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A Homiletical Spiral for Preaching Old Testament Narratives

By Carlos R. Bovell

Preaching Old Testament narratives can be a very difficult, even frustrating experience. Ministers come across seemingly obscure passages and find themselves asking, "How in the world am I supposed to get a sermon out of that?" Take 1 Kings 13:1-6, for example. It relates a story where an unnamed prophet confronts Jeroboam in Bethel and proclaims that in light of what Jeroboam is attempting, YHWH will raise up a future king who will reverse Jeroboam's religious reforms and exact YHWH's judgment. The story seems an exciting one, but how is a minister "this side of Christ" to preach it? Bearing in mind the danger of forcing passages to "speak to me where I am", let us take a closer look at 1 Kings 13:1-6, setting out to not only attach personal significance to the passage, but perhaps learn more about preaching OT narratives in general.

I. Establish a Context

A very important first step to making a section of Old Testament narrative "preach-able" is to read it in relation to its immediate context, the larger narrative within of which a given pericope is a part. For our purposes, we might note that there is an intriguing development in the Kings narrative wherein Jeroboam is appointed by Solomon himself to be the one who oversees the men whom Solomon had compelled to labor. Soon after, as 1 Kings 11:29-39 informs us, the prophet Ahijah from Shiloh goes out with Jeroboam from Jerusalem to tell him that YHWH has decided to tear the kingdom from Solomon and make Jeroboam king over ten tribes. In the space of about one chapter we learn that Jeroboam has gone from a man who had been "taken" by God and given all Israel to rule to a man against whom YHWH had sent his prophet in judgment.

What could bring about such a turn in fortune? What had Jeroboam done that turned him from God's appointed and approved king to God's enemy? Surely 1 Kings 13:1-6 gives its own implicit explanation, but we will endeavor to show that one way to feast upon Old Testament narrative is to take cues from its interplay with prominent themes that have been traditionally associated with memorable portions of other biblical narratives. Our second step, then, will be to discern any literary and cultural motifs that the writer may have woven into his work and filled with theological significance.

II. The Egypt Motif

According to the Pentateuch YHWH had made known to Abram long ago that Israel would be enslaved in a land "not theirs". The people would be slaves for four hundred years at the end of which "the sin of the Amorites" would "be complete." (Genesis 15:16) Israelites, being of the Shem-ite line, were clearly not destined to be slaves; however, YHWH is said to have explained to Abram that they would be slaves temporarily, at least until "the sin of the Amorites was complete." The expression 'Amorites' has been understood by many as "the collective term for the pre-Israelite population." 1 In other words, one would not alter the meaning of the text by reading "the sin of the Canaanites was complete." With this information, the reader is somewhat prepared to eventually find the Israelites in Egypt on account of severe famine and the summons of an Egyptian ruler. At the time, unbeknownst to them, an Israelite, Joseph, one of Jacob's sons, had arisen in Egypt whom the pharaoh had set "over all the land of Egypt". (Genesis 41:41) He eventually made known his identity to his brothers and invited all of Israel to Egypt for refuge from the famine. The Israelites enjoyed great favor on account of him; nevertheless, on his death bed, he is said to have encouraged his brothers with these words: "God will surely graciously visit you and bring you up from this land to the land that he had sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Genesis 50:24) Before this, the majority of Israelites had already gone up from Egypt to Canaan to bury Isaac there. The Israelites, then, while in Egypt, were not cut off per se from the land of Canaan, but were rather awaiting the right opportunity (e.g., the end of famine conditions) to venture back into the land. 2 In later biblical narrative, then, we might expect Egypt to be associated with temporary refuge. 3

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