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.