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.

Review: The Word Became Fresh, by Dale Ralph Davis

Subtitle: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (2006)

Davis is a respected Old Testament scholar and pastor.  Puzzled by the prevalent view that the Old Testament is a “problem” (caused, he asserts, by a skeptical brand of Old Testament criticism during the last two centuries), he sets out to show that preaching from the Old Testament is not that difficult.  He achieves his goal in this 150-page easily accessible paperback from Mentor (Christian Focus Publishing).

Although he has published several Old Testament commentaries, Davis admits to hesitancy when writing about preaching.  A negative experience teaching preaching has caused him to steer clear, consequently this book focuses on accurate interpretation of Old Testament narratives for preaching (one step removed from homiletics proper, but in my mind very much a preaching book!)

The nine chapters of the book consist of simple instruction, engaging writing and a constant flow of examples from all over the Hebrew canon.  Although relatively simple, this is not in any way lightweight.  I particularly appreciated his addendum on the popular desire for Christocentric, rather than merely Theocentric preaching.

The book begins with “Approach” which is a fine chapter on the basic elements of interpreting narrative passages (perhaps I describe it as fine because it comes close to my own approach!)  The next chapter “Quirks” moves the study on a level by recognizing the literary features commonly used in OT narrative.  The chapter on “Theology” gently moves on in the expositional process, centering on Genesis narratives.  “Packaging” considers literary context and text structure, again, more examples given.

In “Nasties” Davis addresses the sometimes brutal nature of OT narratives.  Then “Macroscope” addresses the important issue of seeing passages in the context of entire books.  If there’s one place where preachers tend to come unstuck in OT narratives, it is in the area of application.  The next chapter “Appropriation” contains valuable cautions and tips in this area.  “Center” urges a Theocentric commitment in our preaching (and the excellent addendum on Christocentric preaching).  Finally, in “Synthesis,” Davis pulls it all together with expositional examples from Exodus 1 and 2.

This is a great little book, and I recommend you chase it down and read it through.  The instruction is helpful and the numerous examples are a gold mine for those that preach a lot and sometimes appreciate a nudge in the right direction.  One thing is missing, a pet peeve of mine in this kind of book, there is no Scripture Passage Index.  I don’t want to have to read through a book a second time in order to find out if a particular passage is addressed.  Perhaps you should do what I did in Alter’s book on OT narrative and create a passage index as you read through it.  That’s not too hard, but I’d rather pay the author and publishers for that extra two or three pages.  (Note – see first comment on this review for a link to an index for this book!)

For a structured methodology in preaching OT narrative, I’d recommend Mathewson.  For great insight into the literary skill of the OT narrative authors, Alter is still the classic in its field.  But this book by Davis should not be overlooked on either count.  Davis’ little gem is worthwhile reading as an introduction to OT narrative preaching or OT narrative interpretation.  And if you think you are beyond needing an introduction, call it something else and read it anyway!