Why is There So Much History in the Bible?
Bible readers know that much of the Bible is written in the genre of history, that is, historical narratives. Starting with Genesis and going all the way through to Esther, it is a (basically) continuous historical story. That is roughly half of the Old Testament. Although we sometimes think of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as the books of the Law of Moses, you will notice that the Law is actually recorded in history books, and it is related to us as readers as Moses tells the history of Israel. Furthermore, if you read the books of the prophets, you will of course see the record of the preaching they did in their day. But if you look more closely, you will find that the books of the prophets are very much like historical narratives themselves, and even more, the prophets often recalled the history of Israel and commented on the significance of that history. As my friend Phil Roberts used to point out, the prophets were actually the true interpreters of Israel’s history. The result is that most of the Old Testament is written as history of one kind or another.
A similar phenomenon confronts us when we turn to the New Testament. Up front we get four accounts of the life of Christ – biographies, if you will, which are specialized forms of historical narratives. Then we get the book of Acts – the history of the earliest Christians. Again, about half the New Testament is written explicitly as history. The rest of the New Testament is made up of a collection of letters written by apostles and other early Christians. Although these are not written as historical accounts, they certainly give us “snapshots” of various “moments” in the lives of churches in the first century. So again, history dominates the collection.
I believe it is common that many people think of “doctrine” first when they think of the Bible. For many people, the Bible is a book that tells us religious truths. While that is true, it would be inaccurate to think of the Bible as if it were simply a digest or collection of religious doctrines (like some kind of ancient doctrinal encyclopedia). The fact is that the Bible is mostly history, and the doctrinal truths revealed in the Bible are presented as parts of the history.
What’s so important about history that God, in his providence, filled his book with it? While there are many facets to this question, let’s focus on one of them: history provides a people with a definition and an identity. That is one of its primary purposes, and this has been true ever since history began to be written. From ancient times until today, we write histories as an expression of who we are. Where we came from, where our ancestors came from, what they did, the struggles they endured, the victories they won – all of these things give us a sense of who we are.
We do this all time when we think of ourselves, don’t we? We like to say that United States was born from a revolution, and that we Americans are free-spirited, independent-minded people. That is, the way we tell our history says something about us, it says something about how we want others to view us. Of course, the story can be manipulated (or even twisted and perverted) to make a political point or to create an identity that is not exactly “true,” and history often defines one people against another — but all of this is a subject for another day. The point is that, whether it is done with good motives or bad, history is a way of establishing an identity. It’s significant, isn’t it, that Luke wrote a history of the early Christians. He was trying to show the outsiders who Christians were, and the easiest way for outsiders to understand this group of people was to see their history.
The Bible is trying to tell us who we are. The Bible is the history of mankind, the history of every one of us. It tells us about our Father who created us, so that we understand that all of us are his offspring (Acts 17.28). It tells us about our ancestors, and in particular, our very first ancestor, Adam. The significance of Adam is that he, in a very important way, set the course that all of his descendants have followed – a course of sin and rebellion against our creator! Yet from among the descendants of Adam God found a man of faith, Abraham, and God entered into a special relationship with him. God promised that he would make a whole nation of people come from Abraham, a nation so numerous that its members could not be counted. Abraham’s reaction was that he believed in God (Gen 15.6), with his heart and with his actions. In a very real sense, Abraham was what Adam should have been.
The story continues to tell us about the physical descendants of Abraham, a story that is mostly about failure and disappointment. However, the nation that God promised to make from Abraham was supposed to be a nation of people who were like their ancestor – a people of faith. In time, Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth and called all people to believe in him – and to become the nation of believers God promised to make from Abraham. By his death and resurrection Jesus offers us a place in this new humanity, this nation of believers, the family of God.
So, according to the Biblical history, who are we? In short, we are sinners who come from a long line of sinners, but who have now been brought into the family of God because of the forgiveness that Jesus has offered to us. We are a people who have left our past behind to start a new life, a life of faith in Jesus, to become a new people. Or to put it another way, we are a people who have been separated from our Father for a long time, but now found our way back home through Jesus. That’s who we are.
If we understand what the Bible is telling us about who we are, then it is appropriate that we live humbly before our God. Our history is not one of seeking God, being faithful and pious, and loving truth. “We were enemies,” Paul says plainly (Rom 5.10), who have now been reconciled (note the passive voice there) by a loving God who has reached out to us to save us from our foolishness. There’s nothing in that history for us to brag about. “Where then is boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3.27).
A modern-day example of how history is a powerful force in a people’s identity can be found here.