“Everyone loves a good story.” I think this old adage is true because readers can envision the setting painted by the writer’s words. They can see similarities and differences between themselves and a story’s characters. They can get caught up in the plot as they imagine the characters’ conversations and actions. Therefore, biblical counselors would do well to become very familiar with the stories in the Bible. They can use the stories to illustrate principles for godly living (or warnings against ungodly living) for their counselees. However, to do this responsibly, there are important guidelines to follow. In this post, I explore those guidelines.
Old Testament narratives relay to us the story of how God accomplished His plan of redemption through events of human history. In order to understand the usefulness of its narratives, some basic questions should be pondered:
Most Old Testament stories have no explicit mention of their purpose. How can their purpose be discerned?
According to the New Testament, all of God’s purposes for His kingdom and His people center on Jesus Christ—but the Old Testament stories have no explicit mention of Christ and His role in God’s plan. How can we draw legitimate connections between the Old Testament story and the ministry or teachings of Christ?
All Old Testament stories reflect the culture in which they were originally created—a culture very different from that of the New Testament and our own. How can we make the necessary cultural adjustments?
These questions underscore an important truth: Old Testament stories were written for us, but not about us! I suggest that answers to these questions can be formulated if you study a biblical story in terms of several layers of context.
1 – The literary context refers to how the author constructed his story. When considering the literary context of an Old Testament story, remember:
(a) Individual Old Testament stories do not necessarily contain a “moral” by themselves. Seek to understand how each episode in a larger narrative contributes to the main point of the book in which it is found. Why did the writer include this story in this part of his book?
(b) Old Testament stories contain many details for the sake of the story; do not attribute more significance to the details than is warranted. The ultimate question is: What point is illustrated by the story as a whole?
(c) Old Testament stories record actual historical events, but the writers’ intention was not merely to report facts. They interpreted the facts of history to make specific points about God’s purposes in those events so as to provoke specific responses in their audiences. Because their purpose was not merely to report a series of events, sometimes they rearranged the chronological order of the events or omitted certain details in order to make their points clearer.
2 – The historical context refers to what was occurring in the lives of the author’s audience when he wrote the story. It also takes into consideration the cultural customs of the people. When considering the historical context of an Old Testament story, remember:
Old Testament stories, generally speaking, fulfill one or more of the following purposes:
(a) They reveal God’s character, purposes, and activities throughout history. What did the original audience need to know about God’s character or plan, which the stories illustrate?
(b) They establish an identity for His people. What did the original audience need to remember about their identity as God’s people?
(c) They establish grounds for our trust in and obedience to God. How should have the original audience viewed their responsibilities in their situation?
3 – The third layer of context I will call the canonical (or, redemptive-historical) context. “Canonical” is a word used to describe the Bible as our final standard for faith (what we believe) and practice (how we live). “Redemptive-historical” refers to the idea that the Bible reveals God’s redemptive plan progressively in human history. I’m using them to mean the same thing, because our standard for faith and practice (the canon of Scripture) has been given to us by God in a historical record (the stories of the Old and New Testaments). When considering the canonical (redemptive-historical) context of an Old Testament story, remember:
Old Testament stories are part of God’s progressive revelation of His plan of redemption for His people. Because they are early in this progressive revelation, we should be sensitive to how later revelation might alter their application.
(a) What was the period in which the events of the story took place?
(b) What was the period in which the author was writing his book?
(c) What responses were expected by the author for the nation of Israel or for selected groups or individuals within Israel?
(d) Do later biblical writers also write about the themes or expectations in this passage?
(e) How might these expectations be affected by the ministry & teaching of Jesus (told in the Gospels and explained further in the rest of the New Testament)? Are the themes in the stories elaborated in the New Testament?
Remember: Every application of Scripture should be understood as a personal response to Jesus Christ.
4 – The personal context relates the content of the biblical story to the present—you’re life. When considering the personal context remember:
Old Testament stories reflect the culture of the characters and/or the authors. Culture-specific actions or thinking by the stories’ characters is not required of you today.
(a) What elements of that culture, different from your culture, are present?
(b) What elements of that culture, similar to your culture, are present?
(c) Does removing the different cultural elements also eliminate the rationale behind the actions taking place in the story?
Some characters in Old Testament stories are positive examples, and others are negative examples. However, the biblical writers do not always indicate which are positive and which are negative.
(d) If the writer intended for a character to be an example, then you can use the character as an example.
(e) If you find a series of repeated actions by godly characters, especially if they receive God’s blessing, then you can follow their example.
(f) If you read about an isolated act, especially one without divine approval, then you should not assume the character’s action is an example to follow.
(g) If no principle taught elsewhere in Scripture supports an isolated action by a character, then you should not assume the character’s action is an example to follow. Notice, then: Do not mindlessly imitate details in biblical stories; look for principles behind the actions of characters in the stories.
Applications from Old Testament stories could touch all areas of your life.
(h) Should you think differently? If so, what specifically should change?
(i) Should you act differently? If so, what specifically should change?
(j) Should you feel or be motivated differently? If so, what specifically should change?
(k) What obstacles to making these changes might you encounter?
(l) Do you need help in facilitating the change in your life? How will you secure the help?
As you use the lessons from Old Testament narratives to yourself, you will be better equipped to share those lessons with counselees. Not only do people love a good story, by God’s grace, they can be changed by it too!
Join the Conversation
What Old Testament narratives have you found particularly helpful? For what issues in counselee’s lives?