Stop Moralizing Biblical Narrative

One of the most common treatments of narrative passages in scripture is in providing a moral treatment. David is a man of great moral fortitude and was a man after God’s own heart; the book of Esther is commonly debated on the basis of her status as a role model for young women; Job is a righteous man because he did not sin or charge God with blame in his trials. Surely, moral precepts should be drawn from the text if they are there and it is fine to ask questions on whether or not we should emulate them, but do they serve the purpose of the text?

For our example, let’s take the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50.

Throughout this entire chunk of narrative, we can point to several moral principles: the blatant sins of the entire family, Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife (thus, remaining sexually pure), his continual rise as an authority figure in Egypt, the value of preparation, the brothers realizing their sins, Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, and much else.

However, what Moses presents through this discourse seems to illustrate an altogether different purpose: the Lord’s active hand in everything.

He caused Joseph to prosper in Potiphar’s household, and also gave blessing to Potiphar (Gen. 39:2-6); He granted favor to him while in prison so that he was responsible for all that was done there (39:21-23); He gave Joseph the interpretations (40:8, 41:16, 39); He caused both the prosperity and subsequent famine in Egypt (41:28); He gave Joseph authority over all of Egypt (41:39-41); uncovered the guilt of the brothers (44:16); yet most importantly, it is revealed why all of this took place in chapter 45 and 46:

“But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:7-8).

And again with God speaking to Israel (Jacob): “’I am God, the God of your father,’ He said. ‘Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes’” (46:3-4).

And again in the closing remarks of Joseph on his deathbed: “’I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’” (50:24).

The larger purpose of this story is not found within how Joseph honored the Lord. That is incredibly pertinent – yet the main focus is always upon what the Lord is doing in lieu of His redemptive plan. In particular here, we see God shaping the very reality of time and space by directly interfering with people’s lives in order to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant.

We see this evident in every instance of Israel’s exile. God judges His unfaithful covenant nation for the sake of His glory, yet God brings salvation in order to make evident His supreme glory through the fulfillment of His covenant promises.

Hebrews 11 records something similar by introducing readers to the forerunners of God’s promises. The nature of this passage is not to tout their ability to live morally; righteousness and faith are not described in this measure. Instead, their righteousness is accredited through faith, being confidence in the hope and assurance of the promises of God, which we do not currently see. Thus, these men and women were no moral giants; they held dearly to the future promises of the Lord by living in obedience to His commands.

Over all of this is the united theme presenting God as the ultimate victor, ordaining all things to accomplish His purposes and fulfill that which He has promised. Because of this, His people endure in doing good works, which God prepared beforehand, for the purpose of His glory. If they fail in doing those good works, yet turn to Him in repentance – God is faithful to fulfill His promises and manifest His glory in the salvation of sinners.

Thus, we can echo Paul in 1 Tim. 1:15-16 by saying, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.”

You can always draw out moral applications from narrative – but do not do so to the detriment of the passage’s intended purpose. If the passage gives a moral treatment, by all means, embrace it. Learn from the examples in scripture which were written as a warning to us. Yet when all we do is moralize narrative passages that do not present this as the main literary theme, we fail to see the magnificence of the sovereign King as He effectively works His will and focus instead on men, who time and again, fail to live up to the moral standards of scripture.