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Frank and Flor Gant
Essay: Old Testament Narratives
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Written April 2002

Narratives are stories; tales told to fascinate us, to entertain us, and as in the case of the Bible, they are to relay the truth about God.  Old Testament narratives are stories about God and His chosen people, the Israelites.  Actually, the Old Testament Bible uses narratives to tell about events from the beginning of time to the time when Israel had lost its kingdom and beyond.  Narratives are dramatic and spellbinding and perfectly fit to be the most used form of writing in the Bible.

According to Fee and Stuart, Old Testament narratives are told on three different levels: the top level reflects the whole universal plan worked out by God through His creation; the middle level focus on and around Israel; and the bottom level is made up of the hundreds of individual stories found within the other two levels (Fee 1993:70).  Biblical narratives are also made up of several components: scene, plot, point of view, characterization, setting, dialogue, structural levels, and stylistic or rhetorical devices (Sandy 1995:70). 

Interpretation of an Old Testament narrative is to be done by taking the narrative as a whole, not broken down into different parts.  The impact and effect of the narrative comes from the story as a whole, when broken down, the narrative losses its persuasiveness.  Evaluation of a narrative must be made with the narrative as a whole unit, not when its pulled apart into pieces (Fee 1993:83).  There are several principles in interpreting Old Testament narratives; listed below are four of these methods, taken from Sandy and Giese, pages 80-81.

"Identify each scene of the narrative."  Each of the characters should be identified and their dialogue and actions summarized.  Look for the main character and find out what he is saying and why he is saying it, why are these details recorded? (Sandy 1995:80).  One thing to remember here is that the main character does not always do what is right (Fee 1993:84).  An example of that would be David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband so that she could become his own wife; David was far from doing what was right in this scene.  So, the main character is not always the hero.

"Determine the point of view from which the narrative is recorded."  Discover from whose point of view the story is being told and why the story is even being told.  Determine if the story focuses on one main character or is there more than one person the subject of the passage.  Is the narrator one of the main characters, a minor player in the passage, or is he in some other place or time all together?  Look for the narrator to write about the emotions and feelings of the characters involved, does the writer seem to side with one person over the others? (Sandy 1995:80).

"Look at the units within a scene and their relationship one another."  Learning how the smaller units in a scene all fit together will help to bring out the meaning of the whole scene (Sandy 1995:81).  Narratives are not stories full of hidden meanings, the correct interpretation, with a little study, is there for all to see.  Also, a narrative may pose more questions than it answers, if all the little pieces, when put together, dont answer the questions, then God may have decided not to put the answers there in the first place (Fee 1993:81).

"Study the stylistic devices the author uses."  Included in these devices are "repletion, omission, inclusion, chiasm, irony," and others (Sandy 1995:81).  The narrator will use different types of words and figures of speech to get his point across to the reader.  For example, if the writer wants to really emphasize something, he may use repletion, as in the book of Jeremiah, where the writer uses the phrase sword, famine, and plague 15 separate times (Youngblood 1995:1111).


Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 2nd ed. 1993. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Sandy, D. Brent, and Ronald L. Giese, Jr. Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament. 1995. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.

Youngblood, Ronald. Introduction to Jeremiah. The NIV Study Bible. 1995. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.