Reading Narratives

             Narratives are stories.  The Bible is 40% Narrative.  So it is important to understand how to read these kinds of passages.

            It is important to see how a particular narrative fits into the larger picture of God’s plan in the world.  Individual stories can be part of larger narratives.  For example, the “Sacrifice of Isaac” in Genesis 22 is part of the “Abraham Narrative” in the Book of Genesis.  It is important to read that story in the light of the whole section of Abraham, then in relation to the Book of Genesis, then in relation to the whole Bible.

            Narratives are NOT: 

            Just Stories about people.  We love to tell stories because when they are well told, they are fun to hear.  Have you noticed how you will tell the same stories to your friends and family, and the retelling is just as fun as the first telling.  Biblical stories are not mere entertainment; they talk in some way about God’s work in history.

            Allegories, that is stories filled with symbols, where everything is supposed to represent something else.  The Wizard of Oz is an extended allegory, as is Gulliver’s Travels.  Biblical narratives have meaning at the plain and historical level.  One should not always seek hidden or spiritual meanings.  For example, a story about catching 153 fish has been speculated upon in history – what symbolic meaning is there for 153 fish.   In this case 153 simply means 153.

            Moral Lessons.  We are accustomed to treat biblical stories as if they are one of Aesop’s Fables. Be careful in taking the story out of context and adding a meaning to it that suits your fancy.  (e.g. “The story of David and Goliath shows that the Cubs could win the World Series”). Be careful in taking the experience of people in the past and saying that it is what we should do in the present. (e.g.  “The church in
Jerusalem all spoke in other languages in Acts 2, so should you!”)

            Ten principles for reading Narratives:

  1. They do not usually teach a doctrine.
  2. They usually illustrate a doctrine taught clearly elsewhere in the Bible
  3. They record what happened, not necessarily what should have happened.
  4. What people did in the Bible is not necessarily an example to follow.
  5. The people in the Bible are less than perfect
  6. They do not always interpret themselves; we are expected to be able to judge what happened on the basis of Biblical teaching.
  7. Narratives are selective in what is included; don’t obsess over what is not said.
  8. They are not written to answer every theological question
  9. They can teach explicitly, by clearly stating something, or implicitly, but showing without saying.
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero in all the biblical narratives.

Avoid These Mistakes:

·        Allegorizing – which is giving every word or object a hidden meaning.

·        Taking out of context – You can “make” a text say anything if you ignore how the author used it to make a certain point.

·        Selectivity – where you ignore parts of the story to highlight others

·        False Combination – putting things together to create a false meaning. 

·        Redefinition – changing the intended meaning into your preferred meaning.

·        Using Extra-biblical authority

·        Moralizing – creating a moral that is not stated or implied

·        Individualizing – reading the Bible as if it is just for you.

·        Present-ism – evaluating the past by present standards of taste or morality.

Practice Passage

Genesis 22 – Abraham and Isaac


Genesis 22:1-24 ESV

    After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” [2] He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” [3] So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. [4] On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. [5] Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” [6] And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. [7] And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” [8] Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
    [9] When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. [10] Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. [11] But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” [12] He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” [13] And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. [14] So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
    [15] And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven [16] and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, [18] and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” [19] So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
    [20] Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: [21] Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, [22] Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” [23] (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. [24] Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.



Read the Chapter several times.

Think about how it fits into Genesis 11-25.

Look for “interpretive clues”

Ask Questions

Draw it out if you like

Compare translations





One thought on “Reading Narratives

  1. What if I said, “the bible supports the idea of human sacrifice.” Would I be right? How would you argue from the text itself, for another purpose?

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