The purpose of this lesson is to introduce biblical narrative at the broadest possible level. It will look at the Bible as a whole and cover a short list of topics. This lesson is not designed to yield a methodology for analyzing stories in the Bible; its function is to provide a way of looking at the narrative dimension of the Bible.
This lesson is like the previous two lessons in being an overview of a very large subject. Before I begin the lessons designed to equip you to read and analyze Bible stories, I think it useful to say something about the narrative quality of the Bible as a whole. This is simply a good context into which to place my more detailed analysis of how to interact with individual stories. This overview will convey a sense of the importance that we should attach to the narrative genre in the Bible.
The first point is that narrative or story provides the primary organizing framework for the Bible as a whole. Although the Bible is comprised of dozens of literary genres, they all take their place within the master story of the Bible. Even the nonliterary parts of the Bible fit into an overarching single story. An oft-quoted statement from a towering scholar of an earlier era is that “the narrative mode is uniquely important in Christianity,” starting with the Bible.
In turn, the prominence of narrative in the Bible can be related to the importance of narrative in human experience. Our lives have a narrative quality. They are made up of the same three ingredients that comprise a story, namely, plot or action, characters, and settings. Our lives unfold in linear fashion in time, just as the plot of a story does. We live in a story-shaped world, and reading the Bible takes on a familiar feel by likewise immersing us in a story-shaped world.
One of the great advantages of narrative or story is its power of transport. As we start to read a story, we are transported from our time and place to another time and place. A New Testament scholar has written that the narrative genre “draws the reader into the story as a participant…. The natural function of narrative is to help the reader hear the voices, take part in the action, get involved in the plot.” One of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words “tell me a story.”
The Bible possesses what is commonly called a metanarrative—a big overarching story into which we fit our individual and corporate lives. The Bible’s metanarrative is the story of the entire human race. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This is true of the metanarrative of the Bible. This story begins at the literal beginning—God’s creation of the world. The middle of the story is the universal history of the human race. It is a story of heightened conflict between good and evil. The end is the end of human history and the ushering in of eternity.
God is the leading character in this “big story” of the Bible as a whole. Every other character interacts with this divine protagonist. The unfolding story of the Bible is a story of divine provision or providence, judgment against evil, and rescue from sin and death by Christ’s sacrifice. The most customary term by which to name God’s acts is “salvation history,” thereby focusing on the story of salvation that is offered to every person.
In the written version of this lesson, I list categories of story in the Bible and in literature generally. This is not the place to go into that degree of detail, but you will find my taxonomy of narrative types very illuminating. Much of what I name will seem familiar to you. Let me say in passing that a large part of a literary approach to the Bible consists of bringing to bear on the Bible what you know about literature generally.
I end the written version of this lesson by placing the narrative genre into an even larger genre, namely, literature itself. This section echoes and reviews what was covered in the previous lesson, which surveyed the defining traits of literature. When we come to read and analyze a specific genre like narrative, it is important that we also apply what we know about literature as a whole. We need to identify the universal human experiences that we find in a story. We need to admire and relish the literary skill of the author. We need to understand that a story embodies themes of ideas as well as human experiences. We need to pay attention to every detail in a story, on the premise that the whole story is the meaning.
A Bible story is a story before it is a set of ideas, and it belongs to an even bigger genre than narrative, namely, literature.