In this chapter from the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series, Craig S. Keener investigates the question, what can we really learn from the narratives in the Bible?
As appearing in Pneuma Review Spring 2005.
Introduction to Context of Genre
Although we have surveyed and illustrated many of the most important general rules for interpretation, we must now note that some interpretation skills depend on the kinds of writing in the Bible one is studying. For example, Revelation is prophetic (and probably apocalyptic) literature, which is full of symbols; if interpreters today debate how literal some of Revelation’s images are, no one doubts that much of Revelation (for instance, the prostitute and the bride) are each symbols representing something other than what they would mean literally (Babylon and New Jerusalem versus two literal women). The Psalms are poetry, and also often employ graphic images. Poetry involved poetic license; when Job claims that his steps were “bathed in butter” (Job 29:6), he means that he was prosperous, not that his hallways were packed with butter up to his ankles. One could provide hundreds of examples; those who deny the use of symbolism in some parts of the Bible (especially poetic portions) have simply not read the Bible very thoroughly.
On the other hand, narratives are not full of symbols. One should not read the story of David and Goliath and think, “What does Goliath stand for? What do the smooth stones stand for?” These accounts are intended as literal historical stories, and we seek to learn morals from these accounts the same way we would seek to learn them from our experiences or accounts of others’ experiences today. (The difference between biblical experiences and modern experiences is that the biblical ones more often come with clues to the proper interpretation from God’s perfect perspective.) We may apply what we learn from Goliath to other challenges that we face, but Goliath does not “symbolize” those challenges; he is simply one example of a challenge.
Even our most important rule, context, functions differently for different kinds of writings.
One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that we should ask what the writer wanted to convey to his contemporary audience.
Narrative is the most common genre in the Bible. Narrative simply means a “story,” whether a true story like history or biography (most of the Bible’s narratives) or a story meant to communicate truth by fictional analogy, like a parable. A basic rule of interpretation for a story is that we should ask, “What is the moral of this story?” Or to put it differently, “What lessons can we learn from this story?”
Narratives are not full of symbols.
Reading a biblical story as a true account and then learning principles by analogy is not allegorizing; it is reading these stories the way they were meant to be read.