(This is the second of six articles Matt Proctor will write this year under the theme, “Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth.)
By Matt Proctor
When we read one of these Hebrew narratives, we want to discover the author’s intended meaning. This guards us against imposing our own meaning on the text.
How do we uncover the clues to the author’s intended meaning? I love Warren Wiersbe’s observation in The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete Old Testament, “If you don’t talk to your Bible, your Bible isn’t likely to talk to you!” In other words, if you don’t ask the text the right questions, you won’t get the right answers.
So let me suggest seven questions you can ask when reading an Old Testament narrative. These seven questions will unearth the author’s intended emphasis and show how the narrative fits into God’s story and your story.
What Kind of Story Is This?
A trip to the local video store reminds us that stories come in all categories: romance, action/adventure, drama, and comedy. Each type carries with it certain expectations that influence how we watch the movie. The same is true with Old Testament narratives. Determining what kind of plot you’re dealing with will affect how you read the text.
Consider the story of Noah and the ark. We sometimes think of this as a warm and friendly story. We decorate the walls of our church nursery with rainbows and little arks with smiling Noahs and giraffe heads sticking out. But Genesis 6–9 actually is a judgment story. It’s in the same category as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we don’t decorate the church nursery walls with fire, brimstone, and pillars of salt! We approach the story differently when we think of it as judgment narrative.
Another example: When you come to a well in an Old Testament narrative, what kind of story are you in? Chances are, you’re in a romance. In the Old Testament, wells are where men go to find wives. Isaac’s wife Rebekah, Jacob’s wife Rachel, and Moses’ wife Zipporah were all found at wells. (I tell our Bible college guys that if they want to find a wife, the biblical method would be to hang around the water fountain.)
By the way, does this understanding change the way you read John 4? When the Samaritan woman meets Jesus after having five husbands and one live-in boyfriend, Jesus becomes the seventh man in her life—and seven is John’s favorite number for completion. Because they meet at a well (and because we know our Old Testament romance stories), we can’t help but think she is finally meeting the perfect bridegroom she’s been looking for all these years.
Understanding the type of story you’re reading will change the way you read it. So ask yourself if this Old Testament narrative is a journey story, a birth story, a judgment story, a romance story, an underdog story, and so on.1
Where Is the Setting for the Story?
Sometimes geography informs theology, so ask, where is this story taking place? Second Kings 2:23, 24 says, “Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. ‘Go on up, you baldhead!’ they said. ‘Go on up, you baldhead!’ He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.”
When I read that text, as someone with two teenagers who poke fun at my receding hairline, I just have two questions: “What exactly was that curse, and does it still work?” Actually, I have many questions: “Isn’t this a bit harsh, Elisha? Was it really necessary to maul 42 kids, or were you just being too cranky?”
The clue to the answer is in the geography. Bethel was a center for idol worship (1 Kings 12:32). It’s very likely these teenagers are echoing their parents’ contempt for God as they jeer his representative Elisha. They have broken covenant with God, and in Leviticus 26:22, the Lord promised that, if his people broke the covenant, he would “send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children.”
So this isn’t just the story of an irritable prophet, it’s the story of a judging God who keeps his promise of punishment. And the geographical location is the hint we needed.
Or consider the story earlier in 2 Kings 2. When Elisha arrives in Jericho, the people tell him the water is contaminated and is killing their citizens. So Elisha gets a new bowl, puts salt in it, throws the salt into the spring, and the water was “healed.” At first, this might look like a simple act of benevolence by Elisha—like modern-day efforts to provide clean drinking water in developing countries.
But this act is more theological than humanitarian, and the geography is the clue. Jericho was under a curse. In Joshua 6:26, after the destruction of Jericho, Joshua says, “Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho.” And this curse comes true in 1 Kings 16:34.
But now, in the prophet Elisha’s act, a place of curse becomes a place of blessing. A place of death becomes a place of life. A place of God’s judgment becomes a place of God’s grace. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the gospel to me . . . and it was the geography that informed the theology. So ask, “Where is the physical setting for the story and what do we know about it?”
What Do We Know About the Main Characters?
First, pay attention to physical descriptions. If you are a reader, you know that novelists often paint vivid character portraits—telling us about the facial characteristics, body type, dress, posture, and carriage of their protagonists.
By contrast, the Old Testament writers use sparing detail to tell us about their characters. We don’t know much about how most Old Testament characters looked—which means when a physical description is given, it plays an important part in the story. When we’re told that Jacob’s skin is smooth while Esau is a walking rug, we know that will be significant later.
Judges 3 tells us the Israelite deliverer Ehud is left-handed . . . in a society that saw right-handedness as good and southpaws as bad. (Think about where Jesus put the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.) Ironically, he was from the tribe of Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand.”
When the left-handed guy from the right-handed tribe visits the enemy king Eglon, the Moabite security guards only pat down his left thigh—where a typically right-handed man would strap his sword. Ehud sneaks his sword in undetected, strapped to his right thigh, and delivers Israel with one quick stroke.
Lesson: God glories in using perceived weaknesses for his purpose.
In addition to physical descriptions, pay attention to characters’ names. Jacob literally means “heel grabber”—a euphemism for someone who deceives, like “leg puller” in English. His name tells us what to expect from Jacob. Of course, it marks a significant moment when his name is changed to “Israel,” meaning “he who perseveres with God.”
Truth: Despite our past, God can give us a new identity.
Consider the story of Gideon, who starts off humble: “I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15). In fact, after Gideon leads Israel to victory and the Israelites try to make him king, he refuses by saying, “The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23).
But we begin to have questions when we notice Gideon takes gold tribute from the people and takes many wives for himself. These look suspiciously like the activities of a man who thinks of himself as king. Our suspicions are ultimately confirmed when Gideon names one of his sons Abimelech . . . which means “my father is king” (Judges 9:1)!
The name tips us off to this lesson: One of the great dangers of spiritual leadership is the subtle increeping of pride.
What Do the Characters Say?
Conversations in Old Testament narratives are not meant simply to record everything said on a particular occasion. The authors edit out any idle chatter to give us the words that best reveal the hearts of the characters. For example, when Adam blames Eve (and God), the writer is showing us the damage sin has already done to man’s psychological, relational, and spiritual well-being.
Or think of Esau. When he walks into camp and smells Jacob’s stew, his words reveal an impulse-driven caveman mentality. Robert Alter says Esau’s line could be translated, “Let me cram my maw with this red . . . this red stuff.” So the narrator does not have to tell us Esau is as dumb as a post; Esau has told us himself.2
Pay attention to the words that come from a character’s mouth because “nearly 50 percent of biblical narrative is dialogue, which means the quoted word carries the story’s freight of meaning.”3
Are There Repeated Words or Phrases?
Sometimes the Old Testament authors craft their storytelling with a repeated word or phrase to give clue to their intended meaning. In Exodus 1, the writer tells us three times that the people of Israel, though they are in slavery, still “multiplied” or “increased” (Exodus 1:7, 12, 20). This is the author’s clue that, though Israel is in bondage, God is keeping his promise to Abraham to make him into a great nation. God has not forgotten his people.
In the story of Ruth, when Naomi returns to Bethlehem from Moab after her husband and sons die, she tells the villagers she is bitter because the Lord has afflicted her and brought her back “empty-handed” (Ruth 1:21, 22). But when Boaz notices Ruth and grants her appeal for marriage on the threshing floor, he sends Ruth back with food for Naomi. Ruth tells Naomi that Boaz told her, “Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed” (3:17, emphasis mine). This word is a clue to Naomi—and to the reader—that the Lord heard her complaint. He has not forgotten her.
Is Irony Present in the Story?
One of the chief characteristics of Hebrew storytelling is the use of irony (the rhetorical strategy of highlighting a sharp incongruity).
When Lot chooses the well-watered plains of Sodom, the reader recognizes the irony that Lot’s worldly choice will backfire because, after the fire and brimstone, Sodom will ultimately end up a barren wasteland.
When Goliath demands an Israelite champion to fight, the most logical physical choice would be King Saul who was “without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:2). Ironically, however, a boy steps forward to fight the blasphemous Philistine. The irony of the big king staying in his tent while the little shepherd charges the giant reminds the reader that true leadership relies on God’s attributes, not one’s own.
After David’s sin with Bathsheba, he sought to cover it up by bringing her husband Uriah back from the battle lines, getting him drunk, then encouraging him to go home to sleep with his wife. But Uriah honored the warrior’s code—he would not enjoy marital pleasures while his military brothers still fought on the front lines. So with great self-control he refused, and the contrast between the two men becomes starkly evident. The irony is clear: Uriah is a better man drunk than David is sober.
Irony in these, and other, Old Testament narratives is a clue to the author’s intended meaning.
How Does the Story Connect to Its Literary Context?
A key to understanding any biblical text is its context, but too often we don’t examine it closely enough with Old Testament narratives. Perhaps this is because the narrative context may extend several chapters before and after a particular passage. But if we will take a step back to see how the text fits into the larger flow of the book, we will begin to see connections that bring insight.
Consider the story of Jacob. In Genesis 27, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the family blessing . . . using a goat and a coat. Much later, in Genesis 37, when Jacob has children of his own, his sons trick him into thinking Joseph is dead . . . using a goat and a coat.
When you connect Genesis 37 to Genesis 27, a truth is revealed: You reap what you sow; what goes around comes around; be sure your sins will find you out.
Or look at 1 Samuel 25. In the preceding chapter, David patiently forgoes revenge and spares Saul’s life. But in 1 Samuel 25, David becomes enraged at the farmer Nabal’s disrespect and prepares to take revenge in his own hands.
Why the sudden shift in David’s attitude? Perhaps because, in 1 Samuel 25:1, the prophet Samuel dies. No one is there to offer spiritual wisdom. But God raises up Nabal’s wife, Abigail, to speak prophetically to David, bringing him to his senses. So in 1 Samuel 26, David is once again on the right path, patiently forgoing revenge and sparing Saul’s life.
The context of the David and Nabal narrative teaches us that, when we lose an important spiritual voice in our lives, God graciously provides another to guide us.
When you pay close attention to the literary context of each narrative, God can reveal what his inspired writers were intending to communicate.
“You’ve Got to Read This!”
Shortly after my son Luke learned to read “chapter books,” we got him a kid-friendly version of the Bible. He was so excited. In his room at the end of the hallway, he would sit on his top bunk and just read the Bible.
I’ll never forget one evening I was sitting in the living room, and periodically from down the hallway, I would hear a thump! Seven-year-old Luke would hop off his top bunk, run down the hallway with his Bible in hand, and burst into the living room, “Dad! Dad! You’ve got to read this story!”
He would proceed to read me some narrative from the Old Testament that he’d never heard before. Luke would then go back to his top bunk, but soon thereafter, I would hear another thump and the process would repeat.
Of course, the stories were all familiar to me, but to Luke they were brand new. His excitement and joy of discovery were contagious, challenging me to read these passages again with fresh eyes.
My hope is that these seven questions will help you read the Old Testament narratives with fresh eyes, that you will hear God’s voice whispering to you his powerful truth, and that you’ll be so amazed you just must share God’s Word with someone else.
“You’ve got to read this!”
1The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery published by IVP is an outstanding resource for understanding the kinds of stories present in Old Testament narrative. See especially the article on “Plot Motif.”
2Thomas Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 79.
3Jeffrey Arthurs, Preaching with Variety (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 73.
Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.