the story or recording the event. Examples are Moses, Mathew, and John. Sometimes the narrator clearly explains the meaning of an event, but at other times he allows each interpreter to decide for himself what the account means. When this happens, we must assume that each narrative account, like other Bible texts, has one meaning—the meaning intended by the original author. Without accepting this foundational truth, it is impossible to interpret the Bible authoritatively; it would have as many meanings as interpreters.
A perceptive student can read any major story in the Bible and find dozens of diverse truths and insights into godly living. A wise exegete, however, will keep looking until he finds a primary truth, central to the story, and then he will look for relevant principles.
Certainly, many stories touch areas of living distinct from the central thought of the passage, but these are secondary—incidental to the primary purpose of the author. Only when the central purpose is found can the story be preached with authority. Ignoring this rule opens the door for the interpreter to exegete the text based on his own “common sense,” or to find propositions of modern psychology that would have astounded the original author. At best, these “common sense propositions” dilute the primary focus of the narrative.
The interpreter must be attentive to any hint of the author’s primary purpose. One obvious place to find this is in a direct statement of purpose the narrator may give, as in Genesis 15:6. Sometimes a major character’s words provide clues. At other times the interpreter must simply note the outcome of the story and make deductions based on what is given in the text.
Do Not Assume That Silence Equals Approval
The Duchess of Ferrar daughter of Luis XII of France, once complained to John Calvin that some of David’s actions were so offensive that the accounts were inconsistent with Christian ethics (Wood 1967, 92). She is one in a long list of puzzled Bible readers who have wondered about some of the stories in the Bible. Parallel to the noble examples of faith and righteousness, we find accounts of incest, lying, adultery, cruelty, deceit, suicide, and murder. Almost always these are reported without divine commentary.
The confusion of the Duchess parallels my own as a boy. One of my Sunday School teachers taught that David’s only sin was his involvement with Bathsheba. I believed her until I was old enough to read the Bible for myself. David disobeyed God by abandoning Judah, mutilating the bodies of his dead enemies, and deceiving his enemies by feigning insanity. All this without a whisper of rebuke from God or the commentator (or my Sunday school teacher).
Knowing the diligence of that Sunday school teacher, I am sure she read the entire story of David before teaching that class. However, like many others, she assumed that the absence of divine condemnation equalled divine approval. She was wrong! Often Old Testament narrators chose not to clutter up their accounts with explanations of the actions of the leading characters, assuming the reader would deduce the wrongness of these actions based on knowledge from other revelations. Since the narrator wanted to move his story on, he used only the details necessary for that purpose.
For this reason, we need guidelines for distinguishing between what a story (or historical narrative) simply describes and what it intends to prescribe (state as a rule). Many details are recorded as background to the story. They help us visualize the situation but don’t necessarily give us a pattern for our own lives. These are called descriptive details. Others are meant as a pattern for our living and are called prescriptive.
A classic example of the descriptive narrative is Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters in Genesis 19:30-38. Surely this is not a pattern for Christian fathers today; it merely reported how two nations began.
The Bible student must take care in moving from the mere report or description of an event to prescribing it as standard for today. Two rules that help us distinguish between the two are to 1) judge the character’s action based on clearer, direct teaching passages in other parts of the Bible; 2) pay attention to how the story influences our approval or disapproval of one event or character. For example, look at the conclusion (How does the protagonist fare?) and the reactions of others to his actions.
Let me add that God’s approval in one area of a believer’s life does not equal approval in all others. Just because God approved of Abraham’s faith does not mean He approved of his multiple marriages. Although God accepted David because of the covenantal promises, He did not necessarily approve of David’s dealings with his children.
Note these and answer the question below; The difference between the Bible record of a detail that is descriptive and one that is prescriptive is that the first gives;
a) a pattern for all believers and the second gives one for only the person in the Bible story.
b) a simple record of an event while the second gives a rule for all believers to follow.
c) an illustration of a Bible principle while the second merely describes what happened.
d) a truly inspired account while the second reflects the human bias of the
Personal Question; Jacob was a polygamist and God never condemned him for this. Do you feel that we can use his example as a pattern for modern Christians? Explain your answer.
Separate The Eternal From The Temporal
Frequently God gave Bible characters direct orders that were obviously restricted to them in their respective time periods. In these cases, He neither stated nor implied that these orders applied to any other individuals nor by extension to the church today. It is true that God ordered Abraham to leave his home to seek a new country; however, this does not mean a modern interpreter should quit his job and leave for parts unknown. This example teaches us indirectly to be willing to obey God, but it should not be used as a specific command for a person seeking direction in his life. Joshua was ordered to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan, but this can hardly be used by modern Evangelicals as an excuse for genocide.
Some things in the narrative are uniquely individual to the Bible characters and only come to us by way of “principles” that are implicit in the story. We should remember that biblical examples “are not always equal to “biblical instruction.” Any truth illustrated in a story that is normative (gives a rule) for all time will be paired with direct teachings in other parts of the Bible.
It is an error to use the Bible like a fortune teller’s deck of cards. Some believers, when seeking divine guidance, open Bible pages at random and take the directions given to Bible characters as divine direction for their lives. Such a method borders on superstition, not faith. The Bible will only reveal God’s will when it is studied.
Again; Classify each of the commands below as eternal for all believers or temporal for only the person who received it. In the space preceding each command, write
1. If it represents an eternal command
2. If it represents a temporal command.
- a. The command for Noah to build an ark (Genesis 6:14)
- b. The command for Abraham to leave his country (Genesis 12:1)
- c. The command for Ezekiel to lie on his right side for 40 days (Ezekiel 4:6)
- d. The command for Peter to feed Christ’s sheep (John 21:16)
- e. The command for the jailer to believe and be saved (Acts 16:31)
Look For Indications Of The “Divine Hero”.
The major character in the plot of a story is the protagonist (the leading man or woman). In the Bible, God is the assumed protagonist in each story. Even when He is not mentioned directly, the student must always look for what the story teaches about God. The classic example is the multiple-plot narrative of Joseph’s life. Only at the end do we see that God has been the major director behind, if the events, controlling them for His divine purposes (see Genesis 45:4-8). At other times God is never directly mentioned, as in the case of Esther, but His hand is clearly visible.
Knowing this principle requires the interpreter to repeat this question constantly. “What does this story teach me about God?” This perspective will keep interpretations of historical narratives from degenerating into shallow moralizing.
Also, Consider this; Many Old Testament stories are overlooked because what they teach about God is not immediately obvious. The story of Balaam’s talking donkey is an example. Read Micah 6:5 and record what the prophet claims the story teaches us about God.
Identify The Parameters Of The Story
Like people, Old Testament stories come in all sizes. Some are small and seem isolated but when added to other stories and information they form a web of meaning for a book or section. For example, the stories of Genesis appear disjointed until the reader sees an overall theme of “separation,” as God selects a lineage for the coming Messiah a nation through whom He will give His law. Others are compound narratives made up of multiple subjects such as the Exodus and the growth of the church in Acts. These present the narrator’s purpose more directly and each scene progresses toward one extensive theme.
A crucial step in exegeting a text is to find out where it begins and where it ends. Watch the common pattern:
1) the protagonist has a problem,
2) he faces the problem, and he overcomes or is overcome by the problem.
In a multi-plot story, this may happen several times, and each scene must be interpreted individually, taking into account the use and effect” sequence as one scene leads to the next.
One of the easiest ways to note the beginning of a new scene is to look for a changeset. Is the time difference or has the character moved to a new location? For example, Genesis 31:55 clearly ends a scene with the words, “Then he left and returned home,” next verse begins a new scene with the words, “Jacob also went on his way.”
Obviously, it is a challenge to define the limits of an “epic” or extended story with multiple subplots. Usually, these subplots develop around the life of a central character using life-span sets the time parameters. Thus, the series of stories in Genesis about Abraham begins with, “And the Lord said to Abram…” (Genesis 12:1), and ends with death in chapter 25. He was the central figure in the stories until his death. Other multiples of epics include Joseph’s life, Joshua’s conquest, David’s rise and fall, and earthly ministry.
Concentrating on the protagonist’s life can be useful in determining the beginning and end of smaller stories too. The “heroic narrative,” built around the life and exploits protagonist, is very common in scripture as in the case of the kings recorded in 2Chronicles. The parameters of the story can often be limited to references to a central scripture.
Of course, a protagonist is not always the unifying element in a story. The unifying element may be an action or a decision, but in every case, the interpreter must find the parameters of the story before he begins to interpret.
The Narrative in the Context of the Book
As we have mentioned, the narrative must be studied in the context of the greater epic. Beyond this, it must also be considered in the context of the entire book in which it is found. Each story must be related to the larger story. If the narratives are not considered moulding blocks in a larger structure, they will be reduced to tools for trivial moralizing.
What this means is that no individual narrative (story) can be interpreted by itself. It must be treated in terms of the larger context of the narrator’s entire work. This does not mean that all the stories in a book have the same meaning; it does mean that each of them, like the sub-points of an outline, contributes to the overall teaching.
The “bald prophet and naughty teenagers” in 2 kings serve as an illustration. The broad concept is to warn the people not to treat the Lord and His prophets lightly. Similarly, the entire epics of Elijah and Elisha record a “battle of the gods” for the hearts of mankind. Each miracle gave additional evidence that the Lord of the Hebrews was the only true God.
The parallel messages of the gospels illustrate vividly how the events recorded contribute to the general theme of the book. Thus, Matthew stresses stories of confrontation over Christ as king while John stresses stories in which individuals accept or reject Him as divine. The guideline to remember is that each event recorded must be fit into the larger overall purpose of the writer.
Put the Narrative in the Context of Redemption’s story
It is a great error to think of the history recorded in the Bible as mere stories or as simple accounts of human events. These writings document crucial moments when God acted directly among men. Beyond this, the multitude of events and stories is woven together into one unified whole. The stories are not happenstance but purposeful. The narrator is not simply writing an objection account of history; he is revealing God and His plan of redemption through the lives of Bible characters. Gordon Fee, referring to Old Testament narrative, “Every individual narrative is at least part of the greater narrative of Israel’s history in the world, which in turn is part of the ultimate narrative of God’s creation and Hid redemption” (1982,74).
Although the original writer’s purpose is always the controlling factor in interpretation, we are also convinced that each was directed by the same divine “editor”. All Old Testament history thus moves toward one goal: Christ. It does not move as much in a straight line as in a web of truth taught through God’s interactions in the affairs of mankind. Old Testament history thus gives the first chapter in the story of redemption, while the New Testament contains the second chapter and predicts the final one.
This story has been labelled “Salvation History,” and it embodies the principle key to unlocking the central theme of Bible history. For this reason, the interpreter’s task is not finished until he asks the question, “What does this story teach me about God and His ongoing program of redeeming man?” this does not imply foisting a “foreign” meaning onto the passage; rather, it lets us see how it relates to the grand mosaic of God’s redemptive plan.
Isaiah 45:6 provides a solid theology of bible history. After predicting how He would work through Cyrus to control history, God explains His reason for this: “So that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other”. The purpose of bible history is to lead men to a personal knowledge of God. Look for His plan in the Bible stories rather than a shallow moral lesson.
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