Telling the Old, Old Stories: Moving from Text to Sermon with the Old Testament Narratives

James K. Mead

Learning to preach biblical texts requires an enormous investment of time and energy, and preachers must be patient with themselves as they grow in the discipline of sermon preparation. Moving from text to sermon with the OT narratives is no exception to these observations. There are vast amounts of narrative material in the OT, ranging from the ancestral narratives of Genesis, through the exodus and wilderness accounts and the primary historical narratives of Joshua-Kings, to various narrative passages or works in the Prophets and Writings. Clearly, then, a brief essay will not definitively show how to develop sermons in a few easy steps. Still, I wish to highlight some major issues and practical matters that require consideration each time one moves from the technical aspects of exegesis to the artistic features of homiletics.

Major Issues in Preaching the Old Testament Narratives

To speak of the major issues involved in preaching from the OT narratives is to assume some awareness of the issues involved in preaching generally: all of the basic steps in exegesis, such as identifying the limits of the text, translating the original language, comparing various versions of the text, considering literary form, and so forth. But the following issues, while not exhaustive, have been of benefit to me in my own sermon preparation of OT narratives.

(1) Historical Context. It is imperative that the preacher be constantly aware of the larger historical context in which specific OT narratives occur. To say this is not to place deductive conclusions before inductive study. Rather, it is to say that as one learns to handle individual texts (successively or in different parts of the canon), one necessarily builds a narrative framework and becomes increasingly comfortable with the story of the OT. In terms of the historical setting to which the narratives speak, especially in Joshua through Kings, the preacher should be conversant with the basic proposals regarding the Deuteronomistic History. It is likely that the prophetic stories and regnal accounts contained in these books were handled at two or more different periods in Israel’s history. Knowing this can offer the preacher settings and contexts within and against which the passage speaks, such as cultic renewal under Hezekiah, Deuteronomic restoration under Josiah, or the anguish of exile in Babylon.

(2) Theological Frameworks. Placing a narrative passage within its larger historical context is augmented by identifying some theological framework that informs one’s reading of an individual passage. A work like W. Kaiser’s Toward an Old Testament Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Teaching and Preaching (Baker, 1998), has served evangelical students for years with its proposal that the theme of promise could organize the theological movement of the OT. There are, of course, many other theological options. The classics by W. Eichrodt and G. von Rad are not to be ignored, nor are more recent proposals by B. Childs and W. Brueggemann. All such proposals for OT theology will, however, remain just that, so preachers are encouraged to pursue these, other, and their own theological frameworks that they believe account for significant portions of data and encourage a conversation between the Bible and the preacher’s theological or confessional tradition. In their own ways, these frameworks will seek to expound the grand story of Yahweh, the creator and redeemer of Israel, who called all his people into a relationship of faith and obedience.

Because of the centrality of theological concerns, interpreting OT narratives merely in terms of typological events or characters pointing to Christ falls short of a historical and theological appreciation of the narratives. Moreover, narratives that are interpreted only for their exemplary character (e.g., Nehemiah’s leadership ability) may tend to miss the manifold ways that the history of Israel provides illumination and application on its own terms for the life of the church today. To be sure, there continues to be much value in exploring questions of typology as long as this method is not forced upon texts. Study of the canonical shape and shaping of an OT narrative, following the insights of Childs, will help to place the text and its message in the community that created it, developed it, and accepted it as sacred Scripture. Here, too, the Christian preacher must address the issue of the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. The preacher must avoid either allowing the NT to supersede everything in the OT or utterly disregarding the ways in which the person and work of Christ fulfill the OT.

(3) Literary Interpretation. The above points being said, each narrative should be read in ways that discern its particular shape and message. Works like R. Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic, 1983), will be of immense help in modeling the tools of literary criticism. Since narratives are mainly stories, one should not try to impose a logical outline on them but rather attend to the literary details of the narrative, such as repetition of words, how characters speak and act, and various features of the plot. Narrative texts may contain poetical (Gen 1-3; Jonah 2) or parabolic (Jdg 9; 2 Sam 12) elements, so one must explore the particular function of a poem, parable, or prophetic text within a story. Rhetorical criticism will help the preacher ask how and why a story is being told. How do the various literary details of a narrative suggest the point that is being made, who is being persuaded, and to what end?

(4) Narrative and Audience. The preacher needs to step back and ponder how the very category of story shapes both the OT narrative and the stories of our lives. The basic rubrics of beginnings and endings, twists and turns, challenges and resolutions, and dimensions of space and time all help an audience relate to what is happening in the biblical narrative. Thus, knowing the story of a particular congregation—the sorts of trials and triumphs they have experienced—enables the preacher to create a story world, tapping into the metanarrative of the Bible, and drawing the reader to share in its insights, hopes, aspirations, values, and actions. Christian communities can grow in their knowledge of how the biblical story makes a claim on us and interprets our stories.

Practical Questions in Preaching Old Testament Narratives

(1) The Construction of the Individual Message. As one prepares the sermon, attention should be paid to how this particular narrative spoke to Israel at various places in its history, how the early church may have heard and incorporated it, how it has been understood in Christian history, and what it may be saying today. The preacher should exercise caution when applying ethical principles from OT narratives. It is one thing to describe the behavior of biblical characters; it is quite another to make their behavior normative for Christian living today. In this regard, one is helped by listening carefully for what the narrator expressly condemns or condones, and by considering what the narrator quotes God as saying either directly or through prophetic agency.

With many of the OT heroes of faith, it is tempting simply to state the verdict of Hebrews 11, without seeing that the OT narratives often present these characters with some tension and ambiguity. For example, Abraham’s behavior in Gen 12-21 is a journey of growth that leads him to (and beyond) the testing of Gen 22. In contemplating homiletical form, various styles for sermon construction should be explored. As stories, OT narratives are obviously open to a dramatic re-telling for a contemporary audience, but there are other options the preacher should consider: a first person presentation expressing a biblical character’s anguish of faith; a question/answer approach that unfolds the problem that the story seeks to address; or a thematic sermon that develops principles of biblical truth. The whole goal is to capture the imagination of the congregation individually and corporately. Prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit in the midst of such preparation will guide one in seeing intertextual connections with church confessional traditions and stories in the history of the church.

(2) The Organization of a Series of Sermons on OT Narrative Passages. Many OT books, or portions of books, can work well into a 12 -13 week series in the summer or fall. For congregations using the Common Lectionary, the yearly cycles offer narrative selections, such as the exodus (Year A) or David’s life from the succession narrative in 2 Samuel (Year B); but preachers may also develop their own expositional series irrespective of the lectionary. Moreover, with careful planning of a series, the preacher can with integrity relate messages to topics or themes in the life of the church. The Holy Spirit brings together various concerns and events, even the interruptions of national holidays, to enable Scripture to speak to God’s people. The OT narratives are ancient stories that filled out the panoramic background to the old, old story of the gospel. As one develops skills and experiences in preaching, there will be a continual conversation between pastor, text, and congregation. OT narratives articulate the grand drama of redemption; and therefore, will always speak to our individual stories as we live in union with Jesus Christ.

Posted Feb 01, 2002