Narratives are true stories. Over 40% of the Old Testament Scriptures are narratives. Generally, the purpose of a biblical narrative is to show the Lord at work in His creation. Every genre found in the Bible presents unique challenges for understanding. Narratives are no exception. With narratives we think in scenes, plot and character, rather than paragraphs and outlines.
Here are some guidelines for studying narratives.
Find the setting
- Read the text to get an understanding of the setting for action.
- Where or under what circumstances is the action taking place?
- Describe this setting based upon the events of the preceding passage and/or upon the opening few verses of this passage.
Make an outline
- Think in terms of scenes, not paragraphs.
- Read the entire passage carefully noting the shifts in focus on persons and events, or the shifts of scene from one place to another.
- Separate the passage into major scenes and write a one sentence summary of each scene, putting the story into your own words.
- As you read answer the “5Ws and H” (who, what, when, where, why and how”).
For each of the scenes in your outline answer the following questions:
- What words are repeated in the text? (e.g. glory & heavy in 1 Samuel 5:6; 1 Samuel 5:11; 1 Samuel 6:5)
- What words or ideas must you understand to understand this scene?
- List common themes (an idea which is made in some recurrent pattern) in each scene (e.g. reversal of inheritance in Genesis; obedience and rebellion in the wilderness; “knowing” in the Joseph story; rejection and election of the monarch in Samuel & Kings).
- Does the text deal with main theological themes (e.g. king, prophet, land, seed, promise, creation, fall, etc.)?
- Trace the theme both backward in the OT and forward in the NT.
- List the similarities and contrasts between the scenes.
- Look for a motif. A concrete image, sensory quality, action or objects that recurs through a particular narrative may be symbolic to the narrative (e.g. fire in the Samson story; stones and the colors red and white in the Jacob story; water in the Moses story; dreams in the Jacob story).
Consider the characters
- Who are the main characters?
- How does the passage give insight into the characters and what motivates them?
- Describe the relationships between the characters in each scene, noting any changes from preceding passages and chapters.
- Do you see God at work either explicitly or implicitly?
- If God’s prophet or messenger, appears in the scene, what is his function?
- If God’s King is in the scene, what is he suppose to learn?
How the author conveys information regarding motives, attitude or the inner nature of someone’s moral character:
- What he says: Character revealed through direct speech of the person; may be a drawn shutter or an open window (e.g. 1 Samuel 27:10).
- What he does: Character is revealed through actions (e.g. 2 Samuel 11:1; 1 Kings 3:1 compare Deut 17:17; Judges 14:1-3)
- How he appears: Character is revealed through gestures, appearances, costume (e.g Eli sitting rather than leading – 1 Samuel 4:18)
- What others say about him: Character is revealed through one character’s comments regarding another (e.g. Boaz to Ruth, Ruth 2:11).
- What he thinks: Character is revealed by inward speech (e.g. 1 Samuel 27:1
- Commentary: Character is revealed by the narrator’s explicit statements (e.g. Judges 21:25).
Biblical narrative majors on the implicit, not the explicit.
Identify themes & spiritual principles
- Assume a unity of the material. You can assume the narratives form one coherent unfolding story. The meaning of earlier data is progressively revealed or enriched by the addition of subsequent data.
- The most helpful principle to uncover original meaning is “juxtaposition.” Consistently ask 2 questions:
- How is the material similar to what has come before?
- How is the material different than what has come before?
- It is normally on the discontinuity that the emphasis is made.
- Consider the descriptions, actions of and reactions to the people of God in this scene. Does any of it remind you of passages in the gospels concerning Jesus? Or other New Testament characters?
- Look for and state any spiritual principles from this passage. (A spiritual principle is a universal, timeless truth.) For example, does this passage teach something about the nature of mankind that is always true? Does something in the text reveal God’s character, or how He works or acts?
- Do you see themes in this passage that go beyond this text and are repeated in other passages of Scripture?
- Look for patterns or examples of success or failures and what we learn from them that we could apply to our lives today.
Working with Old Testament Narratives
adapted from How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart
- An Old Testament narrative usually does not teach a doctrine.
- An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine(s) taught propositionally elsewhere.
- Narratives record what happened — not necessarily what should have happened.
- What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite.
- The characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect and their actions are too.
- We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad.
- All narratives are selective and incomplete (not all the details are given, some are assumed as cultural knowledge).
- Narratives are not written to answer our theological questions.
- Narratives may teach either explicitly or implicitly.
- In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.
- “Narratives are precious to us because they so vividly demonstrate God’s involvement in the world and illustrate His principles and calling” (Fee & Stuart, pg. 86).
Using the principles above, compare and contrast these scenes:
- The annunciation of birth of a hero to a barren mother: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Manoah’s wife, Elizabeth, Mary.
- Meeting at a well: Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, Saul, Samson, the woman with Jesus, Lydia.
- Danger in the desert: Hagar 2Xs, Moses and Israel 3Xs, Elijah – 1 Kings 17; Jesus – Matt 4; Paul.
- Initiatory Trial (e.g. Adam, Moses, Abraham, Joseph)
- Last testament of a dying hero (e.g. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Jesus, Paul).
These books are entirely narrative:
- 1 Samuel
- 2 Samuel
- 1&2 Kings
- 1&2 Chronicles
These books have large narrative sections
- Gospel of Matthew
- Gospel of Mark
- Gospel of Luke
- Gospel of John
The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter (also a great book on understanding the OT)