Preaching Narratives

What is story completion, and how does it help us preach through the narrative sections of scripture?

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Answer

Again, when we're looking at another gospel piece, not only do we see theme resolution, but also we see story completion. That is, there are certain stories that are developed in Old Testament narratives where they get developed throughout Canon, but the stories are incomplete unless there is a completion with the entrance of the Messiah. To give you one example in an Old Testament narrative, you have the book of Judges. The book of Judges ends in the very last verse by saying something like, "There was no king in the land and they did whatever was right in their own eyes." That's the way the book ends. And so, if the book ends that way, you should naturally be asking, well, is there going to be a king who is going to come who will be able to judge, unlike all of these other kings that were flawed? Yes, God brought revival; there was the whole cycle of rebellion, and then they were subjected to neighboring nations, and then there was repentance and God delivered them by sending them a judge.

But what do we find in the story of Judges, or even through all of the kings — for example, you look at 1 Chronicles, 1 Chronicles or 2 Chronicles — you read all of these kings and you're asking yourself the question… Boy, the Israelite history is pretty repetitive; you have a king and then he follows the ways of Baal and the ways of all the pagan gods, and yet not faithful to the requirements of what God is asking the people of God to be. And so, you're asking the question, is there going to be a king, is there going to be a judge? Will there be another one who will come to be able to usher us into the presence of God and under a rule and reign that is being done with righteousness and justice. And so, what we find in the book of Judges, again, is that you have all of these judges who come, but they're not able to complete the story.

So, one picture here of that story is the one with Gideon, in Judges 6, 7 and 8. And, of course, Gideon is usually referred to as someone who is famous because of his fleece, but that's really somewhat incidental in the story. The story is really a picture of a frail, fallen, weak, scared judge who questions whether or not God is actually doing serious work in the midst of his people. You have the Midianite army, over 135-140,000 soldiers, and they have something like 30,000 or whatever, and God comes to him as says, Well, you're going to lead my people to victory. And so, you follow this, and then, ultimately, he tells them, you know, we've got so many tens of thousands of soldiers but that's too many. I don't want the Israelites to say, Hey, you know, we did this by our own hand. So I want you to take all of these soldiers and bring them down by the river, and whoever kind of gets down on their knees and drinks the water from the river, then those are the ones you can send away, but the other ones who don't do that and they just kind of lap the water this way, they're the ones who will be going into battle with you. And so, what ends up happening? Three hundred of them just kind of lap the water. And we've always viewed that picture as — if you're looking moralistically and not redemptively and not understanding this gospel piece of story completion — we've read that or heard that passage something like, oh, here are the brave, valiant men who are probably have one hand with their sword and then the other one they're lapping the water; they're looking around making sure the Midianites are not attacking them. But another interpretation has been given by other Jewish commentators where they have said, you know, they probably weren't training very hard in the wilderness up to this preparation for this battle, so they really didn't, they weren't that thirsty at all. So, these are the ones who are frail, these are the one who are weak. These aren't the ones who were out there working really hard, so they weren't that thirsty at all. So, it completely changes the picture of the narrative.

Now, I'm not suggesting that was the case. I'm not saying this way or that way. All I'm trying to say is if the impulse of the passage is to show that Gideon is frail and he's not the mighty man of valor — it's kind of ironic that the angel would say this in chapter 6 — but he's really a frail, and he's really a scared servant of God. And then, after he brings victory as, you know how the story unfolds, what ends up happening? All of the people come to him and they say, Hey, you know, why don't you rule over us? Why don't you have your son rule over us? And how does Gideon respond? He says, Oh no, I'm not going to rule over you; my son's not going to rule over you. The Lord will rule over you. And we say, wow, what a faithful man, that he would submit himself to the lordship of God. But then he asks all of them to bring all the jewelry, and he melted down the gold, about 70 to 80 pounds, and then he created an ephod with all the jewels, and then that ephod became a snare to the rest of the Israelites.

And what we find in the story here is this: Later one, even though all the people say, rule over us, and he says, Hey, I'm not going to rule over you, what ends up happening? He has a son with one of his many wives and he named him Abimelech. And the meaning of that word Abimelech is "my father is king." So, the people came to him and said, Oh, why don't you rule over us? Oh now, I'm not going to rule over you, my son's not going to rule over you. Well, have you met my son, by the way? His name is "my father is king." So, the point of the story here is that Gideon is not the kind of person we think he is. He's actually a very fallen, he's a very scared, he's a very flawed individual. But here is the gospel piece, here's the completion of this narrative, of this story that we find and suggestive of this great judge and this great king who's going to come to complete the story, is that God uses weak leaders, and he uses one particular leader. As the text says in John in Judges 6, one solitary champion, as it were. And this is exactly what we find in the person of Jesus, that he comes in an ironic way. He comes as a weak leader, as a Messiah who is going to usher in this kingdom which is countercultural to anything that we can experience.

Answer by Dr. Stephen Um

Dr. Stephen Um is Senior Minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA. He also teaches New Testament studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary