How Not to Read a Narrative

May 10, 2023

It can be challenging. Two-thirds of the Bible is narrative–passages that recount what happened in someone’s life. The challenge comes when we want to make application from a narrative passage or find meaning in what is reported.

As we seek to find something significant and “life-changing” in the narrative, we can read things into the passage that aren’t there.

Recently–while reading a book recommended to me–I came across an example of how not to read a narrative. (I will leave off the book’s title because I have no desire to disparage the author but only want to point out an example of something to be avoided.)

In writing about prayer, the author called attention to Elijah’s prayer for rain, as recorded in I Kings 18:41-46. He noted, in particular, the description of Elijah as he began to pray. Appropriately, the author suggested that we pay attention to the details we find in narratives; I would agree with that.

The author then said that Elijah “metaphorically gets into the position of a woman in labor, beginning to push” and concludes that what we should learn from this is that laborious prayer “is a kind of prayer that gives birth to new life.”

Although the description of Elijah’s posture in prayer is unique—other passages speak of kneeling in prayer or having one’s face down to the earth in prayer but nothing exactly like the description here—it is difficult to conclude that his posture was like that of a woman in labor. Although a squatting position for childbirth is not uncommon (although never described in Scripture), the text tells us Elijah “crouched” down on the earth (an expression that means to stretch out on). It’s hard for me to imagine a woman getting her face on the ground between her knees as the best position for giving birth.

Beyond that, the thought that we should conclude from this reference that there “is a kind of prayer that gives birth to new life” seems, at best, contrived.

Yes, we are given a description of Elijah’s posture in prayer. Can we conclude anything from that description? It does suggest a humble, lowly disposition before God. It might indicate he was taking this moment of prayer very seriously. But was he adopting a position that meant he thought he was giving birth to something? Highly unlikely.

In reading the passage in the book, it struck me that the author had a point he wanted to make about “prayer that gives birth to life.” And, with that in mind, he misread and misapplied the account of Elijah with the hope that it would provide some Biblical basis for his point.

In 1 Kings 18:1, the LORD spoke to Elijah (during the time of drought) and told him that He was going to send rain. When the prophet began his prayer for rain (which he repeated until there were clouds on the horizon), he was calling out to the LORD to do only what He had already promised to do. Yes, he was persistent. Yes, he was humble before the God of heaven. But to suggest that his praying—the way that he did it—was giving birth to new life takes us far beyond the narrative.

As much as we long for personal application and life-changing insights from all of Scripture, let’s be cautious about making narratives allegories or using accounts of what did happen as if they are declarations of theological truths. The richness of the narrative–when read simply for what it tells us–is rich and life-changing enough.


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