How Should We Interpret Biblical Narratives?

Historical narrative sections of the Bible can be some of the easiest to understand but the most difficult to interpret. We know what’s happening in the story of Jesus’ miraculously feeding 5,000 people and the account of David slaying Goliath. But why did the biblical authors write down those stories in the first place? Contrary to some teaching, the feeding of the 5,000 isn’t merely a story about sharing and David and Goliath isn’t merely about conquering obstacles. As a primer for interpreting such passages, here are some tips to unlock the meaning of biblical narratives from Robert Stein’s book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.

Interpret historical narrative in light of its context. The overall meaning of a Bible book and the immediate context of a specific passage can both be clues to a narrative’s meaning. For example, when reading about the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6:1-15, it’s important to remember what John says is the purpose of his entire Gospel: “These [things] 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” (John 20:31). The immediate context also gives an important hint about meaning. In verses 30-31, the crowd demands that Jesus do a sign to help them believe He is from God, and they suggest a miracle similar to what God did in Exodus by providing Israel with bread in the wilderness. From context, we see that the point of the feeding of the 5,000 is to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah from God whom we should follow.

Take note of authorial comments inserted in the narrative. Often biblical authors make inspired editorial comments, parenthetical insertions of sorts that give clues about a narrative’s meaning. Consider the repeated commentary in the story of David and Goliath concerning David’s lack of traditional battle weapons. The author says he “put off” the armor offered by Saul (1 Samuel 17:39) and that “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Samuel 17:50). And twice we’re told that he fought with a sling (1 Samuel 17:40, 49). One point of the story is to illustrate that God had anointed David as the warrior king of Israel. His victory was attributable to God’s empowerment, not impressive weapons.

Look for repetition of key themes. In Judges, we notice a cycle in the narrative. The author tells us that when Israel sinned, God gave them over to their enemies (Judges 2:14; 3:8, 12; 4:2; 6:1; 10:7-9; 13:1). Then, when Israel cried out to the Lord, He delivered them (Judges 3:9, 15; 4:4-24; 6:11-25; 11:1-33). From this repetition it’s clear that the narrative is meant to teach that sin leads to judgment and following God to deliverance.

Note the proportion of a story devoted to various details. Often an author gives more space to what is most important, as in Mark 5:1-20 where Mark devotes a full 20 percent of the narrative to describing the hopeless plight of a demon-possessed man (vv. 2-5). Jesus’ ability to cast out the demons and overcome such powerful evil merely with a word points to His vast authority as the meaning of the narrative.

Pay attention to what’s said in direct discourse. One way a narrator reveals why he’s telling a story is through the words characters say to each other. Jesus’ stilling of the storm in Mark 4 is a case in point. In that story the disciples say to one another, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). Mark was trying to communicate that Jesus is the master of nature, coequal with God the Father.

Of course, the fact that biblical narratives seek to communicate a message should not be used to evade the historical reality of the accounts. For instance, some scholars have tried to argue that stories of Jesus’ miracles are fictional, intended only to teach theological truths. But the Bible treats the miracles—along with all other events described in historical narrative passages—as real occurrences, and so should we. Yet don’t let your understanding of these passages end with the recognition that they really happened. God inspired the biblical authors to record them for specific reasons. By paying attention to a few details, you can learn those reasons.