An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 1)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 1)

PC: Author Hebrews / via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever come across an interesting detail in the Bible and wondered why it was included? Or have you noticed repeated phrases and pondered the reasoning? Or maybe you have stumbled upon an intriguing plot and doubted its fitness in Scripture.

The truth is, the Bible is full of all kinds of intriguing themes, styles, and characters, and none of it is superfluous or unfit. Every single detail in Scripture is important to the grand scheme of conveying the message of salvation, and a close look at any Bible passage will reveal the intentional thinking behind its writing.

Of course, no one person can possibly comprehend the full message another individual seeks to covey–whether verbally or in writing. The Bible is no exception here, which means that its message cannot be fully unpacked, nor its meaning exhausted.

However, humans are capable of enough mutual understanding to establish meaningful relationships and to grasp the essence of communication. The Bible is no exception here either. As we read it, we naturally seek to understand its meaning and relevance for us. Therefore, each reader of Scripture is automatically an interpreter. The better equipped we are to study it, the more clearly we will understand it, and the more deeply it will speak to us.

Let’s pause here for a moment and ask: what is the Bible?

Much has been written on this, and much more could be said. In short, and for the purpose of this series, I will define the Bible as the revelation of God’s character and of the story of humankind. Through Scripture, we learn our origin, our purpose, and our destiny–all of them profoundly bound with God’s Self-revelation and His choice to speak to us in human language.

The Bible—a collection of sixty-six books, written by human authors inspired by God, has been the most transformational book ever written. It has also been the most translated, the most challenged, and possibly the most misunderstood.

The biblical books are written in a variety of literary genera, such as narrative, poetry, parables, genealogies, letters, prophecy, wisdom, and law. Learning how to analyze a passage based on the literary features specific to each genera has an incredible potential to help us uncover the spiritual depth of its message. Through a series of articles on narrative analysis, I hope to offer you some tools that you can use whenever you study a narrative passage.

I would liken the study of biblical narratives to going on a treasure hunt. You need to engage in a pursuit in which you have to follow clues that will bring you to a surprising discovery. At least, that has often been my experience when reading biblical narratives. It’s hard work, and it requires time and perseverance, but it is also engaging and thoroughly rewarding.

Learning how to do narrative analysis is also like learning how to play a musical instrument–the piano, for example. At first you learn what the keyboard is composed of and how the different elements work together. As you begin to play it, the first sounds are few and technical. Yet with time and with practice, the music develops into spectacular and sophisticated works of art. Just like playing an instrument requires both art and science, so a narrative study call for both. Before we get to do art, we need to learn the science of that art. As we keep practicing, both our knowledge and art deepen and enhance each other.

If a piano keyboard has white and black keys, and music has harmony, rhythm, refrain, etc., a story has different elements too, such as characters, actions, plot, and settings. These tell us that someone does something sometimes, somewhere, and somehow. To understand the story, we look mainly at these five elements: who (the characters) does what and how (actions and plot), when and where (temporal and spatial settings).

The “behind the scenes” piano cords are the structure and stylistic features of a story. We don’t see them at the surface, but as we trace the writing process through some technical work, we see how the whole behind-the-scenes supports the art and the overall message.

An important aspect of narrative study to mention is the historical nature of the narratives. There are different views on biblical stories nowadays. Some people take these to be historical, and some don’t. Many see most Bible stories as merely human folklore, and some emphasize almost exclusively the message to the original audience, while others underline the universal meaning (often times by allegorizing the text and/or deriving meaning without regard to context).

It is also not uncommon for some Christian theologians of various strands, as well as Christian lay members in different denominations, to determine the historicity of biblical narratives based on whether the events are credible or can be proven through correspondence with current events, whether they believe God transcends time and is involved in history or not, or whether the morality of the events is in line with what they see as ethical.

This conversation, relevant as it is, would require entire books. I will leave it aside except to mention it in passing, and to clarify that, alongside mainstream Adventism, I believe that the events in Scripture are historical unless the text clearly indicates otherwise. Thus, some stories are fiction (such as the account of the ten virgins waiting for the groom), but only very few, and only where the context of the narrative indicates so. Most (if not all) of the fictional stories fall under the category of “parables,” which are generally considered different genera altogether. While the narrative analysis applies to these, added elements of interpretation are required in order to grasp their biblical meaning.

What will this series cover, then? The following list will give you an idea of the kinds of elements we will dwell on: characters and characterization, actions, plot, settings, props, stylistic features, narrative techniques, and literary structures. Some elements may be added, and some may be restructured, but, overall, these are some of the key concepts in narrative analysis. The series will be far from exhaustive, but hopefully will help you learn how to study the Scripture more thoroughly and appreciate its message more deeply.

Evidently, since this is all about Scripture, a theological message will always accompany the text. I believe that any careful analysis will consistently yield fruitful results in this regard. Our ultimate goal in studying the Bible in-depth is to learn more about who God is, who we are, and what the divine-human relationship has the potential to accomplish through the grace of God.

It is also important to mention that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is crucial in every Bible study endeavor, and acquiring tools should never replace the need for prayer and seeking divine illumination. The temptation to become self-confident and forget to place our confidence first and foremost in God is there whenever we are empowered and equipped. I hope you will never forget that God is ultimately the best guide, and that even the most helpful tools and skills can only lead us so far unless we place them in humility at the cross. God must be present in our process of studying His Self-revelation.

Because I am a firm believer in practicing the theory, I would love to see the Compass Magazine readers come together to practice what we learn, on a Bible passage right here, in the magazine’s comments section. With this goal in mind, I will likely suggest a story at the end of each article as a starting point for applying the tools learned. We will have to see how this unfolds, but my hope is that we can engage in some narrative analysis together.

Whether you will try it on here, or on your own with a passage of your choice, I trust that if you try it, you will be pleased with the discoveries you make. Treasure after treasure of spiritual truth will enrich your experience of knowing God more deeply, and will draw you closer to Him. I know that hidden gems are waiting to be found, and I hope you are ready for some adventures in Scripture.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on Biblical narrative analysis

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About the author


Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.