Biblical Narrative

The Master Genre of the Bible as a Whole

If we take a wide-angle view of the Bible, we can see that the overall organizing framework is narrative or story.  Although the Bible is comprised of dozens of literary genres, the dominant one is narrative.  Even the non-narrative parts are placed within an overall story known as universal history and salvation history.  A biblical scholar of a bygone era rendered the oft-quoted verdict that “the narrative mode is uniquely important in Christianity,” starting with the Bible (Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric:  The Language of the Gospel [Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1971], 56).  This was given an interesting twist by Henry R. Luce, founder of Time magazine, who said in an interview, “Time didn’t start this emphasis on stories about people; the Bible did.”

We can assign this dominance of narrative in the Bible to at least three causes.  First, it is rooted in the character of God, who is the God who acts.  Second, biblical writers are preoccupied with history, and they overwhelmingly want us to know what actually happened.  To record what happened is to tell a story.  Third, life itself has a narrative quality, being comprised of the very elements that make up a story—plot or action, character, and setting.

The fact that the overall shape of the Bible is a narrative pattern should not lead us to privilege the narrative genre over other genres of the Bible.  Stories are not inherently more important than other biblical genres.  We also need to resist a common fashion of the moment to make other forms such as poems seem more narrative than they really are.  With this caution having been stated, we nevertheless need to credit narrative with being the organizing genre of the Bible as a book.