The Split Screen: A Helpful Word on Reading Old Testament Narratives

As I’ve posted about recently I’m currently preaching through the book of Ruth on Sunday mornings at church. Ruth is an Old Testament narrative and preaching Old Testament narrative has its own unique set of challenges. I shared a couple weeks ago a post on interpreting these sometimes difficult narratives. In my preparation I came across a helpful word from Sinclair Ferguson on reading these sometimes difficult narratives. Ferguson writes:

Ancient storytellers did not have the benefit of italics or underlining. So they found other ways of highlighting the details of their narratives in order to draw their hearers or readers into the emotions of the drama. This explains why biblical narratives, particularly Old Testament ones, sometimes contain details that at first sight may seem redundant. If the author tells you something that you could learn in any case from the story itself, he almost certainly wants you to focus on it, and to ask: Why is this being highlighted? How will this piece of information prove to be significant in the outworking of God’s sovereign providences? Redundancy, at least in biblical narratives, is often repetition for the sake of emphasis.

This is certainly true of Ruth 2:1:

Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

All of this we will learn in the course of the narrative. Why draw attention to it now? The narrator is saying to us: Keep your eye fixed upon Boaz, because it may be (as a good author he does not tell you yet it will be), that he is God’s answer to Naomi’s prayer–possibly in ways you would not expect. After all, the Old Testament God is the New Testament God who ‘is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think’ (Ephesians 3:20).

But why are we told this? Because this narrative proceeds at two different levels.

In order to give us a sense of how God effects his providential purposes, Bible narratives sometimes use the literary equivalent of a movie maker’s or television director’s ‘split screen’ technique. They do with words what modern technology can do visually–splitting the screen so that we can have two different perspectives simultaneously or can compare two different actions or events, and relate them to each other. If you read Scripture narrative with that ‘technique’ in mind, you will notice how often Bible writers use it; not to make a sporting occasion appear more exciting and dramatic, but to give us an important insight into the nature of God’s working.

When this split screen technique is used, we are being encouraged to read the narrative from two different points of view: the human and the divine, the ‘accidents’ of history and the activity of God’s sovereignty. – from Faithful God: An Exposition of the Book of Ruth.

The book of Ruth is a prime example of this as the reader can see the hand of the sovereign God at work in the lives of those involved. These details aren’t mean to be skipped, words matter. As you read it is important to pay attention to the details, but be careful not to get so bogged down in the details you miss the flow of the narrative.

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