It is easy to think that interpreting history is simply a matter of interpreting a series of stories. If you understand the message of the individual stories, you pretty much have the history. But that is far from the truth. Most historical passages in the Bible have a much broader meaning.
For the most part one can understand the intention of a story, why it is told and what lessons one can learn from it, without deciding whether it is true, true-to-life, or fictitious. Fiction can teach a lesson just as well as a true story. But when we are dealing with the telling of history, there is a big difference. When we study history in the Bible, most commonly the writers are trying to tell us something about the way God has acted and will act in the world. More than the individual incidents, the focus is on God’s broader plan.
In a document that tells about historical events there can be many focuses and viewpoints. In reading modern history we usually look for a central theme, chronological data, and fairly precise geographical references. This is rarely the intention with the Biblical writers. The gospels, for example, often tell us the stories and various sayings of Jesus in different orders. Is this because they didn’t know or were being careless? Actually, each gospel writer had certain reasons for his approach to telling the story of Jesus. Generally these writings want to tell us who Jesus was, and his impact, and these themes are more important to them than the chronology.
In the major histories of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah, the theme of how God worked through Israel is central. There is more chronology in these books than in the gospels, but nonetheless the purpose is not chronology. In the broadest sense these books tell us what God expected of Israel, and how Israel needed to behave in order to receive God’s blessing and avoid judgment. This will often explain why details are left out of the history that we would like to know in modern times.
When you study history, rather than just story, look for applications that are broader: Your family, church, community, or your country. Ask:
- How is the group (family, community, nation) that is discussed in this passage similar to my own group?
Look for duties, laws, relation to God and his divine purpose, and possibilities.
- How is the group different?
- Where does this history fit in God’s overall plan?
I understand the Bible to describe an overall plan of God for the world. (If you do not agree, you might ask why the author of the history felt it would fit in that particular time and place.)
- For each character, ask the same questions as you would in a story.
Try to look at the history from their point of view. It is easy to blame Saul for his suspicion of David, or David for his lax and unrealistic attitude with his sons. But it is worthwhile to ask how each of us would act under the same circumstances.
Background information becomes even more important. No history can reflect all aspects of the story, and the Bible stories are really very short for the period of time they cover. There are historical materials from many of the surrounding cultures that we can use to understand the world in which the Israelite people were living. You can be sure that the Assyrians and the Phoenicians felt substantially different about themselves than the Israelites did!