Understanding Old Testament Narrative

In light of all the Genesis stuff, I am reposting the following essay I wrote in seminary on understanding Old Testament narrative for a class I took on the Chronicles (from a conservative evangelical point of view of course).


One of the primary things to keep in mind when studying the historical books of the Old Testament is the theological message presented in narrated form.  The Bible is a spiritual book and it contains a spiritual message.  History may be present but it is history shaped by theological intent.  The central focus of the historical books is both history and theology.  Therefore it is important to keep in mind the relationship between history and theology when reading narrative material.  The historical books’ authors are not just giving the reader a rehearsal of historical events; they are interpreting them as well.  It is narrated history and unlike standard reportorial history, the Bible writers present history in a particularly nuanced and ideological manner.

The history of the Old Testament is theocentric.  Because the Bible is the Word of God, God is the focus of its message.  The story of the Bible is the story of God’s dealings in the world and in the lives of his people.  It is God’s story.  Since it is God’s story and it is a message about God’s dealings in the world, the history of the Old Testament is also a tendentious and selective history.  It is a theological history of the people of Israel and so highlights only those people and events that highlight God’s activity in the world and the development of the nation of Israel as the people of God.  It is not an economic history nor is it a political history; instead it is a theological history that tells of the relationship of God and Israel in history.

Another feature of the historical books of the Old Testament to keep in mind is historiographyHistoriography allows for supernatural events as part of the historical fabric of the story.  Theological history is the combination of real historical and supernatural events that communicate the message of the Bible.  It assumes the existence of God and his supernatural interventions in human affairs and integrates these into the historical narrative.  The writers of the Old Testament integrated supernatural events in the historical narrative because they felt they lend credence to the story.  The biblical writers intended for the reader to believe the events were real and to consider them in their understanding of biblical history.

Another important distinction to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament is the distinction between Old Testament history and the history of ancient Israel.  This was mentioned already in that the history of the Old Testament is not a social, political, or economic history of Israel but rather a theological and interpretive history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel and the nations around them.  This distinction is important because without clarifying the difference one can become confused about the nature and intent of the Old Testament.  The focus of the Old Testament is on the history of God’s people, their relationship to him, and his actions and expectations for them.  It is an overall history more than a chronological history.  This helps in understanding the differences between the various accounts of Israel.  The differences between the Kings, and Chronicles do not make for contradictions but instead they are complimentary and seek to highlight specific events and happenings to communicate a certain theological message.  I & II Kings presents the primary history of Israel before the Babylonian exile whereas I & II Chronicles presents a secondary history of Israel that retells the story from the vantage point of post exile, so the messages are different.  The writers of the Gospels take a similar approach; each of the Gospels present a somewhat unique view of Jesus as the Messiah.  More than history, the Old Testament is historiography and its overarching aim is to paint a picture of God’s dealings with his people that truly represents and interprets the significant parts of Israeli history.

To become an effective interpreter of the historical parts of the Old Testament three things are needed of the OT student.  The first is literary competence.  One is literarily competent when one has developed an awareness of the conventions and writings of a given literary corpus and also is able to discern what kinds of claims a given corpus may be making.  For example one needs to see how the story is being told so one can know what the story means both for the past and the present.  Through the story of Solomon asking for wisdom over riches the reader becomes aware that God often goes beyond human expectations when he answers prayer.  The story of Jabez is similar.  It is more about answered prayer than about a “get-rich-quick” scheme.

The second thing one needs is theological comprehension. This is necessary for responsible historical reconstruction.  One needs to realize the central focus of the Old Testament is God and his dealings with people.  Through the OT we learn God is both immanent and transcendent in human history; he is the Lord of history.  With this how are the various claims of history to be interpreted?  One needs to realize claims of divine intervention are not grounds for dismissing historical texts.  Instead one need realize historical claims of divine intervention are the basis for many actions, positive or negative.  While one may not understand the claims of divine intervention or think them inappropriate, one with solid theological comprehension will understand their importance to effective historical reconstruction.  If one wishes to understand the history of Israel, one needs to take into consideration the plentiful claims of God’s intervention.  Human influence was not avoided necessarily because the biblical writers show how the various Kings contribute to history.  However, the biblical writers maintained a tension between human responsibility and divine sovereignty in showing that while history is in the frail hands of people, it is also undergirded by the sovereign hand of God.

Finally, to be an effective interpreter of biblical history one needs to use proper historical method.  In the case of biblical history students of the Bible are to follow the common rules of historical criticism.  While the biblical writers present biblical history from a certain theological viewpoint, it is still presented as a true story where real events happened in the lives of real people.  In light of the literary aspects of the Old Testament historical books, one needs to take their historical truth claims seriously.  Because the Bible consistently presents theological truth as intrinsically bound to historical events it is important to acknowledge the Bible’s historical truth claims for both theological and historical reasons.  This will allow for competent literary reading of the Old Testament and theological reflection on its message.

In sum, realizing the Old Testament historical books are narrative theology one will see that the biblical writers present a certain theological understanding of human history.  This understanding then helps the reader learn about the nature of God and his expectations for both individual people and nations.  From the texts of I & II Chronicles the reader can discern principles for life and living in the present world in light of the ancient past.  Because God never changes one can rest assured that the same grace God extended to the people of old will be extended to his people today.  Perhaps the circumstances are different, but God is the same and his grace is never ending.  In preaching and teaching the Old Testament the preacher/teacher is to focus less on the specifics of particular events and instead highlight how God is working in the events and help people see the character and nature of God and how he works through historical events and in people’s lives.  The preacher/teacher is to help people apply what they know of God to their lives in a modern context.