The Bible is full of stories – more properly called narratives—and most people don’t give a second thought to how they should be read. They’re stories, for crying out loud. Who doesn’t know how to read a story? Why are you wasting Web space – and my time – on this post?
But it’s not quite that simple. While some rules apply to all stories (namely, they have to have a characters, a setting, and most importantly, a plot), not all stories are created equal. When you hear “once upon a time,” you have a pretty good idea of what’s to follow—a short, sweet story with a happy ending that comes in plenty of time to put the kids to bed. However, if you hear “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” you know you’re in for a long, bitter haul that, depending on your taste for Dickens, will either keep you up all night or put you right to sleep.
What kind of stories are biblical stories? How should we read them? I’ve got three tips for your reading enjoyment:
First, let the story be a story. Don’t ask it to be a sermon, a fable by Aesop (“the moral of the story is…”), or a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m not suggesting that biblical stories don’t have instructional value – they do. But in real life, we don’t read stories to find the bottom line; we read them because we enjoy them. They deliver us from the disinterested skimming of news or the insatiable surfing of sites. They take us to other times and places, and they introduce us to fascinating people. Isn’t it interesting that God chose stories as the primary medium for his written revelation? (People who figure out this sort of thing say at least 40% of the Bible is narrative.) Why do you suppose He did this? I suggest it’s because stories speak a language we know – and love – better than any other. Stories make up our lives – we live multiple stories every day. Reading the stories of the Bible invites us to live in God’s story.
Second, listen to what the narrator says, not what you wish he’d have said. (My use of “he” may sound politically incorrect, but it reflects the reality of biblical authorship.) The narrator (with divine help) crafted his story in a particular way for particular purposes. On one hand, he leaves out a lot, and on the other hand, he includes some head-scratchers. For example, if any one of us had written the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, we most certainly would have included the name of the reigning Pharaoh, while the names of the two Hebrew midwives would have ended up on the cutting room floor. But the biblical writers wrote under a different set of rules, a theological agenda that dictated what they included and what they left out. The way God thinks, the Pharaoh of the exodus didn’t merit being remembered for all of history – but those two Hebrew women? Don’t forget them. Biblical storytellers may be maddeningly selective, but they are purposefully selective.
Third, remember that the Bible is first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself – that is, it’s theology. (Dust off your Greek again: theos means “God” and logos means “word.” Put them together and you get a “god-word,” or “words about God.”) Every Bible story should factor into our understanding of God. From Genesis to Revelation, He’s the main character.
So, go get lost in a really good Book.
Next up, who is this Daniel guy?