Saturday, March 9, 2019

Historical Narratives of the Bible and Their Interpretation

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12).

Much of the Old Testament consists of historical narratives, so before we plunge into these more fully and consider the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs, let us consider three rules to bear in mind as we read these events.

The first rule is that one portion of Scripture is not to be set against another, and its corollary holds that historical narratives must be interpreted by didactic (teaching) portions of Scripture. If we merely look at Jesus’ crucifixion as it is recorded in the Gospels, all we see is a man dying on a cross. It is other passages in the Bible, especially in the Epistles, that explain the meaning of this event.

The second rule is that we are not to draw conclusions from historical narratives in isolation from the rest of Scripture. For instance, if we consider Genesis 22:1–19 by itself, we might get the idea that God was up in heaven waiting to see whether Abraham would obey Him or not. The rest of the Bible, however, makes it clear that God is omniscient. He knows the end from the beginning and had no need to check out whether Abraham feared Him or not. The purpose of the events in Genesis 22 was to teach Abraham (and us) something about the nature of true faith.

The third rule is that we should not imitate Bible heroes in all things. Frequently the Bible tells us what happened in the life of a great man without stopping to tell us whether what he did was right or wrong. Sarah offered her maid Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate mother. Abraham slept with Hagar. Genesis 16 records these events but does not tell us whether these acts were right or wrong. Biblical silence on the issue is not an endorsement. Other places in the Bible, however, make it clear that monogamy is God’s rule (Leviticus 18:18). In addition, later events in the lives of Abraham and Sarah indicate that they should have trusted God and waited for Him to provide them a child.

Imitating biblical heroes is good when we follow their praiseworthy acts, but we must avoid those things that God calls sinful in other passages of Scripture.

Too often we divorce the narrative stories of the Old and New Testaments from that Scripture we know is clearly teaching material. As we study the familiar stories of the Israelites in the upcoming posts, strive to keep today’s rules in mind. See the narratives as exemplary teaching (both positive and negative). Challenge yourself to mentally cross-reference specific teaching passages with the narratives you read.