THE PROBLEM WITH OLD TESTAMENT NARRATIVE
If the average person were to find a newspaper from fifty years ago and read through it, what they would find would perhaps be interesting, but not life changing. Imagine going back farther in time, even thousands of years ago, and reading accounts of people and events. Certainly these people and events would be interesting as well, but to make a connection or establish any relevance to modern times would be hard for many people to do. Sadly, many Christians tend to view the Old Testament narrative accounts in the same fashion. Interesting, yes, but truly relevant, no. Even for those who attempt to use OT narratives in a relevant manner often end up falling into the trap of moralism, in which a “do this” and “do not do this” manner of interpretation is the overall byproduct. Are counselors today limited to the New Testament and Psalms/Proverbs in helping counselees address problems in living? Are the OT narratives best suited for providing a historical background to the NT, or is there a better way in which counselors can truly help counselees through use of the entire Bible, including OT narratives? While there certainly are challenges counselors need to consider when using OT narrative, the problem with OT narrative lies not in the genre itself, but in a lack of understanding of how it ties in with the rest of Scripture. A proper understanding of the genre and methods of interpretation can help counselors make full use of the genre, thus helping both the counselor and counselee see the sufficiency and relevance of Scripture to daily living.
To begin, a working definition of narrative should be established. Quite simply, a narrative is a story, and in the case of narrative in Scripture, true. A more technical definition is that narrative is “a literary form characterized by sequential time action and involving plot, setting, and characters.” According to Robert Stein, narrative makes up around forty percent of the OT, which means understanding the rules regarding proper interpretation is critical. What are some of the specific challenges to OT narrative and why are they not used as much in counseling as other genres, such as the epistles? Sidney Greidanus helpfully offers four categories of “difficulties” that relate to OT narrative. These difficulties are, “historical-cultural, theological, ethical, and practical.” To help counselors work through the difficulties associated with narrative passages, interpretive rules and guidelines need to be established.
Before more specific rules and guidelines concerning narrative are discussed, the larger picture of how counselors view the relationship the Old and New Testaments must first be considered. In the big picture of hermeneutics, issues and questions concerning “the nature of interpretation itself: what it involves, what its presuppositions and criteria are, what its foundations need to be, and how it affects the practice of interpretation and its results” need answered before the counselor looks at the text itself. The two main views on biblical hermeneutics are the historical-grammatical and the redemptive-historical. Space does not permit an exhaustive comparison or discussion on the two views, but some things need be said.
The historical-grammatical method seeks to study “the biblical text, or any other text, in its original historical context and seeking the meaning its author(s) most likely intended for its original audience(s) or addresses based on the grammar and syntax.” The focus of it is on the historical setting and message for the audience to whom it was written. What the method does not do is “Read New Testament readings back into Old Testament texts…. It does not try to make all of Scripture ‘preach Christ’ unless there is historical and contextual evidence for doing so. It tends not to raise questions of contemporary significance, application or contextualization, or locate a biblical passage in the flow of redemptive history.” There is benefit in the historical-grammatical method, and aspects of it should be utilized. For instance, the grammar, syntax, structure, historical context, and meaning to the original audience needs to be understood. Along with the good, one must consider the shortcomings. The historical-grammatical method does not adequately consider the Bible as one unified book of God’s revelation, seeing it rather like 66 individual books in the whole canon. The method also fails to do just diligence to the apostle’s hermeneutical method of bringing out Christ and God’s redemptive plan in the Old Testament. The apostles are seen as interpreting OT texts on the basis of their apostolic authority and divine inspiration, rather than proper exegesis. While the historical-grammatical method has value, a more accurate hermeneutic would add what the historical-grammatical method lacks.
The redemptive-historical method works well in incorporating the overall theme of the Bible and God’s redemptive work into the narrative passage. While not dismissing the importance of the meaning of a text to the original audience, the method places the main focus on the center of redemption, Jesus Christ. Graeme Goldsworthy puts it this way:
If the biblical story is true, Christ is the only savior for humankind for humankind and there is room for no other way to God. If the story is true, Jesus Christ is the interpretive key to every fact in the universe, and of course, the Bible is one such fact. He is thus the hermeneutic principle that applies first to the Bible as the ground for understanding, and also to the whole of reality. Interpreting reality correctly is a by-product of salvation. Thus we must assert that the person and work of Jesus Christ are foundational for evangelical hermeneutics.
The Bible then tells the story of God’s redemptive plan starting in Genesis and continuing through Revelation. The framework of the redemptive-historical method “treats each text’s and epoch’s distinctiveness with integrity and at the same time does justice to the progressively unfolding clarity by which God sustained his people’s hopes for the redemption that has now arrived in Jesus.” Jay Adams notes that if a sermon would be acceptable to a Jew or Unitarian, then it is lacking, for Christ would not be at its center. Even though Adams specifically mentions sermons, he also makes it clear that what applies to preaching also applies to counseling. Through the redemptive-historical method, moralism is avoided, as the focus on the text is to see the work of God rather than a moral lesson to follow or avoid. Daniel Doriani explains, “The central character in every Bible story is God, and some aspect of his redemptive purpose attaches to the main theme of every narrative. Therefore, while interpreters rightly draw moral lessons from biblical history, theological lessons should come first.” While avoiding a moralistic reading has been applauded, the redemptive-historical method has been charged with “reading the book backwards,” which is to say reading the NT back into the OT. Should the Bible be read “in order”? Should the NT be brought in at all when reading OT narratives? Johnson replies in answer to the charge that the redemptive-historical method incorrectly reads the NT back in, that:
Precisely because we are aware that the Old Testament text, ‘standing on its own,’ leaves so many crucial questions unanswered and ‘loose ends untied,’ we must follow the apostles example, within the methodological boundaries established by the apostolic canon, to show our hearers the One who is the End of the Story, and the Solution to all the riddles. Reading the Bible’s story “backward,” allowing the light of Jesus to illuminate the shadows that anticipated his saving mission and showed its contours in rough outline before his incarnation, does not “flatten” the topography of biblical revelation…
Both the historical-grammatical and redemptive-historical methods have value. Rather than completely rejecting one in favor of the other, the best aspects of both can be combined in biblical interpretation. G. K. Beale explains, “I would argue that that this broad redemptive-historical perspective was the dominant framework within which Jesus and the New Testament writers thought…” Beale then goes on to explain that while the historical-grammatical method has value in examining the immediate literary context of OT verses, it is not enough and the redemptive-historical aspect must also be considered. The important thing to remember is that while Scripture is inerrant, the hermeneutic method is not. This does not mean that the meaning of the text is out of reach or unattainable, but it does mean that interpreters must be willing to adjust their methodology when necessary so they can become more faithful and accurate interpreters of Scripture. Note that this does not mean a postmodern approach to the text where the reader controls the meaning is needed, nor any dismissal of the inerrancy and infallibility of it either. However, a danger lies in the interpreter making the interpretation process “mechanical,” meaning the assumption of a correct interpretation is guaranteed if steps A through X are followed. Jonathan Pennington points out that, “This danger is a paradox in that, while we can and should develop our skill set to being competent readers of Scripture, this method and these skills can distract us from focusing on the most important thing, reading the Bible as Holy Scripture.” Pennington further explains that:
Unfortunately the scientific methods that we have developed in recent centuries tend to ‘objectify the text’-that is, they turn the biblical materials into an object to be examined.’ Rather than emphasizing a separation and distance between us and the texts of Scripture-a distance that can be transcended only by an elaborate set of exegetical tools-we must come to see that the biggest difference is our lack of knowing and loving God; the real divide is between us and God in the text.
While not all readers will totally agree with Pennington, his point is that interpreters should be willing to examine their hermeneutical methods, and adjust them to better understand and love God. In summary, the method that the counselor uses should be the one that is most faithful to understanding the biblical text, rather than the method that best fits the counselor’s personal theology or tradition. Both the grammatical-historical and redemptive-historical methods have value and can be adapted for best obtaining the meaning of the passage in historical and redemptive history, and for use in the personal ministry of counseling.
After having a big picture understanding of hermeneutics and how it applies to OT narrative, more specifics in the process of interpretation are needed. Michael Emlet suggests a three-step approach with understanding a passage in its original context, then understanding the passage in the larger context of redemptive history, and finally going into application. Similarly, Greidanus argues for first understanding the passage in the historical context in which it is located, for, “Only after we have heard a passage the way Israel hears it can we move on to understanding this message in the broad contexts of the whole canon and the whole of redemptive history.” Within the historical context the type of genre, author’s intended meaning to the original hearers, and theocentric (God revealing aspect) are taken into consideration. Context is important because “Since a biblical narrative is always part of a larger narrative, the author assumes that his readers will seek to discover the meaning of a particular narrative in light of the overall meaning of the book.” As passages are considered in the context of the chapter they are in, and then in turn the context of the book, and finally in context of the whole canon, the temptation to rip verses out of their proper context and misapply them will be greatly reduced. Since narratives are usually more than several verses, simply reading the entire story rather than only a few lines will help counselors give a context to the point they are making with counselees. Besides the narrative itself, counselors should explain the reason the book was written, and how that particular narrative would fit in with the theme.
The authors of the biblical narratives also provide contextual clues to the readers in order to help them see the intended meaning. For instance, Stein indentifies introductions and conclusions of the narrative passages as clues for what to expect to come and summaries of what has happened. Other clues that counselors should look for in understanding the passage as meant to the original audience are comments and summaries by the author of the narrative, who often seems to be an unseen character in the story, possessing knowledge and insight that others in the narrative do not have. Besides watching for comments and summaries, Stein calls for readers to look for repetition, proportion, authoritative speakers, and dialogue within the narrative. All of these clues help counselors to see the author’s main point in the passage. One major issue still remains in determining the meaning, however. While it is clear that the narrator is telling a true story, the question arises of whether or not the author intended every part of the story to be followed and obeyed. For example, are accounts describing polygamous marriages suppose to be obeyed? Is the invasion of foreign lands justified because there are accounts of the same in Scripture? Counselors need to remember that the narrative contains both prescriptive and descriptive aspects. Prescriptive aspects should be followed, but descriptive aspects do not always need to be.
After the meaning to the original audience is attained, the narrative must be understood in light of the whole canon and redemptive history. Counselees cannot be “left” in the OT, since redemptive history has moved to the cross and towards the final end. While it is true that many narratives do not specifically reference Christ or his work, “No text exists in isolation from other texts or from the overarching biblical message.” This means that narrative is related to redemption and Christ, and these aspects need to be addressed concerning the passage. Even when the context of the passage does not specifically mention Christ or his work, every passage does contain something on the predictive work of Christ, preparation for the coming Christ, reflections on the need for redemption or God’s basis for it, or results of God’s grace and love in the lives of people. There are several valid ways to move from the OT passage to its relationship to Christ, and then to application. Greidanus gives a number of these ways, including redemptive-historical progression, promise-fulfillment, typology, analogy, longitudinal themes, New Testament references, and contrast. The Fallen Condition Focus is another valid way, in that it focuses on the similar human condition between the original audience and the modern hearer. Since the human condition has not changed, there is always a spiritual need in the passage for God’s redemptive grace. Indentifying what the passage says, what the concerns that the passage addresses, and what similarities the modern reader shares with the original will help the counselor bring out biblical truth that matches the meaning to the original audience in their current setting and redemptive history, as well as application for the counselee.
Greidanus gives some questions that counselors should be able to answer to help understand the passage in light of the canon and redemptive history. For example, “What does the passage mean in the context of the whole Bible? In light of Jesus Christ? And what does it reveal about Jesus Christ?” Chapel includes two other questions that are relevant to counselors in, “What does this text reveal of God’s nature that provides redemption? What does this text reflect of human nature that requires redemption?”
At this point, it would be helpful to see how the framework and method described above would specifically work in a given OT narrative passage to help a counselee. Suppose the counselee came in, and data gathering indicated he or she was caught up in personal sin and struggling to have any hope of a positive outcome. Many counselees can be so caught up in the dirtiness and messiness of sin that it seems nothing good could come from the situation. One passage that could be used in counseling here is Genesis 38. At first glance, counselors probably would skirt away from using this story because of the sexual details and the unfamiliarity of how this story fits in this particular place in Genesis. When the story and its place are understood however, counselors will be able to see how useful it really is.
First, the meaning to the original audience must be considered. This particular account of Judah and Tamar is in the context of the story of Joseph, almost seeming to interrupt it. As counselors and counselees read the text, counselors want to make sure counselees are following what happens. The Lord kills Judah’s sons for their wickedness, and Judah’s daughter-in-law ends up becoming pregnant by Judah after he lies to her about giving her his last son in marriage. Counselees may need to be reminded of Judah from the previous chapter, in which his plan to rescue Joseph was deflated after his brother sold Joseph while Judah was away. Before the book of Genesis goes any further with Joseph’s life, it switches to look at his brother’s. Certain themes and elements of the account are very visible, such as deceit, lying, sexual immorality, the emphasis on children, and judgment. Both Judah and Tamar are shown to be people who are deceptive, manipulators, and liars who become twisted up in their own sin, and well as the sin of others. The lack of reference to God is also very apparent. Before going deeper into the passages, counselors may wish to ask counselees if they can identify the familiar themes of the text in the passage, and to make sure they have the proper understanding of the importance of children in the OT.
Next, counselors will want to go deeper in the passage to examine the elements of the account. Judah starts off by taking a Canaanite wife for himself, and then later for his firstborn son. Counselors will want to explain the significant of this action, in light of God calling Abraham and his descendants to be a separate people, and in light of the tendencies of the Canaanites to draw God’s people into idolatry and away from God. Just as Esau earlier married a Canaanite, thus displeasing his parents, Judah does likewise. The counselee should know that even though the narrator does not speak directly against Judah’s action, the emphasis he places on it serves to warn readers of the consequences that will follow. The story then turns to Judah’s sons who are killed by the Lord for their disobedience. Onan’s selfishness should be noted, in that he was concerned for his own inheritance and family name above his brother’s, and even willing to sin to try to keep what was most important to him. Counselees may need to know why the firstborn was seen as such a high priority and position, and about the custom in which a brother would marry his brother’s widow and have children with her, so that her family could continue. These details can be summed up in a few minutes, rather than in an hour-long discussion. The important details of verses 6-10 include the selfishness of Onan and his deceptiveness in pretending to be fulfilling his task in public, but in private refusing to do so. The judgment of the Lord on sin can also be explained, as well as the grace of the Lord for not bringing instant judgment that would be fair for all sin.
Following the death of Onan, Judah and Tamar’s reactions need to be covered. Judah lies to Tamar in promising her his only remaining son, and then failing to give him to her when he is of age. Tamar will do anything to have a son, and so she disguises herself as a prostitute and sets a “trap” for Judah. Judah’s selfishness and self-concern is now evident, as he unfairly treats Tamar as the reason for the death of his sons, and then refuses to do what he promised in order to try to keep his last son alive. Now on a journey, Judah is looking for sexual pleasure after the death of his wife. Ironically, the same one he deceived, Tamar, deceives him, thus revealing the destructive nature of sin. Judah makes a promise to bring her a present, and in the attempt to fulfill his promise, the reader is reminded of the missing absence of God in Judah’s life as the prostitute is referred to as a “cult” prostitute (even though she really is not one). Judah then is more likely to engage in an intimate relationship with a “cult” prostitute” in a pagan religion, than in relationship with the Lord in true religion. Judah’s self-righteousness is seen as he quickly condemns Tamar for her immorality when it is discovered she is pregnant. Judah sees his sin revealed to himself as Tamar gives Judah back his own identifiers as the father of her child. He then recognizes that she is more righteous than he is, even though he is an “insider” in the family of God and she is not. The story seems to end with the birth of Perez and Zerah, but the narrator’s emphasis indicates there is more to come.
So far counselees should be able to relate to the common fallen human condition of Judah and Tamar. Lying, deceptiveness, selfishness, and consequences of sin can be familiar talking points with counselees dealing with the same sins. A helpful comparison can be made between Judah and Joseph in character and action, to show counselees how the character of a godly Joseph stands out in light of the sins of those around him, and that disobedience to God does not have to be the result of difficult circumstances. For instance, Judah gave into sexual immorality and was a victimizer, while Joseph displayed sexual morality and was a victim. Helping counselees see that they are not the only people caught up in a mess of sin is an application of the passage as well. Even with all the sinful elements and drama in the passage, there is still more to examine for the point of the account was not just to show how sinful people are.
As the story of Joseph progresses, Judah becomes the brother who intercedes for the others, thus displaying a change in his life since his sin with Tamar. The book of Genesis ends with the expectation of God visiting Jacob’s family in Egypt and fulfilling his promise to them of the Promised Land. Blessings are given to each one of Jacob’s sons, and Judah is especially singled out in Genesis 49:8-12, which promises the descendants of Judah future power and royalty. Honor and respect are given the tribe of Judah throughout the Bible, especially as the promises for Judah are realized in King David and eventually fully fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Perez, son of Judah and Tamar, appears in the genealogies of Ruth (4:18-22), 1 Chron. 2:5, 9-15; and then in Matt. 1:3-17 in the genealogy of Christ. To the audiences of the OT, the greatness of Judah is balanced by seeing how flawed Judah as a person was, and how great the Lord is to have used such a sinful man. The hope of the sinful future readers of the story of Judah in the OT lies in the God who extends grace to them and does not forget them either. Herein lies hope for the counselee as well, that the sinfulness of people does not stop the plans of God, even when it seems they have really messed up their lives. No one, not even an outsider of the people of God, is too far beyond God’s grace and mercy. The use of analogy makes the display of Christ from this passage perfectly legitimate, even though the passage does not mention him directly. The analogy would compare God’s use of a sinful Judah in the OT to his use of sinful people in the NT ( and by implication the church today), and would show how God uses disobedient people to fulfill his purposes. Even as God seems to be absent from the story, he still is working things out behind the scenes for good (Rom. 8), and counselees can be comforted in knowing that God is at work in their sin even when they do not see it.
While there is a great deal of example that can be given counselees in the nature and blindness of sin, the narrative should not and does not have to be turned into a “Don’t be like Judah” study. Counselees need to see the greatness of God’s grace even in the worst of situations and sin, so that they can turn to the Lord with hope. In terms of application, counselees can be asked to identify similar sins and lusts in their hearts and lives, and then the effects. For example, “Where do you see selfishness in this passage? How does it affect the people in the story? Can you identify any selfishness like this in your life? How does it affect those in your life?” Of course, identifying the sin of the counselee is not enough. The next challenge is to show counselees how their identity in Christ should change the way they live. For instance, “In light of Judah’s family and calling by God, how should he have acted in this story? As part of God’s family, how would God have you to act in your situation? What enables you to live in this new way?” Counselors need to be specific in application, as they help counselees specifically see how they should now live and change in light of God’s grace and forgiveness. Four questions that should be answered are “What does God now require of me? Where does he require it of me? Why must I do what he requires? How can I do what God requires?” When counselors walk through the specifics of these, they help counselees see where and how they need to change.
In conclusion, OT narrative passages are a critical part of the counselor’s toolbox. The proper and actual use of OT narrative will help both the counselor and counselee see the sufficiency and relevance of all of Scripture to daily living. Narrative passages engage the counselee and help them to see their sin and circumstances in ways that other types of genres cannot do. Narratives also are easily remembered, thus serving to help counselees implement long-term change. Both counselors and counselees will benefit from using OT narrative in counseling.
J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 306.
Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 79.
Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 22.
Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell, “Introduction,” in Biblical Hermeneutics Five Views, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 11.
Ibid., Craig L. Bloomberg, “The Historical-Critical/Grammatical View,” 27.
Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2006), 48.
Dennis E Johnson, Him We Proclaim (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 49.
Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 147.
Daniel M. Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 86-7.
Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 160.
G. K. Beale, “Positive Answer to the Question,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, ed. G.K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 394.
Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 137.
Michael R. Emlet, Cross Talk (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2009), 101.
Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 228.
Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting, 87.
Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting, 89.
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 275.
Greidanus, Preaching Christ, 235-277.
Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 270.
Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 284.
Richard L. Pratt, He Gave Us Stories (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1993), 216.
Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 214.