- 1 Why Read the Old Testament?
- 2 Is the God of the Old Testament Harsher than the God of the New?
- 3 Getting Started
- 4 Overview with Geography
- 5 Big Points
- 6 What Kind of Material am I Reading?
- 7 How to Understand the Stories
- 8 What Exactly is a Covenant?
- 9 Questions Christians Ask about the Old Testament
- Important Final Matters
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
Advice when Reading Old Testament Narratives
Last time I talked about the different genres of the Old Testament with a focus on narrative. Now I’m going to give some advice on how to read Old Testament narratives because this is where you should begin reading. You really should read all the historical books before you read Job or the Prophets. The Psalms and Proverbs are easier to read and so you could read those earlier, but having read the narratives will help you understand even these simpler books.
1. Read the stories as stories
The first thing to remember about stories may seem obvious: they are stories. Read the narratives as stories, true stories, but stories. They have plots, characters, problems, development and resolutions. They’re complex and multifaceted, not fables that each have one lesson to tell us. These stories are far more useful than that.
In Jonah we have an example of why it is important to read the stories as stories. There, we read that Jonah was told to go cry out against the wickedness of the city of Nineveh, but Jonah fled the other direction. Why did he do this? The author does not tell us. It is common for teachers (especially those teaching children) to fill in this detail and say, “but Jonah was afraid, so he ran the other way,” but this isn’t actually written in the story. We should honor the storyteller by waiting and observing Jonah to figure out why he ran away. If we were supposed to know in chapter one, the author would have told us. When we keep reading, our patience is rewarded. In 4:2 Jonah tells God why he ran away and it wasn’t because he was afraid: he didn’t want to give the people of Nineveh a chance to repent and change. He knew God was merciful and would forgive them. Our patience in not jumping to conclusions is rewarded by seeing one of the greatest plot twists in the Bible. The “hero” of the story didn’t run away because he was afraid of the people of Nineveh, but because he hated them and wanted them to die. He didn’t want them to have the same mercy that he himself experienced.
This leads to an important point about how we can learn from these stories. As we watch the characters in the story, we see them learning as they experience life and interact with God. The story of Jacob is a wonderful picture of God’s patience with a man who thinks that if he wants things in life, he has to get them for himself. We see Jacob’s growing understanding and faith in God, but also that he falters. His growth is not steady. Sometimes he seems to be taking steps backward. As we read Jacob’s life story, if we are honest, we can see ourselves in similar situations and grow in our own faith.
2. Details are important, but not clear, main point is usually clear.
The second thing to know when reading Hebrew narratives is that details are important, but not always clear. However, the main point is almost always clear. Another way to put this is that details are always important, but two different readers may disagree over the significance of a particular detail. On the other hand, they are probably going to agree on the main point. When you read a story for the second, third and fourth time you will find your understanding of certain details changing because you have changed. You have matured, you know more, the Lord has brought you through additional and different experiences, so your perceptions have changed. This isn’t going to happen with the big idea. The story of Noah and the Flood will always be about God bringing judgment on evil, but saving His people.
Even though you might change your understanding of a detail, you must remember that every detail is important. There aren’t that many details in these stories. This can make them feel primitive and unsatisfying, but this is because the stories of the Old Testament are not told in the style you are used to in your culture. Stories in Western culture, for example, tend to have a lot of descriptions unnecessary to the plot. We usually know roughly what the various characters look like and what their location is like. There is usually some attempt to help the reader or listener have a visual image of the action. Usually it makes no difference what color hair the hero has or that he is talking to the villain in an abandoned warehouse, but we are told these things anyway. These kinds of descriptive details are included because the readers or listeners expect them and find them satisfying.
Descriptions and details are not at all common in the stories of the Old Testament and so we conclude that the details that are present are always purposefully included. They either give information vital to the plot or add richness to the story by drawing attention to some aspect of it. In any case, the story would always be less interesting if the detail were not included. This is why physical descriptions of characters are so rare. We have no idea what most characters looked like because it just doesn’t matter. In those few cases when someone is described, it is usually simply that he or she was good-looking and we are told this only when it is important to the story. Good looks are more important to a story’s plot than other descriptions because human beings naturally judge by outward appearances. Good looks powerfully influence human motivations and actions.
We don’t know if Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Ruth, Sampson or Samuel were good-looking, just to name a few. Then we read that Saul, Israel’s first king, is “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Sam. 9:2 NIV). Why do we know this about Saul, but not these others? The reason we hear it about Saul is because he is the human king the nation got when they rejected the Lord from being their king. Saul looked exactly like the kind of man people expected and wanted to be their king. He was outwardly pleasing, but his heart was far from God.
The only man in Genesis who is described as good-looking is the patriarch Joseph. This is for two reasons. First, it explains why, after he was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Egypt, his master’s wife tried to seduce him. Second, it’s good literature, because earlier when his grandmother Sarah, wife of Abraham, was in Egypt, she was taken from her family by an Egyptian ruler who made advances on her, but the Lord protected her. So earlier in Genesis we have the story of a good-looking wife of a patriarch in Egypt taken against her will by a lustful Egyptian ruler. Later, we have a good-looking patriarch taken to Egypt against his will and accosted by the lustful wife of an Egyptian ruler. Seeing the parallelism, the similarities in spite of the differences is interesting and makes for a great story. Our God is an artist and beauty doesn’t need a reason. It’s good in and of itself. On the more practical side, these parallels also help us think about the differences in the outcomes of the two stories. Sarah was saved by the intervention of God and returned to her husband with many presents, but Joseph fled from the advances, and was thrown into prison as a result. In the end, prison turns out to have been the exact place he needed to be. Even though God does not appear to have intervened to protect Joseph, is He any less in charge in this story than in Sarah’s? Or, to think about your own situation, when something bad happens to you, does it mean that God has abandoned you, or can you expect that it will lead to something good?
3. Get to know characters by observing them.
Another important point is that you get to know characters by watching what they do and listening to what they say. Remember, there is not a lot of description in these stories, so don’t expect to be told that Joseph was a responsible and well-organized person. You can tell that by watching him be responsible and well-organized.
In 2 Samuel 14, King David’s son, Absalom, is living in Jerusalem, but, since his father refuses to see him, no one else will either. (The fact that he had murdered his brother might be the cause of his father’s attitude). He can’t get anyone to speak to the king for him because no one will speak to him at all. So he orders his servants to set fire to the grain field of David’s general Joab. When Joab comes to Absalom in a rage, Absalom uses the opportunity to get a meeting with his father. We don’t need to be told that Absalom is intelligent and ruthless. We see it and should not be surprised when he attempts to overthrow his father and almost succeeds.
You should also remember that these characters were real people and that this means they could change and grow. They don’t stay the same. For example, unless you understand that Esther begins her story as a weak woman, an always-popular beauty who follows the path of least resistance in order to avoid hardship in life, you won’t see the true heroism there. Retellings of the Esther story usually say that she was chosen as queen because the king saw something in her character that the other girls didn’t have, even if they may have been outwardly more beautiful or more glamorous. This assumption comes from seeing how courageous Esther is at the end of the story and assuming that she has been like that through the whole story, but this is not the case. Esther became queen because she was the prettiest and most glamorous, not because of her character. Pay attention to the way the king is portrayed and ask yourself if he is the kind of person who would choose a queen because of her good character.
In Genesis 37 Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery, then let his father weep, because he thought Joseph was dead. Judah even pretended to comfort his father. In Genesis 44 he makes an impassioned speech to keep his brother Benjamin from being taken as a slave. He offers himself in Benjamin’s place to keep his father from suffering this loss. How did the Lord work this change in Judah? What happened to him in between chapters 37 and 44 that would make him such a different person? If you read the intervening chapters, the answer is there.
4. Judge for yourself.
You need to judge for yourself. The above examples show that you are expected to make your own judgments about the characters by observing them. You aren’t going to be fed answers. You have to pay attention. If it weren’t this way, the stories would quickly lose their luster and not be very fun to reread.
The judgments you have to make aren’t just about the characters. You’re also expected to evaluate their actions. It’s rare for the narrator or God to directly evaluate someone’s actions. Of all the mistakes that we can make reading Hebrew narratives, misunderstanding this point will probably lead to the worst mistaken conclusions. Through the ages, many believers have had the assumption that the Old Testament stories are “hero stories” and, as a result, we have often whitewashed what the characters did. The fact that some have tried to interpret Samson, possibly the most self-centered man in the Bible, and Abimelech, Gideon’s mass-murdering son, as heroes are cases in point. Attempts to justify Gideon’s massacre at Penuel is another (Judges 8:17). The authors of these stories assume that the reader knows right and wrong well enough to make independent moral judgments. It should be obvious that Samson, a man whose lust for women was only a slight character flaw when compared with his lust for revenge, is not a hero and is not being held up as someone to imitate. There are many examples of morally questionable behavior that is reported without being explicitly condemned.
It is important to understand that there is real danger in thinking that the Old Testament stories are meant to be examples to be follow – some of them are, but only after careful consideration. The Old Testament highlights that these “heroes” the Lord used often failed (much like ourselves), but that the Lord’s purposes were accomplished anyway. Samson did accomplish some things with the tiny faith he possessed, but it doesn’t mean he is a hero. Many of the stories are about God’s faithfulness despite human failure and show that the true hero is always the Lord.
This very much applies to our lives. The Lord does not work through his followers because they are so great. He works through them even though they aren’t so great. If we trust Him, He will work through us even though we aren’t so great. This should help each of us be honest about our failings and weaknesses instead of lying to ourselves and others about what we are really like. God does not choose to use and bless us because we’re so good, but because He is so good.
Often the stories comment on good and evil behavior indirectly by simply laying out the consequences. Polygamy and lying are two obvious examples. The Old Testament does not directly condemn polygamy, but we can observe that, though there are many instances of it, there isn’t a single happy one. Similarly, many characters lie in these stories, but evil almost always comes of it.
5. Pay attention to what God is doing and how people are relating to God.
Since the purpose of the Bible is not for us to know the contents of the Bible, but to know the God of the Bible, ask yourself how the characters are relating to God. Are they trusting Him? Are they obeying Him? How is God reacting to what they do? Remember that God is also a character in these stories. In fact, He is what ties all the stories together. Other characters come and go, but He remains. He is the ultimate point of the stories. After all, Jesus said that they testify to Him (Jn. 5:39). As you read the stories and think about them, ask the Lord to reveal Himself to you through them. Tell Him that you want to know Him. You will find that gradually your understanding of God will sharpen. You will see that certain attitudes and patterns of relating to God are correct and reflect a proper understanding of Him and other attitudes show a misunderstanding.
For example, one common attitude that you will never see commended in the Bible is fatalism. Many people assume that because God is all-powerful and all-knowing, what we choose has no impact on what happens. This is the kind of misunderstanding that comes from drawing conclusions from our ideas about God or from theological statements in the Bible without paying attention to the records God gave us of how He actually interacts with us.
From the first stories God shows us that human choices are important because God wants them to be important. He had Adam name the animals. He did not give Adam the names of the animals. Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden and the consequences of that choice are still rolling on. In I Samuel 2:27-36 and 3:11-14 God tells Eli the priest that both his sons will die and his family removed from being the priests because of all the evil they have done. Eli’s response was to say, “It is the Lord, let Him do what seems good to Him” (I Sam. 3:18b NASB). In the same book (since 1 and 2 Samuel are actually a single book that was divided in two because it is too long to fit on one scroll), God tells David that the child he conceived when he committed adultery would die. When the child became sick, he didn’t react like Eli and treat God as if He is fate or karma. “David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Sam. 12:16 ESV ). He explained later, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live'” (2 Sam. 12:22 ESV). David knew that God is personal and He is moved when people humble themselves and cry to Him for mercy. Which of these men understood God better? Which one had a heart that the Lord tells us was generally right towards Him? It was certainly not the fatalistic Eli.
A fatalistic attitude is one that conceives of God as distant, not really interacting with human beings, but just speaking from on high. Whatever we say back doesn’t really have an impact. It isn’t even important that we say anything back. What’s important is that we accept His will and obey Him. This is not the God we see revealed in these stories.
6. The Narrator is reliable, but the characters are not always reliable in what they say.
The stories have a Narrator. He is all-knowing and always right. He can tell us what was happening in someone’s heart and even what God was thinking. When a character says something that conflicts with what the Narrator says, the character is wrong. They are, after all, human and can either lie or be misinformed. Comparing what a character says to what we know to be true because the Narrator has told us, is a valuable way to come to understand that character’s motivation and how they view the world.
A good example of this lies in the two stories of the death of Saul. 1 Samuel 31:3-6 records King Saul’s death – that he fell on his sword and died. Then in 2 Samuel 1:5-10 a young man comes to David and claims that Saul, while standing up, asked the Amalekite to kill him, which he did. Now it is possible, if you assume that both stories are true, to decide that Saul fell on his sword, but didn’t die right away. Instead, he stood up again and asked a passing stranger to do it for him. However, it is much simpler and more natural to decide that the Amalekite is lying. Remember that the first version of his death is told by the Narrator and is absolutely reliable. On the other hand, while we can be certain that the Amalekite really said what is recorded, we can’t be sure that what he said was true. We can surmise that he came across Saul’s body and looted it, then, not understanding David’s attitude towards Saul, thought he would get a reward if he claimed he had killed Saul.
Particular difficulties: Repeated Stories and Repetition in Stories
When you read you will sometimes come across a story that seems to be repeated somewhere else. For example, there seem to be two stories of Creation. Also, King Saul prophesied in two different stories and both stories are said to be the origin of the same idiom. I’ll explain these two examples to give you some ideas of how to understand repeated stories, and also so that you won’t worry about them very much.
Repeated stories have been a source of concern because in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even today, scholars studied the Old Testament as if it were only an ancient human document. They saw these double stories and concluded that they are present because the author had two different folk tales to explain the same thing and so he just shoved both of them into his story. They developed the idea that the Old Testament is a disjointed mishmash of contradictory stories.
Scholars did this because they assumed their own expectations for storytelling were universal, that standards for storytelling were the same everywhere and at all times. The idea that a book written by a different culture might reflect different storytelling techniques, assumptions and expectations didn’t cross their minds. They judged Ancient Near Eastern literature by modern European standards and so wrote with great confidence out of a deep ignorance of their subject. Though they had a great deal of knowledge about the Old Testament, misunderstanding some basic points such as this lead them badly astray. As Erasmus, the great scholar of the Renaissance era, wrote, “Nothing is so arrogant as ignorance.”
However, to the original audience, repeated stories did not contradict each other. They existed to cast light from different angles onto the events of the story. In the case of Creation, we first read about the Creation of the world from an outside point of view. We are watching with a perspective like that of an angel. In the second story we see the creation of humanity and of the Garden of Eden from a more earthly point of view. We aren’t seeing it from heaven, but are closer to the action. We human readers are invited to this more intimate perspective on the creation of our first ancestors and the portion of the earth God prepared specifically for them.
As far as the two stories of Saul go, Saul prophesied once at the beginning of his reign as king (I Sam. 10:9-12). This was a positive and surprising event and was a spiritually positive experience for him. From this came the phrase, “Is Saul one of the prophets?” Since no one uses this phrase any more, we can only guess what it meant, but it seems that it was used for a surprising, positive event that exceeded expectations. Up to this point, Saul had not been a spiritually interested person. He didn’t even seem to know who Samuel was, even though Samuel had been the spiritual leader of Israel for decades. But when he became king, he prophesied.
Later, Saul has turned away from the Lord and is trying to kill David, the man God had chosen to replace Saul as king. Once when Saul is going to kill David, he is overcome by the Holy Spirit and prophesied (1 Sam. 19:23-24). However, this time it seems more like raving (The Hebrew word “to prophesy,” also means “to rave.”), and Saul striped himself naked and lay down all night. This is the opposite experience from the first time. It is a spiritual degradation and it is towards the end of his reign, just as the first time was at the beginning. Now the phrase, “Is Saul one of the prophets?” takes on a darker meaning. Perhaps it would be used when someone would attempt something for which they aren’t at all suited. When a Hebrew would use this phrase, tone of voice and context would communicate which way the idiom was meant.
I hope this gives you some idea of what to do with repeated stories. Most of the time you should just pass over them and not worry too much, though. Repeated stories are mostly the kind of thing you will think about when you are a more advanced reader.
This has been an overview of the narrative genre and how to read it. Hopefully, the following tips will help you as you read.
- Read the stories as stories
- Details are important, but not clear, main point is usually clear.
- Get to know characters by watching what they do and listening to what they say.
- Judge for yourself.
- Pay attention to what God is doing and how people are relating to God.
- Narrator is right, but the characters are not always right.
The next lesson will be about something vital to understanding the Old Testament: Covenants.
Famous stories and people
Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure
Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering
Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth
Saul, David, Solomon
Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther