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

It is really the allegorist and his views, rather than the text itself, which supplies the meaning and teaches something.

Where did allegory come from? Some Greek philosophers grew embarrassed about the myths of their gods committing adultery, robbery, and murder, so they turned the myths into a series of symbols rather than taking them as true teachings about their gods. Some Jewish philosophers, trying to defend the Bible against accusations by Greeks, explained away uncomfortable portions of the Bible by taking them as mere symbols. Thus instead of allowing that biblical heroes like Noah had weaknesses, a Jewish philosopher might claim that he did not actually get drunk with wine, but rather was spiritually drunk on the wonderful knowledge of God. Christian scholars from Alexandria, whose schools were controlled by Greek philosophical thought, often practiced allegory, though some other church leaders (like John Chrysostom) preferred the literal meaning. Gnostics like Valentinus, condemned by the orthodox Christians, mixed some Christian ideas with pagan philosophy. They often used the allegorical method to justify blurring distinction between Christianity and other thought systems. Many later Christian thinkers borrowed the allegorical method, which became quite common especially in Europe in the Middle Ages.

One should not read the story of David and Goliath and think, ‘What does Goliath stand for? What do the smooth stones stand for?’

Many people practice allegory because they want to discover some hidden meaning in every word or phrase of Scripture. The problem with this approach is that it defies the way Scripture was actually given to us, hence disrespects rather than respects Scripture. The level of meaning is often the story as a whole, and individual words and phrases normally simply contribute to that larger contextual meaning. To read into the story meaning that is not there is in essence to attempt to add inspiration to Scripture, as if it were inadequate by itself. (Allegorical attempts to find a deeper meaning behind the actual words of Scripture takes on many forms. In recent years some have looked for numerical patterns in the words of Scripture, but these ignore the hundreds of “textual variants,” mostly spelling differences, among different ancient copies of the Bible. Most scholars agree that the supposed number patterns some computer technicians have found in Scripture are random; one can come up with equally convincing results for other kinds of patterns.)


Read the Story as a Whole

Sometimes we cannot draw a correct moral from a story because we have picked too narrow a text. Earlier in this study I mentioned my friend who doubted the usefulness of the passage where Abishag lies in bed with David to keep him warm. What moral would we draw from such a story? We would be wrong if we supposed that the moral was that young people should lie with older people to keep them warm. True as it might be that we should look out for the health of our kings or other leaders, that is also not the moral. Nor is the moral that live humans work better than blankets. Some might wish to draw from a passage a lesson that contradicts other moral teachings in the Bible. But all these interpretations miss the point, because the writer did not intend us to read one paragraph of the story and then stop. We should read the entire story, and in the flow of the entire story, this paragraph identifies that David is dying and prepares us for why Solomon must later execute his treacherous brother Adonijah. It helps us understand the rest of the story, and the point comes from the larger story, not always all of its individual parts.

When we read into a text what we already think we act like we do not need the text to teach us anything new.

How much do we need to read to get the whole picture? As a general rule, the more context you read, the better. We need not spend much time here, because this is the principle of whole book context we illustrated at length earlier in this study. We should pause merely to point out that the literary unit is sometimes longer than what appears as a book in our Bibles. Because it was difficult to get a very long document on a single scroll, longer works were often divided into smaller “books.” Thus 1 Samuel through 2 Kings represents one continuous story (with smaller parts); 1 and 2 Chronicles represents anothert story; Luke and Acts together comprise a single, united work (although our Bibles place John between them; read Acts 1:1 with Lk 1:3).

Many people practice allegory because they want to discover some hidden meaning in every word or phrase of Scripture.

There is also a sense in which larger stories may contain smaller ones. For example, many of the stories in Mark can be read on their own as self-contained units with their own morals; some scholars have argued that the early church used those stories as units for preaching the way they used many Old Testament readings. But while this observation is true, modern scholars recognize that we should also recognize these smaller stories in their larger context to get the most out of them; one can follow the development of and suspense in Mark’s “plot” and trace the themes of the Gospel from start to finish. This prevents us from drawing the wrong applications. For instance, one might read Mark 1:45 and assume that if one is sent from God and fulfills God’s mission like Jesus does, one will be popular with the masses. But if one reads the whole Gospel, one recognizes that the crowds later clamor for Jesus’ execution (Mk 15:11-15). The moral is not that obedience to God always leads to popularity; the moral is that we cannot trust popularity to last, for the crowds are often easily swayed. Jesus thus focused on making disciples more than on drawing crowds (Mk 4:9-20).


Identify the Lessons in the Story

What lessons can we learn from this story?

Reading a biblical story as a true account and then learning principles by analogy (the way we would learn lessons from hearing, say, our parents’ stories of lessons they learned in life) is not allegorizing; it is reading these stories the way they were meant to be read. As best as possible, we should put ourselves in the place of the original audience of the story, read it in the context of the whole book it which it appears, and try to learn from it what the first audience would have. Only then are we ready to think how to reapply the story to our situations and needs today. At the same time, if we stop at the ancient meaning, we will miss the story’s original impact. Once we understood what it meant in its first setting, we must think how to apply the passage with a comparable impact for our settings today.

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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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