Hermeneutics - Old Testament Narrative

Overview of the Old Testament Narrative Genre

Much of the Old Testament scripture is considered narrative—stories told by a narrator, with elements of dialog. Included in the works of narrative are the books of Genesis through Esther as well as major portions of the prophetic books. Proper interpretation and application of Old Testament narrative is built on the principle that such scripture is historical, theological and literary in nature.

Old Testament Narrative as History

  • In contrast with a nationalistic myth, Old Testament narrative is a truthful recording of history, with the goal of revealing and glorifying God. This principle is supported for several reasons:
    • These narratives are cited in both the Old and New Testament as being history
    • Requiring archaeological confirmation of an Old Testament event in order to consider it historic is not a standard applied to other historic accounts.
    • Old Testament narratives employ a literary style that is distinctly different from the mythology written by other cultures of this time
  • In contrast with the non-existent animistic deities worshipped by people the Old Testament times, one of the key goals of Old Testament narrative is to demonstrate the God of Israel as an actual God, existing and moving in history (See I Kings 18; Isaiah 40:18-24; 46:1-11.)
  • In contrast with other ancient cultures’ concepts of time—that time is just an endless turning of season to season—the view of Old Testament narratives is that time is linear and history progresses through a meaningful and coherent drama toward an end. Without this notion of linear time, concepts like “progress” or “meaning” or “purpose” are irrational.

Old Testament Narrative as Theology

  • Old Testament narratives are not just stories. They are historic accounts deliberately told to demonstrate God's faithfulness to His promises and His sovereignty over human history.
  • Old Testament narratives are inter-related, progressing accounts of God’s purpose for history and how He intends to accomplish it. As the narratives tell what happened (the context for God’s revelation), they also indicate why it matters (the purpose of history).

Old Testament Narrative as Literature

The theology of a given narrative provides the literary center of the work—its main point. Narrative accounts are selective and purposeful—events and characters are to be understood in relation to the main theological point of the narrative. A proper understanding of the main point depends on an understanding of the narrative’s place in the rest of Scripture, much as a play’s different acts should be understood in the context of the rest of the play.

Three important devices are used in Old Testament narratives to show God progressively revealing Himself and His plan of salvation through the course of time. Understanding these devices and looking for them within Old Testament narratives will greatly enhance your ability to see the main point and properly apply it.

  • Markers: Often the main point of an Old Testament narrative—its meaning—can be found in key theological statements called markers. These are the primary points God is communicating or the primary ways he is working—they “mark” out eras of Old Testament history. A proper understanding of a given narrative will depend on an understanding of what marker God is working through.
    Markers include:
    • Blessings: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” Genesis 1:28
    • Covenants: the Law of Moses (Exodus 20ff) and the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31)
    • Promises: unconditional statements of God’s intent. God’s promises to Abraham and David serve as the literary center of meaning for many Old Testament narratives:
      • The Abrahamic promise serves as the center of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua. It starts with God’s blessing on Abraham, continues with the forming of a people (Gen. 15-Ex. 19) and the ruling of a people (Ex. 20-40, Leviticus, & Deuteronomy), and the inheriting of the land (Joshua).
      • The Davidic promise serves as the center of the narrative from Judges through 2 Chronicles. It covers the preparation for the monarchy (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel), God’s blessing on David (2 Samuel 7-24/1 Chron. 17-29), God’s faithfulness to Solomon (1 Kings 1-11/2 Chron. 1-9) and God’s faithfulness to David’s line (1 Kings 12-2 Kings 25/2 Chron. 10-36)
  • Links: Along with the markers are links, which serve as transitions from one marker to another. Links demonstrate that God has not changed His mind about how He will move in human history or suddenly switched to a different plan of salvation. Instead links show that He is progressively revealing and accomplishing His plan—that the markers are “linked” together to form a chain of eventual salvation for mankind. Links show the purposefulness and cohesiveness of God’s work.
    Some examples:
    • God “remembers” his covenant (a marker) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:23-25; 6:5) and orchestrates the Exodus (a new marker).
    • God tells Joshua that He will be with him just as He was with Moses (the Exodus marker). This comes as God begins a new marker—the conquest of the land, which fulfills a promise made to Abraham.
  • Motifs or thematic paradigms: Certain themes regularly surface throughout the telling of God’s plan of salvation—from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Revelations. These themes are:
    • Regeneration: the creation of new life out of chaos and lifelessness. Consider the creation story in Genesis and Jesus’ offer to be re-born spiritually.
    • Reconciliation: God attaching Himself to people. Consider God’s promise to Abraham to create a unique covenant people and Jesus’ death providing reconciliation with God through his death on the cross—the New Covenant.
    • Redemption: God rescuing people from bondage. Consider the Exodus and salvation through Jesus providing people the opportunity to have freedom from the bondage of sin.

These themes come up again and again because God is progressively fulfilling His goal of rescuing man from spiritual death, enslavement to sin, purposelessness, and alienation. Old Testament narratives use these themes to show an incomplete fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation, which is then “filled” by Jesus, but will be completely and ultimately fulfilled at history’s end. Looking for these themes will greatly help your ability to see the main point of an Old Testament narrative and its place in God’s overall message of grace and salvation for people.

Narrative Overview

In reading a narrative, jot down your observations about where the action is happening, key people referenced and anything that describes the circumstances surrounding the narrative. Jim Leffel explains this step in more detailSummarize the following elements.

Historical Situation

Investigate the general circumstances God’s people are facing at the time. Some helpful reference books:

  • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
  • John H. Walton, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
  • D.J. Wiseman, ed., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
  • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
  • There are also free online references as well.

Main Themes

Main themes, the theological emphasis of the narrative, are implied or sometimes explicitly given by the author. As you read, look for these hints to the main theme:

  • Theological markers: A promise, covenant or blessing. E.g.: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28); the Law of Moses (Ex. 20ff); the New Covenant (Jer. 31); The Abrahamic promise (Gen. 12:1-3); the Davidic promise (2 Sam. 7).
  • Summary statements: Statements that draw conclusions about the events of the narrative. They provide an outline or overview of the events. E.g.: Judges 2:6-23, which draws the conclusion that the judges era was a dismal failure, illustrated by the cycle of apostasy among leaders, and pointing the need for a monarch.
  • Theological links: Links are statements or events that serve as transitions from one marker to another. Links show that these markers are not random ways that God works in human history, but are instead "linked" together to form God's overall plan of salvation for mankind. E.g.: God tells Joshua that He will be with him just as He was with Moses (the Exodus marker). This comes as God begins a new marker--the conquest of the land, which fulfills a promise made to Abraham.
  • Repeated phrases: For example, the “sins of Jeroboam,” used in II Kings 3:3; 10:29; 13:2; 13:11; 14:24; 15:9, 18,28; 17:21

Context in the Old Testament Story

How does this narrative fit in with the overall flow of Old Testament history? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters? We often see God’s purpose in a given narrative by better understanding its place in salvation history. See chart below for an overview of the major eras in Old Testament history:

  Date Book(s) Historical Events Key Theological Markers
Pre-history   Genesis 1-11
  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Flood
  • Babel scattering 
  • Creation blessing
  • Adam Covenant
  • Seed blessing
  • Shem blessing
Patriarchal Era 2160-1876 B.C Genesis 12-50
  • Call of Abraham
  • Four generations from Abraham
  • Covenant with Abraham: Heirs
  • and Land
  • Judah blessing
Egyptian Captivity and Exodus 1876-1446 B. C. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
  • Moses
  • Plagues
  • Exodus
  • Law
  • Wanderings
  • God remembers and redeems: Mosaic Law & nation of priests
  • Substitutionary Atonement
Conquest and Judges 1406-1050 B. C. Joshua, Judges, and Ruth
  • Canaan conquered
  • Cycle of apostasy
  • Fulfillment of land promise
  • Chaos without  king
United Monarchy 1050-931 B. C. 1, 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1—11; 1 Chronicles—2 Chronicles 9; Wisdom Lit.
  • Saul, David and Solomon
  • Israel’s “Golden Age”
  • Covenant with David: eternal kingdom and eternal dynasty
  • Judah blessing
Divided Monarchy 931-586 B. C. 1 Kings 12—2 Kings; 2 Chron. 10—36; Hosea, Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah 1—26
  • Division of Israel from Judah
  • Conquest of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (586 BC)

Prophets predict God’s temporal judgment and future promise:

  • Davidic King
  • Day of the Lord
  • Servant of the Lord
Exile and Resettlement 586-400 B.C. Jeremiah 27—52, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi, Zechariah, Haggai,
  • Judah in Babylon for 70 years
  • God restores a remnant in Judah; rebuilds Jerusalem
  • New Covenant
  • Revelation of the future of human history
  • Triumph of God’s kingdom

Passage Study - Step 1

Examine the structure of the overall narrative, breaking it down into the individual "scenes" for further study.

After identifying the main themes in the overview, it's time to break the story down into the units that make it a complete account. Think of narratives as multiple act plays. This step involves identifying the acts of the play or scenes in the story. When the narrative shifts location, changes time, or introduces new people, that's the signal that a new scene has begun.

Here is an example of a breakdown of the "scenes" found in the narrative of Abraham:

Gen. 12:1-3 Promise of blessing to Abraham, a nation, all humanity while Abram is still in Ur.
Gen. 12:7 Reaffirming the land blessing as Abraham travels to Canaan.
Gen. 13:14-17 After Abraham redeems Lot from Sodom
Gen. 15:4-7 Clarification: From your own body will the promised son come.
Gen. 15:13-21 Promise becomes a unilateral Covenant—notice land dimensions
Gen. 16:10 Ishmael is blessed as a son of Abraham
Gen. 17:2-8 Abram becomes Abraham; circumcision is the sign of covenant.
Gen. 17:16 Sarah is to be blessed
Gen. 17:19-21 Isaac to be born; God will establish His covenant with Isaac.
Gen. 18:18-19 Purpose of the promise: legacy of justice and righteousness
Gen. 21:12 Isaac is the son of covenant, not Ishmael.
Gen. 22:17-18 Reaffirming the covenant after Abraham’s obedience at Mt. Moriah.
Gen. 24:7 Covenant in context of Rebekah and Isaac’s marriage.
Gen. 26:24 Reassurance to Isaac under threat.
Gen. 32:9 & 12 Jacob’s prayer for safety as the son of covenant
Gen. 35:11-12 God blesses Jacob (deceiver) now called Israel (strives with God).

Jim Leffel defines an Old Testament narrative and how to break down larger passages into these smaller units for study.

  1. Examine Setting:
    1. Context: Briefly summarize scenes coming before and after
      Look at the content of passages before and after the one you are studying.  Briefly note the events and themes described, and think about how they might relate to the scene you are studying.
    2. Identify:
      • Who: Describe each person in the scene, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
        Note: God can be a character in the scene as well, so note how He is characterized as well.
      • Where: Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are?
      • When: When does the narrative take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters? We often see God’s purpose in a given narrative by better understanding its place in salvation history. See chart below:
        Salvation History Through The Old Testament

    Era

    Date

    Book(s)

    Historical Events

    Key Theological Markers

    Prehistory   Genesis 1—11
    • Creation
    • Fall
    • Flood
    • Babel scattering
    • Creation blessing
    • Adam Covenant
    • Seed blessing
    • Shem blessing
    Patriarchal Era    2160—1876 B.C. Genesis 12—50
    • Call of Abraham
    • Four generations from Abraham
    • Covenant with Abraham
    • Heirs
    • Land
    • Judah blessing
    Egyptian Captivity and Exodus  1876—1446 B.C. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
    • Moses
    • Plagues
    • Exodus
    • Law
    • Wanderings
    • God remembers and redeems
    • Mosaic Law
    • Nation of priests
    • Sub. Atonement
    Conquest and Judges 1406—1050 Joshua, Judges, Ruth
    • Canaan conquered
    • Cycle of apostasy
    • Fulfillment of land promise
    • Chaos without king
    United Monarchy 1050—931 B.C. 1, 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1—11; 1 Chronicles—2 Chronicles 9; Wisdom Lit.
    • Saul, David and Solomon
    • Israel’s “Golden Age”
    • Covenant with David:
    • Eternal kingdom
    • Eternal dynasty
    Divided Monarchy 931—586 B.C. 1 Kings 12—2 Kings; 2 Chron. 10—36; Hosea, Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah 1—26
    • Division of Israel from Judah
    • Conquest of Israel (722 BC) and Judah (586 BC)
    Prophets predict God’s temporal judgment and future promise:
    • Davidic King
    • Day of the Lord
    • Servant of the Lord
    Exile and Resettlement 586—400 B.C. Jeremiah 27—52, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi, Zechariah, Haggai,
    • Judah in Babylon for 70 years
    • God restores a remnant in Judah; rebuilds Jerusalem
    • New Covenant
    • Revelation of the future of human history
    • Triumph of God’s kingdom
  2. Examine plot and dialogue within the scene: In this step, you want to look carefully at how the author tells the story. Why does he include the elements of the story plot and dialogue that he does? What do you think he is trying to highlight through what he includes? What "point of view" is he communicating by the way he tells the story? For more details on this step see the links below.
    • Narration: What is the author communicating by the way he tells the story?
      What do we learn about the author's point of view and perspective of the characters and the situation, based on his narration--the way he tells the story? (Jim Leffel talks about the value of observing how the story is told.)
      As you study the narration, note the author's choice of space and tempo and editorial insertions:
      • Space and tempo refers to the author's emphasis on certain elements of the story, based on the amount of attention devoted to them in the narrative. The more "time" devoted to a particular aspect or event in a narrative, the more important it likely is to the author's overall point. Through this he is drawing the reader’s attention to what is important.  Note for instance in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 that the creative days leading to the creation of man move very quickly, but then the pace slows as the uniqueness of man is carefully described: the crown of creation.  So interpreters need to pay close attention to what is being emphasized through narrative slowing and events or dialogue expanding.
      • Editorial insertions refers to the way the author "frames" the story through statements to the reader. Look for meaningful introductions (see Genesis 1:1), meaningful conclusions or summaries (see Genesis 2:3), and statements that are clarifications, evaluations, or explanations (Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 21:6; Exodus 1:8).
    • Action and Dialogue: How does the plot of the narrative move forward? Look at the action described and the dialogue that is presented.  Almost all Old Testament narratives follow the pattern of a circumstance being introduced--perhaps a problem--then unfolding through a series of scenes, culminating in a climax or crisis, and then reaching resolution, e.g., the flood narrative (Genesis 6-9), Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32-33).
      As you look at the development of the plot and the dialogue, notice the narrator's description of how the events and dialogue shape the character's development. Describe what we’re told of the inner life, motivations, relative virtue, spiritual sensitivity, and relationship of the characters to the main point of the narrative.  Is the reader to be drawn to or repulsed by the characters?  How have the key characters been changed through the narrative? (see Gen. 32, 33).
    • Example of this Plot/Dialogue study:
      • Scene #1: 1:1-2
        Author's point of view in narration: "Nineveh is a great city, but wicked"
      • Scene #2: 1:3-16
        • Author's point of view in narration:
          • “But” (1:3)
          • “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10)
          • downward direction (1:3, 5)
        • Action:
          • Jonah moves directly away from his calling, into self-imposed isolation in the bottom of the ship
          • Sailors become frightened, cast lots, find Jonah, confront Jonah, throw Jonah overboard; the storm ends; offer sacrifices to Jonah’s God
        • Dialogue:
          • "How can you sleep?—You must pray to your god, maybe he’ll hear us."
          • "I am a Hebrew, I fear the Lord of heaven who made the sea and dry land"
          • "How could you do this?"
          • "You must toss me into the sea"
      • Scene #3: 3: 1:17—2:9
        • Author's point of view in narration:
          • Jonah’s descent is complete (1:17;2:6)
          • A poetic prayer reflects a change in perspective
        • Action:
          • God appoints a fish to save Jonah—but he will fall to the depths for a while first
          • Jonah finally prays—for himself
        • Dialogue:
          • Jonah’s prayer:
            • A plea: “I called out of my distress”
            • A result: “You brought up my life from the pit”
            • A response: thanksgiving to God, whom Jonah remembered
            • Conclusion: Salvation is from the Lord
      • Scene #4: 2:10—3:9
        • Author's point of view in narration: a bit of ironic contrast between Jonah’s proclamation of judgment, without a call to repent, and the repentance of Nineveh
        • Action:
          • Jonah heeds God’s second “word” and goes to Nineveh
          • Jonah preaches while walking the wall of the city
          • The people and the king believe and repent, calling out to the Lord for mercy
        • Dialogue:
          • Interestingly, there is no dialogue, only Jonah preaching and the people responding.
          • Nineveh is to be overthrown in forty days
          • King’s decree: No eating or drinking; each are to repent of their wickedness
          • King’s plea: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his anger and we may not perish”
      • Scene #5: 3:10—4:11
        • Author's point of view in narration: this is where the real climax and resolution of the story is—what it’s all been leading up to
        • Action:
          • God relents for Nineveh
          • Jonah is angry with God, wishing to die
          • Jonah builds a shelter from the sun at a place where he can see the city—will it be destroyed?
          • God provides, then destroys Jonah’s source of shade
          • God rebukes Jonah
        • Dialogue:
          • "I fled to Tarshish knowing you are slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness, relenting concerning calamity”
          • "Now take my life"
          • "God confronts, “Do you have reason to be angry?”—first about the city, then the plant
          • "Jonah twice says he is angry even to death"
          • "God concludes: You had compassion on the plant that came and went, but not for the great city of 120,000 lost people"
  3. Examine the author's purpose for including the scene in the narrative:
    • At this point we want to relate each scene to the narrative as a whole. What role does this scene play in the unfolding narrative? To answer that question we must identify the main point of the entire story.
    • Often the narrative's main point can be found in its closing verses--the plot's resolution. Before drawing a conclusion about the overall main point, make sure you consider each scene--is that main point is connected to your conclusions about these individual scenes?  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be.Below are commonly used literary devices Old Testament authors used to draw their readers' focus onto the main point of the narrative.
    • Summary statements:
      • Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” summarizes—and provides the main point—of the scene covered in Genesis 1:1-2:3
      • Ex. 7:2-5 serves as an outline for the general flow of the plagues that follow
        • vs. 2: "Let Israel go"
        • vs. 3: "Pharaoh's hard heart"
        • vs. 3, 4: "God will multiply signs and wonders..."
        • vs. 5: "...so that the Egyptians will know that Yahweh is the Lord"
    • Repetitions: Repetitions are usually purposeful and might take the form of:
      • Formulas: E. g.: 1 & 2 Kings--king is evaluated as to whether they did "evil" or "good" in the eyes of the Lord;
      • Words: “Give” in Joshua 1
      • Events that are repeated with different people and contexts, but with the same point or meaning--e.g. Joshua and Moses or Elijah and Elisha (I Kings 17 and II Kings 4)
    • God speaks: When God breaks into the narrative—either directly or through the words of a prophet—it is usually a vital statement of purpose. See I Sam. 13:13-14 and 15:22, 23
    • Promise or covenant: A “marker” or “link”, especially when repeated. For an explanation of markers and links, see Introduction to Studying Old Testament Narrative
    • Context: E.g. I Samuel 1:1-2:11 The length of the narrative about Hannah indicates importance. Her character in turn introduces Samuel, significant to the development of Old Testament salvation history.
    • Decisive or symbolic actions:
      • Judges 14-16: Samson’s dramatic destruction of the Canaanite temple
      • Is. 20:1-4: Isaiah's shame
      • Jer. 18:1-12: Jeremiah's lump of clay
    • Irony: E. g.  Judah in Gen. 37—the deceiver is deceived
    • "Moment of realization": E. g. Joseph’s announcement in Gen. 45:7, 8
    • Listen to an analysis of the “purpose clues” found in 1 Kings 17:1-24 by Xenos Christian Fellowship's Jim Leffel.
  4. Draw a conclusion about the main point of the overall narrative, identifying how each scene supports, illustrates or applies it: Often the narrative's main point can be found in its closing verses--the plot's resolution. Before drawing a conclusion about the overall main point, make sure you consider each scene--is that main point is connected to your conclusions about these individual scenes?  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be.

Example Structural Study: Jim Leffel of Xenos Christian Fellowship steps through an example of a structural study of the book of Jonah (31 min. audio).

Here are the notes from this study of Jonah, using the structure column of the inductive study worksheet:

Scene #1: 1:1-2

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Context: Jonah is a complete narrative.

Identify:

Who: Jonah, son of Amittaim, a prophet commissioned to denounce Nineveh

Where: north of Jappa--Nineveh, the great city

When: 2 Kings 14:25--~780 BC

Narration:

“Point of view”: Nineveh is a great city, but wicked

 

 

Scene #2: 1:3-16

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • pagan sailors

Where:

  • Tarshish to board a ship
  • see map

When: immediately after being commissioned by the Lord

 

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • “But” (1:3)
  • “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” (1:3, 10)
  • downward direction (1:3, 5)

Action:

  • Jonah moves directly away from his calling, into self-imposed isolation in the bottom of the ship
  • Sailors become frightened, cast lots, find Jonah, confront Jonah, throw Jonah overboard; the storm ends; offer sacrifices to Jonah’s God

Dialogue:

  • How can you sleep?—You must pray to your god, maybe he’ll hear us.
  • I am a Hebrew, I fear the Lord of heaven who made the sea and dry land
  • How could you do this!
  • You must toss me into the sea

 

Narrators point of view makes it clear that Jonah’s actions are totally wrong—something the narrative is illustrating:

  • Fleeing God’s presence
  • No concern for the sailors, even willing to be drowned before praying to God to intercede for them & sleeping through their crisis
  • Knowing that your god is the god of heaven, sea, and dry land, “How could you do this?” is biting commentary
  • Sailors, offering sacrifice is interesting

 

Scene #3: 3: 1:17—2:9

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • the fish

 

Where: In the belly of the fish, in the bottom of the sea

 

When: 3 days and nights (1:17)

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • Jonah’s descent is complete (1:17;2:6)
  • a poetic prayer reflects a change in perspective

Action: God appoints a fish to save Jonah—but he will fall to the depths for a while first. Jonah finally prays—for himself

Dialogue: Jonah’s prayer:

  • A plea: “I called out of my distress”
  • A result: “You brought up my life from the pit”
  • A response: thanksgiving to God, whom Jonah remembered
  • Conclusion: Salvation is from the Lord

 

Jonah appears to have a genuine faith in God’s goodness and salvation, but it’s personal. How ironic that this great salvation is just for Jonah—no mention of the commission to Nineveh

 

 

Scene #4: 2:10—3:9

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • the Lord
  • People of Nineveh
  • King of Nineveh

Where: Nineveh

When:

  • after the incident with the fish
  • Jonah’s second commission to Nineveh

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”

  • a bit of ironic contrast between Jonah’s proclamation of judgment, without a call to repent, and the repentance of Nineveh

Action: Jonah heeds God’s second “word” and goes to Nineveh. Jonah preaches while walking the wall of the city. The people and the king believe and repent, calling out to the Lord for mercy

Dialogue:

  • Interestingly, there is no dialogue, only Jonah preaching and the people responding.
  • Nineveh is to be overthrown in forty days
  • King’s decree: No eating or drinking; each are to repent of their wickedness
  • King’s plea: “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his anger and we may not perish”

 

Are we to recognize anything in the comparison between Jonah’s prayer and the King’s edict and prayer?

 

Scene #5: 3:10—4:11

Setting

Plot and dialogue

Purpose clues

Who:

  • Jonah
  • God

Where: East of the city

 

When: After the people repented

 

 

 

 

“Point of view”: This is where the real climax and resolution of the story is—what it’s all been leading up to

Action:

  • God relents for Nineveh
  • Jonah is angry with God, wishing to die
  • Jonah builds a shelter from the sun at a place where he can see the city—will it be destroyed?
  • God provides, then destroys Jonah’s source of shade
  • God rebukes Jonah

Dialogue:

  • I fled to Tarshish knowing you are “slow to anger, abundant in loving kindness, relenting concerning calamity”
  • Now take my life
  • God confronts, “Do you have reason to be angry?”—first about the city, then the plant
  • Jonah twice says he is angry even to death
  • God concludes: You had compassion on the plant that came and went, but not for the great city of 120,000 lost people

 

God’s closing statement sums up the whole narrative: Jonah cares more for a plant than a lost nation

State the main point and how the narrative supports, illustrates, or applies it

Rebuke: Jonah, representing Israel, has no concern for God’s plan for the nations and is less spiritually responsive than the gentiles to whom they are called:

  • Rejecting God’s commission to the nations by fleeing
  • No concern for the sailors in the storm
  • Disputing with God over the fate of Nineveh
  • Repulsive display of self-pity revealing Jonah’s heart

Passage Study - Step 2

Examine the historical and theological content of the narrative.

  1. Examine the historical and cultural context1: Identify customs, objects, events, and persons relevant to the story
    • Listen to Xenos Christian Fellowship's Jim Leffel explains the importance and goals of the historical and cultural context study.
    • Identify customs, objects, events, and persons relevant to the story: Research cultural and historical elements of the narrative. For example:
      • Ex. 6:6--the concept of redemption and "Go'el"--the redeemer
      • Gen. 15--the concept of a covenant and "cutting a contract," as used at the time
      • Ex. 7-12--the significance of the plagues of Eqypt, in light of the gods of Egypt. See K. A. Kitchen's " Plagues of Egypt" in New Bible Dictionary
  2. Examine the theology presented in the narrative: Identify and define key theological terms or concepts, particularly as they relate to our understanding of God. How does this narrative advance the ongoing revelation of God in history? What truths do we learn about God, man, sin, and other theological themes? See questions below for specific issues to look for within the narrative.
    • What does the narrative teach about God’s nature?
      • What elements of his character are being highlighted or expressed? What do you find striking in this description of God? What do you find comforting or clarifying about God in this scene? What challenges you about this depiction of God?
      • One thing to look at is the descriptive name used for God in the passage. It might be a term such as Rock, King, Judge, Shepherd, Father, living God, or First and Last. It also may be the particular Hebrew name used for God, which may highlight an aspect of His character.
        Some examples:

        El, Elohim God (plural of magnification)
        El-Shaddai God Almighty
        El Elyon Most High God
        Yahweh LORD, Lord (His proper name, God of the covenant)
        Yahweh Elohim Lord God
        Adonnai Lord
    • What does the narrative teach about the plan of salvation?
      What does the narrative teach about God’s program on earth? How does it define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
      Look for:
      • References or allusions to blessings, promises, or covenants that sustain or advance God's plan of salvation
      • Contrasts between God and the deities and religious practices of Israel's neighbors
      • Signs that the narrative is an example of common salvation themes--redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. What terms are used to describe God's plan in the world?
    • What does the narrative teach about the human condition?
      How does the story describe or illustrate human sin? How does sin manifest itself? What is wrong with humanity? What does the scene tell you about what it looks like to respond to God in faith?
    • How does the narrative reflect or advance key theological themes in the Old Testament?
      • Are there clear references or allusions to other Biblical passages? Does that relate to the meaning of the narrative? As you consider this narrative in relation to the rest of the Old Testament (and New Testament) how does it add to the Biblical teaching of God, humanity, and salvation? Are there terms or words that are part of a broader vocabulary relating to theology? For instance, does the narrative relate God's promises to Israel? Does the narrative expand your understanding of God's plan to "bless" the nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:3)?
      • Is the narrative used in subsequent texts, and if so, how? E. g., after events of Ex. 17-- God providing water through the rock--there are subsequent references to this imagery, including Deut. 32 (Moses describes God Himself as the provision) and in the New Testament where Jesus is described as the source of living water (John 4), the rock on which to build (Mt. 7), etc. From this we see that God--Jesus--is not only the provider, but is the very provision Himself.

Content Study Example - Exodus 3

Identify and define key theological terms or concepts:

  • Burning bush on Mt. Horeb (3:1-2): Meeting God in the mountain is not uncommon in the OT. In cultural context, the mountains were the dwelling places of the gods. In the OT, God transcends the earth, but mountains are a common place for the human/divine connection: Eden (Ezek. 28:13,16, cf. Gen. 2:10—14), Horeb/Sinai (Exod. 3, 19, 34...), Jerusalem (2 Sam. 7). God is also identified with fire. “The Lord is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).
  • Angel of the Lord (3:2, 4): See also 13:19; 23:20-23; 32:34. In context, the angel of the Lord and the Lord are the same.
  • Holiness of God (3:5). qados, hasid.
    • Related to “fire,” “sacred,” and “glory,” holiness is the separateness and utter uniqueness of God from all creation. In contrast to the “holiness” of the gods of the ancient world (Exod. 15:11), Yahweh is holy in an ethical sense. Holiness relates most closely with God’s righteousness, God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16).
    • God’s justice is necessary as a perfect moral Being: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
    • God’s righteousness, his essential holiness, also relates to mercy. Salvation and is always undeserved, but freely given (Isaiah 45:8; 46:13; 51:5).
    • Moral monotheism vs. ancient near east polytheism. Substantial implications exist for the concept of morality and social justice.
      • The purpose of man’s creation is conditioned by the general purpose of the universe. According to the Enuma Elish, the universe was created for the benefit of the gods... Even Babylon was built for the gods... man’s creation was conceived and executed not as an end it itself or as a natural sequel to the formation of the rest of the universe, but rather as an expedient to satisfy a group of discontented gods. Man’s purpose in life was to be the serves of the gods... --Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis
      • It is small wonder, therefore, that all polytheisms tend to be religions of the status quo, and that none of them has ever produced a thoroughgoing social revolution based upon a high concept of social justice... In the Bible, however, a state of tension exists between God and creation... A profound disharmony exists between the will of god and the existing social order. --G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament Against Its Environment
  • God is not impassible (3:7, 9,16): God is affected by his creation. He has “seen the affliction of My people”; “the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me;” “I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt.”
  • God of promise:
    • Links to the Abrahamic Covenant (3:6-8, 16,17).
    • Promise to Moses also (3:12), the “sign” that God is indeed with Moses.
  • YHWH: God’s “memorial name” (3:14,15): Names in the Old Testament world reveal something of the person (e.g.: Jacob). While God is referred to by many names, his proper name is YHWH: I AM. That God would bring attention to this personal pronoun here as a “memorial name” is significant. It brings focus to the reader that this is a decisive, signature action of God—that he will be known by his redeeming his people from bondage! It is not that the name Yahweh was unknown to God’s people (Gen. 4:26), rather the character imbedded in the name was yet to be realized (Gen. 17:1). Now the reader is about to learn who Yahweh really is.
  • God’s sovereignty. God is the central actor in this narrative. God has acted in the past, is active in the present, and will act in the future.

Describe what the narrative teaches about the plan of salvation:

  • Abrahamic Covenant is in operation—blessing of nationhood and blessing to the world. What God promises, God will deliver.
  • Yet God chooses to effect his plan in history through people. Moses is called and commissioned by God for his appointed task. He has freedom. He makes mistakes. He objects. Yet, God will use this imperfect vessel for his purpose.

Describe what the narrative teaches about the human condition:

  • “Fear of the Lord” (3:6).
    • The utter humility of sinners before a holy God (see Isaiah 6:3—5). The expression “fear of the Lord” is used 124 times in the Old Testament. It relates to “amazement,” “awe,” and genuine “fear.”
    • Fear of the Lord guards the heart (Hebrews 11:27; Isaiah 8:12—14). Who you fear is who you serve. Indeed, the fear of the Lord produces persuasion (2 Cor. 5:11).
    • Fear of the Lord is the basis for wisdom (Prov. 1:7).
  • Total inadequacy for the task: The narrative section 3:11—4:17 focus on Moses’ objections to God’s commission based on his complete inadequacy for the task. God responds to each of the four objections:
    • “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11). God responds, “I will be with you” and promises Moses a sign.
    • By what authority? Or in whose name am I going? (3:13). God responds by using his memorial name.
    • “What if they don’t believe me or listen to what I say?” (4:1). God will use even a common stick to arrest their attention.
    • “I have never been eloquent of speech” (4:10). God will provide Aaron.
  • God will allow his people to be subject to the historical realities they face: Receiving the promise land (3:8,17) will come through direct confrontation with Pharaoh (3:19,20).

Consider how the narrative reflects or advances key theological themes in the OT:

  • Advancing the Abrahamic Covenant: We have seen that the entire narrative is filled with reference to the Abrahamic Covenant. Fulfillment is coming!
  • Slavery and redemption: key biblical theme of salvation. This text is really crucial to the inter-textual hermeneutic.
    • 13 times Isaiah alone refers to God as the Redeemer. The exodus from Egypt is the paradigm, or model of redemption that will echo through Israel’s history and overflow into the New Testament. We have already seen that exodus is a central motif in biblical literature.

Notes:

1. Some books that will be helpful tools for this study are:

  • J.D. Douglas, ed., New Bible Dictionary
  • W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
  • Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History
  • D.J. Wiseman, ed. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

Passage Study - Step 3

Apply the content of the narrative.

How does the narrative instruct God’s people to be faithful to him? How can this be applied to our lives today?

What have the characters in the narrative learned about God or about being faithful to Him? Perhaps the characters offer a counter example, as in the case of Jonah. In what way might the main point of the text, and how the characters are related to it, apply to your situation? Is there a message for the church today?

Example Application Study - Reflections on the Song of Moses (Exodus 15)

About the text:

The Song of Moses comes immediately after the great deliverance from centuries of hardship in Egypt. Having seen the power of God to intervene in history, Israel finally “feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (14:31). The Song of Moses is a tribute to Yahweh and an opportunity for the people to join together with one voice in thanks to him. Even as we set our sights on the end of the story of salvation, the Song of Moses is on the lips of God’s people (Rev.15:3, 4).

The song reflects the past deliverance of Israel from the pharaoh (1-13), then sets its sights on the future victory and reign of God in the promised land (14-19). In this sense, God’s people are being called to live by faith between two certainties: what God has done in the past and what God declares he will do in the future.

About God:

  • The Lord is a warrior” (3 cf. Isaiah 47:4, “Lord of Hosts [armies]”). God’s victory over Pharaoh (1-10 cf. 14:14), nature (8), other gods (11 cf. 12:12), and Israel’s future enemies (14-16a). Enemies past are vanquished by his “right hand” (6,12); future enemies live in fear of his “arm” (16, cf. Josh. 2:10; 5:1; 9:9).
  • Who is like Yahweh?” (11 cf. Micah 7:18). His loving-kindness (12) is the basis for his action, his leadership. Majestic in holiness, or total uniqueness in a moral sense (11). When Moses asks God to reveal himself, graciousness and kindness are central (Ex. 34:6, 7).
  • Redeemer (13, 16). Nothing is more central to the meaning of Exodus than redemption. The exodus from Egypt and the “eternal memorial” of Passover are remembered in ritual and throughout the scripture as they find their fulfillment in Christ. Note that God, not Israel, secures release from captivity. Israel is only witness to and beneficiary of God’s redemption. This is a picture of grace. We have become God’s possession, purchased (16) by him. Israel is no longer Pharaoh’s slave, but God’s son (4:22).
  • The Lord shall reign forever and ever” (18). Yahweh is Israel’s King and Israel is his inheritance (17 cf. Eph. 1:18). The mountain of Yahweh’s inheritance may be a prophetic allusion to Zion or in a more generic sense of the imagery of the day, an expression of God’s presence with his people, often associated with mountains. Israel is the “sanctuary of the Lord” (17), meaning that God will dwell among his people. It’s a picture of God’s people thriving under their redeemer’s rule and his supernatural presence with them.

Personal Response (application):

  • True spirituality requires memory. “Remember” is used 200 times in the OT. To remember is to see things for what they are, leading to victorious acts of faith in God. Conversely, to forget is to become foolish and lapse into sin and unbelief. Memory also produces gratitude, which in turn orients believers to reality (note the contrast in Romans 1:21, 28). This lesson is at the heart of the teaching of wisdom in the Old Testament. See, for instance, Psalm 78.
  • “My strength and salvation” (2). Are God’s power and mercy sufficient? See also Romans 8:14-17, 31-39. Where are we turning for strength? How would we know if we were operating out of self-righteousness rather than grace?
  • There is an emotional dimension that can’t be overlooked. The Song of Moses is a song—to be sung together in a corporate act of gratitude and praise. Good news is to be met with an outpouring of praise (Isaiah 54:1; Psalm 98:1-3). What directs our life and passions? C.S. Lewis has a helpful discussion in Reflection On The Psalms.

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