Hermeneutics,  Scripture

Reading Bible Stories the Wrong Way

Everyone loves stories. And we all enjoy stories in a variety of ways. We watch movies, read books, or simply tell stories to each other about our daily lives. Although some stories are more epic than others, stories are an essential part of us. We cannot escape them.

The majority of the Bible is written in story form. This means that when you read the Bible, you have the highest probability that you will be reading a narrative of some kind. Because we are surrounded by stories all the time, one would think we would understand the Bible better—if for no other reason than our familiarity with stories. However, we often struggle in the Bible’s narrative texts because we are not sure what the application is for our own life. This often leads to reading Bible stories in the wrong way.

Reading Yourself into the Bible Story

The most common approach to Bible stories is to read yourself into that story. We read the story of Goliath and we see ourselves as David overcoming the giants of our own life. We read about Samson’s struggle against the Philistines and are tempted to make an analogy of our conflict against evil. As modern readers, we tend to read the biblical stories with a focus on ourselves and imagining ourselves in the situation. We will either use it as a template of what to do or, alternatively, what not to do.

For example, in Judges 6 we read about the story of Gideon. Gideon asks God for a sign to prove that God is truly 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 that God is indeed with him (vv. 39-40). How are we to apply this text?

Many will take this text as a example of how we can know the will of God. Many Christians have taken Gideon’s actions as a template for how they can ask God to reveal His will. Perhaps you’ve heard the statement, “I’m just putting out a fleece,” which derives from this story. This statement indicates that we expect that God will provide clear direction through a sign we have asked for. One humorous example I heard one time was where someone prayed, “If you want me to do this Lord, please have someone call me at 4 PM today so I know it is your will.” But is this how we should be reading the story of Gideon? Is the intention of the author for us to know how to discern God’s will?

Similarly, 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?

Many a pastor has preached Genesis 39 as a template for how to resist sexual temptation. It is not uncommon to hear a pastor preach Joseph’s story under the title, “Five strategies for staying sexually pure.” Is there anything wrong with this approach? How do we know whether it is right or wrong?

Critiquing the Need to Read Yourself into a Bible Story

I would like to suggest that the problem with reading yourself into Bible stories is that we end up adapting the stories for our own purposes instead of using it to communicate what the author intends. The power of Scripture is found in its meaning, from which appropriate application can be drawn. But in order to find proper application we need to first recognize the meaning of what is being said in the text.

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 my buddy’s purpose in telling the story, after he is done telling me the story, I blurt out, “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, my friend probably punches me and leaves me gasping for air. I obviously missed the reason he was telling me his story. He had a reason he was telling me the story, and if I allow myself free reign to take whatever meaning I want from the story, I will certainly be off track.

The Proper Approach to Applying a Bible Story

In the above example, Joe tells me a story for a specific reason. Specifically, he wants 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! Everyone (I hope) understands that one is not allowed to just ignore the reason someone is telling you a story.

In a similar way, biblical authors (like all communicators) have a purpose behind their stories. The application of the story is often built into the story itself. In other words, there is a desired reaction or outcome that the author wants in telling a story.

Take the previous two examples. The story of Gideon in Judges 6 is not about how we can seek 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. Gideon was not trusting God, and even more, he was testing God (which is forbidden in Deut 6:16). The point of the story is not a “how to” but a demonstration of God’s faithfulness against the backdrop of faithlessness.

Similarly, 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.

As a caveat, I’m not saying the story of Joseph can’t be used as an illustration of what it looks like to flee sexual temptation. I’m also not saying that a preacher should never talk about sexual temptation when going through the Genesis 39 narrative. I will even add that it is important to learn from the examples of Old Testament saints (cf. 1 Cor 10:6; Rom 15:4). Some Old Testament narratives do seem to ask the inherent question about which kind of man or woman will you be? But not all of them, or even most of them! The main point I want to make is that narrative often has a built-in application to it, often teaching us something about God or about His plan for the world. Sometimes we are far removed from the story, but an appropriate application is a deep appreciation and worship of the creative genius of the Most High God.

What’s the Big Deal?

The issue is whether 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 we are reading God’s Word correctly. We do not believe that the ends justify the means. Just because we say something that is true or theologically accurate does not mean that the narrative text before us supports that point.

We should believe that God is concerned about the process in which we glean our application. Not just the application itself. Rather than simply reading stories for content we can emulate or directly apply, 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 and apply them. When we depart from that authorial intent of the Bible stories, we depart from God’s intended application for our life.

Photo: Envato Elements

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.

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