Friday, June 17, 2011

Genesis and the Beginnings of Biblical Narrative

This Sunday Westminster Presbyterian Church begins a series on Genesis. While we have dibbled and dabbed in the Old Testament over recent years, this marks the first time in a while whereby we will explore the Pentateuch, i.e. first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The hope is to explore Exodus in the fall! That said, I scrolled through my previous writings and stumbled across this resource below, aware that as we approach Genesis it is imperative to take notice of the genre of narrative that provided a significant platform for this ancient text. This is important so to avoid doing violence to the text and reading out of or into Scripture what was never there in the first place.

Happy reading as we begin with the "book of beginnings"...

The biblical witness is compiled of a diverse set of literary forms and genres. It is imperative for the reader of Scripture to develop the skills necessary for the recognition of the related mediums used within to evoke the intended messages and meanings relevant not only to the world of Scripture, but also to the world of the reader. One of the primary literary forms that exists throughout Scripture is narrative. The biblical writers generate stories through the movements of characters within particular settings in order to interpret events and give meaning to realities. These narratives ultimately fit within the larger biblical story of God’s mission to and for God's people and creation. There are several key questions pertinent for the development of the skills and abilities necessary for the reader of biblical narrative. These questions will both challenge the reader’s approach to biblical narrative and enhance the ability to discern the intended meanings and representations of the related stories.

What is the difference between event and story?
This is a crucial question in the discipline of biblical studies and hermeneutics, i.e. interpretation, for the confusion of the two easily and often leads to a reading of the biblical witness external to the nature of the text and the natural function of the content. The primary distinction between event and story is that a story is the interpretation of an event(s) that formulates an understanding of the world and the related course through it (Bartholomew and Goheen 19). That is to say, events are what happened. Stories interpret what happened in order to illustrate what is happening and the intended relationship to past, present, and future readers (Ryken 83). The intention of story is to craft the characters, settings, and circumstances of an event in a particular arrangement for the communication of an interpreted idea (Ryken 81). Furthermore, events can elicit infinite stories intended to move the reader in a particular direction and affirm related metanarratives, i.e. large and overarching stories, and worldviews, i.e. how we interpret reality and human experience. The task of the reader is to carefully distinguish between event and story and maintain constant awareness of the personal biases and subjectivity (Fokkelman 25) that may affect honest readings of an event and infringe upon the proper intentions of a story.

The Scriptures incorporate a vast array of narratives that are uniquely crafted in efforts to interpret particular events for the movement of the theology, history, and mission of God and God's people. These narratives are representations of reality intended to communicate particular truths to the readers (Berlin 13). However, the truth of these stories and the truth of the depicted events are not one in the same (Bauckham 44; Berlin 14). In other words, the event of Israel’s captivity by Assyria is one truth; however, the narrative of Israel’s exile to the eastern nation as consequence for neglect of torah is another truth in light of the biblical witness.[1] The former is the true event; the latter is the true theological interpretation of the real event illustrated and framed by a much larger story (Schnittjer 16). When these truths are confused and the lines between story and event are blurred, the intended purposes, whether for history, theology, or others, are mistaken.[2]

How does biblical narration shape the meaning of, and interpret through representation, the events narrated?
Biblical narrative is a literary device and art form utilized to communicate meaning(s)(Berlin 135) to the reader(s).[3] The narrations within Scripture are carefully and creatively constructed with intentionality that goes beyond a report about given events. Instead, biblical narrative crafts events in a particular form for the sake of interpretation and representation pertinent especially, although not limited, to theology. Essentially, in order to inquire about the meaning(s) of biblical narrative, the reader must interact with the form, methods, settings, characters, activity, language, and intended audience of the story (Ryken 81). The reader of biblical narrative must understand not only the meaning of the story, i.e. content, but also how the meaning is illustrated, i.e. form (Fokkelman 29). This being the case, hermeneutical dialogue is critical to the proper interpretation and representation of biblical narrative (Fokkelman 24-25).

In biblical narrative the storytellers control not only what details and elements of the narrative readers see, but also how and when the readers see and interpret these components (Ryken 85). Literary devices such as repetition, highlighting, gaps, and analogy are activated with regularity to guide the reader in particular directions for the exposition of meanings (Ryken 83; Berlin 136-137). The narrators may also introduce commentaries through authorial assertions, i.e. narration external to the characters, and normative spokespersons, i.e. narration through a character within the story (Ryken 84-85). However, the conclusion of the narratives is often the most significant key to the interpretation of the meaning and the intended representation of the event(s). All of these devises are creatively included within the construction of biblical narrative and aid in the movement of both the thematic significance and the intellectual interpretation of the story.

One of the most significant concepts in the study of biblical narrative is that the characters, settings, movements, and activities within the story serve a greater purpose and carry heavier burdens than themselves (Ryken 83). The storytellers illustrate not only the reality of the characters involved, but also the reality in which the reader lives. Ryken comments, “The primary rule of narrative interpretation is thus the rule of significance: we assume that the writer intends to say something significant about reality and human experience” (82). This representation of reality and experience arrives only when the reader engages fully with the whole story and the related form (Ryken 86). In this, the reader gains greater insight into the storyteller’s intended meaning and suggested interpretation and representation of the illustrated events.

What should be the readers’ responsibility and posture toward scriptural narrative?
The reader of biblical narrative bears great responsibility in the realm of biblical interpretation. Each reader brings to the text an abundance of biases and preconceived notions about the narrative’s meaning and representation. This being said, the reader is to approach Scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion, aware of the tendency to read into Scripture an interpretation external to the true nature and movement of the text (Hays 219). However, readers are not to deny personal subjectivity; rather, they are to engage and employ it for the benefit of the biblical witness versus the private ideologies and objectives of the reader (Fokkelman 25). The discipline of such hermeneutics allows the mind of the reader to be transformed by the Gospel and opened to fresh perspectives and trusts in God’s promises made known and complete in the faithfulness of Jesus (Hays 220).

The reader is also to be wise and embrace a hermeneutic of trust. The biblical witness can often seem out of sync with reality and the promises contained within empty. Therefore, “a trusting hermeneutic is essential for all who believe the word of the resurrection but do not yet see death made subject to God…Our reliance on God entails a death to common sense, and our trust is validated only by the resurrection” (Hays 219). The reader of biblical narrative is indeed to be suspicious of his/her inability to comprehend and his/her potential to misread. However, as the Scriptures take shape in the lives of the reader, guided by God’s Spirit, a transformation begins and an ability to trust the text and the God sovereign over it occurs (Hays 221). The reader is encouraged to ask difficult questions and explore honest criticism related to biblical narrative (Hays 222). At the same time, the reader is to read with a hermeneutic of consent and trust that elevates the biblical witness over and against the reader and the related suspicions. Ultimately, we can only faithfully live into and trust the biblical witness because of the faithfulness of the Messiah and the reality of Jesus' resurrection. For the Christian, all biblical interpretation is subject and witness to this event and story.

How should biblical narrative shape us as readers?
Biblical narrative is to goad the reader into a fresh interpretation not only of how the world was, but also how the world is (Bartholomew and Goheen 18). There is no larger story than that which is told within the pages of Scripture. That is to say, the narrative world of Scripture is also the reader’s world; the biblical story is also the reader’s story (Jenson 32, 34). This story gives shape and meaning to the realities of the reader and his/her movements through the world. Furthermore, we live in a world saturated by stories and myths. What is needed is not an escape from this storied world; instead, the need exists to embrace a more ethical and redemptive story and witness that transforms a world obsessed with narratives of domination, oppression, and consumption. This is the story generated by the collection of narratives within the Christian Scriptures (Bauckham 46). The biblical story is the unifying element that holds together all other forms within Scripture (Bauckham 39) and tells the public story of the entire creation.

How, in summary, does biblical narrative work?
Biblical narrative functions as the literary device necessary to communicate God’s work of creation, justice, redemption, and reconciliation through his people for the sake of the world. Events, characters, settings, themes, and conflicts are juxtaposed against other stories and forms in efforts to generate the single coherent story of exodus and resurrection that runs throughout the entire biblical witness (Bauckham 43). Biblical narrative interprets the realities of the world and frames them in a particular context. This framed story invites readers to embrace it as their own and live into the witness as it continues to unfold and anticipate the consummation of the Lord’s covenantal promises of new creation. Ultimately, biblical narrative works to anticipate the story of the Messiah and God’s work of liberation and new creation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is the story of Scripture. This is our story. This is also the story of the whole world. As N.T. Write suggests, N.T. Wright, “‘the whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth’” (Bartholomew and Goheen 20).

[1] The entirety of Scripture hinges on the balance of event and story. Jenson explains, “The message of Jesus’ resurrection, the gospel, is a message about an event and so itself has the form of a narrative…The church reads her Scripture as a single plotted succession of events, stretching from creation to consummation, plotted around exodus and resurrection” (29).
[2] This is nowhere more evident than when the creation and flood stories are utilized for the purposes of science and history. Many well-intended students interpret these elements primarily as events, much to the neglect of their inclusion for the sake of biblical story and theology. Berlin comments, “…we are conscious that art is representation, but we forget that literature is, too. When we read narrative, especially biblical narrative, we are constantly tempted to mistake mimesis for reality- to take as real that which is only a representation of reality. And, conversely, we may be blind to a piece of the narrative picture because we are unaware of how it is being represented” (14).
[3] Fokkelman reminds students of the plurality of meaning within biblical narrative, “We constantly run the risk- whether during our first or our thirtieth reading of the story- of thinking: I’ve got it! So this is what the story is about!” (26).

Works Cited