Various types of stories in the Bible require a different approach to interpretation than do more informational items such as epistles, visions, wisdom literature, or prophetic books. Often stories are neglected in favor of material that gets more directly to the point. We’d rather interpret the sermon on the mount rather than one of the stories of Jesus healing someone. Nonetheless, a large portion of the Bible consists of stories, and often those elements that are not themselves stories suggest a background story (1 Corinthians, for example, clearly responds to some specific events and incidents and interpreters find it helpful to try to figure out what these were).
Remembering the Basics
The participatory study method looks at certain key questions in relation to each scripture passage. While we will list some more detailed and specific elements, let’s remember the more general key elements:
- What is the experience behind this passage?
- How might the experience reflected in this passage relate to my own experience?
- What principle(s) lie behind the specific statements?
- How might the principles relate to my life?
Now let’s look at how we look for these elements in a story.
Let me distinguish various types of stories. In the Bible we find some simple, short stories, some of which stand alone, but others are part of a longer series, or of a history. For example, the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel is a single short story, but it is part of a series of stories that feature Elijah and his conflict with the Israelite monarchy, especially Ahab over the worship of Baal. It combines into the longer series of Elijah-Elisha narratives, and these form a part of the history of the northern Kingdom of Israel that is told in 1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 17, intertwined with stories of Judah.
Such stories can be either true or fictional, or sometimes fictionalized. By “fictionalized” I mean that a true story has been adjusted in details to help make the point that the narrator desired. In general it will matter very little whether a story is true, fictionalized, or pure fiction when we interpret it. Only when we’re dealing with a broader history does the historical accuracy become important to our understanding. This is not to suggest that any specific story is fictional or fictionalized, but it would be most common for parables to have a fictional element.
Besides short stories, we will also find parables, very often told by Jesus, allegory (Ezekiel 16), and history. I will discuss how to interpret parables, allegory, and history separately, but for now it is important to distinguish the types of narratives we are dealing with. A parable may be a true story, or simply be made up on the spot, but it is told generally to make one key point. Even if it is a true story, the person who tells it or writes it is not intending us to get something out of every detail.
In more general stories, the writer or story teller may be illuminating characters, helping us to understand certain historical circumstances, or providing us with historical details to fill out a more general history. This kind of story is the most subject to our own interpretations, and also is often the most rewarding. We may find much of value in the story beyond what the original writer intended by telling it.
Reading the Story
A key element in interpreting stories is imagination. Put aside the search for details. You don’t need to make every element of the story teach a profound lesson. It may simply provide some small element of the personality of one of the characters. On the other hand, putting your imagination to work in filling in details, providing a background, and coming to understand how the characters may have felt can be very helpful.
In a story, you may be hearing most directly the experience of the writer and often of the people about whom he is writing. In a doctrinal statement, something is stated about God that results from our experience of God as God acts in our lives. In a story, we can see directly this divine action and how it was experienced by the characters.
Consider the following statement about God: God rewards those who are faithful to him even when things look bad.
In the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel, we have the expression of just such an experience as Elijah stands for what he believes, even when things look very difficult. The story of Elijah is part of the “raw material” from which the doctrinal statement is made. The simple fact is nice, but the experience sticks in our minds and helps build our faith even more.
(One could suggest a study here of those who don’t appear to be rewarded. But then we might consider Stephen, who saw heaven opened and knew of the coming heavenly reward when he was standing for what he believed.)
So absorb the narrative as you read it, and let your imagination roam freely in trying to see or feel the parts of the story that aren’t stated. Always be aware of what is stated and what you are imagining, but let the story grow for you. Once you have a picture, ask the following question about each character:
Is he or she advancing God’s kingdom?
The answer to this question may help you to decide whether a character should be imitated, or whether they might have provided a bad example.
For each action, ask:
Is this action something that would advance the kingdom or not?
In the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel, for example, only Elijah advances God’s kingdom. Ahab vacillates, as does the crowd. The priests of Baal are working against God.
Once you have done this, put yourself in the place of one or more of the characters, especially one with whom you have little sympathy. If you are fearless is sharing your faith, perhaps you should put yourself in Ahab’s position. Why might Ahab find it hard to make a clear decision? Try to understand the way Ahab thought. Are there admirable qualities about Ahab? What are they? What seems to keep getting in his way as he tries to be a memorable king of Israel?
Throughout all of this, make sure not to look down on the characters. Frequently when Christians study the Bible, we take our 21st century understanding of the world, and the two or three thousand years of history that we have experienced since, and we criticize all the Bible characters for behaving the way they did. But if we were presented with the same set of circumstances and the same knowledge, would we have done better. Make a serious effort to understand just what Ahab knew, and not to put your own knowledge into the picture. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with him; just try to understand his attitude.
It is very rare that people set out to be evil or destructive. Usually some good motivations combine with some bad ones and are then followed by some bad choices in how to carry out those not-quite-perfect intentions. If you understand this, you might be able to learn more from the story than if you approach it as someone superior to the characters, who would surely never have made their mistakes.
As an advanced exercise, try to retell the story in the first person as one of the characters present. As an example, let me tell the story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel from Ahab’s perspective.
|It wasn’t a very good day. We were so short on water, and we couldn’t find Elijah, the man who had predicted this very famine. I wanted to find him, talk to him, and get him to understand our need. Then he could pray and get Yahweh to call this thing off. I had enough problems with the Syrians raiding from time to time.
All these attacks on Baal worship didn’t sit very well with my wife either. Jezebel had grown up as a worshipper of Baal, and she didn’t like it very much when I paid attention to the Yahweh party, especially those pesky prophets. But even more than domestic tranquility in the palace, the prophets were risking my alliance with Tyre and Sidon, which were economically so important.
Then along comes Obadiah to tell me that Elijah is back. It’s no wonder I called him “Troubler of Israel!” Who else had caused us nearly this much trouble. But even more he couldn’t just keep the thing quiet. A sacrifice or so to Yahweh, that I could handle, but public repudiation of Baal? It just wasn’t possible! The man may be incredibly spiritual, but he really doesn’t comprehend how things work here on solid ground.
But what can you do? It seemed the only chance we had of surviving the drought was to get it called off, and Elijah wanted to do the whole thing publicly. Why? It was a disaster! Either he’d win, in which case Queen Jezebel would be in a sulk for months, and she knew how to sulk effectively, or he would lose, and I’d be left even weaker before the pro-Baal, pro-Tyre element in Israel. Losing was most likely. With friends like Elijah, we’d be a simple client state (a country that is tributary to, and dependent on another power) in no time.
Throughout his demonstration on the mountain he just kept making it worse! Of course you couldn’t expect rain to come that quickly, much less fire from heaven. But no, he had to keep things going. Then he carried out that spectacular miracle. It had to be a trick, but I don’t see how he could have done it! Still, it had to be a trick!
But the rain that followed after-no, that couldn’t have been a trick. Maybe it was just delayed rain because of the prayers of the Baal prophets. It was delayed enough.
Yes, Elijah won. But what about me? It seems that my kingdom is worse off than it was before. I think I’ll just look the other way while Jezebel gets her revenge for the dead prophets.
As a further exercise, take the perspective of a character in the story and try to evaluate the actions of another. For example, we see Elijah as decisive, right, in tune with God, courageous, and powerful. How does Ahab see him? How does the crowd see him, and how does their perspective change?
To complete any of these exercises, look at your own life and ask if you have harbored any of the attitudes or taken any of the actions that you have identified as not advancing God’s kingdom. Many of us have probably compromised as Ahab was trying to do. We can argue that we didn’t compromise over anything as important. But do you suppose that Ahab’s first compromise in life was in allowing the religion of Baal to supplant the worship of Yahweh in his kingdom?
Any story interpretation should include looking at the things we should take as an example and distinguishing them from those we definitely should not imitate. Many stories in the Bible don’t comment on the actions of various characters. Silence does not mean that their actions have been approved by God.
Now look through your own life. Have you had any experiences that are similar to this one? Have you had any experiences that may not have been similar, but yet required you to make the same type of decisions? How did your decisions compare to those of the characters in the story?
Extend your search for parallels to those of your family, friends and community. How do the decisions of the various people compare?
Ask others about their experiences. When you do this, be sure to show your openness by sharing your own experiences first. Then listen non-judgmentally to their stories. You want to learn from them, and let them learn from yours. That won’t happen if you set yourself up as a superior example. Don’t judge!-Do Share!
This method is most applicable to smaller, self-contained stories. But after you have studied an individual story in this way, you can continue by studying it in connection with its series. Elijah first appears in 1 Kings 17 and stories continue through 2 Kings 2. The Elijah series leads into the Elisha series.