I am a bit puzzled over why many Christian seem to think the Old Testament is such a “problem.” I know the usual answers to that, but I can find many of the same “difficulties” with the New Testament. The following points are offered as exercises in learning the proper interpretation of Old Testament narratives in preparation for preaching.
We are guilty of arrogance, not merely neglect, when we fail to beg for the Spirit’s help in the study of Scripture. We may have a high view of the Bible; we may be distraught because large sectors of the church seem to ignore its authority. Yet in our own Scripture work we easily ignore its chief Interpreter. Professionalism rather than piety drives us. We need not be surprised at our sterility and poverty if we refuse to be beggars for the Spirit’s help. God had given his word in the form of literature, part of which is narrative; I should therefore use all available tools for understanding such literature. I seek the Spirit’s aid and use an approach suited to the form of his word.
Narrative has some of its own peculiarities and anyone interpreting it should be alert to these. Most all of them fall into the category of literary features we need to recognize, such as reticence, eavesdropping, selectivity, sarcasm, imagination, surprise, emphasis, intensity and tension.
“There are no non-theological texts in the Bible.” The theology of a biblical text is what the text means to say about God, his ways and his works. It’s the intended message of a biblical text.
Organization and packaging reveal care and thoughtfulness about the whole ordeal. The same is true when one finds biblical narratives that have been carefully “packaged.” Perhaps the story follows an obvious structure; or perhaps an episode stands next to another episode and suggests a deliberate contrast. Often this “packaging” of biblical narratives points to a clear design which in turn may turn up sermonic fodder.
All biblical texts are fair game for preaching. But you’d never know it. It almost seems like some ogre once promulgated an unwritten decree that certain texts are off limits for preaching. Naturally, most of them are Old Testament texts. Some apparently think that although God allowed these accounts in his written word, he must have higher standards for the preached word. The problem is that they are simply nasty narratives. What qualifies a text as a nasty text? It may be too dull or too racy or too gory or too severe. Don’t be afraid to wade into the “nasty” narratives of the Old Testament, for it’s in the nasty stuff you’ll find the God of scary holiness and incredible grace waiting to reveal himself.
We can – and rightly – deal with individual passages within Old Testament books; there is nothing wrong with microscopic Bible study. Details matter. But it helps to see that individual passage in light of the whole book. It helps to view the particular through the lens of the general. We need to use our macroscope as well. If we back away from a biblical book far enough that we can see it whole, we are more likely to pick up emphases and connections the writer wants us to see. We may well miss these if we are only sizing up one pericope or story at a time.
Application or appropriation of Scripture is not so overwhelmingly difficult if one begins at the right place: “look into your own sinful heart, and back into your sinful life.” If a preacher has a lively sense of his own depravity he won’t have much trouble applying Scripture. Some say our work is to expound and clarify Scripture but not to apply it. That, some would say, is the Holy Spirit’s work. But unless one is prepared to say that the Spirit abominates working through human instruments there is no reason he wouldn’t be pleased to use not only our work explaining Scripture but also our sweat in applying Scripture. God has given his word for our instruction and obedience, for our endurance and encouragement; therefore any interpretation that stops short of appropriation is illegitimate.
God has given his word as a revelation of himself; if then I use his word rightly, I will long to see him, and he will be the focus of my study. We must read Old Testament narrative with a theocentric focus. In all our reading, we should keep our eye on God – what he revealing about himself and how he is working.
Adapted from The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach From Old Testament Narrative Texts
Copyright © 2006 by Dale Ralph Davis. Used by permission of Christian Focus Publishing. www.christianfocus.com