The Challenge of Narratives 1: Old Testament

Note – Peter has offered a clarifying comment on this post.

I’d like to offer a series of posts on the particular challenges for interpreting the major narrative sections in the Bible.  Today, the Old Testament.  In parts 2 and 3, the Gospels.  Then in part 4, Acts.

There are many challenges when interpreting Old Testament narrative passages.  These include the greater distance between the story and today (culturally, linguistically, historically) and the simple fact that we tend to lack a broad understanding of the sweep of Old Testament history.  However, the greatest challenge I see is:

Accurately grasping the enduring theological truth of a story.

This is a major challenge.  After all, we are not preaching a story about Jacob to his twelve sons.  A lot has changed since the story was written.  We have to wrestle with matters of continuity and discontinuity:

1. There are significant elements of discontinuity between the Old Testament and now.  Early OT narratives occur pre-Sinai, or pre-exile.  All OT narratives occur before the first coming of Christ, before the cross, before the resurrection, before Pentecost, before the founding and growth of the church.  The characters had less of the Bible to know and trust, they had a different relationship to the Holy Spirit than we do, their perspective on the world and history was different.  Whatever label you put on it, some things have changed.

2. There are some critical elements of continuity too. I’d like to mention two key elements of continuity.  Having taken into account all that has changed between those times and these times, some things don’t change.  Human nature doesn’t change.  God’s character doesn’t change.  While so much may be different, we continue to face the same two paths before us as the biblical characters faced: the path of trusting God, and the path of unbelief.

All Scripture is not written directly to us, or even to people whose situation was the same as ours.  But all Scripture is useful, applicable, relevant.  It’s our challenge as preachers to figure out how.

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Narratives 1: Old Testament

  1. I find this homiletics thought interesting. I am not sure I have really read or hear the ideas before. I am not really sure what you really mean either.

    Its’ our challenge as preachers to figure out how to use the Scriptures? Okay?

    Can’t we just teaching the text within the context? Can’t we teaching Daniel and the Lion Den as Daniel in the lion’s den, without necessarily spiritualizing the story. But maybe Daniel’s faith in God.

    Maybe this is why I teach the New Testament, using the Old Testament to illustrate a NewTestament principle. And I don’t see teaching Christ in every passage in the Old Testament.

  2. Thanks Charles from prompting me to be more clear. I totally agree that we must preach the text within the context. And certainly we should not be spiritualizing an Old Testament story. The challenge for us as preachers, though, is to do more than give a history lecture.

    One of the core elements of my definition of preaching (and every other good “expository preaching” definition), is the need to not only accurately explain the author’s meaning in a passage, but to also emphasize the relevance to our listeners’ lives today (application as well as explanation).

    How do we demonstrate the relevance of a story like Daniel in the den of lions? After all, during the next week, none of your listeners will be thrown into a den of lions for their prayer habits by a pagan ruler being manipulated by his subjects. So why should your listeners care about this story from long ago and far away? That’s the challenge of OT narrative. We have to move from the exegetical outline and idea to a theological (enduring) outline and idea, then earth that through a homiletical outline and idea. Perhaps you’ve done that in your example? We certainly don’t spiritualize the story, but we don’t just leave it as history either. Like you say, perhaps Daniel’s faith in God is key, maybe that points to the enduring relevance of the story to different people, in different places, under different circumstances?

    Any good book on preaching will address the progress from exegetical to theological to homiletical (these are the terms Robinson uses in reference to the idea – other books may use different terminology).

    Thanks again Charles for prompting me to clarify my post. One other thought – on using the OT as an illustration of the NT . . . An old post on this very subject!

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