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How Do You Find Meaning in the Bible’s Narratives?

http://rss.desiringgod.org/link/10732/14833021/how-do-you-find-meaning-in-the-bibles-narratives

Audio Transcript

We’ve talked a lot about Bible-study principles on the podcast — specifically, arcing: the practice of breaking down a paragraph in the Bible to its individual statements, its propositions, to determine how those propositions relate to one another logically, so we can see for ourselves the main point of a text. It’s a powerful way to employ discourse analysis. We talked about this back in episode 1056. But in that episode, you only used examples from Paul’s epistles. And I think the epistles are rather intuitive for arcing. But Nicholas in Ontario, Canada — who is, I gather, a pastor — writes in to ask about narrative texts.

“Hello, Pastor John. Thank you for your tireless work on this podcast. It is such a blessing to have these concise and thoughtful responses to the perennial questions of life. I am currently listening on Audible to your book Reading the Bible Supernaturally. It has been such a wonderful refresher on why to read the Bible and how to focus my reading and study for personal devotion and sermon prep. Thank you. My question is regarding narratives. You make the point that your revolution in reading came when you discovered that the Bible’s authors were making arguments and that tracing those arguments well was key to understanding the author, and thus God’s intention in the word. I see how this applies to the epistles of the New Testament and even wisdom literature. But what about narratives? My church is currently preaching through Luke, and while there is indeed structure, how do you ‘arc out’ a narrative? Are there different keys you look for? Are there specific transitions, markers, or triggers you are looking for in the narrative texts?”

Seeing What an Author Is Saying

Well, let me see if I can get everybody up to speed with what he’s asking. I put a huge emphasis on following an author’s train of thought in order to find his true intention. And I do believe that the most fundamental goal of reading is to discover the author’s intention, what he wants to communicate. Now, there may be other good effects of reading besides that discovery. You might just find entertainment, for example. But without pursuing this foundational effect of finding an author’s intention, we’re being discourteous, and we’re treating authors the way we don’t like to be treated when we try to communicate something and somebody says, “I don’t really care what you’re trying to communicate. I’m going to take your words to mean this or that.”

“Without pursuing this foundational effect of finding an author’s intention, we’re being discourteous.”

And in the process, we’re going to lose a great opportunity for growing. If we don’t care about finding what another person has discovered in reality, and we’re just going to read our own ideas in, we’re not going to grow. And 2 Peter 3:18 says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” So, I argue that one essential means of pursuing that goal of finding an author’s intention and growing in knowledge and grace is to carefully trace an author’s argument.

And by argument, I don’t mean quarrel. I know that sometimes people use the word argument differently than I do. I mean a sequence of thought that builds from foundations to conclusions. For example, Romans 1:15–17 goes like this. (There are going to be three becauses.)

I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. Because I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. . . . Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.

I read my Bible for two decades before I discovered that’s the way Paul wrote. So there are four massively important statements here, right? And my point is that you can’t understand Paul’s intention, what he’s trying to communicate, unless you understand the logical relationships between those four statements. And Paul signals, loud and clear, those relationships by using the word because three times. He’s building an argument from foundations to conclusions.

Clues in the Narrative

Now, Nicholas’s question is how that detailed, rigorous focus on the logical relationships between particular statements relates to the interpretation of big sections of narrative in the Bible or story in the Bible. And he could expand it out and ask, “How does it relate to poetry and parable and so on?” Events that are woven together in a certain way — that’s what I mean by narrative. Should we seek the author’s intention in the same way?

And my answer is this: In principle, yes. But in the details of how the author signals his intention, we’re going to have to watch for other things than simply one proposition following another proposition with a logical connector in between. Stories don’t work like that. But biblical authors write stories for a reason. They are trying to communicate something to us. They want us to find it.

I remember when I wrote Reading the Bible Supernaturally, which he referred to, I was just blown away by this. I saw this really for the first time. One of Jesus’s main criticisms of the Pharisees was that he said they didn’t know how to read. I mean, it must absolutely have galled them. I mean, they were the readers, right? Over and over he says, “Have you not read? . . . Have you not read?” (Matthew 12:3; 19:4; 22:31). And they’re scratching their heads and saying, “All we do is read!” Of course they read. So what does he mean? He means they were reading and not reading, seeing and not seeing.

“Biblical authors write stories for a reason. They are trying to communicate something to us. They want us to find it.”

In other words, there are real intentions that the inspired authors communicate — in this case, the Old Testament authors that the Pharisees read every day — whether through careful, sentence-by-sentence exposition, or whether through poetry, or whether through narrative, and those Pharisees weren’t seeing it at all. That’s what Jesus was upset about.

So yes, we should look for an author’s intention in all writing — all writing that’s worth its salt. And yes, we should look for whatever clues the author gives us, and all good authors do give clues to help us find what he’s trying to communicate. Those clues with regard to narrative might be repetitions, or the order of events, or what the dialogues actually say, or the effects of certain events, or actual inserted interpretive comments by the author, and so on.

Joseph and the Story of Many Layers

So let me just give a few illustrations from one of the best stories in the Old Testament. I’m thinking of Joseph now in Genesis 37–50. Some regard this as one of the best short stories that’s ever been written, if you want to put it in those categories. It’s an absolutely riveting story, and you wonder, What in the world is going on here? Where is this going, this story?

There are fourteen whole chapters about Joseph’s dreams, the hatred of his brothers, their selling him into slavery, his fall further and further into misery as Potiphar’s wife lies about him — and then he goes to prison, and he’s forgotten in prison. And then he becomes the second-ranked ruler in Egypt, and the people of God are saved from starvation in the famine, and the line of the Messiah is preserved. Oh, that’s what was going on!

And there are numerous layers of intentions in this writing. I want to get it out of people’s minds that when you read a narrative, you get the big picture or get the one big point. Well, yes, by all means, get the one big point. It may govern all the others, but there are a lot of little points that authors make along the way.

The Bible in Parable

So let’s start with the big picture of this story. I think Moses wrote Genesis, and he does not leave us wondering about the big overarching intention of the story. He fills us in with a couple of very clear, pointed summary statements of what he’s been talking about. For example, Joseph says in Genesis 45:7–8,

God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here [even though you sold me into slavery!], but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

In other words, all these apparently human events that we’ve been reading about for fourteen chapters, even the sinful ones, were in the control of the sovereign God, who is sending his emissary through sinful actions down to Egypt to save his people. That’s crazy. That’s wonderful. That’s almost the meaning of the Bible in parable.

And then in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” I think when you read that, you almost have to go back and reread the story, because now you get it. Now you say, “Oh, that’s where it was all going.” And you can reread the story and say with that clue in your mind, “This meant that, and this was going here.” You see God’s hand more immediately.

So, the big point is that the human sinfulness of God’s people or human sinfulness against God’s people not only do not thwart his saving plans, but they advance his saving plans. They are part of the plans of God to save his people and finally bring his Messiah into the world through that line. So that’s the big picture. And he clues us in with hints all along the way and with that big explanatory statement at the end.

‘The Lord Was with Him’

But there are other clues of meaning and layers of meaning besides the big interpretive statement at the end. Along the way, Moses mingles worsening circumstances with encouraging words. Joseph is thrown into the pit. He’s sold as a slave. He’s far from home in Egypt. He’s lied about by Potiphar’s wife. He’s forgotten in prison. Down, down, down, down — you can graph this story, and it corresponds to many of our lives. I’ve done this for our people. I graph it and say, “Where are you on this horribly descending graph of miserable circumstances in your life?” And he comes to the end, and then he seems to be forgotten by God. What in the world? It’s supposed to sound that way.

But along the way, Moses says things like, “The Lord was with him and . . . the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3). Or again, “The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (Genesis 39:21). We get these hints along the way that even though things are getting worse for Joseph, it’s not because of his sinfulness. He’s not bringing this on himself. It’s not because he’s been abandoned by God — but because of God’s hidden purpose. And as we read, we want to know, What’s the purpose? What’s the purpose? God, you say you’re for him; you don’t look like you’re for him.

Story Within a Story

One more illustration of how the author gets across his intention, and this is one of the most perplexing things to me in the whole story. Chapter 38 totally, it seems, interrupts the flow of the story. The Joseph story begins in chapter 37 with the dreams and the selling into slavery in Egypt, and — bang! — Moses inserts chapter 38 as soon as the big story starts, and it is so extraneous. It tells this bizarre story about Judah, Joseph’s older brother, who winds up getting his daughter-in-law pregnant, thinking she’s a prostitute. Now whatever else is going on here, my question is, Moses, why here? I mean, put that chapter before chapter 37. Let the story flow. What’s the point of interrupting the narrative with this chapter 38?

Well, here’s my suggestion, and I would love to know whether it’s right or not. The very next thing after that horrible immorality of Judah in chapter 38 — the very next thing we read about in Joseph’s story — is Joseph’s incredible uprightness in sexual relations with Potiphar’s wife, who tries to seduce him. And Moses records his words: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). So, I think the ordering of the narrative with the insertion of Judah’s sexual immorality just before Joseph’s staggeringly effective and beautiful sexual morality is to underline in bright colors the difference between Judah’s unfaithfulness and Joseph’s amazing sexual uprightness, which simply goes to show that there can be main points to narratives and lots of sub-points to narratives that we should be alert to.

Keep Looking

So, in answer to Nicholas’s question: whether we are reading a tightly argued epistle of Paul or a sweeping narrative across fourteen chapters, we’re always looking for what the author intends to communicate. And we look for the kinds of clues that he gives us, whether in exposition or in narration, to help us find the intention.

I would just say to Nicholas that the more you read — the more I read — with that aim of spotting those tips and pointers that authors give us, the more you’re going to see.

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