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

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.

Most narratives involve characters. One can try to determine whether the examples of the characters were good or bad ones in any given case by several methods: (1) When the writer and readers shared the same culture and it assumed an act was bad or good, the writer could assume that the readers knew which was which, unless he disagreed with the views of the culture. (2) If you read through the entire book, you may notice patterns of behavior; an evaluation of the behavior in one case would apply to similar cases of the behavior in that book. (3) By deliberately highlighting the differences among characters, one could usually see which were good and which were bad examples.

Matthew 1:18-25 NKJV
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put here away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, and angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.

Sometimes we learn from a story by looking at positive and negative characters in the story and contrasting them. We can do this frequently in 1 Samuel; in chapters 1 and 2, we learn that humble Hannah was godly even though she was looked down on by many of the few people who knew her. However, Eli, the high priest, had compromised his calling. Hannah offered to give up her son for God; Eli, refusing to give up his sons for God, ultimately lost them and everything else as well. After this the story compares the boy Samuel, who hears God and delivers his message, with Eli’s ungodly sons, who abuse their ministry to make themselves rich and have sexual relations with many women. God ultimately exalts Samuel but kills the hypocritical ministers. Later 1 Samuel contrasts David and Saul; by examining the differences between them, we can learn principles for fulfilling God’s call and also dangers to avoid.

Such contrasts also appear in the New Testament, for instance in Luke chapter 1. Zechariah was a respected, aged priest serving in the Jerusalem temple, but when Gabriel came to him Zechariah disbelieved and was struck mute for a few months. By contrast, the angel Gabriel next comes to Mary with an even more dramatic message, but she believes. On account of her gender, her age, her social status, and being in Nazareth rather than the temple, most people would think less highly of Mary than of Zechariah. But the narrative shows us that Mary responded with greater faith and consequently received greater blessing than Zechariah. Similarly, we noted earlier a contrast between the Magi who seek Jesus and Herod who seeks to kill him.

Of course, distinguishing positive from negative examples is not always simple, and most characters in the Bible, just like most characters in Greek histories and biography, included a mixture of positive and negative traits. The Bible tells us about real people, and we learn from that pattern as well not to idolize as perfect or demonize as wholly evil people today. John the Baptist was the greatest prophet before Jesus (Matt 11:11-14), but he was unsure whether Jesus was fulfilling his prophecy (Matt 11:2-3) because Jesus was healing sick people but not pouring out fiery judgment (Matt 3:11-12). John was a man of God, but he did not know that the kingdom would come in two stages because its king would come twice. Distinguishing positive from negative examples takes much work, but is rewarding. It requires us to immerse ourselves in the entire story over and over until we can see the patterns in the story which give us the inspired author’s perspectives. But how better to learn God’s heart than to bathe ourselves in his word?

Sometimes we cannot draw a correct moral from a story because we have picked too narrow a text.

We can often make lists of positive attributes we can learn from characters in the Bible, especially if the text specifically calls them righteous. One example of learning lessons from a character’s behavior is Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25. The text specifically says that Joseph was a “righteous” person (1:19). Before listing lessons, we need to provide some background. Given the average ages of marriage among first-century Jews, Joseph was probably less than twenty and Mary was probably younger, perhaps in her mid-teens. Joseph probably did not know Mary well; sources suggest that parents did not allow Galilean couples to spend much time together before their wedding night. Also, Jewish “betrothal” was as binding legally as a marriage, hence could be ended only by divorce or the death of one partner. If the woman were charged with unfaithfulness in a court, her father would have to return to the groom the brideprice he had paid; also the groom would keep any dowry the bride had brought or was bringing into the marriage. By divorcing her privately the groom would probably forfeit such financial remuneration.

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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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