Magazine Article

Far More than Children’s Stories

Cherishing the inspired narratives of Scripture

Jo Ann Davidson
Far More than Children’s Stories
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

There is a wide range of literary styles employed by many different writers in the Bible. The biblical writers worked in many different centuries without collaboration with each other, yet their writings amazingly cohere. The writers use numerous literary conventions because no single literary form would be adequate to provide comprehensive expression of divine glory. The biblical canon is greater than the sum of its many parts.1 Some today treat biblical narratives as merely stories for children that can be left behind as one grows more intellectually sophisticated. But this results in a shallow consideration of narrative texts.

Biblical narratives have their own integrity and authenticity and deserve careful attention to their unique expression. Instead of being nice stories for children and merely “secondary materials” for mature readers, biblical narratives call for alert and informed readers. Though having a simple surface texture, they are very sophisticated writing—valuable for their historicity and brilliant theological expression. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the Author is divine and abounds in skill and grace! Thankfully biblical narratives are more and more appreciated for being well written and historically accurate.

Unparalleled in Ancient Times

Regarding their historical value, temporal scope, and persuasive strategy, biblical narratives have no parallel in ancient times. Alone among ancient texts, they present a people who kept their historical memory alive—recognizing that the past affected the present and determined the future.

Biblical writers used unique rules of discourse, often anchoring facts in aesthetic frameworks. It is this record that caused one distinguished historian to declare the Bible as “the greatest surprise in the whole story” of history writing. There emerged a people “possibly more obsessed with history than any other nation that has ever existed. . . . It was this historical memory which made Israel a people.”2 The people of Israel “stand alone amongst the people of the ancient world in having the story of their beginnings and their primitive state as clear as this in their folk-memory,” in creating the history of a nation and even of humanity itself.3 In short, “ancient Israel provides, therefore, a pocket-size example of the very rise of historiography.”4

The biblical canon, with it unprecedented scope, is now recognized as an important landmark in the development of history writing, including:

■ clarified customs.

■ ancient names and current sayings traced back to their origins.

■ monuments and decrees assigned concrete reasons and a slot in history.

■ persons, places, and pedigrees specified as if inviting the reader to check it out.

Scripture refers to other written records, such as the Book of Yashar or royal annals, because historicity matters. Writers anchored narratives in public and accessible traces of reality to undergird their veracity.

Unfolding Theology in Action

Narrative history thereby unfolds a theology in action—distinctly grounded in God’s providence and control, enjoining a remembrance of His wonders from Creation onward, including the Exodus from Egypt (an Old Testament focal point)—uniquely explaining the passing of time in reference to God’s covenantal relationship with His people. Hebrew writers wrote about real history. To the narrator, history is an affair between heaven and earth. God wants His creatures to know Him—biblical writers providing a long sequence of divinely inspired and historically valid narratives recording this. God is the author, the source and norm of truth who inspired the human writers. If we lose sight of this, we misunderstand the nature of biblical narratives, which provide inspired descriptions of what really happened.

Biblical narratives can be underread and overread, but should never be counter-read. The narrator always tells the truth and is straightforwardly reliable. Critics have tried to quarrel with the facts, with some calling the narratives fiction. But taken at face value, the narratives are accounts of truth communicated and recorded with highest authority. In terms of the internal established premises—and these alone must determine interpretation—readers cannot go far wrong if they do little more than follow the statements made and the incidents presented. Statements can be expressed in a cryptic manner, though, so it is important to be sensitive to possible implications.

Scripture’s narratives cover many issues, including how God deals with everyone, within the covenant line and outside of it, with the same standard of justice. This is seen through the repetition of key words and phrases, subtle comparisons, and even irony in the divine actions with different people and nations. The Bible’s verbal artistry, without precedent in ancient history and unrivaled since, operates with its own art and sequential linkages. We cannot separate the literary aspects from theology any more than we can separate word from thought. Every narrative breathes out a deliberate theological vision of reality. At its heart the Christian gospel itself is not an abstract system but a living story, which the divine Author often proclaims through narrative writing.

Paying Attention to Important Details

The nature of the parts, the vocabulary, and units are carefully governed by the whole biblical canon. Seemingly incidental details need to be noted with shrewd observation. Details apparently unnecessary earlier will become clear later. For example, the mention of Absalom cutting and weighing his hair seems extraneous—this detail regarding hair isn’t noted of David’s other sons. But later the significance of the detail becomes clear when Absalom’s hair gets caught in a tree—the lead-in to his death (2 Sam. 14:26; 18:8-14).

Such literary conventions as chiastic and panel structures highlight vital issues in the narrative as well. Careful study of biblical narratives is more than just an aesthetic study of craftsmanship, but not less than that. Of primary concern is to understand the truth of the text at a deeper level. Narrative texts do not come right out and announce their themes—hiding theology in plain sight.

Narrative sequences likewise aid interpretation. For example, Genesis covers approximately 2,500 years in 50 chapters—with the first two of those 50 chapters pausing over only seven days—an example of narrative time “slowing down”—indicating the importance of the Creator’s acts. Chapter 3 narrates the fall of Adam and Eve. The reader is not told how long they lived in Eden before they sinned. Instead, chapters 1 and 2 describe the “very good” world God created and chapter 3 suddenly presents the dreadful, all-encompassing, results of the Fall. This striking contrast reveals the deadly nature of sin.

Stories That Prepare Hearts and Minds

God, the Creator and Master Artist, chose to reveal Himself through a sacred story that resembles more the imaginative works of epic poets and tragedians than the rational abstract materials of philosophers and theologians. The gospel story spreads its light both forward and backward to connect and inform all biblical narratives, speaking of messianic promise and eschatological hope, of redemption and reconciliation. Through psalms and prophets, as well as the “epic” tales of the Old Testament—Abraham’s long circuitous journey, Joseph and his brothers, the Passover and Exodus—the divine Author, using poets, storytellers, and prophets, sought to instruct and prepare hearts and minds of people for salvation in Christ.5

The extraordinary technical inventiveness of the ancient Hebrew writers is increasingly acknowledged and extolled—including how biblical texts refer to other biblical texts. The way Hebrew writers allude to other biblical verses connects the texts together with an amazing, overarching unity.

Narrative writers often describe rather than state truths. For example, instead of providing abstract propositions about virtue or vice, narratives depict people in action. The commandment “You shall not murder” is propositional and direct. Far earlier, the narrative of Cain and Abel embodies the same truth without even using the word “murder.”

The extraordinary technical inventiveness of the ancient Hebrew writers include repetition (a major tool for underscoring a vital issue) and dialogue. Narrative dialogues are a vital key for understanding biblical narratives. Rarely involving more than two persons, the recorded dialogues often furnish a major insight into what the narrative is about. For example, the first chapter of the book of Job is a dialogue between God and Satan providing background to what happens to Job, and why. In Genesis 3 the dialogues of the Creator with Adam and Eve after their sin indicate the deadly nature of sin. In Genesis 4 God’s dialogues with Cain right after Cain murders his brother—assuring that God seeks to save the lost! Intriguing also is Abraham’s dialogue with God over the fate of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20-23), as well as Moses’ numerous dialogues with God.

The Story of Jonah

In the book of Jonah the reader doesn’t discover the real reason Jonah refused to go to Nineveh at first until the last chapter through the dialogue of Jonah and God. There Jonah finally admits that he knew God would be merciful with Israel’s archenemy. In the concluding verses of the book, Jonah is reminded by God that His compassion and mercy are not divine flaws—and even extend to animals (Jonah 4:11)!

The narrator pays much more attention to the problematic character of Jonah than the violent practices of Nineveh—recording more of Jonah’s rebellion than Nineveh’s wickedness. The four chapters of the book thus highlight God’s boundless mercy to pagan sailors, violent Ninevites, and even to the petulant prophet himself in spite of his callous disobedience. Moreover, Jonah tries to hide from God’s presence (just as Adam, Eve, and Cain had earlier)—recalling sin’s appalling nature (Gen. 2:8; 4:9-16; Jonah 1:2, 10).

There are no textual indicators that the book of Jonah is a parable or anything but a true historical record. However, because of the obedient fish, worm, and wind, critics of Jonah’s book do not accept it as true history.6 Yet the opening words—“And it came to pass”—are used in many biblical narratives that are not questioned regarding their historicity.

More Than a Book

The God of heaven has authored a book! But truly it is more than a book. The biblical canon is not some disjointed collection of miscellaneous documents. Through its many writers and narratives we are confronted with an omnipotent God who is in earnest to communicate His ways and love to human beings, whom He loves more than His own life. The biblical canon has a power all its own. God awaits us in His text—the narratives being a major aspect of this holy historical record.

1 There are letters (Jer. 29); royal edicts (Ezra 1); songs (Isa. 5); sermons (Deut.), court records (2 Sam. 20:23-26), liturgical rubrics (Lev. 6), parables (2 Sam. 12), allusions to ancient Near Eastern myths (Isa. 51:9), genealogies (1 Chron. 1-9), codes of moral teaching (Ex. 20), accounts of battles (2 Kings 23), love songs (S. of Sol.), historical data (2 Kings 14:26-28), and especially numerous narratives.

2 Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of History (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 80-82.

3 Ibid., p. 94.

4 Ibid., p. 95.

5 Ellen White eloquently addresses this issue: “The study of the Bible demands our most diligent effort and persevering thought. As the miner digs for the golden treasure in the earth, so earnestly, persistently, must we seek for the treasure of God’s Word” (Education [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903], p. 189).

6 For a fuller consideration of the Jonah narrative, see Jo Ann Davidson, Jonah, the Inside Story (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2003).

Jo Ann Davidson

Jo Ann Davidson is a senior research professor of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.