Thinking differently about genre in the Bible: Part Two

In my last post, I suggested myth as an alternative way of understanding the genre of the Bible. Here I want to finish our look at genre with another approach which suggests a different set of categories.


Old Testament scholar Water Brueggeman (whose book ‘The Bible Makes Sense’ we used at our weekend away last year) talks about the Bible containing primal, expanded and derivative narratives.

The primal narrative is “that most simple, elemental and nonnegotiable story line that lies at the heart of biblical faith”. Gerhard von Rad says that for Israel, this was the exodus from Egypt, as expressed in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, Deuteronomy 6:20-24 and Joshua 24:1-13. According to CH Dodd, it was for the early church the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recalled in 1 Corinthians 1:23, 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In both cases, the primal narrative is the recitals of a saving act of God and a declaration of faith.

The expanded narrative is “a more elaborate and complete presentation of the same theme found in the kernel” which is “confessional not reportorial in character”. In the Old Testament, Exodus 1-15 is a fuller presentation of the Israelites’ delivery from slavery. And in the New Testament, the gospel narratives expand the life and death of Jesus. These stories come to be seen through the lens of the central theme and so proclaim the same faith even if read separately.

The derivative narrative is the subsequent history of the community which testifies to the power of the basic narrative and supplements it with tradition. In the Hebrew scriptures, this is the story of Israel after Moses and Joshua. In the Christian tradition, this is the story of the early church. It contains the literature of institutionalisation, mature theological reflection, and the instruction and vocation of the community.

In short, and doing very little justice to Brueggeman, the primal narrative is the story that changed everything, the expanded narrative is everything that led to it, and the derivative narrative is everything that came from it.

So how does all of this effect the way we read the Bible? Well, I like Brueggeman’s model because it prioritises purpose and allows for different genres within each category, allowing for more nuanced readings of texts which can make use of the genre markers we looked at before without getting fixated on them. I also like the fact that Brueggeman applies the model to each testament, so that we see how both Israel and the church used the same pattern in response to the revelation of God, because this breaks down some of the barriers between us and the Hebrew scriptures.

But there’s also something else I think this can teach us, which is perhaps best demonstrated by way of a brief activity.

Think for a moment about your own primal, expanded and derivative narratives. What is the central story in your relationship with God? What brought you to that place? How has it impacted on your life since?

Now think about why you chose those stories and how you choose to tell them. Do you include every detail? Do you apply any filters? Do you add any commentary?

Thinking about how we tell our stories may help us to  may offer some insight into how the Bible was written. Because the truth is that we all interpret and shape our experiences, especially when we have a primal narrative that makes sense of everything around it.

An example by way of explanation. Part of my derivative narrative is my experience of leaving university. I prayed about whether or not it was right for me to go, and the words “you don’t have to be here” came to me really clearly. And yet when I told that story afterwards, I said that God had told me to leave. I always knew what God had said, but I interpreted those words as meaning I should go, because I needed to feel that I had definitely done the right thing, and so that was how I told it. It was some years before I felt confident enough in my decision to acknowledge that what God had really done was give me a choice. I didn’t intentionally lie, but my experience was filtered through my conviction that God was interested and active in my life (which was rooted in the experience of healing that forms my primal narrative) and my belief that God had a fixed plan for my life (which came from the theological understanding gathered during the Christian upbringing that forms part of my expanded narrative).

I don’t imagine that the people who wrote the Bible set out to write these distinctive strands of narrative – they are a filter we’ve placed on the text – but I do suspect that they interpreted and shaped their experiences and inherited stories in just the same way as I have done. I think that answers a lot of questions we have about the Bible, and I hope it also reminds us that our story is an ongoing part of the story that began “in the beginning”.


Published by leighannegreenwood

Baptist minister in training with Revive Leeds. Blogging on behalf of Revive and (coming soon) for myself at Covenant Project.

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