One of the most common treatments of narrative passages in scripture is in moralizing biblical narrative. We read how David contains great moral fortitude and is a man after God’s own heart; we deduce Esther as a virtuous role model for women; we determine Job as a righteous man because he did not sin or charge God with blame in his trials.
Yet on the opposing side of these character highlights we find equally detrimental character flaws. David made no qualms sending Uriah to his death in order to take Bathsheba for his own after committing adultery with her. Whether or not Esther had conjugal relations with Xerxes is up for debate – but she certainly was in violation of Mosaic Law regarding intermarriage with pagan nations. Job, though not charging God with blame in his trials, certainly found rebuke from the Lord for questioning His ways.
Surely, moral precepts should be drawn from the text. There is also nothing wrong with asking if we ought to emulate certain traits of biblical characters. However, we must ask if such principles serve the purpose of the text. The question ultimately comes down to how we understand interpreting certain genres in Scripture, in this case, narrative. While this might be indicative of other factors (i.e. moralistic-therapeutic deism) it seems the hermeneutic driving such a reading becomes a means to identify with the characters in these narrative accounts. Sadly, this type of reading does not serve the text and warps the perspective of Scripture to be man-focused.
Modern readers often tend to read themselves into the text. This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is a widely recognized tool authors use to connect with readers. It does seem Scripture has no problems doing such a thing as well – but we tend to read ourselves in a more positive light than the Bible does. Secondly, this is a dangerous precedent simply by virtue of the result that often comes with such a hermeneutic: we make ourselves the central character of the Scriptures, which then results in an understanding which dictates the central story-line is about us. Nothing could be further from the truth though, for Scripture reveals the central character to be the redemptive, Triune Lord. In this then, God’s activity in human history is for us, but not about us – it’s about God.
For our example, let’s take the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50.
Throughout this entire chunk of narrative, we can point to several moral principles:
- Joseph’s family blatantly sins against one another (lying, favoritism, arrogance, betrayal).
- Joseph flees from Potiphar’s wife (sexual purity, withstanding temptation).
- Joseph’s continual rise as an authority figure in Egypt (diligence, honesty, integrity).
- Joseph teaches us the value of preparation (wisdom, shrewdness, foresight).
- Joseph’s brothers realizing their sins (conviction, repentance).
- Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers (kindness, empathy).
However, what Moses presents through this discourse seems to illustrate an altogether different purpose: the Lord’s active hand in everything. Notice how drastically different the focus becomes when we allow the text to bring forth the point rather than reading a man-centered focus upon it.
- God caused Joseph to prosper in Potiphar’s household and also gave blessing to Potiphar (Gen. 39:2-6).
- God granted favor to him while in prison so that he was responsible for all that was done there (39:21-23).
- God gave Joseph the interpretations of the Pharaoh’s dreams (40:8, 41:16, 39).
- God caused both the prosperity and subsequent famine in Egypt (41:28).
- God gave Joseph authority over all of Egypt (41:39-41).
- God uncovered the guilt of the brothers (44:16).
Yet most importantly, it is revealed why all of this took place in chapters 45 and 46:
But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God (45:7-8).
And again with God speaking to Israel (Jacob):
“I am God, the God of your father,” He said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes” (46:3-4).
And again in the closing remarks of Joseph on his deathbed:
I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (50:24).
The larger purpose of this story is not found within how Joseph honored the Lord. That is incredibly pertinent – yet the main focus is always upon what the Lord is doing in lieu of His redemptive plan. In particular here, we see God shaping the very reality of time and space by directly interfering with people’s lives in order to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant. The narrative then becomes about God’s covenant faithfulness and the surety of His promises.
We see this evident in every instance of Israel’s exile. God judges His unfaithful covenant nation for the sake of His glory, yet God brings salvation in order to make evident His supreme glory through the fulfillment of His covenant promises.
Hebrews 11 records something similar by introducing readers to the forerunners of God’s promises. The nature of this passage is not to tout their ability to live morally; righteousness and faith are not described in this measure. Instead, their righteousness is accredited through faith, being confidence in the hope and assurance of the promises of God, which we do not currently see. Thus, these men and women were no moral giants; they held dearly to the future promises of the Lord by living in obedience to His commands.
Over all of this is the united theme presenting God as the ultimate victor, ordaining all things to accomplish His purposes and fulfill that which He has promised. Due to this, His people endure in doing good works, which God prepared beforehand, for the purpose of His glory. If they fail in doing those good works, yet turn to Him in repentance – God is faithful to fulfill His promises and manifest His glory in the salvation of sinners. Regardless of man’s continual ability to fail gloriously, Scripture depicts God working in spite of mankind in order to remain faithful to His covenant promises.
Thus, we can echo Paul in 1 Tim. 1:15-16 by saying, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”
You can always draw out moral applications from narrative – but do not do so to the detriment of the passage’s intended purpose. If the passage gives a moral treatment, by all means, embrace it. Learn from the examples in scripture which were written as a warning and encouragement to us. When we make practice of moralizing passages, which do not present this as the main literary theme, we fail to see the magnificence of the sovereign King as He effectively works His will. Instead, we focus on men, who time and again, fail to live up to the moral standards of Scripture and make pitifully poor saviors.