Can ignoring plot sequences lead to distorted interpretations of biblical stories? Learn how to better understand plot in biblical narrative.
Jon: We’re learning how to read different types of literature in the Bible, and we’re going to start by talking about biblical narrative.
Tim: So narratives, in their most basic form, have characters in a setting going through a series of events. And how those events are selected and then arranged by an author, that’s called the plot.
Jon: A basic plotline begins with a character in her setting. But then something new or unexpected happens, causing problems that lead up to some ultimate conflict, which is then resolved. And the character finds herself changed, living in a new normal.
Tim: Now, when reading narratives, it’s important to understand every scene in the context of its larger plotline. You can make the same story have a totally different message if you ignore where it occurs in the plot. This happens all the time when people read the Bible
Tim: Yeah. Take for example the story about Gideon. There’s this well-known scene where Gideon’s trying to discern whether God will help him win a battle, and he requests a sign from God.1
Jon: Yeah! Gideon lays a wool fleece on the ground and asks that in the morning the fleece be wet with dew but the ground totally dry. And God does it.
Tim: Now, if you look at this scene just by itself, what is the conflict?
Jon: How can Gideon know if he’ll succeed?
Tim: And the resolution?
Jon: Test God, ask for a sign, and find out.
Tim: Yeah, and that’s how many people actually read this story. And it totally misses the point because it’s ignoring the larger plot line.
Tim: Yeah, so let’s start from the beginning. You’ll get the context. The story begins with Gideon and the Israelites living in fear because they’re oppressed by an invading people, the Midianites.2
Jon: Got it.
Tim: Then there’s the call to action. God commissions Gideon to defeat the Midianites and save Israel.3
Jon: Yeah. This is shaping up to be a good story.
Tim: But then Gideon’s super hesitant, so he asks God to do this magic trick, a sign: “So I can know it’s really you talking to me.” And God stoops to his level. He gives him a sign by lighting this fire on an altar. 4
Jon: So Gideon’s already asked for a sign?
Tim: And that’s not all. In the next scene, God tells Gideon to tear down an altar to another god, but Gideon’s so afraid he does it at night.5
Jon: So Gideon’s skeptical and also a bit of a coward.
Tim: Then we come to the moment where Gideon’s about to face the Midianites, and he’s still uncertain, so he asks for another sign, the fleece. He says, “I want to know if you’ll save Israel by my hand.” 6
Jon: And God gives him that sign.
Tim: And he’s still uncertain, so he asks for even one more sign, which is just a variation of the previous sign.7
Jon: Okay, so Gideon’s asking for way too many signs.
Tim: Exactly! In the larger context, it’s clear the plot conflict is not, “how can Gideon discern the mysterious will of God?” The real conflict is, “when will this guy get his act together and start trusting God?”
Jon: Okay, so then what’s the resolution?
Tim: We have to keep reading. So Gideon gathers this huge army—30,000 soldiers—to fight the Midianites. And God says, “no, way too many men.” He whittles the army down to 300.8
Jon: Why would he do that?
Tim: Well Gideon’s been testing God, so now God returns the favor. He tells Gideon to arm these 300 soldiers with trumpets and torches and then surround the Midianites at night and make all this noise in the hills, which sounds ridiculous, but Gideon does it. And the noise scares the Midianites into this frenzy. They start destroying each other in the dark while Gideon looks on safely from the hills.9
Jon: So this story isn’t offering the reader tips for discerning God’s will.
Tim: No. It’s about God’s commitment to use weak people with deep flaws to do more than they could’ve imagined.
Jon: Okay, so short scenes, like Gideon and the fleece, are combined with other scenes making up a larger plotline. And tracing the conflict and resolution through the plot helps you see the message the author is trying to get across.
Tim: Now, Gideon’s story has been set alongside many other stories that are also about these flawed, often questionable leaders called judges. And each of these has its own internal plotline, but then all together they make up a whole movement of the biblical story, the period of the judges, and that has its own unified plotline.
Jon: And there are many movements within the story of the Bible.
Tim: Exactly. And all the smaller stories, hundreds of them, they fit within the context of their own movements. And then these movements together make up the building blocks of the grand plotline of the whole story of the Bible.
Jon: So no matter where I’m reading in the Bible, I need to pay attention to these different layers of the plot, so I can read each story in context.
Tim: Exactly! The Bible is such a sophisticated piece of literature, and so all these smaller plotlines keep overlapping, building up the tension. And when you back up, you can see how they’ve all been woven together into the unified story that leads to Jesus.