How Not to Read Bible Stories

stories in a book pictureEveryone loves stories. We like watching movies, reading books, or simply talking to each other about our lives. Stories are a part of us, we cannot escape them.

The majority of the Bible is made up of stories. Because we are surrounded by stories all the time, one would think we would understand the Bible better, if for no other reason than the fact that the Bible contains stories. However, we often struggle in narrative passages because we are not sure what the application is for our own life. This often leads to reading Bible stories in the wrong way.

A Faulty Approach to Applying Bible Stories

The most common approach to Bible stories is to read yourself in the story. We read the story of Goliath and we see ourselves as David overcoming the giants of our own life. We read the story with ourselves as the main focus. Take the following examples.

In Judges 6 we read the story of Gideon. Gideon asks God for a sign to indicate that God truly is with him (Judg 6:36-37). God obliges and gives Gideon the sign (v. 38). Next, Gideon asks God to reverse the sign so that he knows for sure God is with him (vv. 39-40). How are we to apply this text?

In Genesis 39:6-18 we come upon the story of Joseph and his encounter with Potiphar’s wife. She tries to seduce Joseph, and he ends up in jail because he refuses. How are we to apply this text?

In our efforts to apply Bible stories, we often come up with our own personal application templates. It is not uncommon to preach the story of Gideon with a title of, “How to know the will of God.” Likewise, Joseph’s story is often preached with a title of, “Five strategies for staying sexually pure.” Is there anything wrong with this approach? How do we know whether it is right or wrong?

I would like to suggest that the problem with this approach is that in the above examples we are adapting the stories for our own purposes instead of using it to communicate what the author intends.

Let’s say, for example, that my friend Joe and I are having a conversation. Joe wants to impress me so he tells me about how he is the fastest runner in California, holding the record in the 400m. He tells me his story about training every day to accomplish this feat, culminating in running the record-setting race. In the process of telling his story, Joe tells me that he wears Nike shoes as a peripheral detail.

Rather than recognizing Joe’s purpose in telling the story, after he is done telling me the story, I say, “Wow, so what you’re telling me is I should wear Nike shoes and then I will be the fastest runner in California!” At this point, Joe just shakes his head and walks away. I obviously missed the reason he was telling me his story.

The Proper Approach to Applying Bible Stories

In the above example, Joe is tells me a story for a specific reason (to display his greatness in running). However, I used his story for my own purposes. I adapted it and changed the intent of the story. The problem is that proper communication does not work like that!

Biblical authors (like all communicators) have a purpose behind their stories. The application of the story is necessarily built into the story itself.

Take the previous two examples. The story of Gideon in Judges 6 is not about seeking God’s will. Rather, it is a demonstration that God preserves His people despite their faithless lack of courage. God is the hero of Gideon’s story because He works through Gideon’s weakness and inability to trust God.

The story of Joseph is not about how to avoid sexual temptation. Rather, it is a story about how God uses His sovereign hand to prepare the means to save His people and keep His promises. God shows Himself to be the promise-keeping God, even through the wicked intentions of Joseph’s brothers.

Why Does This Matter?

The issue is whether or not we are using God’s Word as He intended us to use it. Just because we are “getting something good” out of the stories doesn’t mean that is the right way of using God’s Word. We do not believe that the ends justify the means. Therefore, we believe that God is concerned about the process in which we glean our application. Not just the application itself.

Rather than simply applying stories as being prescriptive for our own lives we would do well to remember the phrase: description is not the same as prescription. The power of the stories in the Bible revolve around using them the way the author intended his audience to use them. When we depart from that authorial intent of the Bible stories, we depart from God’s intended application for our life.

photo credit: ClaraDon via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.


  • Kenneth Feinberg

    Pete, I agree wholeheartedly. I thank God for young men like you, Josh, and Jason for helping me with reading in context, and authorial intent. However, may one use that small part of the Joseph story, for example, to use as good advice on staying sexually pure, without taking away from purpose of the text in its entirety? An honest question. Thanks.

    • Peter Goeman

      That is a great and important question, Kenny. In response I think there are two things to keep in mind. First, there is a specific reason a story is given to us. That is the authorial intent of a story. However, in line with that, stories may also serve as examples of how to act. For example, Hebrews 11 and 1 Cor 10 both use Old Testament characters as examples/illustrations. The key is to be able to bring out the main point as the main point, and bring out the “sub-themes” as sub-themes.

      For example, if I was preaching on sexual purity, I would probably use 2 Tim 2:22, and as an illustration of that I could use Joseph’s reaction. However, I think if we try to find “4 Principles from Joseph and Potiphar’s wife which Result in Sexual Purity” then we are probably putting the emphasis in the wrong place, since God wrote that portion of Scripture for other purposes.

      Where this issue also gets tricky is that in stories often we are not told whether it is a good example or a bad example. In this post, for instance, Gideon did something that many people applaud, but it seems that it is not a godly thing to do (testing God). Hence, in using people/stories as examples for our lives, we should use the stories to illustrate principles that are prescribed directly in commands from God in other places. Hope that makes sense. I always welcome your feedback and questions. I have much love for you and your family!

  • Jason

    Amen, I often tell people when reading the Gospels we need to not be so quick to think we’re the disciples but probably the crowds and Pharisees. GREAT post!

  • Peter Goeman

    I was messaged on Twitter today with an example of a time when an author DOES invite us to apply a story personally:

    @petergoeman:disqus I think we are to enter the end of Jonah story. What would we do? Go into the city & do follow up? Or continue to sit & pout?

    I think this is definitely one place where the author does invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of Jonah. That is the reason the book ends on a question.