Recommunication of Biblical Narrative

Our journey through Preaching the Old Testament brings us next to Jeffrey D. Arthurs’ article, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives.” This is a topic that is receiving much attention these days, especially in the blogosphere. Here at Expository Thoughts, Paul has already addressed this topic here, and elsewhere I have addressed it here, here, and here. So, we won’t spend too much time on the topic.

Arthurs’ thesis, which reminds me of something my old friend Dan Dumas would say, is this:

Paying attention to how the text communicates helps us understand how we can recommunicate.

That is, to preach OT narrative well, the preacher must understand how it is constructed literarily in such a way as to persuade “by way of art, not argument” (74). Thus, Arthurs believes that narratives are more than theology, they are literary-rhetorical texts. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the preacher to understand how the literary devices of plot, character, and setting affect the rhetorical impact of the text.

Plot

As defined by Arthurs, plot is “the causally linked chain of events in a story that moves a conflict from disequilibrium to resolution” (75). Giving attention, then, to the details of how the story is purposefully developed by the author allows the preacher to retell the story remembering that “much of the rhetorical force of narrative—suspense and engagement—lies in plot.” He thus exhorts, “Leverage the power the Lord has already put into the text” (79). One practical way he gives to do this is to retell the story as it is presented in the text, with few interruptions. Waiting until the end of the story to bring home the ultimate point would be rhetorically a way to do this.

Character

Character is “the depiction of the persons in the story, including all of their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual attributes” (79). For the preacher, it is important to note the textual clues that are significant in developing character, e.g. names and titles of individuals, physical descriptions, and foils (such as Orpah or Lot).

Setting

The time and place of a narrative, i.e. its setting, serves two rhetorical functions: sparking one’s imagination and associating a narrative with the larger context of Scripture. I agree completely with the latter function, but I would be more cautious than Arthurs in appealing to the imagination of those reading the text or hearing my sermon. In light of the nature of texts, such quotes as the following make me a little nervous:

Readers of Old Testament narrative hear the sounds of wind in the desert, smell the aromas of the temple, and feel the lurch of the waves shove the tiny ships of that day. (83)

For the preacher unaccustomed to preaching (or for that matter reading) OT narrative with recourse to its literary devices, there are a plethora of contemporary sources out there, especially in the growing area of the literary approach. A simple search of Amazon or the like would reveal how much there is out there. However, let me give you some resources that have been beneficial to me. One of the most basic, helpful articles I have read is the following:

  • Simon Bar-Efrat. “Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 30 (1980): 154–73.

This article is a great place to start before going to his book, Narrative Art in the Bible, or to Alter’s book, The Art of Biblical Narrative. For the preacher who may want to stretch himself a little, I recommend the following:

  • Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

Or for the even more daring…

  • Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

As the title states, Frei’s monograph is not a how-to, but rather a study in hermeneutics. It is sure to challenge all who read it.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Scott on February 7, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Randy,

    Thank you for crystallizing some thoughts about how to preach narrative that have been swirling loosely around in my head. I appreciate greatly your succinct contributions.

    Grace,
    scott

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