Tell Me the Old Story Liberals are right: Old Testament narratives reveal much about God
How has God fared in recent Old Testament Study? Perhaps it is expected that I should express shock and outrage at how God is being written about in recent scholarly investigation of the Testament, but — as is normal in any kind of enterprise wherein fallible men and women are responsible for the project — there is both gain and loss. One vital indicator of the spiritual health of a biblical discipline (like Old Testament studies) is how its trends have affected our understanding of God.
The gain is that there is a new interest in studying God’s involvement in human affairs as depicted in the narratives of Scripture. This new interest is a change for the better compared with older higher critical approaches that ruled God out of consideration from the start because (according to this sub-biblical view) “what really happened” could not include the miraculous. Most 19th century biblical scholars decided at the outset that divine interventions of any sort were to be excluded from a “scientific” examination of the Bible.
The atheistic presuppositions of modernism prevailed during the 19th century and spoiled much of the biblical study of the 20th century as well. Now it is again “respectable” for scholars to comment upon the words and actions of God as presented in the narratives of the Old Testament. This means that there is much material now available for the evangelical student of Scripture to ponder and learn from — just so long as he or she exercises discernment.
Narrative is the most common type of literature in the Bible, with well over a third of the whole Bible taking this form. The history of God’s dealings with humanity from creation to the exile of Judah forms a basically continuous narrative in Genesis through 2 Kings. In terms of the main sections of the Hebrew canon, narrative is the predominant genre in the Torah (especially Genesis, Exodus and Numbers) and in all the books of the Former Prophets (Joshua to Kings). It is present in some of the Latter Prophets (major sections of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the whole of Jonah, and smaller sections in other prophetic books), and in several books of the Writings (especially Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Ruth, Esther, Daniel 1-6, and the prose envelope of Job). As well, narrative dominates the Gospels and Acts.
The past two decades have witnessed an explosion of narrative studies that use a plethora of new approaches (e.g. so-called “close reading”, canonical criticism, reader criticism), many of which, because of a focus on the final form of the text, can be of use (with due caution) to evangelicals. Given the large amount of narrative in the Bible, we should expect that this will make a substantial contribution to our understanding of the character and ways of God. It would be true to say, however, that narrative is generally under-used by Christians for theology and ethics, namely for what it shows about the ways of God and the will of God. Indeed I can remember being told in the best evangelical circles that you are “not supposed to get doctrine out of narrative”. There is a positive movement that has begun to bring narrative in from the cold.
What recent studies have highlighted (especially through the work of such Jewish scholars as Meir Sternberg and Robert Alter) is that the non-didactic approach of biblical narrative (the fact that it is not presented as overt “teaching”) does not mean that it does not seek to instruct the reader about God and his ways. The narratives of Scripture are theology “in motion”. The godly reader is expected to pick up the clues provided in the biblical stories that show God’s views about how human beings should behave and what they should believe about Him. In that sense the Bible makes large demands upon the reader who is expected to read carefully and thoughtfully. Reading is an active process and “the message” of any narrative will not be handed to the reader on a plate. Lessons are hard-earned. Recent handbooks (both scholarly and popular) put at our disposal helpful explanations of the workings of biblical narrative.
There is a renewed appreciation of God as a “Bible character” along with the human beings who inhabit biblical narratives. On the other hand, God is too often viewed by recent scholars as just another Bible character whose actions and motivations can be examined and even critiqued, just as those of any other character (say a Jacob or a David). An example of this trend is David M. Gunn (The Fate of King Saul), who accuses God of being grossly unfair in his treatment of Saul, such that the tragedy of the first king is basically blamed on God who is accused of mounting a vendetta against Saul.
Needless to say, such a viewpoint cannot be justified by any fair reading of the narratives of 1 Samuel. Gunn, like many other less well-known scholars, gives little credence to the traditional attributes of God, nor does he use the biblical text to illustrate even such basic attributes as God’s love and power. Lyle Eslinger (Kingship of God in Crisis) is another who interprets the narratives of 1 Samuel as showing that God (with the prophet Samuel’s acquiescence and cooperation) trapped unsuspecting Saul into becoming king (eg Saul’s attempt to hide among the baggage in 1 Sam 10:22). On this interpretation, Saul’s rule is doomed from the beginning. But such a fatalistic reading of these famous narratives is clearly tendentious. We should expect our knowledge of God to be enriched (not spoiled) by studying the stories of Saul and David.
For all the recent interest in how God is portrayed in Old Testament narrative, the usual pattern for the specialist Old Testament scholar is to take a decidedly non-theological approach to material that is necessarily theological. There is little or no effort expended to analyse or systematise the view of God generated by the study of narratives. An example is the work of Danna Nolen Fewell (The Circle of Sovereignty), who is an insightful reader of narrative, and yet can at times come up with the most unlikely interpretation of a verse – due to a failure to think theologically. In her comments on the defiant speech of the three young Jewish men in Daniel 3, she interprets Dan 3:18a (“but if not...”) to mean “but if God is not able to deliver us”, whereas it obviously means “if God does not deliver us” (with no questioning of His ability and power to effect a deliverance but only an admission by the young men that they do not know what God’s will is in this situation of crisis).
Fewell would have us think that in Bible passage God is depicted (even by those who serve and trust him) as having severe limitations on His power. The book of Daniel with all its miraculous deliverances (eg. from the lion’s den) is hardly likely to be teaching what Fewell says that it does. A gaffe like this does not mean that those with a high view of Scripture should not bother to read Fewell and those like her, but what it does mean is that they should follow the practice of Calvin who read widely and (as he expresses it) “gathered gold among the dung”.
Finally, in many recent books on Old Testament narrative there is a problematic relationship between “the world of the text” and the real world that the reader of Scripture inhabits. Most scholars see no necessary connection between how God is pictured as speaking and acting in biblical narrative and how God may actually behave in real-world situations. This in part explains the popularity of the word “story” in describing biblical narratives, for that slippery word enabled scholars to slide over the this question of the historicity of the events narrated in Scripture. The “did it really happen?” question is usually ignored.
Without getting bogged down in arguments over historicity, the serious historical intent of Bible stories means that the Bible’s claim to describe what really happened cannot be sidelined as unimportant. If the intent of the biblical text is to relate historical events, eg the razing of the walls of Jericho, or the raising of Jesus from the dead, that is, the text as text is indeed making historical claims, then the neat sidestepping of such a historical claim in one’s interpretation fails to do full justice to that narrative’s meaning. We have distorted or failed to grasp its meaning the full meaning of what is written.
Biblical narratives are not merely self-referential, so that all we have is the “world of the text”, the “possible world” in the text. The repeated claim is that the things herein narrated happened in the real world, that God is as great and loving as He is portrayed in the pages of Scripture. With the tools provided by more recent studies of biblical narrative, the godly reader can expect to grow in the knowledge of God and deepen in love for God.