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This topic is adapted from the Bible Project YouTube channel. This is part 5 of the How to Read the Bible series.

The Bible contains different genres of literature that should inform how we read it at points. A poem is not the same as a letter which is not the same as a law code! In this topic, learn how to read biblical narratives.

Video Highlights:

  • The basic elements of narratives (stories) are characters, settings, and events. This is true in books, movies and TV, and biblical narratives, too. Biblical narratives are about people doing things in places. How the events are selected and arranged by the author of the narrative is called “plot.”
  • A basic plot begins with a person in his or her setting, and then something happens that calls them out of this “normalcy.” This causes problems that lead to an ultimate conflict, or “climax” of the story, which is then followed by the “falling action” or “resolution” which leads to the conclusion or end of the story, where the character returns to a “new normal” as a person changed by the events in the story.
  • This holds true for stories we enjoy today. For example, in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is “called” out of his “normal life” when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells him that he must learn to be a Jedi Knight like his father and that they must rescue Princess Leia. The events ultimately lead up to the battle at the Death Star (the climax) where Luke succeeds by destroying the Death Star and is changed, returning to a “new normal” life in which he is now a battle-hardened hero in the Rebel Alliance.
  • Scenes must be understood in the context of the larger plot. A story can seem to have a very different point if you don’t know what is happening, when, and why in a narrative – and this happens all the time when people read the Bible. Why? Because they haven’t learned how to read the Bible!
  • Consider the beginning of the story of Gideon (Judges 6). Gideon asks for a sign from God about what he should do about Israel’s oppressors, the Midianites, and leaves out a wool fleece to discern God’s will. If we only read the end of Judges 6 without looking at the rest of Gideon’s story (the beginning of Judges 6 as well as Judges 7-8), we would conclude that the story of Gideon is about devising ways to test God by using objects to discern his will. While this is a plot point within Gideon’s story, it is not the point of Gideon’s story, and if you walk away from Judges 6 thinking you need to purchase a wool fleece to learn God’s will, you have missed the point of this biblical narrative. In fact, by this time Gideon has already been given two clear signs from God that he was being called to deliver Israel from the Midianites.
  • Gideon doesn’t trust God, and that’s the plot conflict of the beginning of his story. If anything, this story is a cautionary tale about how we should not test God, not a formula for ways to test God. And if you only read the end of Judges 6, you may come away from the story thinking that is the goal. The real conflict of the story is: when will Gideon stop testing and start trusting God?

This same principle applies to all narratives within the Bible, and it even applies to the big narrative of the whole Bible, where all the smaller stories link together to point to the ultimate story climax – Jesus Christ.

[Related: What is the Story of the Bible?]

Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. What are some of your favorite stories? Why do you enjoy them?
  4. What are some ways people often misread stories?
  5. What did you think of the story of Gideon and fleece before watching this video? After?
  6. How does the story of Gideon apply to our lives today?
  7. How does the story of Gideon help you understand how to read biblical narratives?
  8. Why is it important to understand that the Bible contains different types of literature? Explain.
  9. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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