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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Understanding Biblical Narrative

As you know, Sunday we started our new sermon series in the books of Joshua and Judges.  We are going to work our way through both books, one right after the other.  I mentioned then that even though it took us 20 months to get through Ephesians, which has 6 chapters, it will not take us a proportional length of time to get through Joshua and Judges.  If it did, the 45 chapters between the two books would require approximately 12.5 years!  But why is it that we can go so much faster through an historical book that we can through an epistle?  In this article, I’d like to answer that question as well share a couple of other things about historical narrative that will help prepare us to understand Joshua and Judges.

The biggest difference between historical narratives and epistles regards how these genres make their points.  The author of an epistle makes his point by simply stating it.  His main point will be made over the course of the entire epistle, but he argues for that point by making numerous smaller supporting points.  This results in a very tight argument that lends itself to minute dissection.  In fact, I would say that to not dissect an epistle in this manner is irresponsible.  When we were in Ephesians, I made the case that the main point of that epistle is “to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.”  Those words are explicitly found in the book, and the supporting points of the book point directly to it.  So we could say that the biblical author of an epistle makes his point explicitly.

On the other hand, the author of an historical narrative makes his point implicitly.  Most of the time, he does not come right out and state in explicit terms what he is trying to convey.  Rather, he tells a story intended to convey a main point.  That point is not made by a tight, intellectual argument, but is instead illustrated by way of a narrative.  Therefore, to understand the point of a narrative, it is not proper to dissect it like you would an epistle.  The point is found in the big picture.  That is not to say that you ignore the details of the story – the details are crucial.  But you shouldn’t feel obligated to make a mountain out of every molehill.

For example, let’s look at a couple of verses from the narrative of the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:20-21.  God commanded the Israelites to destroy everything in the city of Jericho except the silver, gold, bronze, and iron, which were to be put in the Lord’s treasury.  But Achan disobeyed: And Achan answered Joshua, "Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath."

There are many folks who in their exegetical zeal would endeavor to make major points out of the facts that the cloak was from Shinar, that Achan stole 200 shekels of silver as opposed to 100, and that the silver was buried on the bottom and the gold wasn’t.  Sometimes we can be a little too eager to assign a high level of significance to such things.  When we do that, we are in great danger of missing the forest for the trees.  Is the point of this narrative found in these minute details?  No.  The point is that God will not tolerate sin.  We don’t have to parse every noun and conjugate every verb in order to see that, like we might with an epistle.  The point is in the big picture.  Historical narratives deal in stories, not explicit statements, and that is why we will be able to cover far more territory in one sermon in Joshua or Judges than we did in Ephesians.

This brings us to another important thing to know about historical narratives: they are historical, but they are not history.  Lest I be stoned, let me explain.  The events that are related in an historical narrative did actually happen just as portrayed, but historical narratives are not simply a recounting of history – “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.”  Historical narratives are not like a colorless time-line that you might find in a high school history text.  Instead, we could say that historical narratives are theological interpretations of historical events.  What does that mean?

Historical narratives are collections of historical events chosen in such a way, arranged in such a way, and told in such a way as to make a theological point.  And most often the purpose is to make a theological point about God.  Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself to man, therefore it makes sense that Scripture would teach us things about Him.  And so our first question when looking at an historical narrative should be, “what does this text teach me about God?”  And then, “what does this text require of me in response?”

It is a common mistake to take the Old Testament and view it as a collection of character sketches.  This kind of interpretation leads to sermons that moralize the text, just exhorting us to be like the good characters and not be like the bad characters.  If we do that with any historical book of the bible, we’ll miss the boat the completely.  That doesn’t mean that we are not to draw lessons from the lives of bible figures, emulating the good and avoiding the bad, but we can’t make that the mainstay of our interpretation.  We must remember to always ask the questions, “what is this narrative telling me about God?” and “how am I to respond to that?”

A final thing that we want to know about historical narrative is that every narrative has its place in salvation history, the story of God redeeming His people.  Where a narrative falls in that history will have much to do with how we are to interpret it.  A good question that we can ask of any narrative text is “how does this story point us to Christ?”  I mentioned Sunday that Joshua and Judges work together to show us how deeply needful man is for a king to lead him in righteousness.  We can’t be faithful to God on our own, we are hopeless in our sin, and we need a savior.  That truth is paramount for a proper understanding of the various narratives in both of those books.

I’ve been looking forward to preaching these texts for some time now.  My prayer is that not only will you benefit from the ministry of the preaching of the word, but also that you will become more familiar with this type of literature and be able to interpret and apply it more accurately and easily.  May the Lord help us as we go.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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