Studying Bible Narratives

Hey everyone! I have been spending some time working through the process of bible study and writing up some tips and guides on how to study the bible. This particular tip to studying the bible, I find to be extremely valuable to my studies. 

“It’s like a movie in my head,” a young man said after he discovered the joy of reading. Movies are less taxing on the mind than books but also less interactive. As a person reads a novel their minds are absorbing the details given while filling in more details not given by the author. 

Read this in the movie-in-your-head: “A butterfly flutters in the air. Loftily it bounces in the wind until it lands a rock to rest. Its wings stretch out in the warm sunlight with the cool rock beneath its feet.” 

What color was the butterfly’s wings? It was never mentioned but you might have imagined a color. Did your mind fill in other details that were not mentioned? It probably did and that is completely normal! An author would not write pages and pages on describing the color of a butterfly’s wings unless he was making a point to do so. It is impossible for an author to give every single detail of a story while making it interesting to read, so authors have to balance description and brevity. Narratives of the bible are not different in that regard.

Narratives compose the largest genre of the Bible. A narrative is simply a story where the author is not speaking his own words, rather he is telling describing an event. Digging into the depths of biblical narratives requires a bridled imagination. Some narratives have less detail than a student of the Bible would like. God recorded so many of these stories with a brevity on par with how most history is recorded. Many myths, fables, and epics reek with detail, but the authors of the Bible do not take the time to embellish. Could you imagine how many novels an author could produce with the stories in the Bible? 

In Exodus 14, the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea takes up only two verses (14:21-22). That moment seems like a moment worthy of embellishment! Instead, God decided to write the conflict surrounding the event, Pharaoh’s army chasing the Israelites, the Israelites being afraid, and Moses’ effort to lead them. However, taking the time to imagine this scene is worthwhile for a student of the Bible. Read the story, close your eyes, and imagine the scene. Imagine the Israelites fearing for their life. How does a person behave when they fear for their life? They breathe heavily, they look frantically for a way to escape, they complain about the situation (14:11-12), they accept their fate, they hug their family tightly one last time. Imagine Moses who is trying to lead the people that are shouting fearfully at him. He is trying to stay composed when Pharaoh’s army is about to attack them. Perhaps he is trembling on the inside but trying to appear firm. Imagine the Israelites’ and Moses’ reaction to seeing the Red Sea parted. Did they stand there speechless as the waters separated? Did the waters separate quickly or slowly? Were they afraid of walking into the dry ground in the middle of the sea at first? Did they see the fish swimming in the walls of the sea beside them? What was running through their mind? Imagination can enliven the Bible’s narratives in your mind. (There is a limit to imagining biblical narrative.)

When you study a biblical narrative, take time to play the scene in your mind and imagine how it could have been. This will help you understand the people involved better, bring out more of the power of God’s Word, and make your study that much more exciting!

In Exodus 14, the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea takes up only two verses (14:21-22)! Despite the brevity of the text, any student of the Bible would be blessed to spend time imagining that scene in their mind. Within their imagination, say you imagine Moses as afraid while trying to remain composed for his people–would this be wrong? It would not be wrong in your effort to understand the narrative, but does the text of the Bible say or imply this? No. Could he have been scared? Sure. Do we know he was afraid? No. 

Separate the imagined from the stated; what God states is absolute and must be implemented into our imagining of the scene. What we imagine must be treated as indefinite possibilities. The imagined material is not designed to be speculating a different story than the original; it is best to imagine the details of the stated facts. The Bible states that the Israelites were terrified (14:10) and records their complaints (14:11-12). From there we imagine how their terror could have manifested in their behavior or we speculate an inference on their emotional state from their complaint. The imagined portion is to help us understand God’s story, not rewrite it. The text of the Bible must be treated as definitive and the imagined portion must be treated as indefinite. As long as you can make this distinction between the imagined and stated, this exercise will be a valuable tool for you as a student of the Bible.

The imagining should be centered on what the text focuses on. I recall a bible class on Peter’s denial in Luke 22:54-62 where the teacher of the class spent half of the time on the look from Jesus to Peter. After Peter denied Jesus, Jesus looked toward Peter. The text makes it clear that Peter was emotionally stricken by the rooster crow that turned Jesus’ gaze (Luk. 22:62). But what of the gaze? The text states, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luk. 22:61). This bible class spent too much time on speculating how Jesus looked at Peter. Each person took their turn suggesting what kind of gaze Jesus gave Peter–did he look with hurt, or disappointment, or disapproval, or forgiveness? There is no answer because God did not give one. Was it a waste of time? By no means, but that time could have been better spent on Peter’s reaction because we have information on that. Rather than speculate on Jesus’ look for all that time, it would be more valuable to imagine the pain of Peter’s guilt. Why? Because such a thing touches our hearts too.

It is a sign of immaturity for people to angrily argue over the difference of speculation. One person who reads Luke 22:54-62 may think Jesus looked upon Peter with anger while another person may think Jesus looked upon Peter with forgiveness. Both interpretations are speculation because God did not clarify Jesus’ inner thoughts at that moment. They must agree on what is stated, Jesus looked at Peter, but they can disagree on their speculation. Neither of them should be so invested in their imagined speculation that they become heated over the topic. 

There are three levels of interpretation in bible study (in order of importance): observation–recognizing what the text of the Bible says, deduction–using logic and reason to interpret the meaning of the text, and speculation–suggesting an interpretation beyond the text or logic and reason. There is a place for all three, but we must recognize their ranks. 

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