How Do We Interpret the Old Testament Narratives?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Some Christians and many skeptics of Christianity take a simple approach to reading the Bible.  They treat the entire Bible and all of its contents as a moral command textbook.  In other words, every single sentence is to be read with an eye toward what moral behavior the author is sanctioning or condemning, regardless of the literary genre.  Certainly some parts of the Bible are directly teaching us moral standards, but not all.

As an example, I recently discussed the issue of polygamy with a skeptic.  The skeptic’s viewpoint was basically this: the Old Testament narratives describe polygamous relationships  frequently and they never seem to expressly condemn it, so, therefore, the Bible teaches that polygamy is acceptable.

The skeptic seemed to be saying that if a certain behavior is found in the Old Testament narratives, and that behavior is not specifically condemned in those same narratives, then the narratives are teaching that this behavior is morally acceptable.

Is that how we should understand the narratives in the OT?  No, not according to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their popular book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.  Following are ten principles for interpreting OT narratives that Fee and Stuart recommend:

  1. An OT narrative usually does not directly teach a doctrine.
  2. An OT narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere.
  3. OT narratives record what happened – not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time.  Therefore, not every narrative has an individual identifiable moral application.
  4. What people do in narratives is not necessarily a good example for us.  Frequently, it is just the opposite.
  5. Most of the characters in OT narratives are far from perfect – as are their actions as well.
  6. We are not always told at the end of an OT narrative whether what happened was good or bad.  We are expected to be able to judge this on the basis of what God has taught us directly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture.
  7. All OT narratives are selective and incomplete.  Not all the relevant details are always given (cf. John 21:25).  What does appear in the narrative is everything that the inspired author thought important for us to know.
  8. OT narratives are not written to answer all of our theological questions.  They have particular, specific, limited purposes and deal with certain issues, leaving others to be dealt with elsewhere in other ways.
  9. OT narratives may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without actually stating it).
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narratives.

With regard to polygamy, the Bible clearly illustrates and explains the ideal for marriage in Genesis 2, and the author of subsequent OT narratives (in Genesis, Exodus, and so on) would expect his readers to know what Genesis 2 taught.  God did not create two women for Adam, or three or four, but one.  “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

  • Wes

    In regard to polygamy in the Old Testament, the narratives show why it is a bad practice. Jealousy between Sarah and Hagar led to the exile of Hagar and Ishmael. Jealousy between Jacob’s wives and children led to Joseph being sold into slavery. I’m not sure there are any examples of polygamy in the Old Testament that seem to work better than a monogamous relationship.

    With that said, reading a narrative in the Bible that does not condemn polygamy can be confusing. It’s good to be familiar with the principles in this post. Thanks for passing them along.

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  • Jesus Freak

    Polygamy is expressly legislated for in the Bible and is still practiced by many Christians in non-Western cultures. We should be careful not to quickly condemn practices in other cultures just because they are different to our own, especially when this practice is condoned in the Bible. Christians in societies where you find polygamous marriage will also make sure that they follow Paul’s teaching in 1Tim and Titus – that Bishops and Christian leaders are the husband of only one wife. It is clear in this New Testament text that Paul’s command is explicitly for bishops and leaders, not for the rest of the population, so it is followed exactly in this way in many countries.

    Having said that, I think a good case can be made that in societies that are prosperous and significantly more gender-equal, such as the West, the Bible would insist upon monogamous marriage between a man and a woman.