An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 8: Closing Thoughts)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 8: Closing Thoughts)

In this series, we have explored several key aspects of narrative analysis. A few conclusive thoughts on how this type of study fits into the interpretation of Scripture are helpful. Likewise, some final considerations regarding our need of God are necessary.

 

When we perform a narrative analysis on a biblical passage, it is important to keep in mind that this is only one aspect of a Bible study. A narrative passage is not only a story with characters, actions, plot, spatial and temporal markers, and literary structures and devices. It is also a historical reality that belongs to a certain time and place.

 

Therefore, a historical and cultural study of the people and places in the text—to the extent that such a study is available and possible—helps add even more clarity to the passage and its message. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are good introductory tools generally within the reach of those interested in using them.

 

Likewise, when possible, a study of the words and the grammar in the original languages is helpful, and doing a literary analysis on the text in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek is ideal. This is a more complicated aspect of interpretation and usually requires formal training, though motivated individuals can find available resources and learn independently.

 

While possessing this knowledge is desirable, I will emphasize that lacking the skills to do exegesis in Greek and Hebrew should not prevent us from doing what we can in our own translation. When it comes to the literary aspect, we can still understand a metaphor, we can still observe parallelism and notice keywords, we can still find a chiasm, and it certainly is possible to come to a good understanding of the characters and the plot.

 

When we may make a mistake (and we all do), it most likely is not a matter of salvation. Staying connected with a community of believers is a good way to test our interpretation and correct it where necessary. Occasional mistakes due to our limitations are, of course, different than a sloppy and disinterested study.

 

Also, it is good to keep in mind the following two facts:

 

1) the study of Scripture cannot be exhausted,

2) the purpose of our study should not be to exhaust it but to grow into a deeper knowledge of God, ourselves, and the divine purposes for us.

 

On this note, I submit that we need to worry less about the extent of our reading, and more about the depth of our understanding.

 

Furthermore, as mentioned in the previous article, the context is important in determining the message of a text. We must always bear in mind that a text is part of a larger context. By observing the immediate context and by keeping in mind the larger context (the metanarrative of Scripture), we can grasp meanings that can escape us if we overlook the surrounding framework.

 

These observations need not always be included in the study, but we need to be aware of the surrounding text in order to make sure we do not offer interpretations that conflict with the unfolding thread.

 

Stories Within a Metanarrative

 

A basic aspect to keep in mind is that the Bible is a collection of books that, together, build a meta-story. This meta-story is composed of numerous stories which, in turn, are divided into shorter stories, also comprised of several episodes/scenes. Because of this, the delineation of a story can vary.

 

Personally, I tend to regard strict delimitations as less helpful than the analysis itself. Generally, we look for a frame that brackets a story, introductory and conclusive statements, and a plot development.

 

When studying characters and plot development, it is good to note that some characters appear in only one episode or short story, while others hold a large space in Scripture and are described through several stories within the same book and sometimes even across books—such as David, for example.

 

In these latter cases, it is helpful to observe the overall changes that a character undergoes and bear in mind the broader context when we zoom in on a particular story. As an example, let’s look at Judah, Joseph’s brother.

 

Judah is a character in three stories in Genesis. He is introduced in Genesis 37:26-27 as a secondary character who suggests that selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites would be more profitable than killing him. Given that he was the next in line for inheritance—since Reuben discredited himself by sleeping with his father’s concubine[1]—and Simeon and Levi forfeited this right by their disproportionate punishment of Shechem,[2] it would appear that getting rid of Jacob’s favorite son would secure him the heritage.[3]

 

It seems that for Judah, financial benefits undermined morality and family ties. In the very next story, he takes center stage alongside Tamar, whom he misleads by refusing to give her his son Shelah. His affair with Tamar disguised in harlot garments also portrays him as sexually unrestrained.

When his daughter-in-law exacts justice from him with deceit, he is forced to confront his true self, which quite possibly was a turning point in his conversion, seeing that this episode likely occurs between the brothers’ two trips to Egypt.[4]

 

A third story featuring Judah is the brothers’ second trip to Egypt, during which we encounter him as a repented man who genuinely seeks forgiveness. Within these three stories, we witness Judah transforming from the harmful and self-seeking brother who sold Joseph into slavery to the protective and selfless brother willing to be enslaved instead of Benjamin.

 

Asking for Divine Assistance

I cannot end this series without mentioning that someone who makes God front and center in their life will desire to involve Him in studying the Bible. This is the most important aspect of biblical interpretation.

We have the assurance that God hears and answers our prayers, so should we not seek His presence and invite Him in our midst when we open His Word? Is He not the one who offered us the Bible? Would we not attain the best understanding when helped by the divine Author?

Our efforts need to match our interest, but we must acknowledge and always be aware that our efforts will never be enough. The Bible is a literary text, but it is a unique literary text. It provides more than intricate stories, fascinating character development, captivating poetry, and remarkable intercalations. It provides us with an understanding of our Creator and of the story of humanity. It tells us where we come from and where we go, who made us, why love and freedom matters, and what awaits us in the future.

 

Thus, we cannot study the Bible as simply a literary text. The theology within the stories, poetry, proverbs, biographies, and epistles of Scripture, is the core aspect of interpretation. In other words, our study, be it literary, grammatical, or historical, must always be also theological. Our ultimate goal in searching the Scripture is to know God, for knowing God is our only hope for this fleeting life and for our eternal destiny.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on the Biblical narrative analysis

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Notes.

[1] Genesis 35:22.

[2] Genesis 34.

[3] John H. Walton, Genesis in the NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2001), p. 668.

[4] Walton, Genesis, p. 667.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.