Did you know that 60-70% of the Bible is historical narrative? This fact means that if one does not know how to interpret narratives properly, he cannot understand up to 70% of what God is trying to tell him. Historical narratives recount factual events in story format. While a story may or may not be true, historical narratives communicate the facts about something that took place.
All historical narratives record events that have happened in a particular context (scene). In addition to the physical, historical, and cultural context in which the events occurred, the narrator (writer) selects and arranges the event details for the purpose of expressing his point of view (ideological perspective or message). Because the Bible records actual events, and the authors who recorded them were divinely inspired, great care must be taken to ascertain the authors’ message. Consider the following guidelines designed to help accomplish this task.
- Read the whole narrative in one sitting. The desired outcome of this step is that you will understand the overall flow and plot of the narrative. Be especially attentive to major themes that emerge as your read. Often, I have to read a narrative many times until I understand the thematic plot.
- Avoid interpreting the parts of the narrative. It is dangerous and unhelpful to dissect a narrative and remove its individual parts from the whole. The author’s point of view may be understood only in the context of how the specific parts are connected.
- Understand how the scene shapes the narrative. Consider Judges 16:3, which says, “Now Samson lay until midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the door of the city gate and the two posts and pulled them up along with the bars; then he put them on his shoulders and carried them up to the top of the mountain which is opposite Hebron.” If you read this historical account without knowledge of the scene, you will completely miss the point. Here’s what I mean. When you read that Samson pulled the gates of Gaza off their hinges, what image comes to mind? If you are reading this blog via the internet, it is likely you have not experienced the kind of gates that Samson encountered. Without knowledge of the ancient local scene in which Samson’s drama unfolded, your assessment of his feat falls flat. Thanks to archeological findings, we have an idea about how big and heavy Gaza’s gates were when Samson lifted them. They were most likely around 10ft. (3m) tall and 10-13ft. (3-4m) wide. In those days, the gates were probably made of durable wood (like cedar) and plated with bronze. Gates would range from 1.5-3ft. (.5-1m) thick. Considering the size and the amount of wood needed to make the gates (excluding the weight of the bronze plating), we may conclude that the gates were in excess of 5,300lbs. (2,404kgs). If that isn’t impressive enough, consider another element of the scene. The distance from Gaza to the area near Hebron is about 36 miles (57.9kms). Not only that, but Samson was carrying those 5,000+ pound gates from an elevation of 100ft. above sea level to Hebron, which was 3,300ft. above sea level. Without changing any of the details of the actual narrative, the scene illumines us to the fact that Samson’s feat was miraculous.
- Remember that narratives do not teach doctrine. Although we are not to take explicit doctrines from narratives, they do illustrate doctrines taught in other passages. For example, Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife does not explicitly teach a doctrine of fleeing immorality. But, it does illustrate the direct teaching of Paul on the subject (1 Cor. 10;14; 2 Tim. 2:22).
- Remember that historical narratives are actual events. Because they are records of events, not all characters are good, nor is there always an obvious moral of the story. At times, historical narratives leave us with unanswered theological questions. Has anyone read the account of Rahab (Josh. 2) and not wondered about lying and situational ethics?
- Don’t try to find hidden meanings in historical narratives. Sound interpretation does not squeeze every possible figurative application from the details of narratives. For example, in the story about Samson carrying Gaza’s gates to Hebron, the story is not teaching us to find gates and destroy them. There is no hidden meaning here. We must avoid taking flights of fancy with esoteric insights from prosaic details of an historical event.
Paul told us, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Although they are not a rich source of doctrine, narratives reveal that God is involved in the affairs of men. He is working all things after the counsel of His glorious purposes. That is encouraging. So, study the historical narrative passages in Scripture, but stay in bounds by remembering these guidelines.