Preach the Artistry of the Narratives

Two weeks ago, I urged preachers to preach the narratives of the Bible, rather than focusing merely on the more didactic passages. Last week I argued that they should preach the ambivalence of the narratives, being careful not to try to smooth out their seemingly rough edges. This week, I want to focus on the artistry of the narratives.

The biblical narratives communicate their message through the skillful use of various literary techniques. Fail to appreciate that artistry and you risk misunderstanding those texts completely.

For example, we saw the other day how the meaning of Elijah’s name was used as the central theme of 1 Kings 18. The reader who appreciates this pun understands immediately that Elijah’s singular mission is to call the people of Israel to affirm that their God is the LORD. Biblical narratives often traffic in such wordplays, using an individual’s name as a kind of shorthand for his or her character.

Gustave Doré's Depiction of Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

There are even times when a change in character is expressed by a change in name, such as when Jacob is renamed Israel. The name Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” and captures perfectly Jacob’s early penchant for undermining his rivals through deception and trickery, like a wrestler who trips up his opponent rather than overpowering him. After an epic wrestling match with a heavenly figure, Jacob is renamed Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” The implication is that Jacob’s life is now primarily marked by faith in God rather than mere subterfuge. Yet note how the two names both call to mind the act of wrestling. It is this continuity of imagery which communicates the contrast of character.

The examples of such narrative artistry are legion, but I’ll point out just one more. The story of David and Goliath makes similar use of contrast. Goliath is a gigantic specimen, a seasoned warrior, with custom-made armor and weaponry, and a shield-bearer who assists him in battle. David is merely “a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance” (1 Samuel 17:42 ESV). He has no battlefield experience, is equipped with nothing but a staff and sling, and enters battle completely alone. The humorous episode in which Saul tries to put his own armor on David only serves to underscore David’s lack of stature and experience. Yet it also contrasts his simple courage with Saul’s cowardice. We know from previous narratives that Saul is himself exceptionally tall and courageous in battle. Yet when he sees a warrior whose prowess exceeds his own, his courage fails him. All of these points of contrast with taller, stronger, more experienced warriors only serve to reinforce the central message of the text: namely, that the battle belongs to the LORD.

When we preach and teach the narratives, we must make every effort to help our listeners appreciate this kind of literary artistry. Doing so accomplishes a number of important goals.

First, it teaches them by example how to interpret and understand biblical narratives for themselves. The more the preacher or teacher focuses on important literary features such as characterization, contrast, wordplays, repetition, and the like, the more his listeners will begin to appreciate those features in their own reading of Scripture.

Second, when we bring out the literary features of the text itself, we are much less likely to impose our own assumptions on the text, or to focus too much attention on minor elements in the text, or to make the text say what we want it to say. By explaining the literary devices a narrative uses, we ensure that we are teaching what the text is actually saying.

Third, bringing out the literary artistry of the text can simplify one of the most challenging aspects of sermon-building: developing the sermon’s structure. Too many sermons depend on some formulaic structure into which the text is made to fit. If the text has one central message, but the preacher feels he must deliver a three-point sermon, he ends up elevating secondary elements of the text to the level of primary points. If, however, he allows the structure of the narrative to dictate the structure of his sermon, he simplifies his own preparation and increases his fidelity to the text.

Finally, discovering the literary artistry of a narrative is interesting and fun. Just as we enjoy discussing the plot twists and character development of a good movie or book, we enjoy learning about these elements in the biblical narratives. We all know the story of David and Goliath, but we can experience it anew through sermons which help us appreciate the literary devices that drive the narrative forward. Such sermons give us the “aha” experience that can lead to new insight.

In short, by preaching the artistry of the narratives, a preacher can help his audience develop the “eyes to see.”

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