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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

Different Types of Narrative Books

The broad distinction between narrative and non-narrative books is a start in orienting us to the spectrum of books gathered together in the Bible. It needs further specification, however, because there are many variations among the books that constitute these two large categories. The category “narrative” is a good way to begin to look at the storytelling of the Bible, but narrative books of the Bible tell different types of stories and tell them in different ways. Some narrative books of the Bible tell one continuous story from beginning to end. The most notable examples of this novelistic type of narrative would be the books of Ruth and Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Judith, Tobit, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon in the Apocrypha. Jonah also fits into this category, because even though it is one of the books of the prophets, it is a narrative of the adventures of one prophet who is trying to avoid his call.

Some narrative books are formed from the combination of many smaller stories and are more like epics than novels. Genesis, for example, combines many different stories—the story of the genesis of human beings and their foibles and failings (Gen. 1–11 ), and the stories of Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12–50 ) that tell the distinctive story of the ancestors of the Israelite people. The remaining books of the Pentateuch—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—work together to tell the sweeping story of Israel's exodus from slavery in Egypt, journey in the wilderness, and arrival at the promised land, while at the same time telling the life story of one man, Moses.

Shorter story units are also brought together to construct the historical narratives that play such a major role in biblical literature. Historical narratives appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament. These narratives tell the stories of a particular period in biblical history, but do so not by providing a simple record or chronicle of the events, but by looking at the events through the authors' understanding of the role and place of God in those events. Joshua and Judges tell the story of the conquest and occupation of the promised land, and the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell the rich and contentious story of the rise and fall of the Davidic monarchy and dynasty. The last chapters of 2 Chronicles take the story through the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the Babylonian exile to the rise of King Cyrus and the Persian Empire. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah pick up the historical narrative at that point, and tell the story of the restoration of Jerusalem under Persian rule.

A comparison of the books of Samuel and Kings with those of Chronicles clearly illustrates that biblical histories are not simply objective recordings of events. The same events are recounted with very different narrative and theological emphases, because the Samuel—Kings tradition and the Chronicles tradition interpreted the events through different lenses (see the commentaries on the respective books). Interestingly, despite their different perspectives, both traditions end their storytelling of the Babylonian exile on a note of hope rather than desolation, another indication that biblical historical narratives are about more than simply recording the “facts.”

In the Apocrypha, historical narratives are represented by the books of 1 Esdras and 1 and 2 Maccabees. First Esdras, like the books of Chronicles before it, draws heavily on other biblical histories (2 Chron 35–36 , Ezra, and parts of Nehemiah) to tell its story of the Persian period. First and Second Maccabees tell the story of Israel after the death of Alexander the Great, when the Jews, under Hasmonean leadership, rebelled against foreign domination. First Maccabees in particular is highly reminiscent in style and tone of the biblical histories of Samuel and Kings. Again, the fact that 1 Esdras retells so much of a history already available in other books provides an important clue about the nature of biblical histories. Their function is not simply to record the facts—if that were the case, one version of any event would suffice—but to use the telling and retelling of history to think through what it means to be a people who have these stories as part of its heritage.

The Acts of the Apostles is the New Testament's example of a biblical history. The focus and function of the history change dramatically from the historical narratives cited above to Acts. Acts is no longer concerned with telling Israel's national story, but the author of Acts uses the models of the biblical histories that were at his disposal to shape his telling of the story of the rise of the Christian church.

Two other types of biblical narrative need to be discussed—gospel and apocalypse. The predominant form of narrative literature in the New Testament is the gospel, which has many similarities to the narrative forms discussed above, but is also distinct from them. Like Genesis and the biblical historical narratives, each of the four New Testament Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, also combine many smaller stories into one narrative unity, but they do so not to tell the sweeping story of many generations of a family or to cover several centuries in Israel's history. Rather, like the more novelistic narratives of Ruth or Jonah, the Gospels tell one continuous story from beginning to end—the story of the life and death of one man, Jesus. Yet because the focus of this story is primarily on the words and works of Jesus' public ministry and not on the full scope of his life, it is not accurate to label the Gospels as biography either, because their shaping concern is not a portrait of the life of a great man. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus as a way of telling the story of God at work in the world, and are written by people who believe God to be at work in the story they tell. In this way, the Gospel writers are like the authors of the historical narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures, recounting not “facts” alone, but what those facts tell about God and the people who attempt to live in accordance with their faith in that God. The Gospels represent a unique narrative form in the Bible, but one that is closely linked to the various narrative types of the Jewish Scriptures.

The apocalypse is represented in the Bible by the books of Daniel and Revelation, and in the Apocrypha by 2 Esdras. To be more specific, Daniel contains two distinct narrative types: Daniel 1–6 belongs to the novelistic type of narrative and so is closely linked in form to the Additions to Daniel found in the Apocrypha (Susanna and Bel and the Dragon), while Daniel 7–12 is an apocalyptic narrative. Daniel 7–12 , Revelation, and 2 Esdras do tell a story, but it is not a story that adheres to the conventional expectations of storytelling. Indeed, the “story” of these books is the most sweeping in scope of any narrative in the Bible, for it tells God's cosmic story of the present and future of the created order. Much of Daniel 7–12 , Revelation, and 2 Esdras are presented as visions revealed to the author, so that these books, like other biblical narratives, combine shorter narrative units to form the whole. An apocalypse can be among the most difficult books of the Bible to read, because we are tempted to ignore the narrative world that it creates and force it to adhere to our storytelling expectations. More than any other narratives in the Bible, the apocalypses ask the reader to step completely into the imagistic world created by the storyteller and view the whole creation through that perspective. The challenge is to allow these cosmic stories to shape our reading, rather than the other way around.

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