Interpreting Narratives in the Bible: 2 Important Things Not to Do!
How should we be interpreting narratives in the Bible? I had the thought to write this post as a result of a recent discussion. In a class where we were discussing bribery in different cultures, one of my classmates cited the story of Jacob and Esau. She quoted from Genesis 33:8-10 to establish that the Bible does allow bribery in the context of preserving life. I was like, “really?” And hence, I began to reflect on what not to do when we are interpreting narratives in the Bible.
The descriptives may not be prescriptive in interpreting narratives in the Bible
When we look at what the narratives describe, we may have a tendency to think that what was described is acceptable by God. The classic example for most Christians would be the narrative of Gideon. In Judges 6:36-40, Gideon laid out the wool fleece to test God and to confirm God’s mission for him.
And taking Gideon’s example, many Christians will read it as God’s approval for people to lay out their own ‘fleece’ to test Him. Hence, if I believe that God has called me to teaching, I will take a leaf off Gideon’s example and ask God for confirmation. The logic is that there is already the precedent hence this should apply to me as well.
The danger with such a view is that we end up thinking that what the Bible records is what the Bible approves. That becomes the inherent assumptions in our interpretation. That is one reason why non-Christians have problem with the Bible, as the Bible also records other atrocities committed by Biblical characters. We often do not ask if this is also prescriptive for Christians. It is not.
And hence, in the case of Genesis 33, I will argue that Jacob giving Esau a portion of his wealth cannot be taken as God’s approval for bribery.
Consider the author’s purpose of including the account when interpreting narratives in the Bible
I have written some contents on interpreting the Bible. On top of that, what I have not written much on is how we should consider the author’s intention for the audience. Evangelical scholars will give the advice that I have advocated in my previous point. But this does not mean we cannot draw out principles for Christians from the narratives. It just means that we need to move beyond the descriptives.
We need to realise that authors write narratives for a purpose – to communicate a message to their audience. The failure to realise that leads to questions such as why there are four gospels in the New Testament. For example, the gospel of John was at least written to encourage believers to continue to believe in Jesus. The gospel of Matthew was written for Jews to inform them that Jesus is the promised king from the Old Testament. Likewise, the author of narratives such as Genesis and Judges writes with a purpose to communicate key messages about God to their audience. So when we forget about this point, we miss out the main points of the narratives. In fact, I will even say that this applies to other literatures such as the epistles, apocalyptic writings and wisdoms.
To understand the purpose of the writing, I would suggest readers of the Bible to do more research. Having a general knowledge of the Old and New Testament on hand will be helpful to provide a background to the narrative books. Doing some close reading helps a lot as well. Some narratives will include a number of ‘asides’ or sidenotes which will give clues about their purpose as well.
And hence I offer two points what not to do when interpreting narratives in the Bible. This is not comprehensive and do drop me a note what other points to take note in the comments.