Our contemporary culture has in many ways lost its appreciation for story. Either intentionally or as a matter of convenience, life is basically summarized in a few short quips about the way life goes. A great example of this is Twitter.
Now, I am on Twitter and appreciate the connection that it allows with many others and the quick news bites that it provides on a regular basis. Twitter allows you to follow the life of others (granted that they participate on a regular basis) as they give short summaries of what they are doing, where they are, pictures of food, etc. However, since each Tweet consists of at the most 140 characters, we have one of two choices: either give the essence of what we are doing in less than 140 strokes on the keyboard or give multiple Tweets, gradually telling our story.
Ultimately, this is symptomatic of a larger issue, namely, that we have been trained to receive information in short snippets. Our idea of story (or narrative) is the 30 second commercial that takes the viewer from a state of enjoying a game/show to the brink of weeping.
Unfortunately, all of this is to our hermeneutical demise, given that God chose to reveal a large portion of His Word in narratives.
What’s ironic in all this, on a personal level, is that I am much more comfortable dealing with a short list that tells me how to get from point A to point B. After all, as an engineering student, it took every ounce of unwilling resentment to get through my lone English 102 class in college. Yet, as I continued in my education, ironically, the focus of my study became consumed with the narratives of Genesis.
This was completely foreign to me, not because I had never heard the stories in some form or another, but because I had/have become accustomed to receive the Word as a giant “How-To” manual, a regular DIY of how to have a better life. This is a subtle, yet unfortunate, slide, because it ultimately takes the place where authority resides away from the text itself and places it upon the life and culture in which I live. Let me explain this a little more.
There are basically two ways to approach Scripture: on my terms or its terms.
The first means approaching Scripture from my situation asking questions such as:
- How can I be a more effective father/mother?
- How can I have a more successful church?
- How should I date?
- How can I have my “best life now”?
I appreciate how Stephen Dempster demonstrates this is a recent article:
In many churches, the Scripture has been Left Behind for Your Best Life Now among the many Purpose Driven books and popular Self-Help manuals. If by chance its words are read, they are often placed in the context of how to become a better person, or how to have a better marriage, or how to improve one’s potential, or how to live one’s dream, or how to understand the Bible as a cipher for future events. Frequently bits and pieces of the text are read and one never gets a sense of the entire picture so that the scripture is reduced to a daily series of ‘devotionals,’ or a book of quaint quotations, a source for private inspiration or public motivation.
When all is said and done, this places Scripture as the object upon which I wield my scalpel, dissecting it to find what is truly meaningful, what can truly make me happier, what makes me feel good. Don’t get me wrong, these are great intentions, and we do find instruction and wisdom in the text that influence all these areas. However, if this is the way that we approach the text, then we are immediately put at a disadvantage when it comes to reading the stories contained therein. Because the first question we are prone to ask concerns ourselves: What is it about my life, where I am right now in my culture, with my presuppositions, that I can improve by my reading of this story? Perhaps even, what does my understanding of reality contribute to the story of the Bible?
Again…noble, but slightly askew. We end up with a “truncated evangelical gospel.”
The second way of reading the text refocuses the authority as deriving from the text itself to such an extent that the text itself dictates reality and what is important. In other words, the Bible presents itself as a book of wisdom, but it presents that wisdom by telling the true story of the real world. It demonstrates God’s control over and interaction with the world that He created. We find ourselves as readers becoming consumed in the story that He’s telling. For us as readers, that means this: When we read the narratives in the text, we find the story of the real world into which we place our lives.
- How do I understand reality as part of the story told in the text of Scripture?
- How is God’s will for His world demonstrated by the story being told on the Bible’s pages?
- How does this story interpret life as a reflection of the existence of God?
This leads to the conclusion that we find ourselves wrapped up in the story of the text, finding our true identity. And as such, these God-breathed instructions told in stories are the story in which we find true meaning for our life (consider Psalm 78 in which Torah is identified with the story of the Pentateuch). Here we find the world and reality interpreted for us. Our job is to position ourselves within this story with an appreciation for the God who works and redeems.
But the writers of Scripture are not concerned about entertaining us with their stories (although some of the stories are quite intriguing). Rather, they are concerned with convincing us that their view of the world is correct. As such, they leave nothing lacking in their stories when it comes to who is in control and what should be learned about the God of the Bible. Consider the oft-quoted words of Auerbach:
The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favour, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.
It is this grand story that seeks to subject us that dares say:
- God created all things.
- Man’s sin completely separates Him from this creator God.
- God makes provision for and chases down sinners desiring to bless them and to fellowship with them.
- God rules over His creation and will rule for eternity through the King, His Son, who graciously provided the means of reconciliation between man and God.
This is the story that Scripture tells; and this story is wrapped up on the pages of the Bible, beginning with the OT. The grand narrative of our salvation in Christ is not written as a concise essay as if in a scientific journal; it is written as part of a detailed, comprehensive story that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. The world depicted for us on the pages of Scripture is overseen by a God who freely interacts with and works on behalf of His people and the whole world.
Thus, the way God worked in the past is the way that He works in the present and will work in the future. The stories of the Bible become the grammar by which the syntax of God’s work is arranged and displayed. Ultimately, then, we must allow the Bible to set the agenda, not the church or culture.
What does this have to do with 1 Samuel 1? The story of Hannah bears these things out. Here we come across a tree within the forest of Scripture that begs to be understood in the context of that world, not according to our contemporary culture. Thus, in this real world:
- God closes the womb.
- Other people harass and make life difficult.
- People of God demonstrate great faith in their prayers.
- God remembers His faithful ones and acts on their behalf.
- Faithful ones respond in worship and prayer.
But primarily, I think the point is this: God brings about His will for redemption and rest through the faithful acts of those whom He blesses. In other words, God does not orchestrate His will in a vacuum. Rather, He uses those who love Him to provide for the blessings of His people.
 Stephen Dempster, “A Light in a Dark Place”: A Tale of Two Kings and Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament,” SBJT 14.2 (2010): 20.
 Stephen Dempster, “A Light in a Dark Place,” 18.
 One way the text demonstrates this is by telling later stories in light of earlier ones via linguistic and thematic connections.
 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis
 Failing to take note of this leaves us wondering what is going on in the world. Here we have in these stories inspired commentary about how and to what end God works. The writer wants to bring the readers’ viewpoint in line with his own.
 A concept borrowed from Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 136.