Narrative, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament

Narrative, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament/

Narrative, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament

Dr. Kevin Chen

In Poetry, Imagination, and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament, I discussed how our redeemed imagination can be an equal partner with our redeemed reason in knowing truth. Since poetry especially appeals to the imagination through its form and frequent use of imagery and metaphor, this means that we should not overlook the importance of poetic passages in our study of Scripture and understanding of its teaching. In particular, the Messianic witness of the Old Testament depends largely on Messianic poems that are found first in the Pentateuch and in many other places throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Thus, patient study of Old Testament poetry is crucial for perceiving the Messianic witness of the Old Testament.

With this as a basis, in this article I turn to narrative—discussing the relationship between narrative and imagination and subsequently exploring the relationship between Old Testament narrative and the Messianic witness of the Old Testament.

Narrative, Imagination, and the Bible

Although it is true that poetry as a literary form especially—and perhaps uniquely—appeals to the imagination, it is nevertheless true that narrative appeals to the reader’s imagination as well.

Whether the reader is a child or an adult, it is common experience that a good story transports the reader into another world, a narrative world involving setting, plot, and characters. Reading (or hearing) a story properly thus engages the imagination as we are carried along by the plot, engage with its characters, visualize its described setting, and alternately consider what we have read so far and wonder what will happen next. Indeed, literature on the relationship between narrative and imagination is vast.1

The narratives that we find in the Bible also work in this way, as suggested by the title of Karl Barth’s classic article, “The New World of the Bible.”2 Appealing to his readers’ imaginations, he asks, “What sort of house is it for which the Bible is a door? What sort of land opens up before us when we open the Bible?”3

His answer begins by recounting the narratives of Abram’s call and justification by God, Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, the angel of the Lord’s appearance to Gideon, and other biblical examples of direct divine intervention. In other words, Barth explains, the “new world” is “the world of God.”4

What distinguishes this God-centered narrative world from the narrative worlds of other stories is that this one alone is mediated through the inspired, written Word of God. As such, “the new world of the Bible” is not only distinct from fictional narrative worlds but also from other non-fictional (e.g., historical) narratives, as reliable as some of these may be. Because of its divine origin and authority, only the Bible’s narrative world is absolute and all-encompassing, fully cohering with and explaining the real world as it is, was, and will be. Furthermore, insofar as this narrative world has always been intended to engage the imagination, this engagement is intended by God himself, the ultimate author of Scripture.

Biblical Narrative and the Messianic Witness of the Old Testament

In addition to engaging the imagination through its God-centeredness, the narrative world of the Bible also engages the imagination through numerous similarities and parallels between different parts of the broader story. These parallels lead readers beyond an atomistic and merely face-value understanding of its constituent narratives and encourage us to use both our imagination and reason to construe the interconnectivity of the whole narrative. This involves considering the relationships between an individual narrative and the overarching biblical narrative, and between related individual narratives through comparison, contrast, analysis, and synthesis.

As one of many examples of the latter, the description of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 is reprised and combined with other themes in the visionary description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22.5 Likewise, the promise of a “Second Exodus” in the prophets (e.g., Isa 11:11–16; Hos 1:11; Mic 7:15–20) has explicit parallels with the exodus from Egypt. On a smaller scale, we might investigate Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea under Moses alongside of their crossing of the Jordan River under Joshua, the ministries and experiences of Moses and Elijah, and many other such relationships.6

These parallels can be described using the umbrella term typology. David Baker defines a type as “a biblical event, person or institution which serves as an example or pattern for other events, persons or institutions.”7 Typology is based on historical facts and on the consistency of divine activity in history.8 Strictly speaking, typology does not depend on (human) authorial intent.

For both historical and theological reasons, the most important kind of typology involves Christ. Indeed, there seems to be biblical support for this kind of Christological interpretation of narrative when Paul calls Adam a “type” (tupos) of Christ (Rom 5:14). Similarly, after describing the Israelites’ wilderness experiences—including drinking from “a spiritual rock…[which] was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4)—Paul says that “these things occurred as types [tupoi] for us” (1 Cor 10:6). Given that Paul’s Christological interpretation of these Old Testament narratives involves far more than their face-value meaning, this kind of interpretation can be characterized as both bold and imaginative.9

More examples could be cited (e.g., John 3:14), but what should be clear is that, according to the New Testament, the Messianic witness of the Old Testament is not limited to its poetry and non-poetic predictions (e.g., Deut 18:15–18), no matter how the interpretive methods of New Testament authors are understood. To be sure, direct prophecy is the backbone of the Old Testament’s witness to Christ, but Old Testament narrative still plays a significant supporting role.

From a hermeneutical perspective, the longstanding question is how New Testament authors were interpreting the Old Testament in such passages. Were they performing what we call today “typological interpretation”? Some scholars think so.10 This is not the place to delve into this broader question in detail, but I would like to highlight one issue that is sometimes overlooked—that of “typological thinking” within the Old Testament itself, which relates to what I have referred to elsewhere as “intentional foreshadowing.”11 The importance of this factor is that it adds another dimension to the broader hermeneutical question, which sometimes focuses mainly on the historical facts of the Old Testament type and its New Testament fulfillment.

If “typological thinking” is already present within the Old Testament, then similar thinking in the New Testament has an inspired precedent. More importantly, if a proposed Old Testament type is already involved in a typological network within the Old Testament itself (and thus before Jesus was born and the New Testament was written), then this should be understood first before reaching a conclusion concerning the proposed “type.” This leads to the possibility that so-called typological interpretation of the Old Testament by the New Testament is actually in line with the historical, authorial intent of the Old Testament.

Gerhard von Rad uses the phrase “typological thinking” to characterize the way the prophets expressed their eschatology in terms of history.12 He explains, “The specific form of the new thing which they herald is not chosen at random; the new is to be effected in a way which is more or less analogous to God’s former saving work.”13 Von Rad proceeds to cite examples such as “a new David,” “a new covenant,” and “a new Exodus.”14 In the process, “[t]he old is therefore renewed, it is present in the new, in the mysterious dialectic of valid and obsolete.”15 The significance of von Rad’s concept of “typological thinking” is that it grounds typology in the Old Testament itself as well as the prophets’ use of it in (their own) authorial intent.

Von Rad’s insight significantly affects the way the New Testament’s supposed typological interpretation of the Old Testament is conceived. Taking the concept of Jesus as “the new David” as an example, the Old Testament already has multiple, explicit Messianic prophecies that refer to the Messiah as “David” (n.b., not “new David”). Hosea 3:5 predicts that Israel “in the last days” will seek “David their king,” and Jer 30:9 identically mentions “David their king” as one who will be “raise up” by the Lord and served by the Israelites in the future.

The original, historical David was long gone by the time both of these prophecies were spoken, so we can be confident that “David” here refers to the “righteous branch” that the Lord will “raise up for [the historical] David” (Jer 23:5). Ezekiel 34:23–24 and 37:24–25 likewise use “David” to refer to Israel’s eschatological king. Thus, since the Messiah as an eschatological “David” is solidly rooted within the Old Testament, New Testament themes concerning Jesus as “the new David” may actually be picking up on “typological thinking” that is already part of the historical meaning of the Old Testament rather than simply engaging in typological interpretation by itself.

To be more precise, however, the preceding argument only shows that the Jesus-as-new-David typology can be grounded in the historical meaning of the Old Testament specifically as expressed in relevant Old Testament prophetic texts. The issue of these prophetic texts in relation to David as he is found in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles has not been addressed. Are these prophetic promises concerning an eschatological David innovations of the historical books? The Jesus-as-new-David typology may accord with these prophets’ authorial intent, but does it accord with the authorial intent of relevant Old Testament historical books? Indeed, Michael Fishbane also discusses “inner-biblical [Old Testament] typologies” of various kinds—cosmological-historical, historical, spatial, and biographical—but classifies them as “transformations” of existing (Pentateuchal) traditions.16

This is yet another big question that cannot be discussed at length here. However, John Sailhamer’s belief that the Pentateuch itself shows a “typological hermeneutic” provides a promising path forward.17 Although his use of this phrase comes relatively early in his career in 1987 and he was careful to distinguish his approach from common typology, his 2009 magnum opus still refers to “a kind of typological pattern of thinking” that links the poetry in Numbers 23–24.18 Sailhamer explains that the “depiction of Israel’s past exodus” in Num 23:22 (“God brings them out of Egypt”) is “cast as a literary image of a future king” in Num 24:8 (“God brings him out of Egypt”).19

Similarly, the promise of a “prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15–18; 34:10) self-evidently concerns a future prophet who will both resemble and exceed Moses,20 and it may not be a coincidence that this latter example of explicitly Mosaic expectation coordinates well with Num 23–24’s vision of an eschatological exodus involving a Moses-like deliverer as a central figure. In any case, what these examples show is that a kind of authorially intended typology, or what I prefer to call “intentional foreshadowing,” can be found not only in the prophetic writings but also in the Pentateuch itself. This literary-theological device is thus part of both the foundation and the fabric of the Old Testament.

Conclusion

For both theological and apologetic reasons, the Messianic witness of the Old Testament will always heavily depend on predictive passages, which can be investigated for their possible direct relationship to Jesus Christ. Though most of these passages are poetic, Old Testament narrative also enriches the way we conceive of the Old Testament’s witness to Christ. Its many parallels and similarities to the life of Jesus have been highlighted by the New Testament authors and leave readers of the Bible to ponder these relationships.

Scholars will likely continue to discuss how to understand the complex hermeneutical issues involved, but I have pointed out that “intentional foreshadowing” (or, authorially intended typology) can be found within the Old Testament itself, starting from the Pentateuch and progressing into the Prophets. In other words, we may consider whether Old Testament authors not only directly predicted the coming of the Messiah but also hid him in parts of their narratives for discovery by those who have eyes to see.


Kevin Chen (PhD, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of Old Testament at Christian Witness Theological Seminary in San Jose, CA. Previously he taught biblical studies at Union University in Jackson, TN. He is the author of The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (IVP, 2019), the Old Testament study notes in the Worldview Study Bible (B&H, 2018), and Eschatological Sanctuary in Exodus 15:17 and Related Texts (Peter Lang, 2013).


  1. As one example among many, see Martha Nussbaum’s discussion of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man as well as the nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” in her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1997), 87–91.[]
  2. Karl Barth, “Die neue Welt in der Bibel,” in Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie (München: Chr Kaiser, 1925), 18–32.[]
  3. Ibid., 18. There is a resemblance to the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, first published in 1950.[]
  4. Ibid., 21.[]
  5. E.g., T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).[]
  6. E.g., Trevor Laurence in a recent article on this website argues that the Chronicler intentionally casts David’s commissioning of Solomon in terms of Moses’ commissioning of Joshua.[]
  7. David L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 180.[]
  8. Ibid., 180.[]
  9. Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). Hays believes that “Paul engaged Scripture with great imaginative freedom” (ix) and refers to “Paul’s imaginative narrative world” (x). Hays’ advocacy of the use of “imagination,” however, differs from mine in that it is not constrained by authorial intent (ix).[]
  10. Regarding the aforementioned Rom 5 and 1 Cor 10, see G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 628–629, 722–725.[]
  11. Kevin Chen, The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2019), 10–17.[]
  12. Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. by D.M.G. Stalker (Peabody, MA: Prince, 2005), 2:365.[]
  13. Ibid., 117.[]
  14. Ibid.[]
  15. Ibid., 272.[]
  16. Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 350–379.[]
  17. John Sailhamer, “The Canonical Approach to the Old Testament,” Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987): 307.[]
  18. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 331; Chen, “Gleanings from the John H. Sailhamer Papers at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary,” Southeastern Theological Review 9.1 (2018): 108–109. For another example involving Joseph and Judah, see Sailhamer, Meaning of the Pentateuch, 327–28.[]
  19. Sailhamer, Meaning of the Pentateuch, 331.[]
  20. Chen, Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch, 224–246.[]

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