The Narrative and Setting: What Role Does the Setting Play in Preaching

 |  September 10, 2018

Everyone loves a good story. This is evident in the number of movies made and the amount of fiction books produced. We love to be teleported to a different time or place. It causes our emotions to experience highs and lows. Stories are wonderful things. But hearing or reading a story without setting would be like ordering a pepperoni pizza without the crust. Without setting, a story lacks a key element that helps one to understand what happened, where it happened, or when it happened. That does not mean one cannot understand a story without setting, but setting helps establish an important part of the story’s context. It helps to pull you into the story.

Take, for example, Garrison Keillor’s radio show, entitled A Prairie Home Companion. One of the segments he did on this show was called “News from Lake Wobegon.” Keillor created the fictional town of Lake Wobegon and used it throughout his stories. He is a master storyteller. But without the setting of Lake Wobegon, while all his stories might still be good stories, the hearer would be lacking in setting, and would not be able to actually experience the story. No teleportation would take place.

When it comes to the narratives of Scripture, we are not dealing with fictional stories. We are dealing with real life accounts. Because of that, it is even more important that we understand the setting of the Biblical narrative. We are to preach the truth accurately, which requires us to accurately present the setting of the narrative.

The type of setting that I have focused on up to this point is entitled “Inner-Textual Setting” by Steven Mathewson. He writes, “An interpreter discovers the inner-textual setting by asking, Where did the story happen? Is there any significant geographical movement within the story? When did this story take place? During what season of year? What was happening in Israel’s history at this time?” [1]Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 68.

I recently began preaching through the book of Genesis. At the time of writing this post, I just started the narrative section focusing on Abram. As Abram starts his journey, we see him in Ur of the Chaldeans, he goes to Haran, then south through Canaan to Egypt, and back to Canaan. Imagine if the narrative just said, “Abram lived in the south, but then he traveled north to a certain city. He then departed his family and headed southwest, came to a certain country, then continued south into another country, only to turn around and head back north before settling in the place he had just left.” Unfortunately, when we disregard setting in narrative preaching, we end up doing something like this to the text. We are disregarding the details of the text that show us where and when these things were happening, which are key details for proper interpretation.

A second type of setting that I have not mentioned is called “Inter-Textual Setting.” This refers to the placement of the text within the larger framework of the Word.[2]Ibid., 69. For example, where does the account of Abram occur within Genesis? Where does it occur in the Old Testament? These are important questions to ask because they help us better understand why a particular story is recorded and its purpose for the grand narrative of Scripture.

Ultimately, both types of setting drive us to the goal of determining the author’s intended meaning. Until we are able to discern what the author originally meant, we are not prepared to preach the text and what it means for us today. As Vines and Shaddix note, “Don’t attempt to expound a book of the Bible without first understanding the basic truths and emphases that are made…When you understand the author’s plan and his approach, many otherwise obscure details will become understandable.”[3]Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017), 146. It is only after we understand the authorial intent that we are ready to develop a text-driven sermon of a Biblical narrative. And you have not begun to fully understand the authorial intent until you explore the setting of the Biblical account.

Todd Tucker is the Pastor of Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Silsbee, Texas.


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