A New Guide to the Old Testament – Reading Old Testament Stories

A New Guide to the Old TestamentLast time in our journey through the Old Testament, we looked at how Christians can benefit from reading the Old Testament. This week, I wanted to go a little deeper, by looking at how Christians should read the Old Testament narrative stories.

How do Christians read the Old Testament narratives?

Christians read—and apply—the Old Testament narratives in a few ways.

  • Descriptive – This view sees the Old Testament stories as describing historical events. For 21st-century Christians, these stories show the attributes of God, as he works in human history on behalf on His people.
  • Prescriptive – In this view, the narrative describes how people served and obeyed God in history. The people of God worship Him and follow Torah; when they sin, they repent. For 21st-century Christians, these stories provide examples to follow—the heroes of faith described in Hebrews 11.

Prescriptive or descriptive?

So which way is correct? As Christian readers of the Old Testament, how should we interpret the Old Testament narratives? Should they be descriptive or prescriptive?

Both.

It is slightly more complicated than having a heading at the start of each chapter saying The following story is prescriptive. It takes some thinking—the technical theological word is hermeneutics—to see how a Christian should apply an Old Testament narrative.

Tips for Interpreting Old Testament Narrative

Here are a few questions you can ask about a narrative to help you figure out whether a story should be taken as descriptive or prescriptive:

Is it sin?

This should hopefully be the easiest question to answer: does the story involve sinning against God? If so, then it’s safe to say you shouldn’t do it. For example: David sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah (2 Samuel 11) should not be something we follow. But his repentance toward God in 2 Samuel 12:13 should be.

Is it a miracle?

In the Old Testament narratives there are some amazing ways that God worked to save His people. These stories are best described as descriptive, since they show God’s mercy and deliverance of His treasured possession.

Yes, God still works in miraculous ways here in the 21st century; but often it can look quite different than in the Old Testament stories. Plus, remember it is God who did the miracles, not humans. So don’t try to replicate something that only God can do!

What is the context?

When studying the Bible, context is vitally important. This is especially true in determining whether a story is descriptive or prescriptive. For the Old Testament, much of the narrative context is the nation of Israel. They are God’s treasured possession, His people with whom He sets a covenant and a law system. Stories set in this national context—like the conquest of Canaan or stoning lawbreakers—must remain in this context; they describe a certain people at a certain time. However, we can see from these stories the importance of holiness and the devastating, life-draining effects of sin.

Does Jesus change this?

Finally, as Christians we read the Old Testament with the climax in mind—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So when we read stories of sacrifices to atone for sins, we must recognize that the narrative describes a former way to God that Jesus ended with His own perfect sacrifice. These stories are important for Christians to see God’s journey to redeem mankind from our sins, but they are not the complete story.

Conclusion

Think through these four questions the next time you read an Old Testament narrative; they should help you determine whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive. In turn, this will help you—as a 21st-century Christian reader—better see how God worked in and through His people in the Old Testament stories.

And as for the Old Testament laws? Well, we will leave that discussion for another post.

Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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