The Bible records the covenantal narrative about God’s creation of all things, humanity’s fall into sin, redemption through the covenant of grace and its various administrations, and the consummation of all things in eschatological glory. God Himself is the master narrator as the One who declares the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10) and who is Himself the first and the last (Isa. 44:6; Isa. 48:12). It is an ancient narrative told over a span of some fifteen hundred years in three different languages. The literary devices of the ancient world are not always like our own, so it can be challenging to understand what we encounter in these accounts. What follows, therefore, are three reading strategies that can help us better understand and appreciate the art of the ancient historical narrative as set forth in the Bible.
1. Understand that the unified narrative of the Bible is not always set forth in chronological order.
This can be seen in an ancient literary technique whereby the author makes a statement and then circles back to focus on important details about the event itself or how something came to be. Sometimes in the Bible, theology trumps chronology in the arrangement of recorded events. For example, Genesis 2 begins with a description of the seventh day of creation (vv. 1–3), but the rest of the chapter steps back in time to reconsider the events of day six in more detail (vv. 4–25). Genesis 10 records the names and descendants of Noah, the so-called table of nations, listed “by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:31). However, in the very next chapter, we return to the time when there was only one clan, language, land, and nation in order to focus on the events of the tower of Babel. The same is true of 1 Samuel 16 and 17. At the end of chapter 1 Samuel 16, David is loved by Saul and serving full-time as his armor-bearer. In the very next chapter, David is unknown to Saul and does not know how to handle his armor.
2. Whenever possible, let the text interpret itself.
Biblical narrative consists of both recorded events and the dialogue, or speech, of characters appearing in those events. Sometimes, a bit of climactic dialogue will give you the clue that you need to understand why such events were recorded and what those events signify.
For example, in 1 Kings 17 we are introduced to the prophet Elijah, who delivers the message of a three-year drought to King Ahab. He then departs to a river where he is fed by ravens for an unspecified amount of time. Then, at the command of the Lord, he travels out of the promised land to live with a widow and her young son. The son dies, and Elijah miraculously raises the boy from the dead. The widow’s response is the key to the entire account: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). The same technique is employed again in the very next chapter. After Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal in a contest, the people proclaim, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39). In a day of false prophets and other gods, the Bible testifies in both word and deed that the Lord is the true God and that His prophets speak His truth.
3. Watch for the unexpected.
Sometimes, something odd or out of place is recorded to foreshadow or anticipate a future, more climactic event. Ancient historical narrative teaches by rehearsing and repeating itself. Always listen for the echo. For example, in Exodus 2, just after his birth account, it is recorded that Moses killed an Egyptian who was striking a Hebrew. Then, his own people complained against him and he fled to the wilderness, where he spent the next forty years wandering in the wilderness (vv. 11–15). What are we to think of this brief narrative? Is it saying, “Your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23)? Or, is it saying that if God can use someone like Moses, a murderer, then he can certainly use someone like you or me? Both things are true, but they are not the point of the narrative. These events in the life of Moses foreshadow what is to come. As God’s instrument, Moses is about to deliver all of God’s people, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Egyptians. After that, he will spend another forty years wandering in the wilderness with his fellow Hebrews, who will continue to complain and grumble against him.
The art form of the ancient historical narrative as it is found in Scripture is both beautiful and sophisticated. When reading these narratives, read carefully and consider all the details, both what is included and what is not. Finally, and most importantly, work hard to understand how all the Bible’s individual narrative units come together in one grand narrative, climaxing in the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 5:39, 45–47; Luke 24:44).
This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.