Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Some Guidelines for Reading Old Testament Narrative

In the west we are often more comfortable with the New Testament as it fits into the Hellenistic framework we're used to. The Old testament can sometimes feel puzzling and even when we read commentaries it can sometimes be hard to see how they came to that conclusion. Here are 10 principles copied from Julian Freeman which can help us interpret Old Testament narrative passages.

10 Principles for Interpreting OT Narrative: 

  1. A narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine but rather illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere
  2. A narrative records simply what happened, not necessarily what should have happened or what should happen every time
  3. We’re not always told at the end of the narrative what was good & bad; narratives invite reflection and thoughtful pondering based on other teachings
  4. The things that happen in a narrative are not necessarily a positive example for us, even if the person is a positive figure by and large
  5. Most people are far from perfection; so are there actions
  6. All narratives are incomplete and selective in details; sometimes what is left out is as important as what is included (what is important is that we know everything the inspired author intended of us to know)
  7. A narrative is not written to answer all our theological questions and they are misinterpreted if we come with our questions, rather than the questions the narrator wants to answer
  8. God is the real ‘good’ character and the hero of all biblical narrative; he is the only one always worthy of emulation
  9. The historical narratives are always to be interpreted by the teaching material
  10. Always remember that Jesus told us the story is about him; you haven’t finished understanding the narrative as a Christian until you see how it helps you to understand and know and love him
I think these are really helpful although I'd like to comment on #10. Although this is very much true we can sometimes look too hard to make Jesus fit into things in a way he's not meant to. For a classic example, Song of Songs is a wonderful love poem and rightly praises romantic love. It does teach us about Jesus in that he shows us that he is a God who rejoices in love and sex in correct context. It is not, however, an allegory for Jesus and the church. I don't want Jesus climbing my palm trees and taking hold of my fruit, if you know what I mean!

Till Next Time!

H/T: Good book Company


  1. I like most of those but I have a problem with number 1. The reason being it can easily be used to argue God's dealing with man though history are anthropomorphism which leaves the door open for impassibility and generally not taking the narrative seriously. Further there are no particularly propositional, atemporal, sections in the OT, the closest is probably Ecclesiastes. As such this gives far too much ground for unwarranted reading in the NT in the OT.

  2. Hey Swifty,
    I agree its vague and could possibly be misunderstood. I believe the point he is making though is that it's dangerous to extrapolate a doctrine from a narrative. It can be helpful to look for guiding markers. For example, the end of Judges which is often used as saying God encourages abduction and rape, rather is to be understood in the proposition "in those days there were no kings, everyone did what was right in their own eyes." In other words, everyone did what they wanted, have a look at the following story. Even the Benjaminites are gits!