How to Study the Bible: Old Testament Narratives

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(The following is a modified version of the How to Study the Bible post.) 

The Bible is a complex collection of literature featuring different genres (poetry, history, parables, apocalyptic literature, wisdom literature, etc) all telling one unified story. Because of this, we need to equip ourselves to discern what genre we’re reading, and how to reflect and respond accordingly. 

Old Testament narratives can be confusing or intimidating whether you’re brand new to the Bible or have been following Jesus for a while. Here are some helpful pointers as you study these Old Testament stories.

1 - Remember the Bible is one unified story

While it’s easy to dismiss parts of the Bible that feel less accessible to us, it’s important to know that the Bible tells us of one grand story. If we miss out on the Old Testament we miss out on the richness of the story. And because the Bible is one grand story, God’s character stays consistent from Old to New Testament - He’s not angry in one and then loving in another. Likewise, Jesus loved the Old Testament and meditated on it daily. To dismiss the Old Testament is to dismiss one of the primary tools Jesus used in His spiritual formation (Luke 2:52, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

2 - Know the difference between descriptive and prescriptive passages

Biblical authors will often communicate historical events as a way to describe what’s going on, not necessarily to commend or condemn those events. This is what’s known as a descriptive passage. 

The question then becomes, what do I do with a descriptive passage? To determine this we look at the surrounding context of the passage and we allow the clearer prescriptive passages to unpack the confusing, descriptive passages.

A couple of helpful resources on this are “Character in Bible Narrative” by The Bible Project and Norman Geisler’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties.

3 - Know the original purpose of the passage

Every book of the Bible was written for a particular people in a particular place. So while the passage is communicating history, there’s also an underlying theology and themes the author wants to communicate to the audience.

Our job is to determine the original meaning of the passage and then apply it to our lives, (known as exegesis.) Conversely, we don’t want to impose our own ideas/cultural interpretations onto a passage and force the passage to mean something it actually doesn’t, (known as eisegesis.) 

The questions we’re looking for are: who’s the author? When was this written? What’s the purpose of the book? What’s the context of when this book was written? (Some helpful resources on this are The ESV Study Bible and The Bible Project.)

4 - Look for examples, whether positive or negative

As you read and reflect on an Old Testament narrative, pay attention to what the characters in the story are thinking/saying/doing. These historical characters are personifying what it looks like to live either in submission or in rebellion to God's will. So our job as the reader is to figure out what we can learn based on what they did (or didn’t do).

At the same time, we don’t sell the text short by only looking for a historical morality lesson. These hundreds of characters are part of a bigger meta-narrative leading us to the main character, which brings us to the last point. 

5 - Ask how it points to Jesus

In Luke 24:27, Jesus tells us that all of the Old Testament points to Him. Jesus is there at the beginning of creation (Gen 1:1, John 1:1), He’s the promised Snake Crusher (Genesis 3:15, 1 John 3:8), He’s from the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:7, Galatians 3:16), He’s from the line of King David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalm 110:1, Matthew 22:44). So we want to always make sure to read the Old Testament with a Christo-centric lens, making sure to both see the passage in its original context while also noting how it ultimately culminates in the person and work of Jesus. (A helpful resource on this is the Gospel-Transformation Study Bible.)

Reflection questions to ask:

  • What does this passage reveal to us about people?

    • Does this narrative provide a positive or negative example?

  • What does this passage reveal to us about God?

    • How does this narrative point me to Jesus’/God’s redemptive work in history?

Respond questions to ask:

  • What’s this passage calling me to do today?

    • Is there a negative example to warn me of?

    • Is there a positive example to follow?

    • How does God’s redemptive work in the story move me to follow Him more closely today?

  • What’s this passage calling me to pray for today?

Other helpful resources on studying the Old Testament:

Anthology sermon series | Anthology Leader Resources

“Plot in Biblical Narrative” The Bible Project

“Character in Biblical Narrative” The Bible Project

“Setting in Biblical Narrative” The Bible Project

“Design Patterns in Biblical Narrative” The Bible Project