You’ve probably heard the joke about a man who wanted direction from God, so he flipped open his Bible and randomly placed his finger in it. His hand rested over, “Judas went and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5). Trying again, he landed on, “You, go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Needless to say, he didn’t find quite what he’d been hoping for.
Most of us aren’t that haphazard when it comes to reading Scripture, but in our desire for truth, our desperation for guidance, or our questions about why God does what he does, we may similarly mishandle God’s Word, leaving us to “go and do likewise” in ways Scripture doesn’t actually prescribe.
This is particularly common when it comes to narrative passages. Constituting over two-thirds of the biblical text, stories make up a great deal of the Bible. On some level, we know that the people in them aren’t simply bad or good examples of how to live. I’m fairly certain Judas isn’t a model to follow when I’ve sinned against God, but what about Rahab when she lies on behalf of Israel’s spies (Joshua 2) or Peter when he steps out of the boat in the storm (Matt. 14)? How are we supposed to apply these stories to our lives?
Description is not the same as recommendation.
It’s here that an interpretive principle for narrative passages guides us. Sometimes stated as “description is not prescription,” this principle explains that a biblical narrative’s presence doesn’t necessarily imply approval of its contents. Description is not the same as recommendation. But in the absence of explicit commentary from the biblical author, how can we sort out what to apply from each story?
1. Respect the genre.
First, it helps to understand what a narrative is. Narratives are not morality tales, but real stories about real people making real decisions. As such, they’re not necessarily intended to prescribe a pattern for our actions. But they are written for our instruction, showing us truth and helping us live in response to it.
The entirety of Scripture was written to reveal our need for God and how he has given himself to us as Savior. Because of this, every passage—including every narrative—is either showing us something about God or something about our need for him. When we approach a narrative, we should consider what it says about these subjects rather than forcing our own questions on it or hoping for a script of actions to follow.
For example, the story of Gideon and his fleece in Judges 6 is often referenced as a paradigm for discerning God’s will. Gideon asks God to do miraculous signs with the fleece so he can feel confident about God’s leading. God grants these requests rather than condemning them, therefore, we conclude, “God approves! This is the biblical way to ask for guidance.” But is that what the passage actually intends to show us?
A closer look at Judges 6 does not reveal a Gideon who is desperately trying to figure out what God wants, but a Gideon who has already been told that God is with him (v. 12, 16) and that he should go and save Israel (v. 14). Moreover, Gideon has already been given a miraculous sign (vv. 20–23), which he acknowledges when he asks for the additional signs with a fleece sometime later (v. 36). The story of Gideon’s fleece has nothing to do with how to make a godly decision, and Gideon is not a poster child for good decision-making. Instead, we see a man full of doubt, worry, and anxiety in need of reassurance, and a God full of patience and gentleness. It shows us God’s willingness to bear with his people’s fear even in the face of direct promises.
Narratives are not necessarily intended to prescribe a pattern for our actions. But they are written for our instruction.
And is this not better than a set of actions to follow to ensure that our decisions are acceptable to God? How might it relieve our anxiety if we approach decision-making with this view of God? He is patient with our anxiety and gentle when we predictably doubt and question what to do. God will surely hear our indecision and worry with kindness and graciousness, working in our lives even when we’re scared.
2. Look to the rest of Scripture.
We’re also given the rest of Scripture to aid us in interpreting narrative passages. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture clarifies narratives in two ways.
First, there are many parts of Scripture that are intended to prescribe our actions. We can let these passages evaluate the actions within narratives. In the case of Gideon and the fleece, we might turn to Proverbs 3:5–6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” These verses prescribe trust in the Lord instead of our own analysis of a situation. Since Gideon is not readily willing to trust God’s instruction, we can discern that his actions are not necessarily a model to follow.
Second, we can lean on Scripture’s own interpretation of a passage. Is the narrative spoken of elsewhere? Are the people’s actions within it referenced in praise or condemnation? For example, we find Gideon in the list of people commended for living by faith in Hebrews 11, and indeed, we do see him exhibit faith in God in Judges 6–7.
But we must also be careful here. Being mentioned in Hebrews 11 is not the same as blanket approval. Many of those who are referenced did morally questionable or even obviously sinful things. They are not being commended for all their life choices but for recognizing their need for God and his provision of himself as Savior—the very same things that each narrative is designed to show us.
It’s not a mistake that the majority of God’s revelation is in narrative form. Although not written as an instruction manual, these narratives do inform our actions and theology. They speak to our true needs and draw us into deeper knowledge of God himself. May we learn to read them well so that we can faithfully follow the loving God who gave them to us.