Reading Narrative in the Bible
By Jacob Orr
If I’m honest, reading the Bible can seem like a daunting task. It’s an ancient book that can be hard to understand, and if you have been in church for more than 15 minutes, then you probably feel an obligation to read it. I definitely have felt this guilt about not reading my Bible, and that was compounded when I didn’t understand what was being said or what relevance it has to twenty-first century America.
Two Bible verses that have helped me in this area are found in 2 Timothy and the Gospel of John:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-14)
These two verses point to the fact that all of God’s word is for us, and God himself desires for us to understand it. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy, but it does mean that it is possible.
Twenty-one of the 66 books of the Bible are narrative. When it comes to reading the narrative portions of the Bible, what I have found most helpful is Jen Wilkin’s method of praying, comprehending, interpreting, and applying.
If we believe that the Bible is God’s word breathed out, then any encounter with the Bible is an encounter with God. We should approach it with prayer.
Personally, my prayer simply looks like a short, “Lord, give me eyes to see and ears to hear what you would have for me.” We should ask the living God to prepare our hearts to receive what he would have for us. Reading scripture is not just an academic task; it is a spiritual one.
Reading comprehension asks the basic questions of the narrative: Who is speaking? Where is the scene taking place? What is being discussed? This might not seem very spiritual, but we first must understand what is taking place on a basic literary level before we can go deeper into the text.
Another question that we must ask is where in the story we are. This includes both the book of the Bible that we’re in and the storyline of the Bible as a whole.
For example, the David and Goliath story happens after David has been anointed king, but prior to him actually becoming king. In the storyline of the entire Bible, David and Goliath is situated after God has promised a king, but he has not yet promised that one of David’s sons will be the divine king. A study bible, like the ESV Study Bible, is helpful in placing the story within its larger contexts.
This is asking, “What does the text mean?” When we talk about meaning, we want to say something that all Christians for all time would have said. We ought to ask questions like, “What did the original author intend for us to get from this text?” Your interpretation should be something that is grounded in the facts of the text.
For example, David and Goliath’s meaning is that God’s enemies will be defeated through God’s king. This is grounded in the fact that David had already been anointed king, and he is fulfilling the role of a king that Saul is not.
Another part of interpreting is asking, "What does this say about God?" followed by "What does this say about us?" The answer to the first question is not always clear. This is where sitting with a text is important. In my own life, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that whatever text I am reading has a place within the larger story of Scripture. If I ask myself, "What does this text contribute to the larger storyline of Scripture?" then I can see where God is moving in the text or what God is trying to communicate.
For example, the David and Goliath story teaches us that God chooses to use unlikely but qualified people in his story. Saul did not see David as a warrior, and he was an unlikely candidate because he was not at the battle and was the youngest son. However, what Saul neglected to see was that David killed lions and bears to protect his sheep (1 Sam 17:35-36).
The second question, "What does the text say about us?" can be even more difficult to answer. Especially in a narrative, we need to avoid the urge to make ourselves the hero of the story.
Think back to the Exodus series. We often identify with Israel during the plague narrative. We are the oppressed people of God, and we need to be liberated from “our Pharaoh.” But we should also see Pharaoh inside of us. We are people who refuse to give up our own thrones as often as Pharaoh refused to give up God’s people.
This is what makes this question tough. It demands that we look at the good, honorable parts of who we are, but it also demands that we look at the sinful parts of who we are. This is where we should always remember God’s grace. Part of Scripture reading should be transforming us more into who Jesus is.
Ask yourself, “How does this text apply to my world today?” Our application should be derived from the original meaning of the text, though not everyone’s application will be the same. These are things that should form us more into the image of Jesus, and sometimes these are less of “action steps” and more of changes in our thought processes.
It’s also important to do application within community. In your missional community or your discipleship group, discuss ways that you can apply Scripture. Remember that not everyone will have the exact same application points, and as God has gifted us differently, different people will have different points of emphasis.
Like with any challenge, reading Scripture gets easier the more often you practice it. I hope that in some way these tips help, but ultimately, this is something that God has given his Spirit to help us accomplish. He has given us all that we need to encounter him through Scripture. Continue to pray that he would open your eyes to see beautiful things within his word, and pray that we would not just be hearers but doers of his word.
This blog is part of Soma’s Spiritual Formation series on Scripture. For more information on how to read Scripture, click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacob Orr is Soma’s summer intern for 2019. He’s a student at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky. A born and raised Texan, he’s probably a little too enthusiastic about his home state.