Old Testament Narratives are sacred records of how God worked with the people in a far different time and culture. How do they differ from modern narratives and how should we interpret these records as guidance for our congregations today?

Old Testament Narratives: Integrative Literature

The first genre of the Old Testament to be discussed is called "Narrative." While this “older” testament has other elements—such as poetry, apocalyptic/prophecy, and letter—it is narrative which provides a glimpse at early history followed by the establishment of “Israel” as Gods special people.

But it is in the course of providing the narrative, that these other elements are integrated to provide a fuller picture, one with emotion and meaning, as well as just factual assertions of events.

This course splits the Old Testament narrative into two parts—the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the rest of the narrative (all the way through exile and return). Narrative provides a “skeleton” on which to place the other genres in their own time frames and cultural interests. As with any historical rendering, the authors made important choices as to what to include. Much like we hear from the ending of the Gospel of John where it states, “…many other things Jesus said and did. If they were all recorded the entire world could not contain the books.”

Here, too, choices were made to show which events were those that represented the work of God in the history of the people.

We approach this opening section of the Bible with a deep appreciation for how it emphasizes God as one who creates and communicates.

While “narrative” is the skeleton, poetry and story are the “flesh” which fills out that narrative journey. This is abundantly clear when we are met with “The Beginning” as it relates aspects of God’s creation for which there were no human witnesses. We need to be sensitive, then, to that fact that while the narrative portions drive the story forward in relating historical events, the books of the Bible also pause to present poetical renditions of these events as well. Perhaps we can see the hand of God who, as the beautiful creation is revealed, it is expressed in the most beautiful of written style: poetry.

An Example: The Creation Account

As we open the very first part of the Bible, the Torah or Pentateuch (Five Books), we are immediately confronted with what appears to modern readers as an historical account of the “days” (Hebrew, yom) of creation. Upon reading through those “days” you recognize a repeating pattern which is normally a good clue to the fact that you are reading poetry, not narrative. So, you are probably noticing direct and implied presuppositions, genre, and interpretation matters in the challenge of how to sort all of that out. What presuppositions does each bring to the discussion? How can we account for the genres? Interpretation forces us to ask those questions.

So, what is the genre of the Creation Account? Yes, it is part of the Old Testament narrative. But we also learn that approximately 75% of the Tanakh (Old Testament) is poetry.


Normally we have no question about calling such books as Psalms and Proverbs, Hebrew poetry.

But we also need to understand that even in the book of Genesis we find it in abundance as well.

Such will change how we receive and teach the actual events of creation.

What can we conclude about this phenomenon? First, the ancients did not necessarily prefer strictly historical narrative to that which is integrated with poetry and other forms of literature (such as genealogical lists, wisdom sayings, and the like). Second, interpreting this “integrated narrative” will take more care than just accepting every word as if it were a “play by play” of an on-the-scene observer. Third, we will also want to understand how these genres carry an even greater meaning than straight narrative can, since they reach us on several levels of understanding, not just the historical.

Therefore, even in the very first pages of Scripture, we need to recognize that the ancients were not inspired to write as we might if it were us doing it now. We also learn that they likely wrote this way since most people would pass along these words by oral repetition and not by reading.

When we interpret, their needs, not ours, come first, if we wish to get to the original intent of the content.

How Assumptions Control Interpretations

It is not a startling notion that the point at which you start an investigation often determines what you will find. The idea of presuppositions and subjectivity are notions to be identified and to which we should readily admit that we bring to the text.

However, some of our congregations may not realize that there are differing ways to view the Bible since they often take their pastor’s, or favorite author’s view as one which, along with Scripture, is divinely inspired.

In the link below, you’ll be able to see three representative views on just one topic, the term Yom, meaning “day” in the creation account. This is provided to be illustrative of the fact that we should always start with humility and awareness of our own biases when we do the work of interpretation.

The controlling notion of this course is, that the best reading of Scripture is what the original author intended (as much as can be determined) and what the original readers could have understood. While this, too, is a controlling presupposition, it is one that does not try to bring a particular “preferred view” of the trajectory of Scripture but, rather, attempts to have the texts

speak for themselves in their original context. It is only after we understand that context and meaning that we should try to apply those meanings to our present day situations.

The “Law” as Genre

In noting that much of the Pentateuch focuses on Moses’ life and the Exodus, we can also note that four out of the five books of Moses also focus on The Law, both its actual statutes (Leviticus) and its importance (Deuteronomy).


Many interpreters have focused on the ancient systems of legal agreements, which we call “covenants,” whichgoverned relationships between people with their neighbors, and people with their governments.

One important interpreter to point out the similarities between ancient covenant structures and the covenants of the Bible was Meredith Kline. Be sure to note the many readings we have from him. Kline provides a useful hermeneutical key when he writes of the Great King and his Covenant of Creation." Kline (2006) notes that "the evidence is ample and clear" that "the

substance of berith (Covenant) is present." "The kingdom order described in Genesis 1–3 was

characterized by precisely those elements that constitute a Covenant, for it was produced through

divine words and acts of commitment and it was subject to the sanctions of ultimate divine

blessing and curse."

While some take issue that Kline used this hermeneutical scheme to assert one, and only one,

hermeneutical key, his work is most helpful is assessing the emphases that are found in these

texts, and how they relate to those types of relationships and institutions that governed the lives

of the ancient world.

The genre of “Law” then, presented in narrative form, is a key factor which shows the center

point of the relationship between God and the people of Israel. As ancient people, they would

have understood the Law as the agreement which bound both they and God (voluntarily, we

might add) to certain understandings of how their relationship would be structured.

Suzerain King

 Old Testament Narratives are sacred records of how God worked with the people in a far

different time and culture. How do they differ from modern narratives and how should we

interpret these records as guidance for our congregations today?

In a minimum of 200 words, post your response to the Discussion Area.

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