Three Caveats for Understanding Scriptural Historical Accounts
When reading the scriptural accounts of the heroes of the faith, it’s easy to lose the most important lessons. I know I have read all of the biblical narratives at least ten or twelve times. But there are many things that I missed because I wasn’t looking for them. And neither was I clued in to appreciate them.
The Scriptures teach a lot without directly saying it. Much of the stuff worth picking up from the biblical accounts is implied. Readers have to be willing to go a little deeper, using information and experiences that everyone can relate to, in order to process the lessons of Scripture.
Here are three important points for looking at the people in these historical accounts.
The people who are referenced in the biblical narratives are just that—people. It’s easy to forget that these are real people who had amazing things happen to them or were used by God to do amazing things.
Moses shows himself to be someone who changes over time from being a hot-headed killer (Exodus 2:11-12) to becoming the meekest man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). Gideon grows into his calling by rejecting his fraidy-cat origins for his God-given role as a military leader (Judges 6-8).
When reading these accounts, it’s easy to think they are unidimensional storybook characters who have no emotions, will, or intellect. On the contrary, these people dealt with the same challenges all believers have had to wrestle with: thoughts of inadequacy, concerns about acceptance, and questions about the sovereignty of God.
As a result, these biblical people were not automatons. They had real spiritual issues they had to work on, and they had real day-to-day problems they had to work out. As a result, they were able to learn, change, become, and grow.
As the biblical narratives illustrate how these people dealt with their issues and problems, they show that they were not perfect. It’s easy to see that the writers of the narratives were not trying to whitewash history; instead, they show how these people had real foibles and failures.
King David is a great example of someone who wanted to do the right thing, but failed again and again. David had the enviable—and unenviable—position of being king, where all of his actions—and mess ups—were recorded for generations untold. He sought revenge against Nabal (1 Samuel 25:2-42), numbered fighting men of the army (1 Chronicles 21:1), and committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11:1-27).
Jesus’ disciples showed that they were imperfect people, and the biblical narratives show them to be cowardly, envious, and spiritually dense. But everyone can see themselves in Peter when he says he will never abandon Jesus, only to abandon Him a short while later (Matthew 26:33-35, 69-75; Mark 14:29-31, 66-72; Luke 22:33-34, 54-62). And Peter shows his highs and lows when he gets out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus, only to come crashing into the waves below him (Matthew 14:28-31).
These people were not schoolhouse illustrations of perfect Christian behavior. God instructs in the midst of their messes how to live this life. It’s easier to learn from someone’s life when you see them for who they are, with all of their flaws.
From that vantage point, it is easier see what these people did that is worthy of emulation, and what is not. Because these people are real and relatable.
It’s easy to pass judgment on the people in the Scriptures with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. It’s easy to forget that the Bible writers are looking backwards on a historical event. The people they wrote about were living their everyday lives and having to respond to real situations.
Abraham didn’t know what the future held. He knew what God had told him about his offspring being as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5), but then he had to reconcile that with his present circumstances. Without understanding how God would give him a son through Sarah (Genesis 17:15-17)—which he reckoned to be a physically impossibility—Abraham took it upon himself to build his line through his wife’s maidservant (Genesis 16:1-2).
The modern reader has the benefit of seeing the entirety of the biblical narrative. Therefore readers of the Bible can see how the story unfolded. But those who are living the story as it is unfolding do not have the benefit of seeing how the story will work out.
When God has you go through situations that test your faith, you do not know how the story will end. You do not have the benefit of reading the story after it is written. You have to live your life and see how it will unfold.
Based on what you can see from those who have before you in Scripture, you can see that all things work for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28). It may not appear that way to you at the time, but you can trust that it will work out that way in the end.
As a result, take heart. Others have dealt with the same scenarios you are dealing with now. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it may not be the same situation exactly, but it rhymes. You can know that God will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). God will be with you in the midst of whatever faith-testing situation you may find yourself in. And like those who have gone before, He will carry you through.