Interpreting Historical Narrative: Characters and Plot

Charles Dickens has lots to say about the horror of orphans living in Industrial Age London.  But he doesn’t just come right out and say it.  He tells his powerful and heart-rending tales, about poor little Oliver Twist, say.  “Please, sir, I want some more….”  Narratives don’t usually come out and tell you “the point.”  You’ve got to be a discerning reader.  You need to read between the lines.  So how do you make sense of a story?

There are lots of ways to approach a story.  We’ll highlight two here: characters and plot.  This is of value not just for reading Victorian era novels, but for reading the Bible as well (Bible stories are stories after all!).

Characters – even if there are many characters present in a particular narrative, there are generally only two or three important characters in any particular narrative.  For instance, the narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel include many different people – Samuel, Bathsheba, Joab, Absalom, and many others.  But the central thread of these books is essentially a contrast between Saul and David.

The development of these two men is central to what the author is seeking to communicate.  Saul begins so well as Israel’s first king, but his character devolves miserably over the course of the narrative.  In contrast, David (the unknown youngest son shepherd boy) sees his star steadily rise as Saul’s falls.  In fact, he is Israel’s anointed king, and the founder of a never-ending dynasty which will culminate in a son who will reign in perfect justice (2 Sam 7).  The unfolding of the narrative will reveal who the author believes to be the most important characters.  What is their development (especially their spiritual development) before the Lord?

One vital principle to consider in any Old Testament historical narrative is that there is always one central character in every narrative: God.  This is true even when he is not overtly mentioned.  Consider the narrative of Esther.  The main characters in the story are Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Xerxes.  Haman is the chief villain, Esther the protagonist.  But it should be obvious to any discerning reader that (as important as Esther is) the real protagonist is God himself.  He is the one working sovereignly to bring down the wicked Haman, to deliver his people Israel, and to do so by means of the queen and her uncle (flawed people who finally submit to the hand of God).

It is ironic that many people believe Esther shouldn’t be in the canon of scripture because God is not mentioned.  But that is a clever device of the author – God’s centrality is highlighted by not mentioning his name.  It is a classic example of the elephant in the living room.  This unspoken centrality is highlighted by the most famous line in the book.  Mordecai challenges his reluctant niece, …if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).  And who is sovereign over deliverance, or over the times, but the unnamed God of Israel?

You always do well in every narrative to ask the question, what does this narrative reveal about the character, plan, and purposes of God?

Plot – Another vital issue in interpreting any narrative is plot.  What story is this telling and how does it unfold?  What is the sequence or pattern in which events occur?

This is tremendously helpful to keep in view in interpreting biblical narratives.  Bible readers will often read a story from scripture and not know quite what to do with it.  What sense do you make out of the hideous account of Judah in Genesis 37 (I won’t tell you the story, go read it if you have the stomach for it)?  If you read it as a stand-alone narrative, it doesn’t have any obvious point.  But, if you read it in the context of the book of Genesis as a whole, it serves to provide a contrast.  Judah’s behavior is despicable.  But it is surrounded by the commendable behavior of his brother Joseph.  Judah’s faithlessness serves as a foil to the remarkable integrity of his brother.  To see this, though, you have to view the story as a whole rather than focusing in on one part in isolation.

Even more important is viewing every narrative of the entire Bible as part of the BIG STORY of scripture.  The Bible as a whole really tells one story: the story of God’s redemption of the world in his Son, Jesus Christ.  This is the one big story of scripture.  The technical name for this is meta-narrative.  All the other stories are really just chapters in the one big story.  How does this particular narrative contribute to the one big story that God is seeking to tell?

For instance, in 1 Samuel 17  David famously squares off with the enemy of Israel: Goliath.  Taken in isolation, this story could be viewed as relating the tale of one man’s bravery.  We could turn this into a moral – “We all must face our giants in life, so we should be brave!”  But this misses the larger point.  In the context of the meta-narrative of scripture, David foreshadows the true champion of God’s people: Jesus Christ.  It is Christ who ultimately brings deliverance from our true enemies: sin, Satan, death, hell.  This isn’t spiritualizing the text; it is simply viewing the narrative of 1 Samuel 17 within the context of the Big Story, in which he is the central character unfolding the plot of our redemption.