Thoughts on Narratives


There are lots of ways to preach a passage of scripture.  One is to put the narrative into a formula such as this: Give it a title; identify a thesis, make three points, preferably alliterated, and find other stories to illustrate.

For Example:  David and Goliath:

  • Title:Taking on Giants
  • Thesis: You can overcome the impossible.
  • Three Stones:
    • Stand Tall
    • Say a Prayer
    • Shoot!
  • Illustration:  maybe an Olympic Athlete who overcome a hard life to win a gold medal.  If you are up to speed, play a video.  If you are a big church, invite the athlete to speak before the message.

Nothing really wrong with that.   You have heard a sermon like that if you attend a church with a preacher.  Maybe you can see a certain preacher delivering this message. You could probably preach it yourself.  But, do you think that is really what the story is about?

I’ve come to think of preaching narratives differently.  The Biblical stories are already crafted.  They need to be presented freshly. some obscurities need to be explained and the larger context of the story needs to be pulled in.  But mostly the preacher needs to stand to the side and let the story speak as intended.

Here are my thoughts in bullet points:

  • Narratives have a built in structure. Do not squeeze them into your formula – such as three points and a punch line.
  • Narratives are illustrations. They don’t need you to illustrate them so much as explain what is not clear.
  • Stories have power.
  • Use a little freedom in telling it, but make clear what is in the story and what is your own take on it.
  • Don’t over-principalize.  One author has built a book on a sentence of scripture. That seems to be using the text as a scaffold for adding your own thoughts.  It is not hearing the text.
  • Let them remember the story, not the preacher.  People will be telling the story of David and Goliath a lot longer than they will talk about Pastor Bob.  That is a good thing.
  • I prefer the word “Story” to “Narrative.”  Yes, narrative is a literary category, but it has also become an over used bit of semi-scholarly name dropping.  “Story” is  short and clear.

If I get my listeners to hear the familiar in a fresh way, and they have the Biblical story in their minds, I can trust that the Original Author can apply the story to His listeners.



Limits of Narrative Worksheet: the Case of Deborah


We need to gain our theology from teaching portions of the Bible, and then compare those to the Stories.  It is rarely a good idea to change what we think the bible teaches by comparing it to a story.

Deborah and Women in Leadership:

1.  Read Joshua 4 (bottom of page) together and look at what the Narrator highlights about Deborah as a woman.  Cite verse numbers and give a sentence or two of explanation.






2.  Are there other women in the story?

  • V. 17-22; 5:24-27
  • 5:28-31

 3.  Compare to Teaching passages in the New Testament:

  • I Timothy 2:8-15
  • I Corinthians 11:2-16
  • I Corinthians 14:33-27
  • Acts 18:1-3; 24-28

 Texts on Deborah in Judges 4,5

Judges 4:4-16 ESV

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.

12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor,13 Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

Judges 5:1, 7, 12, 15,


Blowing off the Dust from Walter Kaiser

I have had a book by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. on my to be read for so long it was collecting dust. I just picked up and read his chapter on OT Narrative.  This chapter at least is excellent.  His advice for reading a narrative and finding its intended meaning follows in my summary here.

At least half of the Bible is written in Narrative form.  Much of my training in preaching assumed other genre such as gospel or epistle.  My adult class will take September to practice these ideas.  First sample will be Genesis 37 – the start of the Joseph cycle.


Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, p.76

  1. Identify each scene: every change in time or location.
  2. Analyze the plot: Beginning, Middle, End; Climax and Resolution.
  3. Determine the “point of view” – what is the focal point that gives the subject of idea that the story is trying to tell.
  4. Observe if there is dialogue and see if this contributes to the “point of view”
  5. How is each “scene” related to the “point of view.”
  6. What stylistic devices does the author use:  repetition, key word, chiasm  (ABCC’B’A’), irony,  etc.

Tell me the old, old story

I was recently at a conference of the Urban Ministry Institute ( which is engaged in inner city church planting and leadership training.  What is surprising is that they are very strong on what they call “Sacred Roots” or the “Great Tradition.”  By this they mean that essence of the faith that is “shared by all, everywhere” within the church.  This is summarized by the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The other part of this, what makes it well suited to urban ministry is the commitment to the big story of what God is doing in the world.  It can be summarized in a variety of ways (note that the Apostles Creed, particularly on Christ is something of a story, “…born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”.

The big story is that God the creator of all things has sought from all time to redeem and rescue a people from all nations by the advent, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord, who with the father has sent the Spirit to guide his people through the scriptures.  This is God’s victory in Christ over the ancient dragon.  One day we will enter fully the City of God, but now we are building the reign of God through our worship, witness and service to Christ.

This is grist for the mill at several levels.  One idea, however, is that this idea shares a few things with the old Schofield Bible narrative – it is a story, not a mere list of doctrinal points, it is clear and compelling, it celebrates Christ as the central actor, it puts the Christian life in a context of something bigger than the individual or a congregation, it gives a summary of the scriptures, and it is accessible to people who do not have academic degrees.

This is also similar to my Reformed and Baptist friends who insist that every sermon ought to be tied to Jesus or to “redemptive history.”

Luke 1,2 Is there a Pattern?

I have been preaching from the birth narratives (Luke 1,2; Matthew 1,2 and John 1 as well) for about 25 years.  There is always something new to see in them.  This year, after becoming more interested in narrative structure, I started to ask if there is some overall structure to Luke 1,2.  So I took a stab at an outline of sections, and then i checked what I did with some more academic works from the Library.

So first, here are the agreed on narrative units to Luke, 1,2.

  • Lk 1:1-4 (intro to Luke)
  • Lk 1:5-25
  • Lk 1:26-38
  • Lk 1:39-56
  • Lk 1:57-80
  • Lk 2:1-20
  • Lk 2:21-40
  • Lk 2:41-52

Now before you read on, why don’t you take a look at these sections and see how they might be related to each other.  Do you see inclusio, parallelism, chiasm, or chaos?

Now, here is my modified outline, which is very much influenced by J. A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible 28, The Gospel According to Luke I – IX.  He sees that the main literary structure is a parallel comparison of John and Jesus, but in every instance Jesus is shown to be superior.

A.  About John – Lk 1:5-25

   B.  About Jesus – Lk 1:26-38

     C.  The Visitation – Lk 1:39-56

A’  Birth of John – Lk 1:57-80

         (a.  v. 57-58 – birth

          b. v. 59-80 – circumcision, name, song

    B’  Lk 2:1-40

          a.  Birth, shepherds, song  2:1-20

          b.  Circumcision, naming, song  2:21-40

           C’   The Temple   2:41-52

the Annunciation sections A, B have numerous parallels, other sections are less exact.  The various “songs” appear in an inexact way.  So we can call this a loose parallel structure.

So how did you do, is your outline better than mine?

II Kings 22,23 – Chiasmus

I told someone this week that I was discovering a “chiasmus” in the story of King Josiah, found in II Kings 22,23.  He asked what that was.

It is a literary form where the elements of a story (A, B, C) are repeated, modified in reverse form (C’, B’, A’).  Chiasmus refers to the shape being an “x” or “chi” in Greek.  Often the main point of the story can be found in the center, where the “x” marks the spot.  The number of elements vary. 

English readers need to look for this as it is not a literary form we are as accustomed to as the ancient Hebrews.   We are used to jokes with three elements (minister, rabbi and priest jokes for example), with “inclusio” returning at the end to the beginning.

In my analysis of II Kings 22, 23, I found such a structure.  Notice below that at the start Josiah is affirmed and at the end.  He has the book read to him and he reads it to others, he was restoring the temple, then he restores the people, etc.  The B’ is a long section detailing the repairs Josiah made as a result of his recommitment to the Covenant. 

This is helpful in finding what the intent of the passage might be.  If you see this structure, it is likely pointing you toward the mid point. In this narrative, that is Hulda’s word form the Lord for Josiah and for Jerusalem.  The passage has good news for Josiah, but bad news for the people.  Overall, what it is saying is that rebellion was so advanced and so deeply set in the people that there was no chance that the judgment of God could be averted.  A very serious point.  However, whatever may be the case for the nation, Josiah was still intent on obedience and he was still rewarded for his repentance and faith.

there is this structure.

A – Josiah Affirmed  22:1,2

    B – Josiah Repairs  22:3-7

            C – The Law Recovered  22:8-10

                    D – Josiah Reads the Law  22:11-13

                          E – Josiah Inquires  22:14

                                    1. Jerusalem  22:15-17

                                    2.  Josiah  22:18-20

                    D’ – Josiah Reads the Law  23:1,2

             C’ – Josiah Recovers the Covenant 23:3

     B’ – Josiah Repairs 23:4-24

                        Jerusalem – 23:4-14

                        Outlying Area – 23:15-20

                        Passover – 23:21-23

                        Idolatry – 23:24

A’ – Josiah Accepted; Jerusalem Rejected  23:25-30

            1. Jerusalem – 23:26-27

            2.  Josiah – 23:25, 28-30