Interpreting Narratives

A. Understanding Narrative

A narrative is an oral or written composition that sequentially orders events and other particulars in a way that transmits a message through selectivity and arrangement. Scholars emphasize the role of “exposure” in narrative, that is the decision of the author/narrator to determine how, when, and how long to focus on certain elements, shifting focus when it suits his purpose.

B. Registering Narrative

When interpreting narrative, it is important to register how the narrator has delineated and arranged the scenes of the narrative, developed character, unfolded the plot, and whether he has provided any explicit authorial commentary.

1. Scenes

The interpreter should try to delineate the scenes of the narrative. Usually, the narrator will break the scenes along the trajectories of time or place disjunctions/changes. It is important to note what adjustments the narrator makes in temporality – when he speeds up, slows down, skips over time, retraces ground, gives concurrent material, etc.

2. Character

Every passage includes more than one character, even if some of the characters are implied. God is often an explicit character, but if not explicit, he is always implied, by the very nature of divine revelation. The context of revelation helps determine how this ought to be understood.
It is important to note the level of character development. Certain characters remain relatively flat (little development). Sometimes they are simply functionaries in the development of the plot. Other times, there is a round development of character.
It is helpful to categorize the important characters along the trajectory of protagonist and antagonist. Sometimes characters are ambivalent. Speeches give considerable insight into character development.

3. Plot

The plot is what holds the narrative together. It is often defined as the dramatic flow of the narrative. Often there are sub plots within larger plots. Plots make use of the reality and sense of unresolved tension. This is introduced at some point, then the plot follows this tension along scales of strengthening or resolving until there is some resolution often in a number of steps.

4. Authorial Commentary

For interpretation, any authorial commentary — either at the beginning, middle, or end of the narrative – is of great importance for understanding the purpose and intent of the author with the narrative. In the gospels, Old Testament quotations are ways in which the author can direct the reader’s perspective by affording him an authoritative take on the whole.

C. Structuring Narrative

The following steps are recommended in order to structure a narrative pericope in order properly to determine the meaning.

  1. Determine the exact unit of a passage or pericope (the beginning and end)
  2. Defend this grammatically from someone who would choose a different point of view
  3. Determine how this unit relates to what precedes and follows
  4. See the sub-parts within this unit and defend them grammatically against detractors
  5. Express the relationship between the sub-parts in a symmetrical form
  6. Determine whether there are sub-subunits, the relationship between which, might aid in interpretation.
  7. Survey the structure and determine how slow or fast it moves and what significance that has.
  8. Check to see whether there is any mirroring that has been built into the structure of the narrative.
  9. articulate what the effect of the structure is in conducting the meaning of the text.

D. Example 1: Genesis 22

1a: Introduction: Authorrial Commentary: God’s Test of Abraham

1b-2: God’s Instruction to Abraham

1b: God’s Call and Abraham’s Response

2: God’s Instruction

2a: Take Isaac

2b. Get you to the land of Moriah

2c: Offer him on one of the mountains I tell you

3-10: Abraham’s Obedience

3a: Abraham’s Preparation: He took Isaac his Son

3b: Abraham’s Journey

4-6: Abraham’s Isolating Isaac

7-8: Abraham’s Answering of Isaac

7: Isaac’s Question: Where is the lamb

8a: Abraham’s Answer: God will provide

8b: Conclusion: They went together

9-10: Abraham’s Offering of His Son

Note: for to slay his son (break in the language)

11-12: God’s Affirmation

11: The Call

12a: The Instruction

12b: The Communication: Now I know

13-14: The Substitution

13a: Abraham’s Sight of the substitute

13b: Abraham’s Offering of the substitute

14: Abraham’s Naming of the Place: Jehovah Jireh

15-18: God’s Blessing

15-16: God’s Oath in Light of the sacrifice

17: God’s Blessing to the world in light of the obedience

19: Conclusion

Narrative Treatment:

Dynamics: The narrative has three scenes, and a mirroring along the scenes is obvious. The tension of the plot is heightened at least twice, and resolved at two points. The characters are Abraham, Isaac, and God. The character development is quite rounded, especially for Abraham. There is little authorial commentary, except the significant verses 1 and 10.

Significance: The structure of the passage emphasizes how God’s test of Abraham highlights God’s provision and covenant blessing in the way of the substitute and the obedience of Abraham. Abraham’s intention to slay his son is clearly in focus, so much so that Hebrews 11 explains this in terms of belief in resurrection.

E. Example 2: Luke 24:13-35

13-14: Setting of Stage: Two bewildered and hopeless disciples return to Emmaus [Tension Registered]

15-27: Jesus Mysteriously Reveals Himself to them through Scripture on the way

15-16: Jesus joins them, though their eyes are holden [Tension Heightened]

17: Direct Speech: Jesus inquires into the subject of their conversation and reason for sadness

18-24: Direct Speech: Cleopas explains events and reason for sadness without reference to Scripture

18: Cleopas expresses surprise that the traveler knows nothing of what has happened

19-20: Cleopas gives his version of Jesus’ prophetic ministry and crucifixion

21: Cleopas pinpoints the problem of their lost hopes

22-24: Cleopas mentions the reports of the resurrection

25-27: Jesus answers their doubts with self-revelation from Scripture

25: Jesus’ rebuke: Exclamation
26: Jesus’ reason: Interpretation
27: Jesus’ reference: Explanation

28-32: Jesus Clearly Reveals himself in the breaking of bread at the house

28-29: They constrain a parting Christ to stay with them [Tension Heightened Again]

30-31: They recognize a distributing Christ, who parts from them [Major Resolution]

32: They register a heart-warming Christ, based on their earlier response

33-35: Conclusion: Two energized and hopeful disciples return to Jerusalem

33-34: Return to Jerusalem

33: The Return itself
34: The Report from the 11
35: Report to the 11 [Resolution]

Narrative Treatment:
Dynamics: The narrative has four scenes, and a mirroring along the scenes is obvious. The tension of the plot is heightened at least twice, and resolved at two points. The characters are Christ, Cleopas (and his friend), the disciples; other more remote characters are the highpriests and rulers, the women, the prophets. The character development is quite rounded. There is little authorial commentary, except the significant verses 16 and 31.
Significance: The structure of the passage emphasizes how the resurrected Christ reveals himself. The divine necessity of Christ’s sufferings and death as Scripture sets it forth warms their hearts and Christ’s own sovereign opening of their eyes brings them from bewilderment and lost hope to joy and witness.

F. Comparing Narratives

As the context is always important in interpretation, so it is for interpreting narratives as well. Often one narrative will help open an adjoining or nearby narrative. Do not interpret narratives entirely in isolation. See the following examples:

1. Gen. 11-12

In Gen. 11 mankind tries to climb up to heaven through building a tower, to make a great name for themselves lest they be scattered. They end up making a foolish name for themselves (Babel), and they are scattered anyhow. In Gen. 12, God comes down from heaven and calls Abram and promises him a great name, and though he must wander, yet, he will be a blessing and inherit an eternal city.

2. Josh. 2 and Josh. 7

In the narrative of the conquest, the conversion of Rahab is significant. God’s purposes are not in the first place for destruction, but for salvation. When we read on, we see how Rahab is instrumental in the salvation of her whole house, and Israel is blessed through her. When we come to Josh. 7, we only have so far the divine conquest of Jericho, but now we will see how through the sin of Achan, right at the center of the people of God, there is defeat and a whole family perishes. While she took the side of God and Israel, he took the side of Canaan and dies. She hid the spies from the king; he hides the loot from God in order to become king. Her house is saved, while his tent perishes. She lives on in the genealogy of Israel and becomes a mother of Christ, while his name is blotted out of the tribes of Israel.

3. Mark 8

In the sequence of Mark 8:22-26 give us a miracle of a blind man healed in two stages. The first stage brings him to “see people like trees walking.” But once Christ restores his vision completely, he sees everything clearly. The significance seems very mysterious. However, right before this passage (Mark 8:14-21), the disciples are not seeing Christ clearly: they didn’t understand the miracles of the loaves and Jesus had to said: “Do you still not see or understand ? DO you have fails but you fail to see and ears but you fail to hear? Do you still not understand. And then right after the miracle of the healing in two stages, we have the remarkable confession of Peter in answer to Christ’s question: Whom do you say that I am? Peter answers that He is the Christ. Now Peter understands clearly who Christ is.

G. Concluding Directions

  1. Defend every break either from the grammar, syntax, or narrative sequence, or conceptual ideas of the text. Ask yourself if you have taken the cues of the narrative seriously. Beware of excessively small or excessively large units (though at times it is possible). Always ask yourself what the significance of this arrangement is.
  2. Do not suffice with noting the narrative dynamics. Probe their exegetical significance. Work coherently. Realize that narratives connect to other narratives and have their place in relation to the great narrative (and other sections) of the Bible.
  3. Keep reading the whole Bible. It is one story. The more you know the parts, the more you will understand the whole. The more you know the whole, the more you will understand the parts.