God is the greatest storyteller of all time. Using narratives that begin with such lines as, “In the land of Uz there lived a man...” (Job 1:1 NIV), He plucks us out of our world and drops us into another. Suddenly, we’re in a different time and culture, yet the characters we meet face similar struggles to ours. They experience challenges, disappointments, relationship tensions, and crises of faith. As we study their lives, they emerge from their two-dimensional worlds and become flesh and blood. Ancient saints become living models of faith (see Hebrews 11), and in their lives, we see God at work.
Immersing ourselves in other people’s lives means seeing the world through their eyes. So, how do we do that? First, we observe every detail available about the political, geographical, and religious climates of their times. Then, we examine various Bible passages to discover the characters’ personalities, relationships, and conflicts. Questions like the ones below provide a good starting point.
Where did this person live?
At the time Joseph’s brothers betrayed him, they had moved their flocks from Shechem to Dothan, where there were open pits as well as a traders’ caravan route. Use a map to locate cities, countries, and regions like these.
When did this person live?
We can understand Jonah’s fear when we know he lived during the height of Nineveh’s cruelty and terrorism.
What attitudes, beliefs, and customs prevailed in the world at this time?
As exiled Jews in Babylon, God’s people felt the terror and suspense of living in a racially hostile land, much like a Jewish family living in Germany during World War II.
Use every relevant detail in the story to get to know the person’s personality and character
- What do you know about this person’s physical appearance? Dress? Age? Health? Gender?
- How do other characters respond to them?
- What are this person’s recorded thoughts and words?
- What do their actions communicate?
- Are they mentioned elsewhere in Scripture?
- What do others say about this person?
Identify the conflict that the person faces
- Are they facing a direct offence to a moral or godly command like Daniel or Esther were?
- Is there disharmony in their family, as in Isaac’s or Abigail’s?
- As with Peter and Jonah, does the battle rage within their own heart?
- Are they in conflict with another person as David and Stephen were?
- Are they struggling to trust God in life’s ordinary events as were Naomi and Martha?
Write down your answers and observations. It’s also helpful to read Bible commentaries, handbooks, and books on the people and cultures of Bible times.
After you’ve gotten to know this biblical person in their world, you can see your own experience mirrored in the character’s tests of faith and discover universal principles and applications for your life today. After all, these stories are not just about people but about what God did in and through them. God is the hero of every story. Including yours.
Adapted from Barb Peil, “How to Study a Bible Character: Discovering the Characters in the Greatest Story Ever,” Insights (April 1997): 3.