Breadcrumbs to Follow: Interpreting Historical Narrative

The non-Disneyized versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are pretty grim indeed.  Cinderella’s stepsisters?  They actually cut off digits in an effort to make that slipper fit.  “Hey, that glass slipper is full of blood!  You’re not she!”  Worth a shot, I guess.  Snow White?  Remember at the end when the wicked queen is forced to put on red-hot iron shoes and dance around until she died?  Me neither.  But it’s in the story.  Children’s tales indeed!

In the story of Hansel and Gretel, father and wicked stepmother (Grimm takes a grim view of re-marriage!) plan to get rid of the little rascals by abandoning them deep in the forest.  Nevertheless, Hansel has the wisdom to leave behind some breadcrumbs on the trail, thereby enabling the little feller to find his way back home.

That is a long way around to an illustration, but it works.  A breadcrumb trail.  A path that you can follow: if you are wise and if you are discerning.  Interpreting the Bible’s historical narratives is like that.  It is not like reading Ephesians.  The significance of things is not always explained or spelled out.  You’ve got to take what clues the inspired author dropped in the text to catch what he would have you to see, and so you can find your way “home” to the text’s meaning.  The point isn’t usually overt.  Here are some key breadcrumbs to look for to find the meaning of a historical narrative:

Context!  Context!  Context!  This is a breadcrumb of value for understanding any text anywhere in the Bible, but especially so in historical narrative.  If you cut off a particular passage from the broader context in which it is set (both in the particular book and in the Bible as a whole) you will misinterpret it.  In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God.  What is going on in this very strange text?  No space here, but I would just point out that in the preceding context Jacob is preparing to meet with his estranged brother Esau, a meeting which occurs in the immediately following context.  You can’t really make sense of that particular narrative without tying it in to the context of that meeting.

Introductions and conclusions.  These are vital!  The author will often drop a big fat breadcrumb at the start or finish of the narrative that tells you how you should go about understanding it.  For example:

Luke introduces his gospel this way,

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Lk. 1:1-4 ESV)

The purpose of his writing is that Theophilus “may have certainty concerning the things” he has been taught.  Luke expects that his reader will have increased confidence in the veracity of the gospel account he has come to believe.

John concludes his gospel this way,

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn. 20:30-31 ESV)

Again, no mystery here.  Why am I writing my gospel?  I’ll tell you, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ…and by believing…have life….”

Authorial Evaluations.  In telling the story, the author will often tell what his “take” on the story he is telling is.  A great example of this is found in the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings.  Consider 1 Kings 15:34-35:

33 In the third year of Asa king of Judah, Baasha the son of Ahijah began to reign over all Israel at Tirzah, and he reigned twenty-four years. 34 He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to sin. (1 Ki. 15:33-34 ESV)

What are we supposed to think of King Baasha?  Breadcrumbs are there: this guy is rotten!  And that because of the spiritual failings of his rule.

Authorial summaries.  On other occasions, the author will drop a juicy breadcrumb in the form of a summary.  Luke has been describing the wonderful fruit of the gospel’s advance in the early days of the church in Acts 1 and 2.  Then he offers us some summary statements which highlight the key take home –  the Word is taking root and the church is growing:

41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41 ESV)

4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4 ESV)

Repetition.  Important things are repeated.  The same things are said again.  Reiterating a point indicates that point’s importance.  For instance, this line is repeated repetitiously and redundantly throughout Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).  This lawless state of things gives the whole narrative a decidedly dark tone, raising the need for a king to reign in justice in righteousness over God’s people.

Proportion.  Another way that the author of historical narrative can communicate meaning is by dedicating lots of space to it.  Think about it: wouldn’t it be odd if the New York Times dedicated eight pages (including the front page!) to a story about a man purchasing a dog?  You’d say – “This lacks proportionality!  Is it really that important?”

The Bible dedicates vast swaths of space to Moses and David.  Almost no space at all to others.  We’d love to know more about Enoch, or Melchizedek, but they apparently weren’t all that central to the narrative that was being told.  Yet consider the amount of space devoted to the passion narrative in the gospels.  Nearly half the space in Mark’s gospel is focused on the last week of Jesus’ ministry – does that indicate that Mark thinks this stuff is more important?  Yep.

The Use of Speech.  If something is not just related, but is quoted…that could be very significant.  This is especially true in the gospel narratives where key theological breadcrumbs are dropped in short quotations.  Consider this statement from the lips (so to speak) of a demon, “You are the Son of God!” (Mark 3:11-12).

There you are.  Breadcrumbs.  More than enough to help discover the meaning of the most stubborn of historical narratives.  Enough breadcrumbs to find your way home.  Of course, if you’re Hansel, your father and wicked stepmother are just going to take you out into the woods and leave you there again tomorrow.  Pack your breadcrumbs, young man!