Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:
1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.
Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs, but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.
Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!
2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.
In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.
We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?
3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.
Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.
A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.
4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.
Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.
5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.
After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.
Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side, people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.
There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:
In every biblical story, the hero is always God.
How to study the Bible series:
Which Bible version should I use?
The first three rules of Bible study
Why do we have to “study” the Bible?
Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story
You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches
Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches
Following the story: God and his people, part 1 [see above]
Following the story: God and his people, part 2
Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?
Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law
The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us
Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom
The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back