Roger Severino



Everyone loves a good story, and the Bible is full of stories. In fact, over forty percent of the Old Testament would be classified as narrative, and the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament also generally fall into this category. One popular book on interpreting the Bible defines narrative this way: “Narratives are stories—purposeful stories retelling the historical events of the past that are intended to give meaning and direction for a given people in the present.”[1] In this book, Fee and Stuart go on to suggest that all narratives have three basic parts: character, plot, and plot resolution.[2] Studying historical narratives, therefore, is enhanced when you can maintain the imagination, tension, climax, and plot resolution in the story. When teaching these stories, how can you communicate narrative in an appropriate and effective way to your audience? Let me begin by referring to four important contexts for historical narrative: literary context, historical context, cultural context, and geographical context.

Perhaps the most important one of these is the literary context since the Bible is after all a written book and tells us what we need to know when we consider the entirety of the story. When studying a text that is part of historical narrative, try to understand how this passage relates to what comes before and after in this book. For example, I recently taught on 1 Kings 8, Solomon’s dedication of the temple and his prayer. Since 1 Kings is a continuation of 1 and 2 Samuel, it is helpful to know how this passage fits into the larger narrative. In fact, there are references in this chapter to Moses and David, so it is helpful not only to know about David from 1 and 2 Samuel, but also Moses from the earlier parts of the Bible. It is also helpful to know how the story fits into what happens after this event. In isolation, Solomon looks pretty good in 1 Kings 8. But there are already hints in 1 Kings 6 and 7 that his priorities may be suspect. The dimensions of Solomon’s royal palace are much larger than those of God’s temple. By the time we get to 1 Kings 11, there is no doubt that Solomon has strayed in his dedication to the Lord. Solomon loved foreign wives and soon fell into idolatry by worshipping the gods that they brought into the family. Knowing the literary context, therefore, can be helpful not only in providing insights for the current context, but also to see where the story is going.

For the sake of space and time, I will deal more briefly with the remaining three contexts. Historical context refers to how an event fits into both biblical and world history. For example, in preaching on Solomon, I may want to have a timeline from Abraham and the patriarchs, to Moses and Joshua, the judges, followed by the united monarchy. 1 Kings 8, therefore, falls into the historical period of the united monarchy that began with Saul, then David, then Solomon. It may be helpful to know that the punishment for Solomon’s infidelity to the Lord was that the kingdom would be rent in two after Solomon’s death, and the kingdom divides into north and south, with Solomon’s descendants ruling the smaller part—the southern kingdom. Eventually, both the northern and southern kingdoms fall into the same sin of idolatry which leads them into exile—first, the northern kingdom falls to Assyria, and later the southern kingdom to Babylon.

Things like cultural and geographic context may not be needed in every passage you study or teach. A good rule of thumb is to determine if the understanding and application of the text will be enhanced if your class or group has a better grasp of the geography and culture. Is it helpful for the audience to know the location and distance that Abraham and his family travelled first from Ur to Haran, and then Haran to what would become the promise land? If so, then a map, or some reference to the distant travelled could be included. Is there a strange custom the Bible mentions that is foreign to someone living in the 21st Century western world? Giving some cultural background in these incidences can assist the hearer in what is happening.

So, in this Part 1 of studying and teaching historical narrative, we have emphasized the importance of the literary context, historical context, cultural context, and geographical context. Keep in mind that most of these contexts can also be applied to other types of biblical genres.

[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 90.
[2] Ibid, p. 90.

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