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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre: Narrative, by Craig S. Keener

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.

Take a course on biblical interpretation with New Testament scholar, Professor Craig S. Keener.


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.

Even our most important rule, context, functions differently for different kinds of writings. Most proverbs, for instance, are not recorded in any noteworthy sequence providing a flow of thought; they are isolated, general sayings, and were simply collected (Prov 25:1). This is not to suppose, however, that we lack a larger context in which to read specific proverbs. By reading these proverbs in light of the entire collection of proverbs, and especially in light of other proverbs addressing the same topic, we have a general context available for most individual proverbs.

One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that we should ask what the writer wanted to convey to his contemporary audience.

Scholars use the term “genre” for kinds of writings. Poetry, prophecy, history and wisdom saying are some of the genres represented in the Bible; examples of different kinds of genres exist today, for example fiction (most parables are something like fiction), bomb threats, or newspaper reports. Let us survey some of the most common “genres” in the Bible, and some important interpretation principles for each.



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?”


Avoid Allegory

Narratives are not full of symbols.

Some principles help us draw lessons from stories accurately. The first principle is a warning, especially for historical narratives in the Bible: Do not allegorize the story. That is, do not turn it into a series of symbols as if it did not happen. If we turn a narrative into symbols, anyone can interpret the narrative to say whatever they want; people can read the same narrative and come up with opposite religions! When we read into a text in this way, we read into it what we already think—which means that we act like we do not need the text to teach us anything new!

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.

For example, when David prepares to fight Goliath, he gathers five smooth stones. One allegorist might claim that David’s five stones represent love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, and goodness. Another might claim that he picked five stones to represent five particular spiritual gifts; or perhaps five pieces of spiritual armor listed by Paul in the New Testament. But such interpretations are utterly unhelpful. First, they are unhelpful because anyone can come up with any interpretation, and there is no objective way for everyone to find the same point in the text. Second, they are unhelpful because it is really the allegorist and his views, rather than the text itself, which supplies the meaning and teaches something. Third, it is unhelpful because it obscures the real point of the text. Why did David pick smooth stones? They were easier to aim. Why did David pick five of them instead of one? Presumably in case he missed the first time; the lesson we learn from this example is that faith is not presumption: David knew God would use him to kill Goliath, but he did not know if he would kill him with the first stone.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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