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Reading the Bible: Narrative

Updated on January 7, 2011

The number one selling book around the world is the Bible.  It's not the latest thriller by Dan Brown, or the newest inspirations from Joel Olsteen, but the Bible.  This may be surprising to some.  What is interesting about this is how few people know how to read the Bible.  For some reason people have been taught to approach it differently than any other piece of communication, and to look into it deeper.  While I believe the Bible is the most profound book available to mankind, there is a danger in looking so deep into the text that you invent a meaning that was never intended and miss what you were intended to understand.

The Bible is made up of many different literary genres.  There is poetry, prophecy, wisdom, expository, hortatory and genealogies to name a few.  The most common form of literature in the Bible by far is narrative.  Over 70% of the Bible is a story plain and simple.  While many people know how to read a story when Mark Twain is the author, people feel that the Bible cannot be read like any other story.  In this hub I'm going to give you some simple tips to read and understand a Biblical narrative in such a way that it impacts your life.

Know Your History

Everything has a backstory.  This isn't just true in the Bible but it's true anywhere.  Consider the classic movie series Star Wars for a moment.  In the original triology the second movie is called the Empire Strikes Back.  Good flick, and I would assume most have seen this.  There is a scene towards the end of the movie, which is probably the most well-known scene in all of hollywood.  Luke looks at Darth Vader as they are fighting and says "You killed my father".  Then the voice of James Earl Jones fires back "Luke, I am your father!"  This has to be the most shocking development ever thrown someone's way.  The reason that line is so meaningful and so shocking and so significant is because of the story leading up to that moment.  Imagine if you had never seen A New Hope and missed the first half of the Empire Strikes Back.  If you hadn't seen the beginning of the story, I doubt you would care much that Vader is Luke's father.  

The same principle is true of the Bible.  Stories are only significant as they fit into the larger narrative of Scripture.  Pick any story in the Bible and it most be read in light of its historical context.  I'll try to illustrate this for you.  All throughout Deuteronomy, but especially chapter 28, God while establishing His covenant with Israel promises many things.  To sum it up He promises blessings to Israel for obedience and curses to Israel for disobedience.  Knowing that one fact will help you understand where the people in that country are at whenever you read a story.  In Ruth 1:1 it says "in the days when the judges ruled there was famine in the land".  That one statement of famine is a screaming indicator that as a country they were not obeying God.  That makes the story of Ruth so beautiful.  Naomi and her husband and two sons left Israel and went to Moab (also forbidden in the law).  Naomi's husband and sons die (death is a promised curse for disobedience).  However while all these people are disobeying God and doing whatever they feel like, God is being merciful and bringing something wonderful out of the situation.  Ruth, a Moabite, comes back with Naomi to Israel, and from there meets Boaz and eventually becomes the great-grandmother of the King of Israel; David who restores proper worship of God to Israel.  Isn't that beautiful?  Doesn't knowing your history make the story that much more significant?

Why Was the Story Written?

This is a good habit to get into when reading the Bible.  Look for a reason why whatever that is written is written.  Take the first five books of the Bible.  They were written by Moses (except for the end of Deuteronomy that has Moses's death.  That part is written by Joshua) when Israel is getting ready to move into the promised land.  They are literally sitting on one said of the Jordan riving waiting to go across and conquer the land God promised them.  Moses then reads from Genesis - Deuteronomy.  He wants to remind them of who God is, who man is, how Israel became God's chosen people and also remind them of what happens when they obey God and what happens when they disobey God.  Moses wants his people to live long in the promised land, but knows how quick people forget.  This will help you understand why some aspects of a story are sometimes vague.  Occasionally it seems like an author leaves something out, but when you know why an author is writing you realize that the vague part is insignificant to the point they are trying to convey.

I think a good example of this is the bronze serpent in the desert.  People are being bitten by fiery serpents for disobedience and dying.  God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and everyone who looks at it will be healed.  There's a lot of vague things in that story.  What the heck is a fiery serpent?  Did they breathe fire or did the venom sting like fire or where they made of fire?  Why a bronze serpent?  What is the significance of bronze?  Why this act that resembles idolatry when God could have said to ask for forgiveness and He would heal them that way?  That's all secondary to the point of the story.  Moses doesn't answer those questions because they are insignificant to what he is communicating.  Israel, when he is retelling this story, is about to go into the promised land.  He is reminding them of what disobedience brings: death.  He is also reminding them of what the solution to their problems is:  God.  There is nothing they can do to save themselves from disaster if they disobey.  Only God in His mercy can save them from the curse of their disobedience.

Keep it Simple

Once you are familiar with the historical context of this story and the author's intent in writing the story, you're ready to move on to the story you want to read.  The key here is keep it simple.  There will be plenty of time to go deep and dig out every little nugget later.  For now just concentrate on picking up the huge nugget sitting right on top of the ground.

Narratives are very simple to read.  You want to remember a couple main things: Characters, Introduction, Conflict, Climax, and Resolution.  This is no different than any other story.

When I speak of characters try to keep them straight in your head.  A story will always start out with a character in the introduction to the story and will introduce more as the story goes on.  Each character is significant so don't glaze over anyone.  Know who they are, how they relate to each other, and their purpose in moving the plot along.  It's also important to remember that when reading the Bible, although He may not always be mentioned, God is ALWAYS a character in the story.

For the introduction narratives will always give you the setting for the story.  With the Ruth example the setting is the famine, the move to moab, and the death of the men leaving Ruth and Naomi widows.  The intros aren't long but important to the plot.

There is always a conflict.  A plot has to have some tension.  There is something in the story that makes you wonder how things are going to get resolved.  In the Ruth story the conflict is the fact that there are two widows trying to take care of themselves.  They had just lived in Moab so maybe family is reluctant to help Naomi out in her time of need.  Israeli law had a system in place for widows that a near male relative was supposed to marry a widow so that she would be provided for.  The problem is Naomi is too old, and Ruth is a Moabite.  No one wants either of them.  

The climax of this story is when Ruth is out providing for herself and her mother-in-law.  She's out in a field picking up the leftovers of a harvest so she can have something to eat.  Well the owner of the field doesn't know who she is a takes a liking to her and starts giving her some special treatment.  When Ruth talks to Naomi about it, it turns out she had been in the field of Boaz; a man who could legally marry Ruth since he was a male relative to her.

The story is resolved as Boaz decides he's going to marry Ruth.  There is a slight hiccup as there was another male relative who had more legal right than Boaz, but they work it out and Boaz does the right thing.  It's a truly beautiful story.

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