Narratives are stories, and most of the Bible uses these stories. They are trying to tell us something. Historical narratives are ways of retelling the past to make sense of the present in a specific intentional way. When we read these stories in the Bible, they are actually operating on three layers. There are three layers of meaning being communicated. There is not some secret, hidden, or uniquely personal meaning. Nor is there a moral lesson to be learned. Instead, there are three distinct but deeply related layers of meaning present within biblical narratives.
The first layer concerns the immediate stories of the individual characters. Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain with a stack of wood but no ram. I will refer to this as the immediate layer.
The second layer is about how later and especially New Testament texts interact with and interpret these immediate layer stories. For example, Matthew 2:15 interacts with and interprets Hosea 11. This concerns the interaction with and fulfillment of the old covenant by the new covenant. I will refer to this layer as the covenantal layer.
The third and deepest layer of meaning that biblical narratives are telling us is God's plan for restoring all of creation to its intended glory. This plan was not fully revealed to Abraham, for example, who believed and had faith that God would faithfully keep his promises, because revelation and history progress towards Christ at their center. I will refer to this layer as the metanarrative layer.
The immediate layer is the many smaller narratives of individuals and groups. These narratives are the material that are used by the covenantal and metanarrative layers. The immediate layer can be a simple story about a single individual or a compound narrative of a string of people like that of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph found in Genesis.
To make sense of this layer, there are five features to which we should pay attention. In trying to make sense of these stories, we need to first flesh out each of these five features.
The first of these features is the narrator. The narrator, although unmentioned in the text, is the person who chooses what to tell us. In biblical narratives, the narrator is 'omniscient,' knowing everything about the story. The narrator does not share all of that or even usually comment on the unfolding story. He often wants to draw you into the story so that you see things for yourself.
The narrator also provides the story's divine point of view. We can learn about God's point of view directly as when the phrase "the LORD was with Joseph" gets repeated fourteen times in the Genesis 39. More often, however, this point of view is disclosed through one of the characters. For example, at the end of the narrative in Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells the reader through his reply to his brothers "You [brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
The second of these features are the scenes. Biblical narratives work through scene changes not character development per se. In this way, biblical narratives are a lot like movies or plays. The story gets told through a succession of scenes. Each scene is its own, but it is the action that happens through successive scenes that tells the story. Consider the way the scenes of Genesis 37 work:
Scene 1: Joseph tells on his brothers who hate him because he is their father's favorite son.
Scenes 2 & 3: Joseph has two outrageously tactless dreams that setup the next scene.
Scene 4: Joseph looks for his brothers but does not find them. This pauses the action to create a dramatic entrance in pivotal Scene 5 and to let us know that the timings of Scene 5 are divinely planned. If we miss the connection between the dramatic pause and divine plan the first time through the story, when we remember the oft-repeated "the LORD was with Joseph" phrase in Genesis 39 or the aforementioned conclusion in 50:20 the next time we read through the story, we will get it then.
Scene 5: This is a composite scene in which Joseph enters. His brothers plot to kill him. The Midianites arrive. Interwoven is Reuben and Judah's guilt and plan to sell him.
Scene 6: Joseph ends up in Egypt as the servant of a well-to-do royal official.
Each scene is its own, but they really need to be read in sequential order and all the way through in order to get the story's plotline.
Because these stories are told through scenes, there are not usually many characters involved. So, each character usually counts, but as in Orwell's Animal Farm, some count for more than others. The protagonist or main character often faces an antagonist who is working against him. The agonists are the benchwarmers who come in and out of the story to interact with these two.
Unlike movies, biblical narratives do not dwell on external appearances. When you do run across a physical description, it is almost always important. Instead, these stories use status, profession, and group membership to flesh out characters. Consequently, character development does not occur through the narrator's descriptions but through the actions and words of the characters themselves especially the protagonist. Think about how we learn about the character development of our protagonist Joesph in Genesis 37-50. In the opening scene, Joseph is a spoiled brat. By the end of the story, he is wise, faithful, humble, and loving. We hear that from his words and see that from his actions not the narrator's descriptions.
Secondly, characters are often presented in parallel or by contrast. When they are in parallel, one is usually a reenactment or fulfillment of the other. These instances like John the Baptist being a reenacting of Elijah tell us a lot at the covenantal layer of meaning. You can see a great example of this if you read the first two chapters of 1 Samuel and then the first two chapters of Luke. Hannah is reenacted by Mary.
More often, however, biblical characters are often contrasted with each other. Sometimes this happens by contrasting one group with another group. So, Joseph is contrasted with his brothers right at the start of the story. Then, the character development of both Joseph and Judah draw them closer together by the end of the story.
The fourth feature is the dialogue, because that is where characterization happens. There are three features of dialogue to keep in mind. First, the first chunk of dialogue is often the most important. Consider the opening dialogue of Genesis 37 again. Protagonist Joseph arrogantly and tactlessly tells his dream to his brothers and father. His antagonist brothers set the plot in motion with their hate. Agonist Jacob "kept the matter in mind," which is a frequent narrative clue from the agonist to the reader to do the same. Second, one dialogue is often contrasted with another to get us to pay attention to the difference. Third, important dialogue is emphasized by the storyteller using repetition or long monologues. Given this, resist the temptation to skim dialogue repetitions.
The fifth feature is the repetitive structure of the narrative. These stories were initially not written but told. So, they are designed for a hearer to get meaning from them, which requires repetition. Key words and phrases are repeated as when "the LORD was with Joseph" is repeated fourteen times in Genesis 39. It's almost as if Moses was implicitly asking "Can you hear me now?" Figuring out which words are repeated and why is important to getting what these stories are telling us.
One important structural way repetition occurs in these narratives is through inclusion, which means that the story begins and ends in the same way. Joseph's brothers bow to him both at the beginning and ending of the story. A common and distinct form of inclusion in biblical narrative is the chiasm, in which narratives follow the pattern A B C B A. Another common way this happens is through the use of foreshadowing, in which a brief mention is initially made that is fleshed out later on. Foreshadowing is often used in the covenantal layer to tell the story. Picking up on foreshadowing usually requires multiple subsequent readings of the Bible because the detailed fleshing out usually requires you to remember something you would have easily forgotten from before.
So when we want to understand the immediate layer of a biblical narrative, we should ask questions about and take note of the following things.
- Narrator: Who is narrating? What is the divine point of view in this story?
- Scenes: What are the scenes? How do the scenes and their ordering tell the action and plot of the story?
- Characters: Who are the characters? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Who are the agonists? What character development occurs? Are there parallel or contrasting characters?
- Dialogue: What is the first dialogue? Are there repeating dialogues? Are there long monologues or speeches? Are there contrasting dialogues?
- Repetitive structure: What is being repeated in this narrative? Any key words? Is there a chiasm (ABCBA)? Is there foreshadowing?