Roger Severino



Last time we emphasized the importance of context when reading or teaching narrative. This includes the literary context, the historical context, the cultural context and the geographical context.

Another important element in studying narrative is to distinguish between what is descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive means the biblical author is merely describing what took place, with no value judgment one way or the other. When the author is being prescriptive, then he is telling the reader how to respond or act. Generally, most narrative portions of Scripture are descriptive. That doesn’t mean there is no application for the reader, but the application may be less direct or in principle.

I remember being confused when reading the story of Jacob in Genesis. Since the promise went through Jacob (rather than his brother Esau), I assumed that meant Jacob was the hero of the story, and an example to follow. What I read about Jacob, therefore, became hard to swallow. I often found his actions to be deceptive and self-serving; hardly the characteristics I thought I should cultivate. But the author is not necessarily suggesting that the reader should imitate Jacob. The text simply describes the story of his life.

The story of Jacob (and all character studies) points to one of the most important truths about studying narrative. God is the hero of the story. Not Abraham, Jacob, Joshua, David, or Solomon. Almost all human characters portrayed are a mixed bag. And even when there is no obvious blemish described, we know the nature of humanity, and that there are no perfect people, but “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

I believe there are three important questions to ask when studying and teaching historical narrative. What do I learn about God (or Jesus)? What do I learn about people? Where do I see the need for grace? A robust understanding of Scripture should prevent me from preaching narrative as simply moralism – how to be like (or not like) a character in the story. Certainly, there is an appropriate use of biblical examples and characters to imitate or avoid imitation. But a study should never stop there. Not only are there problems with exhorting people to be like Solomon (because you certainly should qualify this statement), but ultimately, we are a people who need Jesus and the gospel of grace.

To summarize, when teaching historical narrative, one should factor in elements of the literary, historical, geographical, and cultural context. Ask questions, such as: How does this story fit into the larger narrative? What do I learn about God? What do I learn about people? Where do I see the need for grace? How does this passage fit into the larger story line of salvation history? What does the author (human) and Author (divine) want to communicate to us today? How do we need to respond and adjust our lives according to what God is saying in His Word?

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