8 How to Understand Old Testament Stories: Part 1

Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

How to Read Narratives

Part One

Hebrew narratives are “stories.” It’s too bad that today many assume that if something is a story, with plot and characters, it is fictional, because this is simply not true. When you tell a friend about a strange thing that happened to you, this is a story, but, unless you are a liar, it is also true. These stories in the Bible really happened, and are perfectly true, since they are the words of God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).

These stories are selective in what they tell us because all stories are selective. It would be impossible to tell a story containing every visual detail and answering every question. Anyone who has tried to tell a story to an inquisitive child knows this. The child can ask so many questions that, unless you cut them off, the story will never finish.

It’s also important to remember that these stories are a form of history. They are true retellings of actual events. They are not allegories or fables, nor are they filled with hidden meanings. This doesn’t mean that they have to fit with our idea of history, whatever that may be. Some people suppose that if a history book is trying to make a point, it isn’t really history because it isn’t written from a neutral perspective. They view it as propaganda. Since the Bible’s stories all have a theological point, they don’t look like “good” history if that assumption is made, but we don’t have to make it. The books should be judged against what the authors were trying to do, not what people today think they should have been trying to do.

Many well-meaning, godly people through the years have interpreted Old Testament stories as allegories. This means that they see the characters as representing something else. So they might say that Abraham, called by God to leave his people and go to a new land represents the Church, which is called out of the world to follow God to Heaven. They did not deny that Abraham was a real person who really was called by God, but they thought that the way a Christian profited from the story was to read them as symbolizing something else. This type of teaching was well-meant, coming from a genuine desire to apply the Bible to people’s lives when these teachers couldn’t see any other way to use these stories because the accounts are filled with lying, murder and adultery.

Other well-meaning people try to see in everything a foreshadowing of Jesus. They might tell us that Joseph foreshadows Christ because he was sold for silver and saved his people. Or, more extreme, the Ark of the Covenant foreshadows Christ because it was made of boards which were cut and so Jesus was cut off from His people (I have actually read this).

There are foreshadowings of Jesus in the Old Testament, and there is a sense in which Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. However, there is a problem with this approach that is not immediately obvious. Besides missing the plain meaning of what’s written, this method robs the text of its ability to challenge us. It does this by replacing the original meaning with a safe one we already know. Interpreting this way assumes that we already know what we need to know and already have full understanding of God and the world. It fixes the stories by making them say what we expect them to say before we read them. What this looks like in practice is that the reader searches for something that reminds him of Jesus, or a teaching familiar from the New Testament, and once he finds it, he stops searching the passage. He think that he has found the treasure he was digging for and so doesn’t see most of what God has for him to learn. Hopefully, what follows will help you to use the stories profitably and not to look for hidden meanings.

One of the reasons people read narratives in these ways is because they expect direct teaching, and don’t find it. This is because it is not the purpose of these stories to teach directly. They are not children’s stories that each have a lesson at the end or even have only one point. They illustrate teachings given elsewhere in the Bible. In them we observe real people having real encounters with God and so what we learn, we learn indirectly. This means that not every particular episode has a lesson we are supposed to learn. Often, the profit comes from reading many stories which together build a picture we can learn from.

Numbers records many instances of the children of Israel complaining and rebelling against God. Few of these stories, by themselves, contain a unique lesson, but when we read them together we can see an answer to one of the biggest questions humans have pondered through the centuries.

Notice that the children of Israel in the wilderness saw God in the form of a cloud by night and a fire by day. He performed a miracle every day to feed each of them by giving them manna to eat. Everyone always had just enough to eat every day. God spoke to them directly through Moses. They had seen him part the Red Sea for them.

Were these people a really strong and faithful group? Did they love the Lord with all their heart? No, whatever faith they had was very weak. Their trust in God was all but nonexistent. So when you wonder why God doesn’t show himself with miracles, speaking from heaven, and shaking the earth on a very regular basis, remember the children of Israel. Did this help their faith? It seems that the more God intervenes in this way, rather than creating greater faith in his people, it actually weakens it. Why this is the case, it doesn’t say, but we can know that it’s true because we’ve seen it in these narratives.

This is why we shouldn’t read the stories of the Old Testament looking for a single lesson from each. We should also be careful about reading them to get a general principle, because once a principle is extracted, we tend to discard the story like an orange we’ve squeezed of juice. The stories are there for us to experience again and again, learning about countless numbers of things. Learning from the stories is like learning from life.

Imagine a three-year-old girl and ask yourself what did she learn today. Since she isn’t in school, the answer might be that she learned how to run a little more steadily, how to say some words a little more clearly. Maybe she noticed a word her mother uses, but doesn’t yet know what it means. Maybe she figured out where her mother keeps the sugar and tomorrow she will figure out how to climb up to it and soon after that learn that she should not do so. Her learning is in a hundred areas and almost impossible to specify, but without learning of this kind, she will never become an adult. We should read the stories the same way.

For example, the book of Judges says a lot about women. Women feature in the book from beginning to end in a wide variety of roles. It is something I have contemplated many times, but I still couldn’t tell you with any confidence what Judges is actually saying about women. I don’t believe it has only one message. It is just a feature of the book that the Lord included to develop and challenge everyone who reads it regarding their understanding of women. Different readers will be affected in various ways based on the background they bring to the story, and, obviously, whether they are a man or a woman. It is a tool the Holy Spirit can use to draw anyone into a more balanced understanding of this topic, one a little closer to the truth. It will enable the reader to understand the women in his or her life a little better (including understanding herself if the reader is a woman), to appreciate them and to love them more effectively. The reader will be just a little more like God.

Let’s look at a story and compare how it teaches to the more direct statements we often expect. First, here is Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.” (NKJV) This is a wonderful pair of verses, certainly some that you should consider memorizing. I have remembered them many times and been blessed. Now let’s read a story. The situation is that the Philistines were attacking Israel. Humanly speaking, they were stronger. Israel’s first king, Saul, had brought Israel’s army together to defend against them, but he had a tendency to be hesitant and both armies had been waiting to have a battle for some time. Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, comes onto the scene (1 Sam. 14:1-15).

What do you see in this story? Does any verse stand out to you? It seems to me that what Jonathan said in verse six is pretty important. “Since the Lord can save using many people, or few, He can use us to win a victory, even though this is not humanly possible.” This is a powerful verse, but it doesn’t contain all that is present in the story. We see, too, that Jonathan did not presume that he knows what is best in this situation. Perhaps God does not want there to be a fight here. So, Jonathan proposes a test as part of a conversation with his God. He asks that the Lord communicate His will based on where the Philistines propose to meet. When they say, “Come on up here,” he goes with absolute confidence that he is in God’s will.

One of the basic lessons of this story is encapsulated in the proverb we read above, but which of the methods of presentation was more powerful? The proverb has the great advantage of being short and easy to remember. It’s like a pocket version of what we can learn from this story. But the story of Jonathan is different. It makes the truth come alive and gives us a picture of what trusting the Lord to direct you can look like in a real situation (although one that we are not likely to find ourselves in). It also is a picture of faith. More than that, Jonathan is proactive. He does not sit waiting for the Lord tell him what to do, he actively sought out opportunities and then presented what he found to God for approval. So here we see an example of cooperation with God. Really, the story cannot be exhausted of all meaning by just writing about it here. It is one that we can return to again and again, getting more out of it each time.

Particular difficulties: Repeated Stories and Repetition in Stories

When you read you will sometimes come across a story that seems to be repeated somewhere else. For example, there seem to be two stories of Creation. Also, King Saul prophesied in two different stories and both stories are said to be the origin of the same idiom. I’ll explain these two examples to give you some ideas of how to understand repeated stories, and also so that you won’t worry about them very much.

Repeated stories have been a source of concern because in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even today, scholars studied the Old Testament as if it were only an ancient human document. They saw these double stories and concluded that they are present because the author had two different folk tales to explain the same thing and so he just shoved both of them into his story. They developed the idea that the Old Testament is a disjointed mishmash of contradictory stories.

Scholars did this because they assumed their own expectations for storytelling were universal, that standards for storytelling were the same everywhere and at all times. The idea that a book written by a different culture might reflect different storytelling techniques, assumptions and expectations didn’t cross their minds. They judged Ancient Near Eastern literature by modern European standards and so wrote with great confidence out of a deep ignorance of their subject. Though they had a great deal of knowledge about the Old Testament, misunderstanding some basic points such as this lead them badly astray. As Erasmus, the great scholar of the Renaissance era, wrote, “Nothing is so arrogant as ignorance.”

However, to the original audience, repeated stories did not contradict each other. They existed to cast light from different angles onto the events of the story. In the case of Creation, we first read about the Creation of the world from an outside point of view. We are watching with a perspective like that of an angel. In the second story we see the creation of humanity and of the Garden of Eden from a more earthly point of view. We aren’t seeing it from heaven, but are closer to the action. We human readers are invited to this more intimate perspective on the creation of our first ancestors and the Garden of Eden, the portion of the earth God prepared specifically for them.

As far as the two stories of Saul go, Saul prophesied once at the beginning of his reign as king (I Sam. 10:9-12). This was a positive and surprising event and was a spiritually positive experience for him. From this came the phrase, “Is Saul one of the prophets?” Since no one uses this phrase any more, we can only guess what it meant, but it seems that it was used for a surprising, positive event that exceeded expectations. Up to this point, Saul had not been a spiritually interested person. He didn’t even seem to know who Samuel was, even though Samuel had been the spiritual leader of Israel for decades. But when he became king, he prophesied.

Later, Saul has turned away from the Lord and is trying to kill David, the man God had chosen to replace Saul as king. Once when Saul is going to kill David, he is overcome by the Holy Spirit and prophesied (1 Sam. 19:23-24). However, this time it seems more like raving (The Hebrew word “to prophesy,” also means “to rave.”), and Saul striped himself naked and lay down all night. This is the opposite experience from the first time. It is a spiritual degradation and it is towards the end of his reign, just as the first time was at the beginning. Now the phrase, “Is Saul one of the prophets?” takes on a darker meaning. Perhaps it would be used when someone would attempt something for which they aren’t at all suited. When a Hebrew would use this phrase, tone of voice and context would communicate which way the idiom was meant.

I hope this gives you some idea of what to do with repeated stories. Most of the time you should just pass over them and not worry too much, though. Repeated stories are mostly the kind of thing you will think about when you are a more advanced reader.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is the biggest danger of allegorical interpretation?
  2. It is important to remember that the Old Testament does point to Jesus, but there is a danger in bringing the historical Jesus into our study of the Old Testament too quickly. Can you explain this danger? Do you have an example?
  3. Could you explain to someone why God doesn’t show Himself directly very often and why even Christians have to keep seeking him if they want to see Him more clearly? What parallels can you draw between the Children of Israel’s story and the ministry of Jesus?
  4. If growth in Christ is like the growth of a child, it is complex and impossible to express completely. What are some ways that growth in Christ is obvious? What are some that are not so obvious?
  5. What do you think of the story of Jonathan and the Philistines? What do you draw from it?
  6. Does the idea that an ancient Israelite would be comfortable having two different stories to explain the origin of the same thing bother you? What is hard to understand about this?
  7. For more than a century, many Old Testament scholars have spent most of their time trying to figure out the process by which the Old Testament was written. They have tried to reconstruct if and how different stories combined, also when and by whom. The pastors, teachers and priests these scholars have trained preach much less from the Old Testament than those who are not taught in this way. Why do you think this is?
Name Famous stories and people
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wanderingJoshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth
Kings Saul, David, Solomon
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Lesson Seven

Lesson Nine