Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bible as Narrative, Pt. 2

The tendency in Western culture to privilege historical truth over literary truth—or any other kind of truth, for that matter—has made us, if not blind to the literary structure of the Old Testament, at the very least it has caused us to regard the structure as unimportant, subject to change if need be.
But the Ancients weren’t subject to the values, worldview, and mindsets of Western culture.  They had their own values, worldview and mindsets.  They were great story tellers and story writers, and the ancient Israelites were not any less so.  They loved story, and they understood the power of narraitve to get to truth that is greater than just the facts of what happened.
The Hebrew Bible in fact accentuates the narrative structure of this story of the Old Testament.  It is organized in three sections: the Torah (Law), the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings).  (The Hebrew word for the entire collection is Tanakh, which is derived from the first letter in the names of the three sections.)  The Nevi’im is divided into two sections, the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets).  So if you read the Old Testament in the order that the Hebrews put it you have a narrative flow beginning with Genesis and going all the way through Kings.  (Chronicles is placed at the very end, for reasons I can’t go into here.)  And how does this narrative end?  With the Babylonian Exile.
Before exploring the significance of that, we need to note that by keeping the Latter Prophets with the rest of the narrative, the Tanakh maintains the focus on the Exile and its powerful imprint on the people, for the Exile is the central event of the Latter Prophets.  They warn the people it’s going to happen if they don’t change, and/or remind them why it did happen, and point toward a hope of restoration for those who return to the Lord.
In approaching the Old Testament from a narrative standpoint, one must understand the concept of characters.  Characters in a story are different than historical figures in a history.   While David and Moses and Saul and others are historical people, in the Old Testament they are also literary characters, and we must treat them as such.  Among the things this means is that our primary focus can’t be, “What were they like?” as it would be in a biography, but rather, “What do they represent?  How do their words and actions move the plot forward, contribute to the theme, teach me about the world or about myself?”  These are literary questions, and they must be brought to bear on every major character and some of the minor ones as well.
One of the aspects of narrative is character development.  Characters learn, they change, they grow—or refuse to grow, suffering the consequences.  Character development may not have been as prominent in the literature of the ancient world as it is in the modern novel, but it was not unknown.  Not all the characters in the Bible change and develop, but when they do we need to pay attention and treat not treat it as incidental to the plot.  David, for instance, changes.  He starts out as a young boy, full of the Lord’s favor, honest, faithful, and courageous.  After he becomes king his life takes on a tragic downward spiral, ending as a pitiful old man whose own son leads a rebellion against him before being killed at the hands of David’s army.  David is much like Shakespeare’s King Lear in many respects, and the reader is challenged to learn from the tragedy of his life.
So, to the original question: what is the organizing principle of the Bible?  It is my contention that the Old Testament was edited and organized in such a way as to answer the Exilic and post-Exilic question, “How did we, the covenant people of God, end up like this, and what happens next?”  The Old Testament story answers the first question, but can only anticipate the answer to the second, which comes in the person of Jesus.
In narrative terms you can look at the Bible this way:

Part 1: Prologue—The Problem (Genesis 1-11)
Part 2: How We Got Here
  Chapter 1: The Solution (The Calling of Abram and the People 
        of Israel)
  Chapter 2: Refugees, Deliverance, and Entering (Exodus—Joshua)
  Chapter 3: We Want a King (Samuel)
  Chapter 4:  It All Comes Crashing Down (Kings)
  Chapter 5: The Prophetic Explanation
  Chapter 6: The Wait
Part 3: The Climax: The Thirty-Year Incarnation of Jesus
Part 4: Epilogue: The Ongoing Incarnation of Jesus in the Church

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