In the Bible We Must Distinguish Between Prescriptive Text and Descriptive Text
The Bible contains a lot of versus that tell us what to do and what not to do. These verses stand as commands from God. Bible scholars call these prescriptive texts, as they prescribe the behavior God expects from us.
However, many more verses in the Bible are narrative. They tell us what happened. Bible scholars call these descriptive texts. They describe what occurred, usually without godly commentary.
The Ten Commandments are prescriptive texts, as is much of the law of Moses. The Old Testament prophets often include instructions from God. These are also prescriptive texts.
Paul’s letters tell the people what to do, which are prescriptive. Jesus leaves much of his teaching for us to interpret, but he sometimes tells people what to do. Look for passages that start with him saying, “but I tell you . . .” What follows are his instructions of what to do and not do.
However, most of Jesus’s biographies (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are narratives. They tell us what happened. They record Jesus’s words for us. And they document the people’s response to Jesus. They describe what happened.
These are descriptive texts. The Book of Acts is also like this. The Old Testament has many historical books that tell us what happened. Genesis, Joshua, and Judges stand out as descriptive texts. The first and second books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are also descriptive passages.
Distinguishing Between the Two
It’s critical that we make this distinction as we read the Bible. We want to follow and apply the prescriptive texts—especially those in the New Testament—doing what they say. Sometimes they cover things we should do, and other times it’s things we shouldn’t do.
However, we would be in error to take a descriptive text and turn it into behavior to follow, a command to obey. For example, consider Nehemiah 13:25. In this passage, Nehemiah is furious at the men for breaking God’s command to not marry foreign women.
His response to their disobedience shocks us. He beats some of them and pulls out their hair. Yes, God’s leader hits sinful men and yanks out their hair.
Keep in mind that the Bible merely describes his behavior. It doesn’t tell us to do the same thing for people who don’t follow God’s rules. Furthermore, we shouldn’t see this as God’s approval for corporal punishment. It isn’t. It’s merely a passage that describes Nehemiah’s reaction to the disobedience of others.
Where the Lines Blur
However, there’s a slight twist to this distinction between prescriptive and descriptive texts. Consider the short account of Jabez and his prayer. The Bible records Jabez’s prayer for us, but it doesn’t tell us to pray it.
Yet, the Bible notes that God grants the requests Jabez made (1 Chronicles 4:9-10). This confirms God’s approval of Jabez’s words. Though this falls short of a command to obey, it does emerge as an example we can follow.
Yet when God adds his commentary to the behavior of biblical characters, we can take his approval of their actions as worthy of emulation and his disapproval, as conduct to avoid.
When Reading the Bible
When we read the Bible, we’ll do well to follow the prescriptive texts, appropriately applying them to our culture and lives today. Similarly, we should read the descriptive texts as narrative and not turn them into examples to follow.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.