Session 6 | Understanding What a Narrative Is

➡ Average Reading Time: 7 minutes Session | Understanding What Narrative Is

Learning Objectives

When you finish this session, you should be able to:
  • Understand what a First Testament  narrative is
  • Think about which narrative level you are reading
  • Know what narratives are not
  • Understand the narrative of Joseph and the narrative of Ruth
  • Know how to respond to narratives

Session Preview

This Session will introduce the student to the literary genre of narrative. First, we will explain what a narrative is. Then, we will give you a grid for reading narratives. Next, we will tell you what narratives are not. Then, we will discuss the narratives of Joseph and Ruth. Finally, we will suggest how to respond to narratives.

Where We Are Going

The Holy Spirit and Interpretation
First Testament Narratives
What Narratives Are
A Three Story House
What Narratives Are Not
The Story of Joseph: Genesis 37, 39-50
The Story of Ruth
Responding to Narratives

First Testament Narratives

What Narratives Are

The genre of literature that dominates the landscape of Scripture is narrative. There are some captivating as well as some shocking narratives. In many cases, we have been taught about the human characters within these narratives, and in those characters, we often discover ourselves. Who hasn’t tried, like Abraham, to help God bring a promise to its conclusion well before its time and in another way than it would naturally occur?

These stories, whose plots and characters are so intriguing, allow us in a powerful way to see God at work with his people. The First Testament makes up seventy-five percent of Scripture, and forty percent of its material is narrative according to Fee and Stuart[ref]How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Fourth Edition. 78.[/ref]). There are many kinds of narratives in the First Testament. As readers and interpreters, we must understand the characteristic of First Testament narratives as a first step toward becoming a competent interpreter of the literature of Scripture.

A Two Story House

Think of First Testament narratives as a two-story (no pun intended) building. First, a firm foundation which is the big picture of God’s acts in his world – creation, the fall, and its effects, sin and its power, redemption, and the coming of the kingdom in Jesus. This floor is the overall story of God’s salvation history of mankind. The first floor centers on Israel – the First Testament people of God. Its story begins in Genesis 11 with the call of Abraham. It continues with the promise to Abraham to give him a land and a people and then the rise of that nation beginning with the Exodus; the giving of the covenant and the working out of that covenant in the life of Israel; the rise of the United Kingdom and the Divided Kingdom and their restoration after the exile. The second floor contains several hundred individual narratives. Each narrative on this floor goes to make up the whole of the narrative of the first floor, Israel’s history, and finally the foundation narrative, his story.

It is true that most of our time in reading and studying is on the second floor, but in order to read with understanding, we must keep in mind the other floor and the foundation as the complete home of narratives in which we are reading.

What Narratives are not

In order to understand what narratives are and how to read them, it will be helpful to observe what narratives are not.

  • They are not stories about people who lived in an ancient age. They are stories about what God did to and through these people.
  • They are not stories filled with allegory or hidden meaning.
  • They are not always direct in their teaching.
  • They do not always have a specific moral of their own.

Here are some targets to shoot at when reading narratives.

  • They do not directly teach a doctrine. They illustrate doctrine, which is taught elsewhere in Scripture.
  • They record what happened, not what should or could have happened; therefore, not every narrative has a moral.
  • The actions of the characters in the narratives are not necessarily the correct actions to imitate. Most characters are not hero models to follow.
  • The story does not usually tell us if the actions were good or bad. We are left to make up our minds based on what God has taught in the teaching parts of Scripture.
  • These stories are incomplete and selective. Not every detail or even all needed details are given. What does appear in the story is what the inspired author thought important for the reader to know.
  • The narrative is not written to answer theological questions.
  • Narratives may teach by stating something clearly, which should be the action of the reader or by implying something without actually saying it.
  • God is the hero of all of the biblical narratives. In the final analysis, they demonstrate how he has acted in relationship with his people. By that, we can know how he will act on our behalf.

The Story Of Joseph: Genesis 37, 39-50

Joseph developed a haughty, critical style – stemming in part from his father’s favoritism (Gen. 37.3). He tells his family his dream and is ultimately sold into slavery, while his brothers lie to his father and tell him Joseph is dead (Gen. 37.10-11). He ends up as an administrator in Potiphar’s house (Gen. 39). Why? Was it because of his innate administrative skills? No! It was because God was in control. Whatever Joseph’s managerial skills may have been, they play a secondary role in God’s intervention in his life. Even in prison, the Lord was with him (Gen. 39.21, 23).

There is no room for doubt. God is the hero! The story demonstrates the way God acts on behalf of his children.

Is there a moral? Some have looked for a self-contained lesson from each part of the story of Joseph. Here are a few:

  • Do not tell your dreams to others; it will get you into big trouble.
  • Every worker can get ahead if he pays attention to the skills he has been given.
  • Those from other countries rise faster in positions of authority than natives do.
  • It’s OK to go to jail if you get some business experience before you go because more than likely you will have an opportunity to use these skills in jail.

We are shooting at the wrong target if we look for something in Joseph’s life that we can imitate, and by doing so, be blessed by God.

Rather, I believe the story is telling us how God acted with an unlikely candidate for success. The way we see him acting with Joseph is the way he will act in similar situations with you and me.

His release from prison is because God gave him the interpretation of the dreams (Gen. 40-41). He was finally beginning to understand the process and who was in charge.

At the end of the story, it appears that Joseph has arrived at the ultimate conclusion to which the story has been told. God is in charge; he alone is the hero (Gen. 50.20, 24).

The Story of Ruth

Click this link for → Reading the Story of Ruth

Teaching from narratives can be either explicit or implicit.

Explicit teaching is what the inspired narrator actually says. Implicit teaching is that which is clearly presented in the narrative, usually by a figure of speech, but not stated by the words themselves.

Summary of Ruth

Resolve of Ruth: Chapter 1

The migration of Elimelech; the marriage and death of Elimelech and his sons; the resolve of Ruth to follow her mother-in-law Naomi.

Utility of Ruth: Chapter 2

Ruth works in the fields of Boaz, and he shows her his kindness.

Tenderness of Ruth: Chapter 3

Ruth demonstrates her love for Boaz and hopes that he will marry her.

Husband and Wife: Chapter 4

Boaz and Ruth marry; Obed is born; Ruth becomes part of the Davidic line.

Here are some of the possible implicit points.

Ruth was a convert to the Hebrew Faith (Ruth 1.16-17). Ruth was a Moabite who worshiped the gods of the Moabites. The words imply, even though not stated plainly, that Ruth was now going to live by the standards of Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Boaz was a righteous Israelite (Ruth 2.3-13; 22; 10-12; 4.9 10). The speech of Boaz, as well as his actions here, teach implicitly that he was loyal to keeping the law of gleaning stated in Leviticus 19:9 10. Ruth is both an alien and poor.

The story of Ruth is part of the background for the ancestry of King David (Ruth 4.17-21). They had no way of knowing that this would occur, but God had chosen them to participate in the lineage of David and, ultimately, Jesus.

Bethlehem was a righteous town during an age of unrighteousness. What one can observe from reading Ruth is that the people of Bethlehem were exceptional people as compared to the cycles of the book of Judges, in which period this story is set.

What is taught implicitly is not secret! Implicit means that the message is capable of being understood from what is being said without a plain statement. If you are unable to express to others something which is taught implicitly with the result being that they understand and get the point also, you may just be reading something into the text that you want it to teach or believe.

Responding to Narratives

Narratives are not written for the reader to become a monkey-see-monkey-do person. Remember, no biblical narrative was written especially for a person living today. The narrative concerning Joseph is about Joseph and demonstrates how God worked through him. We can learn a great deal from narratives, but we should never assume that God expects us to do exactly the same things that the Bible characters did. Otherwise, we would have to live part of our lives as sinners following characters who sin and become righteous when they show signs of righteousness. Our task is to learn from these narratives how God has acted concerning his children, not try to do everything that was done in each one of them. Narratives demonstrate and illustrate God’s acts among men.

Why do we find things in narratives that are not there? Here are some possible reasons:

  • We wrongly expect that everything in Scripture applies directly to each part of our lives.
  • We are desperate for information from God that will help us through some problem or situation.
  • We are impatient and want answers now from a specific verse in a specific chapter in a specific book in Scripture.

Here are some items which may help you avoid this tendency.

  • Selectivity: Do not pick and choose specific words and phrases to concentrate on while ignoring the overall context of the passage.
  • Combining verses contextually not connected: Do not combine a verse from here and a verse from there and a part of a verse from yet a third place and place them together as God’s word for a situation.
  • Allegorizing: Do not place anything on the text that is beyond the text itself. Let the history and context speak.

Scripture’s rich variety of literature should be understood as a friend, not an enemy.

Community Discussion Questions

➡ |CDQ Info|

  • Which of these three concerns apply to you?
  • On which floor of the house, do you spend the most time reading?
  • How will reading “first floor” change the way you see narratives?
  • How does teaching morals keep us from finding out the real meaning of a narrative?
  • How does implicit and explicit help you better identify what is being taught in a narrative?


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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)