My go-to book on interpreting the early chapters of Genesis is C. John Collins’s Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (P&R, 2006). Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to a planned post on the creation texts.
But an important part of Collins’s work is his methodology—his “discourse-oriented literary approach.”
The first chapter goes into some detail regarding the goal of achieving “ancient literary competence” (V. Philips Long’s term).
Collins provides nine questions for theologically expositing narrative (pp. 18-30).
I’ve provided the questions and explanations below. In the book Collins each question by looking at 1 Samuel 3 (the call of Samuel) and Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptation of Jesus). I haven’t included below the analysis of these narratives. I encourage you to check out the book to see these principles in action.
1. What is the pericope, and who are the participants?
“We want to identify the boundaries of our pericope; for example, by noticing places
where the location changes, or
where a new set of participants is introduced, or
where there is some grammatical expression or discontinuity, or
where some problem is introdued at the beginning and then resolved at the end.
“We also list the cast of characters and not when they enter and when they leave.”
2. What is the paragraph structure of the pericope (including peak)?
“Here we outline the broad structure of the events described in our passage.
“A paragraph would consist, for example, of a single exchange between two characters or a connected set of actions.
“The ‘peak’ is that part of the narrative that has the maximum interest: for example, when God finally makes his opinion known or when the narrative tension is as its climax; it is often the communicative focus of the pericope.”
3. What is the basic sequence of events?
“In a Biblical Hebrew narrative, the function of the wayyiqtol verb form (also improperly called “the waw-consecutive with imperfect”) is as “the backbone or storyline tense of Biblical Hebrew narrative discourse” [Robert Longacre]. Hence, if we want to find the main sequence of events in a narrator’s presentation, we should begin by looking for the wayyiqtol verbs.
“Other verb forms, when part of the narrator’s presentation (as opposed to the reported speech of participants), are used for supplying background information; for example, the “perfect” (qatal) is used to denote events off the storyline, while the “imperfect” (yiqtol), “converted perfect” (weqatal), and participle (qutel) denote activities with process aspect (“something was happening“).
“Normally, in New Testament Greek narrative the aorist (both indicative and adverbial participle) give the events line. In Matthew and John we have the historic present as well. Although the historic present is often said to be for the sake of greater “vividness,” this explanation is unlikely, since the feature appears so often.
“Off the storyline, imperfects are often used to provide background, as the present participle can be; subordinate clauses (such as relative clauses), which are grammatically marked as off the storyline, can be used of any of the tenses; but the time reference is typically with respect to the storyline. One special use of the imperfect is when it is near the end of the pericope and on the storyline: this typically denotes the outcome of these events.
“We may include here questions of the order of events, which may or may not be the same as order of narration, and historical truth claims our narrator is making.”
4. How do those events follow causally from what comes before and affect causally what comes after?
“This concerns the relationship between our pericope and its context.
“The events in our passage may be influenced by choices the characters made in earlier passages, while the choices the characters make in our pericope may influence events later.
“This reflects the biblical position that, under divine sovereignty, our choices are freighted with unimaginable significance and effect.”
5. Are there repeated key words or roots (both within this pericope and across several pericopes)?
“Repeating key words can bind passages with a theological unity, as well as give them a unity across pericope boundaries.
“Further, repetition of roots within a pericope can provide anaphora (back reference to something mentioned previously) or can be used for irony.”
6. How does the author present the characters?
“For example, look for
the ways in which the characters’ actions and speech reveal their hearts;
the way they describe events as compared with the way the narrator does (their spinning of events);
the ways people develop or deteriorate; and
the ways an author may create sympathy or suspicion.”
7. What devices does the author use to communicate his point of view?
sometimes he gives an explicit evaluation of characters or events (this is rare);
sometimes he allows us to see contrasts between characters (for example, between the chaste Joseph and the lustful Judah, Gen. 38-39);
sometimes he uses ironic foreshadowing or back reference;
sometimes he omits the mention of things we would have expected.”
8. What is the passage about?
“Once we have answered these questions, we are in a position to summarize what the pericope is about; that is,
what is the key event,
what is its significance, and
how does the author want his audience to think about i?
The focus here is on the author’s intent as embedded in the text itself—in its
rhetorical devices, and
point of view.”
9. How are covenantal principles on display here?
how does this passage demonstrate God’s grace; or
how do we see the tension between the conditionality and unconditionality of covenant participation; or
how do we see divine sovereignty at work; or
the success or failure of covenant succession (i.e., the promise in Gen. 17:7; 18:19); or
the function of the mediatorial kingship (e.g., David’s combat with Goliath)?
Under this heading we should also consider the ways in which later Scripture refers to the passage we are studying. For example, the historical psalms (such as Pss. 78, 105, 106) lead us in our theological reflection on the history of Israel, and Paul’s reference to Abraham (Rom. 4:3-5) should lead us to find a religious kinship between Christians and their forefather in the faith.