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Reading the Bible - Episode 3

Reading the Bible  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Series Introduction:

Hello, welcome to Reading the Bible. My name is Collin, I’m a pastor at Redeemer Anglican Church in Dacula, Georgia, and in this season of shelter-in-place, I want to help you and your family learn to love reading the Bible in your homes. I think many of us don’t really know how to approach reading the Bible. It’s a strange book written thousands of years ago, and though we’re told again and again that we should be reading it, whenever we try, we don’t feel like we get anything out of it. If that’s you, you’re not alone, and I want to help. Because while this is a strange book written thousands of years ago, I’ve come to believe it to be the most transformative work of literature the world has ever known; and I want help you discover that as well.

Episode Introduction:

Last week we explored the main storyline of the Bible, and we saw that each book in the Bible is contributing to this epic over-arching narrative. But anyone who has tried to read the Bible, knows that this isn’t laid out like any modern book. The Bible is made up of a lot of different books written by different authors for different audiences at different times. And they way these books and their particular genre literature contribute to that main storyline is what we’re exploring over the next few weeks.
So we’re tackling the big three over the next three weeks: Narrative, Poetry, and Discourse.
This week we’re exploring narrative. What’s crazy is that a lot of us have this idea of the Bible in our minds that it’s like a manual or a textbook for how to live, and so we’d expect the Bible to be filled with moral teaching or lists of what to do and what not to do, but actually, the vast majority of the Bible does not include any of those things. In fact, the majority of this book is filled with stories. 43% of the Bible is narrative, 33% is poetry, and actually only 24% is what we’d call discourse or instructive teaching. Almost half of the Bible is narrative, so if we’re going to read the Bible, we’ve got to get a handle on how to read the biblical narratives. So let’s do this.

Story is the basic principle for how we make sense of the world.

We said in the first episode that stories have the power to shape our identity and the way that we understand our world. That’s because our brains are actually built to process information through a narrative.
Neurobiology tells us that the majority of our experience, knowledge, and thinking is organized as a set of stories. My wife can’t fathom why I like chocolate covered raisins, and the way that I explain my particular taste for them is by way of story: I grew up enjoying them with my Dad when we went to the movie theaters. Suppose someone asked for a recommendation for a restaurant. I’m betting your answer will involve a story about you or someone you know going to a restaurant and loving it. Story is the basic principle for how our brains work, because it is through stories or narratives that we make sense of the disparate events of our life.
So it’s no surprise then, that the main way that the Bible speaks to us is through story, both the overarching story that we looked at last week, but also these smaller narratives that contribute to the main storyline. Who are we? What are we for? What’s wrong with the world? How will it get better? All of these very important questions are presented and answered through the use of narratives in the Bible.

How do we read Biblical narratives?

So how should we read the stories that we find in the Bible? Well we can’t possibly cover the totality of that topic, so what’s a good place to get us started?
Well, let’s simplify this and ask, “What is a narrative?” At it’s most basic, we have a character who faces a challenge that he or she must overcome or resolve in some way.
David, opposed by Goliath, must find a way to defeat him. Joseph, confronted with his brothers who betrayed him, must find a way to deal with them. Moses, at the edge of the Red Sea, must find a way to escape Pharaohs armies.
When you are reading these narratives, it is important that you read every scene as part of its larger story context. If you lose sight of where a particular scene fits into the wider plot, you can make its message into something totally different that what was intended. At this point, you’re no longer reading the Bible, but rather reading into it.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart do a great job of illustrating this in their excellent book on how to read the Bible. They take the story of Gideon and show how reading a scene out of context completely changes the message of the story. There’s a scene in the story of Gideon where Gideon is trying to discern if God is going to help him win a battle, and so he asks for a sign from God. So he lays out a wool fleece overnight and asks that God would make the fleece wet with dew, but the ground dry. And God does it.
So if we’re only looking at this story, the conflict is how can Gideon know whether he can trust God, and the resolution is to test him and find out! But, this completely misses the point of the story altogether because we aren’t reading it in its context as part of a larger story.
The story begins with Gideon and his community living in fear because they are being oppressed by a violent group known as the Midianites. So God chooses Gideon and sends him to go defeat the Midianites with the Lord’s help. But Gideon is really hesitant, so he asks for a sign to know that it is really God that is with him. And God accepts that and does it, he taps an altar with his staff and the whole thing bursts into flames. Now we know that Gideon has already asked for a sign before this whole wool fleece episode. But then we learn that God tells Gideon to go and destroy an altar to another God, but Gideon is so afraid he does it at night so no one would see him. So, on the eve of facing the Midianites, Gideon again gets cold feet and that’s when he asks God for the wool fleece sign, which God does, and then Gideon asks for another sign involving the wool fleece. Which God does!
Now, with that wider storyline in place, we can see that the conflict in this story is not whether Gideon can trust God…God has been abundantly clear giving him sign after sign that he is with him and that he can trust him. The conflict is really, is Gideon ever going to trust God?
And then the story goes on, and Gideon gathers together some 30,000 people to fight the Midianites, but God begins to dwindle it down, all the way to just 300 soldiers. Gideon had been testing God, and now God is testing Gideon. Will Gideon trust God? But it get’s even more ridiculous for Gideon, because then God tells him to arm the 300 soldiers with torches and trumpets instead of spears and swords, and they are to go up on a hill outside the Midianite camp at night and just start yelling and smashing jars and blowing their trumpets. It sounds ridiculous, but when they did it, a panic spread throughout all the Midianite camp and they began to turn on one another, and so from the safety of this hilltop, Gideon watches as the Midianites are destroyed right in front of him.
So, when we read this little scene as part of a wider story, when we read it in context, we see that it’s not about giving tips for how to discern the will of God, but rather it’s about God’s commitment to use weak, cowardly, deeply flawed people to do more than they could have ever imagined.
So when we are reading a story in the Bible, you need to constantly be asking yourself, “How does this fit into the wider context of this narrative plot?” Because then we have to ask, how does the entire story of Gideon fit into the narrative of the book of Judges, where the story is found? Because the entire book as a narrative-arc. And How does the book of Judges fit into the wider story of Israel? And how does the story of Israel fit into the wider story of the Bible as a whole?
You can see, reading narratives in their proper context really helps us see how it contributes to the great story of the Bible!

Next Week Part II

That’s all the time we have for this week, but we aren’t finished looking at narratives in the Bible. Next week we’ll look at the fascinating ways we learn from biblical characters and how the way biblical authors use characters is different than what we’re used to in modern books.
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