There are several different types of literary genres found in the Bible. To best understand and interpret what you are reading, you need to know what type of literature you’re looking at. I’ll attempt to cover the various genres in upcoming posts. I’ll begin where the Bible begins— with the Old Testament Narratives.
There are 17 Old Testament narratives. They are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First Samuel, Second Samuel, First Kings, Second Kings, First Chronicles, Second Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. The first five listed make up the Pentateuch/Law. There is also narrative in the New Testament (for example—Acts which would be similarly interpreted, and parts of the gospels).
The 17 books listed above are historical narratives— they give us the history of Israel from its beginning to the time of the prophet Malachi (though they are not arranged chronologically which can be confusing!). “In the Pentateuch, Israel was chosen, redeemed, disciplined, and instructed. The remaining 12 historical books record the conquest of the land, the period of the judges (who were individuals raised up by God to be military deliverers for Israel as surrounding nations were threatening them), the formation of a united kingdom, and the division of that kingdom into the North (Israel) and the South (Judah). Both were taken into captivity but many of the people eventually returned.” (From The Wilkinson and Boa Bible Handbook.)
Not only do the narratives give the history of Israel, they also give readers the meta-narrative— or the bigger story of the universal plan of God… from creation to the fall, to God’s plan and story of redemption… as he redeems a people for Himself. These themes are woven throughout each book.
Old Testament narratives are stories about certain events and people, but most of all, they are about God— at work in His creation and among His people. Because we tend to associate “stories” with fiction, the term narratives is used since these accounts are real— and though I’m not going to get into it here, there is plenty of extra-biblical evidence (extra-biblical means outside of the Bible— for example King Ahab of Israel who is mentioned in the Bible in Kings and Chronicles is also mentioned outside of the Bible on an ancient Assyrian monument) to support the fact that these people and events actually existed.
As we read through the narratives, there can be some confusion because they do not always teach directly (explicitly). Instead they tend to teach indirectly (implicitly) through the lives of the characters. For example, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11). There is not explicit teaching on adultery and murder following this part of David’s story. Instead, there is implicit teaching in that it says the Lord was displeased (though many other OT stories don’t even go as far as to say the Lord was displeased) and in 2 Samuel 12 when Nathan confronts David.
But the thing is, the original audience (Jews circa 900 BC) would have been hearing and reading this story about David in the context of the rest of their Scriptures. They would have previously known that Exodus 20:13-14 commanded “You shall not kill… you shall not commit adultery.” So when they heard this story about David they would have understood it was wrong because they were familiar with the explicit teaching found in the law. The author and original audience held the same presuppositions that we do not necessarily share. What was obvious to the original audience is not always obvious to us. Again, that is why it is important for us to take in the whole Bible to get an overall context! I’ve seen people take such stories in the Old Testament completely out of context by saying that since it happened and is in Bible it must be okay. That would be reading out of context and in ignorance to the type of literature it is.
So, with that said, here are 10 principles to help you interpret historical narratives (taken from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth):
1. Old Testament narratives do not usually teach doctrine directly.
2. An Old Testament narrative usually illustrates doctrine taught elsewhere in the Bible.
3. Narratives record what happened, not what should have happened, therefore not every story has a single identifiable moral application.
4. What people do in narratives is not always a good example to us— often it is the opposite.
5. Most characters in the narratives are FAR from perfect— as are their actions.
6. We are not always told whether the actions in the narratives are good or bad— we are expected to judge based on what God has taught us elsewhere in Scripture.
7. The Old Testament narratives are selective and the inspired authors did not give us every last detail to each story, so don’t impose a meaning if you can’t see one.
8. They were not written to answer all of our theological questions— they have specific, limited purposes.
9. Narratives may teach explicitly or implicitly. When we are looking at what is implicit especially, we should rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit to help us understand based on the narrative instead of imposing our own ideas onto it.
10. God is the protagonist — the main character and hero, of all biblical narratives.