A Little about Hebrew Narrative

Here are some tips on reading and interpreting Hebrew narratives.  This is taken from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

HEBREW NARRATIVE

Principles for Interpreting Narratives

  1. An Old Testament narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
  2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
  3. Narratives record what happened— not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
  4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us. Frequently, it is just the opposite.
  5. Most of the characters in Old Testament narratives are far from perfect— as are their actions as well.
  6. We are not always told at the end of a narrative whether what happened was good or bad. We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21: 25). What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
  8. Narratives are not written to answer all our theological questions. They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
  9. Narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives. [1]

More info…

Narratives are stories— purposeful stories retelling the historical events of the past that are intended to give meaning and direction for a given people in the present.

There is a crucial difference between the biblical narratives and all others, because inspired by the Holy Spirit as they are, the story they tell is not so much our story as it is God’s story— and it becomes ours as he “writes” us into it.

All narratives have three basic parts: characters, plot, and plot resolution.

Three Levels of Narrative

  1. The top (Third) level – the story of redemption or the “metanarrative.”  When Jesus says that the Scriptures “testify about me” (John 5:39) this is what he is talking about.
  1. The second level – the story of God’s redeeming a people for his name. These people are constituted twice— by a former covenant and a “new” covenant.
  1. The bottom or “first” level – the hundreds of individual narratives that make up the other two levels.

Characteristics of Hebrew Narrative

Narrator –

  • Seemingly omniscient
  • A point of view – perspective from which the story is told

The Scene

  • Not character driven, but scenic

Characters

  • Visual appearance is rarely mentioned… ask why? if it is.
  • Status or profession are much more important
  • Characters often appear either in contrast or in parallel.
  • The predominant mode of characterization occurs in the characters’ words and actions, not in the narrator’s own descriptions.

Dialogue

  • the first point of dialogue is often a significant clue both to the story plot and to the character of the speaker.
  • contrastive dialogue often functions as a way of characterization as well.
  • very often the narrator will emphasize the crucial parts of the narrative by having one of the characters repeat or summarize the narrative in a speech.

Plot

  • the narrative must have a beginning, middle, and end, which together focus on a buildup of dramatic tension that is eventually released.
  • You will find that the plot in Hebrew narrative moves at a much faster pace than most modern narration— even that of the “short story” genre.

Features of Structure

  • Meant for hearers, not readers
  • Repetition, lot of it!
  • Inclusion – chiasm (A-B-C-B-A) or foreshadowing

Things to Avoid

There is a tendency to “flatten” everything because we assume that everything God has said in his Word is thereby a direct word to us. Thus we wrongly expect that everything in the Bible applies directly as instruction for our own individual lives. The Bible is a great resource. It contains all that a Christian really needs in terms of guidance from God for living. And we have assumed throughout that the Old Testament narratives are indeed a rich source for our hearing from God. But this does not mean that each individual narrative is somehow to be understood as a direct word from God for each of us separately or as teaching us moral lessons by examples.

  • Allegorizing.
  • Decontextualizing.
  • Selectivity
  • Moralizing
  • Personalizing
  • Misappropriation
  • False appropriation
  • Redefinition
  • Monkey-see-monkey-do.  No Bible narrative was written specifically about you.

 


[1] Fee, Gordon D.; Stuart, Douglas (2009-10-14). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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