One of the major struggles faced by contemporary Christian preachers is effectively presenting Old Testament narrative passages. Pastors who have been trained to preach based on Pauline texts are often challenged when facing the task of preaching those fascinating stories found in the Old Testament. So pastors will welcome Ben Walton’s new book Preaching Old Testament Narratives as a helpful source of exegetical and homiletical insights. Walton walks us through the process, from selecting and analyzing a narrative text to shaping and then delivering such a message. The book is packed with valuable preaching ideas and tools. This volume will find a welcomed spot on many a preacher’s bookshelf.
When I was a child, there was nothing; quite as exciting as a good fairy tale before heading off to bed. There in the world of make believe, I would slide: down beanstalks, only seconds ahead of mean-spirited giants; huddle together with three frightened pigs, wondering if the fox outside would huff and puff and blow our house down; and cry along side of Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy, Doc, Bashful, Grumpy and Happy when I heard the news that Snow White had eaten the poisoned apple.
And every once in a while, hiding under the covers with my friendly flashlight, long after Mom had said to turn out the lights (and assumed I had), my spine chilled to the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman’s pursuit of Icabod Crane. Who among us does not love a good story?
When we enter the pages of the Old Testament, we discover a world brimming with incredible stories too. Some make us shed a tear or three of happiness — like Boaz declaring his intentions to marry Ruth, an outsider without any status or ‘blueblood’ (Ruth 3-4). Other stories are deliriously funny, like the one about Dagon trying to compete with the Ark of the Lord, recorded in I Samuel 5. As if God’s superiority were ever in doubt!
And periodically we encounter those riveting few narratives that make such emotional appeals to our imagination that we envision ourselves planted right in the middle of that biblical text affirming with characters like that radical preacher Joshua: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The stories of the Old Testament resonate with life – and faithful preachers will preach them often.
I would propose that a preacher’s handling and delivery of the biblical story is greatly enhanced if he or she has an appreciation for the specifics of this genre of literature and some rudimentary knowledge of its intentional craftsmanship and complexity.
Preaching Bible stories also offers a few profound challenges as we shall discover. This article seeks to focus on some principles and procedures for heightening the preacher’s narrative consciousness and employing biblical examples to illustrate these points.
Storytelling as Literary Art
When reading and studying the Hebrew Bible, it is not long before we discover that there is a tremendous diversity in literary types (genre) confronting the preacher: dramatic epic (Ex. 1-20) lyric (Ps. 1), apocalypse (Daniel), proverb (Pro. 4), and historical narrative (Gn. 11) to name just a few.
Yet storytelling (narrative) is without a doubt the most common and predominant literary art form in the Hebrew scriptures, with over 40 percent of the Old Testament given to it.1 This alone is compelling reason for preachers to want to understand the sense of narrative art and grasp how to exploit it best for homiletical use.
As a literary form, narrative has been defined in a variety of helpful ways. Greidanus defines it in its broadest sense as “an account of events and participants moving over time and space … patterned by the narrator’s principle of selection.,”2 Berlin describes it as “a form of representation,”3 and Waltke speaks of narrative as teaching “theology through story.”
Narrative preaching can be defined as “preaching the story.” Granted, the story might be delivered in any number of interesting ways — contemporizing the story to facilitate the modem audiences understanding (pure narrative), or relating a personal and specific event which helps to hone the sharpness of a text (personal narrative) — but each methodology serves the prime directive, the presentation, hearing and understanding of the Bible story.4
It would be unfair to suggest that a narrative is merely a story about some person, event or circumstance erupting from an Old Testament life setting. It will certainly include these things. However, the significance of biblical narrative is that it seeks to profile and fix God’s activity in and through surrounding nations or characters. He is the arresting feature; He is the superlative hero; He is the Kingmaker on the world’s chessboard. So while the preacher should not diminish the weight of all the other players, they must raise Him to the preeminence He justly deserves. Narrative preaching will not lose sight of this significance.
Literary Characteristics of Narrative
The predilection among preachers has generally been to focus almost exclusively on what the Bible says. Experience suggests that the trend among some preachers has been to treat sacred script as a kind of Medical Journal touched with the dew of inspiration and brimming with distinctive remedies for all of societal ills.
By casually thumbing through its pages — mostly New Testament ones I might add — a litany of verses are applied to some currently unfolding spiritual drama breaking out around them. I grant you, they were probably modelling their professors in the classroom, but I wonder if such a narrow, restrictive approach to the scriptures does not impede the limits of our success when gleaning in the biblical text.
To be sure, we need to know what the Bible says; what it says about divorce, and remarriage, racial inequalities, sexism, the economically deprived … and boys with long hair and pierced ears. But it is just as important to come to grips with what the Bible is. God has given to us an anthology of work; whose substance is carefully crafted, methodically arranged and wonderfully preserved.
And because it shows literary intentionality, new perspectives need to be launched so that the same crowds are absorbed into the quest also to rediscover the literary vibrancy and vitality of God’s Word. To this end, then, this article is committed.
Exploring some of the narrative characteristics can help arouse the Old Testament preacher and move him or her from becoming more than just a gratuitous literary reader. The enemy here is not disagreement, but making the Old Testament’s literary and historical realities opponents in our personal study when, in fact, they are friends.
So exactly what is Old Testament narrative? It is a story to be sure, but a literary story whose features explode with authenticity, conciseness, passion, and intentional technique — all of the things that turn a good story into a great one. Consider these characteristics:
It is hardly coincidental that the narratives mirror our own contemporary culture. That’s probably precisely why we like reading them — they cheat, rejoice, feel guilty, and are exasperated by their children at times just like people today. True, we may be divorced from the biblical scene by a few millennia, but this mix of mundane and high drama is really human kind’s lot at any time in existence. Indeed, the inclusion of the common and contemptible in a story helps to increase its authority and breathe life into our understanding of its message.
It is precisely the fact that a story does tell life “like it is” that causes it to become meaningful to the reader. The laboriousness with which life’s common day events are opened to the reader lends a certain degree of authenticity. Look at how they help us identify with that moment and draw us into the scene:
Cain lying with his wife and her becoming pregnant (Gen. 4:17)
Sarai’s infertility (Gen. 11:30)
Isaac marrying Rebekah (Gen. 24:67)
Esau gulping down his food at meal time (Gen. 25:34)
Joseph washing his face (Gen. 43:31)
Joshua being buried on his home turf (Josh. 24:30)
Boaz harvesting his crops (Ruth 2:5)
Saul’s troops hungering after a hard day at work (1 Sam. 14:24)
Likewise the faithful recording of some of the more contemptible events of human activity gives a ring of honesty to a story:
Noah drunk and summarily caught naked in his tent (Gen. 9:21-22).
Abram urgently willing to murder his son — a kind of post-birth abortion (Gen. 22).
Jacob on the prowl for sex following the death of his wife (Gen. 38:13-19)
Saul’s occultic meddling (1 Sam. 28)
The inclusion of such common or vile behaviour into the biblical story is a kind of “proof” to their genuineness, and readers are invited not to witness from a distance but to participate in the drama. Narratives bleed reality.
There are limits to what the reader is allowed to know and frequently we are called upon to fill in the blanks ourselves.
For example, notice how plastic Abraham seems on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22). Complying with God’s instructions, he methodically and inexorably moves towards that great moment of truth (admirable to be sure!). But nowhere are we told what went through his mind, if he challenged heaven with his prayers, why Isaac instantly submitted to dad’s fatal secret, and whether that last scene between father and son was filled with broken sobs or kisses. The record is brief, and we can only guess.
However, it is no fluke that whatever is provided by the storyteller is most deliberate. There is an economy of words, phrases, motives and descriptions that permeate a biblical narrative.
Old Testament narratives are powerful accounts, not dull readings. The human imagination is captivated by things like daring exploits (Judg. 3), mystery (Ex. 19), contradictions (2 Sam. 24), deceit (Gn. 27), romance (Ruth 4), counter-strikes (1 Kgs. 15), magic (Ex. 7), shotgun weddings (Gn. 34), faith (Gn. 16), and happy Hollywood endings (1 Sam. 1-2:11). At times emotions run coarse (Judg. 19), at other times polite (Ruth 1).
By laying bare the pathos, violence, sweetness and humour in the storytellers literary flavouring, we peel back the crust, exposing the superb richness of narrative style. What’s a good story, whether served in the pulpit or at the edge of the lazyboy, if it is not served hot?
Leland Ryken, in his book Words of Delight, lists four narrative techniques that biblical storytellers will use to frame their material.5 The list suggests: (1) Direct narrative where the narrator, in his own voice, tells what happened; (2) Dramatic narrative where character dialogue is involved; (3) Descriptive narrative where particulars like setting / character are reported; and (4) Commentative narrative where explanations surrounding the story itself, its background or meaning, are offered. Using Genesis 25:29-34 as his model, Ryken skillfully demonstrates the technique, as indicated here:
Description (v. 29)
Dramatic (v. 30a)
Commentary (v. 30b)
Dramatic (vv. 31-33a)
Commentary (v. 34b)
What this process alerts us to is the adeptness of the storyteller and his deliberate deployment of a literary strategy that is both rich in meaning and useful to the modem reader. When we begin to look for such forms, we will discover them in abundance in the Old Testament.
Authenticity, conciseness, passion and intentional technique are elements that mark the Bible narratives to be well suited to captivate both small fry or big and emerge as some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In Holbert’s words, “If the first aim of preaching is to be heard, then a narrative, almost inevitably, will gain a hearing.”6
Literary Conventions of Narrative
Exactly how does the Old Testament tell its stories? Are we to suppose a random, extemporaneous piece-mealing by its several authors? Or, would it be wrong to conjecture that the stories reflect some kind of authorial intent, some deliberate design?
A disciplined scrutinizing of biblical narratives suggests the latter. Narratology, the study of narrative and its make-up, shows that the writers operate with a kind of “Betty Crocker” basic recipe, mixing all of the essential ingredients into the literary pot in logical, deliberate, sequential steps.
Granted, a conscious decision to go deliberately looking for these conventions after having ignored them for countless years may be a difficult and awkward assignment for some. Nevertheless, sensitivity to the symbiotic relationship between author and literary convention is extremely advantageous and should not be casually dismissed. The artistry of biblical narrative suggest that nothing in the creating of the story is by happenstance, nothing!
The approach here will be to explain and reflect on some basic ingredients that make up a story, and to note how these ingredients are transmitted to the reader through the text.
The field is littered with well-researched books dissecting the narrative genre in any number of ways, as well as offering hermeneutical and homiletical principles confederate to it. Sidney Greidanus’s The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Leland Rykens, Words of Delight, The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (must reading) and The Poetics of Biblical Narrative by Meir Sternberg are but a few that come immediately to mind.
While it would be unfair to melt these works into one homogenous, singular theory of narrative characterization, there are some synchronic themes that commonly reappear. And as Berlin insightfully suggests “If we want to understand a biblical story, we must first take seriously the effort to learn how … biblical stories are told.”7 To this end then we now turn.
The artistry of biblical narrative in the Old Testament is reflected in the conventions of Hebrew communication common to all stories. Included here are some of the dynamics (basic ingredients) that narratives use.
1. Scene — Jacob Licht in Storytelling in the Bible calls this is an important characteristic of narrative. It is where “the action [in the story] is broken up into a sequence of scenes. Each scene presents the happenings of a particular place and time, concentrating the attention of the audience on the deeds and the words spoken.”8
Adele Berlin offers us a useful analogy:” … the stories in the Bible are like the frames from which films are made. Each one exists separately, and they are combined in a certain order to make the greater narrative.”9
A word of caution. Guard against interpreting the narrative atomically for it “an individual frame has no life of its own outside of the film as a whole.”10
Each of these “scenic containers” is filled with setting: characters and actions that animate a story and contribute to its artistic development and storytelling success. To help prevent misreadings of a narrative, the preacher should (1) determine the number of scenes in an act (handy when deciding on sermon points or the moment(s) of conflict and climax), (2) focus on the details of environment (physical, temporal, cultural), characters), and action peculiar to each scene, and (3) be aware of the linkages between each frame that contribute to the narrative’s wholeness.
Since every scene constitutes one frame, there will frequently be more than one scene, as the books of Job and Ruth illustrate. Also, while the story may have several scenes, the story will usually be confined to two characters at a time (Adam/Eve, Adam/God, Cain/Abel, Jacob/Esau, David/Jonathan, Elijah/Elisha). If more than two characters should appear, the collective body will still speak as one (Josh. 1:10-18; 9; 2 Kgs. 4:8-37).
2. Plot — When the scenes of a narrative are fused together into a corporate, meaningful unity, the byproduct, certainly in biblical narratives, will form a plot. Just as audiences appreciate good Perry Mason intrigue, the Old Testament storyteller seeks to capture and arouse the attention of his reader. Dark events, or events not so dark, emerge to give momentum and propel the story towards its initial conflict and final resolution.
These plots, whether simple (Beginning, Middle, Ending), complex, short or long, physical or moral, “must” in the words of Holbert, “be dynamic” and “sequential.”11 Genesis 38 is a useful example of a simple narrative that contains both of these elements.
Genesis 38 is strategically located within the Joseph narratives of Genesis 37, 39-50. Here, we are witness to the rebellion and calamity of Judah’s dark past — his glaringly rebellious nature and worn moral appetite. Ignoring the restraints of his religion, the narrative opens (the Beginning) with Judah marrying into a Canaanite family. This is not a pleasant sign of the soundness of Israel. One by one, Judah’s sons Er and Onan die under the punitive wrath of God for “they did wicked in the Lord’s sight” (1-11). But apparently they are not the only ones who are wicked, and now the reader is summarily introduced to conflict in the story.
Judah wilfully determines to violate his solemn commitment to Tamar, his “daughter-in-law”, and to ignore the custom of Levirate Law (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth 4:5-6; Mt. 22:24). Conflict escalates with Tamar’s bold plot (12-23) to produce offspring through her own initiatives by dressing up like a temple prostitute and playing on Judah’s weakness and carnality (the Middle). Since Judah’s wife is dead (12), he is in a state of sexual readiness. Tamar, painted by the narrator as a woman of decision, intends to thwart her “father-in-law,” just as he had frustrated her. The plot works and Tamar becomes pregnant, precisely the thing that she and the narrator had hoped for from the very beginning.12 The wrong done Tamar earlier (11) has been corrected.
The conflict begins to untangle (24-25) with Judah’s manly confession of guilt, and the story’s intensity begins to subside. God’s sovereign purposes had decreed that Judah was to be the ancestor of the Messiah and Tamar the channel through whom the messianic line was to be linked — and they were. The conflict is resolved (the Ending) and with the birth of Perez the breach breaker and Zerah, his twin brother, the action ends.
3. Character and Characterization — What’s a story without people! In narrative we are not usually given much of a character description, either physically or otherwise. Sure, Rachel was “lovely in form and beautiful” (Gen. 29:17), Simeon and Levi were deceitful (Gen. 35:13), Samson, a strong, ultimate warrior who would have done well in the WWF (Jud. 14:6), and Absalom had charmingly long, gorgeous hair — a point not usually lost among today’s crowd (2 Sam. 14:25-26).
But beyond these kinds of routine descriptions there are not a lot of narrative specifics. So, when description is woven into a story, we need to look closely, as Alter advises, “for consequences, immediate or eventual, either in plot or theme.”13
Consider Judges 17-18. Notice that the apostate priest in the story is simply described as a “Levite” (17:7, 9, 11; 18:3,15). But why, we ask, was his name not initially given? Because the storyteller intends for us to understand that Israel’s spiritual guidance was the responsibility of the tribe and not this lone wandering individual. Compromise was affecting the sons of Israel and we should preach it with precisely this emphasis.
There are several ways for Old Testament characters to be presented to the reader. For example, the storyteller might offer a descriptive portrait of a person. Esau was hairy (Gen. 25:25) — an important point if Jacob is to be successful in deceiving Isaac (27:11, 23) and stealing the blessing. Ehud was a portsider [left-handed] (Jud. 3:15) and Eglon, his intended target, a nice fat walking bulls-eye (3:17). How could the Israelite miss!
The storyteller might use contrast as a beneficial tool. In 1 Samuel 2 a despairing picture of Eli’s two wicked sons Hophni and Phinehas (Egyptian names) is painted for us. As ringleaders in the devil’s army, they violate the system of donations to the priests in Shiloh, backing up their greedy designs with threats of bodily harm (12-17). Their moral failure is further confirmed in their sleeping “with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (22). But then, notice how suddenly the camera sweeps to Samuel, a twelve year old lad who holds the lowest place in the tabernacle and upon whom Israel’s future rests. Just when we might be tempted to despair over the lamentable state of affairs, the narrator weaves a thread of hope (2:11,18, 21, 26; 3:1).
There are a host of examples where the dissimilarities between characters are intended; David and Uriah, Saul and Jonathan, Elijah and his challenge to the prophets of Baal/Asherah to name but a few. The preacher should note these differences and perhaps sometimes even chose sides (not always easy, cf. Gen. 28:20-22). Sermon preparation is greatly enhanced by a knowledge of such informing characterizations by the storyteller.
Sometimes narrative characters are paralleled for us. “Narrative analogy,” can be useful in helping us gain an understanding of both the person on the playing field and the character on the sidelines.14 For example, notice how Joshua is a kind of second Moses, sending spies into Canaan (Josh. 2 cf. Dt. 1), splitting turbulent waters with God’s help (Josh. 3:1-5 cf Ex. 14), and given a similarly reserved title of “servant” (Josh. 24:29 cf. 1:2). The narrator means for us to notice this. Likewise, the familiar “wife-sister” troubles of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 12:10-20; 20; 26:1 -11) are of particular relevance when illustrating this analogical manner of story telling.
Along with these “basic ingredients” of narrative — scene, plot, and characters — are “ingredient transmitters” that contribute to the power of storytelling: these transmitters include the narrator, dialogue, and form.
1. Narrator — The narrator is a special kind of person, the identity of whom is more often concealed from public view. Like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia that permits Lucy and Edmund entry into the land of permanent winter and turkish delight, we too must pass through a corridor to enter the ancient world of the storyteller. The narrator is our conduit.
Have you noticed how narrators will select and reveal information only on a need-to-know basis? We are frequently left with the troubling responsibility of determining the significance, if any, of their selective choices and descriptions. For example, in the blessing of Joseph’s two sons, why are we told that old Jacob “crossed his hands” (Gn. 48)? Why did he not simply reach out straight as one might normally do? Or, how about the story of Michal’s treatment of David for “disrobing in the sight of the slave girls.” Notice how very little moralizing is done over the characters in the story? Readers are left to determine the target of guilt through the narrator’s selective conclusion: “And Michal… had no children to the day of her death” (2 Sam. 6:23). Who did you think was guilty?
Exerting control over his plot, the narrator sets the conditions and limits for his narrative world and we must read the interpretative signals correctly if we are to make conclusions about morality, guilt or whatever.
The narrator will also frequently exhibit a kind of omniscient presence over a biblical account, showing apparent access to privileged information. Vertically, he always seems to know how the Lord feels (Gn. 6:6) or what is going through His mind (Gn. 6:7). Horizontally, he is the ever present invisible man in even the most awkward of times.
I mean really, how can we be certain that David, this magnificent oriental king, did not engage in sexual intercourse with Abishag, a woman so stunningly attractive that her beauty is noted twice by the narrator (1 Kgs. 4:3,4)? Was someone peeping through the keyhole? Only the narrator knows for sure and his point of view is trustworthy, deserving of our attention and in keeping with the purposeful craftsmanship that goes into telling the Bible story. Narrators are our eyes, ears, and thoughts from both the human and divine point of view, and to this extent they appear omniscient.
2. Dialogue — The dynamics of dialogue and direct speech should also capture our attention since the spoken word is especially prevalent in Bible stories. An analysis of biblical narrative reveals a strong inclination to move from third-person telling, to the use of direct speech as a means of revealing the story and making it vivid. As Alter points out, “The biblical writers… are often less concerned with the actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument.”15 This dialogue may be stylized or contrastive.16
3. Artistic Form — Finally, an understanding of some of the more common artistic forms can be useful to the preacher wanting to preach from Old Testament narratives. One of the common patterns is the repetitive consciousness of the storyteller and a number of methods are employed by them, as demonstrated here:
Chiasms — so called because of its likeness to the form of the letter Chi (Gk – X), offer balance, cohesion and shape to a dialogue. This pattern can occur in either words or events (Gn. 43:3-5; Lv. 14:51-52; 2 Kgs. 4:8-37).
Recurrence — the repetition of cycles of behaviour or themes, as witnessed throughout the book of Judges (Sin, Servitude, Sorrow, Salvation). It can also involve the repetition of words, also illustrated in Judges (“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit”), and
Sequential activity — well illustrated in Samson’s successful resisting of that temptress Delilah’s advances some three times (Judg. 16) or when military officers are instructed three times to “pick up” Elijah (2 Kgs. 1). While some literary critics would prefer to ignore and/or remove these repetitious cycles from the biblical narrative, there appears to be growing interest in their intended use by conservatives.
Sitting in the foyer of a music studio a few months back, waiting for my daughter’s music lesson to be over, I picked through a mountain of Good Housekeeping and Woman’s World and uncovered a book of fairy tales, presumably left for the ‘little’ children. In a moment, I was magically transported into the land of make-believe and “Once upon a time,” consumed with reliving the story of “Bluebeard” and the mystery of his missing wives.
Yes, stories cast a spell, whether fabled or biblical. They carry us on gossamer wings of imagination to worlds unknown and unexplored and exploits both mysterious and heroic. The secret to their success is that they are so analogous to our own lives.
The preacher faces a similar task – taking the biblical story to the believing community and carrying them to “world’s unknown, unexplored and exploits both mysterious and heroic.”
It is not sufficient to merely retell the Bible story and offer some moralistic application. We must place the congregation into the story and help relate it to their life. The challenge of preaching from narratives is not an easy one but the discerning preacher, yea the faithful preacher, will want to root the sermon in “His story” and plumb its depths, for it alone has the power to change people’s lives.
The appeal in this article is to sensitize the reader to the vast narrative richness of the Bible and its superlative craftsmanship both literarily and theologically. Let us not diminish the narrative artistry of the Hebrew Bible or pooh pooh away the need to be informed about such conventions, for it is precisely this kind of personal thrust that can turn mediocre preachers into good preaching.
1Gordon Fee, and Douglas Stuart, How To Read the Bible For All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 73.
2Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 189.
3Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983), 13.
4For a discussion of the five different types of narrative sermon constructs possible, see John C. Holbert, Preaching Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991). Two narrative sermon samples are provided, complete with inserted comments to assist his reader.
5Leland Ryken, Words of Delight (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 43. Licht and Greidanus use similar facsimiles, though with some variation. See Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1979), 29; and Sidney Greidanus, The Modem Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 199.
8Licht, 29, 31.
12The narrator’s repetitive use of certain selective words should not be lost to the reader; words like “pregnant (vv. 3, 18, 24, 25); “conceived” (v. 4); “gave birth” (vv. 3, 4, 5, 27, 28); “firstborn” (vv. 6, 7); “offspring” (vv. 8, 9).
16See Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 70, 72; and Greidanus, The Modem Preacher and the Ancient Text, 202.