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Literary Features of Narrative

In part 1 we learned techniques for reading literature carefully. Several of the literary features we learned to look for are also important features of narrative. We will revisit a few of these in this unit, but we will also add a few new special features to search for while observing Old Testament narrative.

Four important elements of narrative that we did not discuss in part 1 are: (1) plot, (2) setting, (3) characters, and (4) the viewpoint of the narrator. In our discussion of Gospels (ch. 15) we encouraged you to ask the standard story questions of Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? These questions will get you started into your study of narrative, but we need to expand on these for each of the four elements mentioned above.

1. Plot

Exploring the plot is an expansion of the What? and the How? questions. Plot is the organizing structure that ties narrative together. The sequence of events, along with the rise and fall of dramatic action, outlines the structure of the plot and moves the story forward. Plot is also the feature that ties individual episodes into a larger coherent story. For example, in the narrative about Abraham (Gen. 12–25) we encounter numerous short episodes about his life (he receives the promise, he goes to Egypt, he rescues Lot, he sends Hagar away, etc.). All of these shorter episodes are part of the larger plot of the story that deals with God’s promise to Abraham and the fulfillment of that promise.

Most narrative plots have three basic components. The story starts off with exposition, in which the basic setting is described and the main series of events begins. Next is conflict. Usually something in the exposition part of the story is characterized by incompleteness, disorder, or unfilled desire, and this shortcoming leads to conflict. The conflict can be internal (within a character) or external (between two characters or groups). Often in the Old Testament the central conflict is between God and his hardheaded people. The story next usually intensifies, rising to a climax, which is followed by the final element, plot resolution, where the conflict is resolved. As you read narrative, be sure to identify the main plot. Ask, “What is this story about?” Try to trace which events move the story along: What is the main conflict? How does tension develop? How is the conflict resolved?

2. Setting

Setting deals with the questions When? and Where? The writers of the Old Testament do not provide nearly the same amount of descriptive material about the setting as modern authors do, but they do still usually identify the setting. The stories of the Bible do not occur against a blank backdrop, nor are they presented against a mythical or imaginary backdrop. The settings of the Old Testament are concrete places and scenes: in Pharaoh’s magnificent court in Egypt, in the desert of Sinai, inside a cave, on a trail in the mountains, or on the threshing floor in the dark. The setting is important. The events of the narrative take place against a backdrop, and the backdrop affects how we understand the story. Be certain to identify the setting. Note any setting changes in the narrative. Note particularly when anyone leaves the Promised Land. Remember that that land was a special place to the Israelites of the Old Testament, for it was connected to their covenant relationship with God.

For example, Ruth 1:1 states:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

There are several aspects of the setting presented in this first verse of Ruth that are important for understanding the rest of the book. The time setting, “in the days when the judges ruled,” ties the story to the setting of the book of Judges. When we skim back through Judges, we realize that this was a terrible time period. Chaos and disorder filled the land. Lawlessness, disobedience to God, and raids by foreigners were common. This setting underscores how dangerous it was for Ruth and Naomi to travel alone and how dangerous it was for Ruth, a foreigner, to venture out into a field alone when the fields were full of men. It also underscores how unusual it was for her to meet someone as pious and honest as Boaz.

The place setting is also important, especially since it changes several times in the story. The man from Bethlehem leaves the land and goes to Moab. In the Old Testament leaving the land generally indicated a lack of trust in God. Total disaster befalls this family in the next few verses. Is it because they have left the land? Later in the story Naomi and Ruth will return to the land. Are the ensuing blessings related to their return? Probably so. Notice also that the setting described in the opening verse of the story sets the ironic tone of the book. The name of the town, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.” There was a “famine” in “the house of bread.”

3. Characters

Characters are the answer to the Who? question, and they are critical to narrative. They carry out the action and move the plot forward. Usually the meaning being conveyed in the text is tied to the behavior of one or more characters in the story. However, true to life, characters are complex. Furthermore the narrators (authors) do not always let us know what each character is thinking or feeling. They often leave gaps or ambiguities regarding their characters, and we as readers struggle to suggest possibilities for filling in these gaps. Like the participants of the story themselves, we as readers frequently do not have all the information we would like to have. The narrators tease us, pulling us along slowly and revealing only critical pieces of information that keep us enthralled with the story and reading on. This is part of good story writing.

Consider, for example, the character of Uriah, who was the unfortunate husband of Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 11, while Uriah is off fighting for his king, King David commits adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. After she becomes pregnant, David brings Uriah back from the war, hoping he will sleep with his wife and thus conclude that he is the father of the upcoming child. David’s scheme, of course, does not work, and he finally has Uriah killed. The central scene of the story—one could say the climax—is an encounter between David and Uriah, described in 2 Samuel 11:10–12. Uriah has refused to go home to see his wife, and that refusal is spoiling David’s plan.

Here is where we as readers would like some more information. Does Uriah know about the affair? Would it really have been possible for David to keep it hushed up? As we read back through the narrative, we realize that a lot of people are involved in the cover-up. Has a court insider leaked this scandal to Uriah, who undoubtedly knows many of the people in the court? In verse 10 David asks Uriah, “Why didn’t you go home?” We listen to Uriah’s answer and wonder if he is naïve and honest, giving a straightforward answer, or whether perhaps his answer is subtle and sly, indicating that he knows more than he reveals. His answer is ironic in any case, but if he knows about the affair, his answer contains an indictment on David: “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”

David, who has not gone to war as he should, has been doing the very thing Uriah refuses to do. Uriah plays an important role in the story. The way we fill in the gaps of Uriah’s knowledge and behavior affects how we understand his answer. The narrator never gives us this information, leaving us intentionally in the dark, perhaps to let us identify with the confusion and fear in the heart of David, who also probably is uncertain about whether or not Uriah knows.

4. Viewpoint of the narrator

The narrator (author) is the one responsible for conveying the meaning to the readers through the story. Sometimes the narrator expresses his view to us clearly by using summary statements or judgment statements. For example, in 2 Kings 17:7 the narrator interprets the preceding events for us and explains: “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt.” However, the narrator often stays maddeningly neutral. The meaning he conveys through the story is an implicit meaning, not an explicit one. He does not come right out and tell us the meaning; rather, he lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves. He expects the reader to be sophisticated enough to discern the good from the bad.

In the latter part of Judges, for example, Israel commits disgustingly sinful acts. The worst judgment statement that the narrator actually says directly is found in 21:25, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” What an understatement! In those last few chapters of Judges, the nation, which had been spiraling downward theologically and morally, hits the moral and theological bottom. Not only have they failed to drive out the Canaanites as God commanded them at the beginning of the book, but (1) other nations have moved in; (2) the Israelites are killing each other instead of the inhabitants of the land; (3) they have turned to other gods; (4) a Levitical priest leads the tribe of Dan into pagan worship; (5) an Israelite town attempts to molest a priest, raping his concubine instead, and so on. You get the picture. The situation is terrible.

Does the narrator completely pass up the opportunity of making a moral judgment on this mess? Not at all. However, he presents his judgment with finesse through the artful way that he tells the story. His judgment is there, but it is subtle. For example, in Judges 19 he tells the horrendous story of how the Israelite mob in the city of Gibeah threatens to molest a Levitical priest, shouting to the man protecting him, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him” (19:22). Does this episode sound familiar? Does it bring to mind an earlier event? Most certainly! Back in Genesis 19 the people in Sodom did exactly the same thing. Do you perceive what the narrator of Judges is doing? He does not comment directly on the episode in Gibeah, but he certainly does indirectly. He presents the story in a way that highlights the obvious parallel between the event in Gibeah and the event in Sodom, and he lets the reader draw the obvious conclusion.

God severely judged the sin of Sodom in Genesis 19, and all of her people were destroyed. The Old Testament portrays this episode as the epitome of sinful behavior. The extreme sinfulness of the Canaanites, as illustrated by the city of Sodom, justifies the conquest. “See how sinful the Canaanites are!” the story in Genesis proclaims. But note the incredible irony in Judges 19. The people at Gibeah are not Canaanites. These people are Israelites! They are supposed to stay faithful to God and drive the sinful Canaanites out of the land. Instead, as the narrator shows us, the Israelites have become as Canaanites, forsaking God and committing the same horrendous sin that was committed in Sodom. Should God not judge the Israelites as well? What right does Israel now have, the narrator asks between the lines, to stay in the Promised Land when they are no different than the Canaanites?

So, read carefully. Watch for details that indicate the viewpoint of the narrator. Be aware that the narrative may be subtle in its manner of presentation. However, if you observe closely and read carefully, you will be able to see the subtle details and clues that the narrator has placed to keep us on the right track and to allow us to grasp his intended meaning.

As you can see, plot, setting, characters, and the viewpoint of the narrator are four important features of narrative. There are two other critical features that we addressed briefly in part 1, but they are worth repeating here. These are comparison/contrast and irony.

5. Comparison/contrast

This literary technique is a major device used in Old Testament narrative to develop plot and to move the story forward. We noted above the contrast between Rahab and Achan. However, there are numerous other comparisons and contrasts that appear in the Old Testament narratives. The opening chapters of 1 Samuel, for example, are structured around the contrast between Hannah and Eli. Likewise, Hannah’s good son, Samuel, is contrasted with Eli’s rotten sons, Hophni and Phinehas. The fortunes of each are reversed as Hannah’s life is blessed through Samuel while Eli’s life is troubled by Hophni and Phinehas. Ultimately, Eli dies, as do his two sons. Hannah prospers, and Samuel rises to prominence in the country, eventually replacing Eli as priest.

Perhaps the longest running contrast in the Old Testament is between Saul and David. This contrast is detailed, extending over numerous chapters in 1 Samuel. Some of the contrasting details are obvious, but many are subtle, to be seen only by those who read carefully. For example, consider the way in which each character is introduced into the story. Saul is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:1–2, where the narrator tells us that Saul was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” In contrast, David, introduced in 1 Samuel 16, is not even brought to Samuel for examination at first because of his youth and his unimposing size. Samuel sees Eliab, David’s older brother, and thinks to himself that this impressive man must be the one that God has chosen to be king. God, however, corrects the thinking of Samuel by saying:

Do not consider his appearance or his height. . . . The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Sam. 16:7)

The contrast in size between David and Saul surfaces again in 1 Samuel 17, the Goliath episode. In 17:8–9 the giant Goliath challenges the Israelites to send forth their champion to fight him. Who is the champion of Israel? Who would the logical candidate be? Who is taller by a head than everyone else? Saul, of course! Saul is the biggest Israelite, and he is the king. He is the obvious choice. However, the towering king shirks his responsibility and tries to buy his way out (17:25). David, the diminutive youth, is different. He accepts the task of fighting Goliath even though he has no responsibility to do so; indeed, he is not even part of the army. Big, tall Saul hides in his tent while the small, young David defeats the giant who threatens Israel.

These contrasts are fairly obvious. Now let’s look at a few that are more subtle. When Saul is introduced in 1 Samuel 9, he is searching for his father’s lost donkeys. The narrator does not tell us who lost the donkeys, but since Saul is out looking for them, there is the possibility that he has lost them. The text stresses this event, providing numerous details that describe the journey Saul and his servant make looking for these lost donkeys. How heroic is this introduction? How valiant does Saul appear to be? He cannot find his father’s donkeys and he suggests to the servant that they give up and return home. Saul’s servant, however, persuades Saul to travel to the next town and ask Samuel, the man of God, about the donkeys. Saul follows the advice of his servant, but when he encounters Samuel by chance in the town, he does not even recognize him as the man of God.

All of this is a bit humorous. The future king of Israel is introduced to us as a stumbling, bumbling lout, looking hopelessly for his dad’s lost donkeys and following the initiative of his servant. He does not appear to be very bright or bold. But how is David introduced? The narrator stresses that David is keeping his father’s sheep. This is mentioned no less than six times in 1 Samuel 16–17, the chapters that introduce him. Moreover, he defends his father’s sheep from lions and bears. He is not one who loses sheep or who roams around aimlessly looking for lost donkeys, of all things.

Likewise, David explodes on the scene in chapter 17, fighting and killing Goliath. David is everything Saul is not, and the narrator stresses this with the details he presents. Saul is wishy-washy and shirks responsibility. He is frightened by Goliath (17:11) and probably runs from him with the rest of the Israelite army (17:24). David is decisive, accepting responsibility. He does not run from the lions that attacked his father’s sheep; neither will he ignore the insulting words of Goliath (the figurative lion attacking the figurative sheep of David’s figurative father) and run from him. David is not frightened by Goliath. Rather than run from the giant, David actually runs to meet him in battle (17:48). During this episode, David, in essence, switches flocks. He changes from watching his fathers’ sheep to watching over God’s sheep, the nation of Israel. He accepts the responsibility for this, regardless of the danger. Saul, by contrast, is someone who searches for lost donkeys, shirks his responsibilities, and runs from danger. Next to David, Saul is pathetic. The contrast continues for many chapters, and much of 1 Samuel revolves around it. Recognizing this contrast is critical to understanding 1 Samuel.

6. Irony

Irony is the literary term used to describe situations where the literal or surface meaning of an event or episode is quite different—indeed, sometimes opposite—of the narrator’s real intended meaning. This is not done to hide the meaning from the reader but to present the meaning with more force. It allows the narrator to sneak up on the readers and surprise them with the unexpected. Occasionally it also provides some humor. It is an effect that narrators often try to create with their subtle meanings. In irony actions and events may have multiple implications. When it occurs, usually one or more characters in the story (and sometimes the reader) miss out on some knowledge and fail to see anything other than the surface implication. The authors of Old Testament narrative love to use this technique, and their frequent use of irony enhances their stories, making them fascinating to study and enjoyable to read.

A good example of irony occurs in 1 Samuel 5–6. Without consulting God, the foolish, wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, carry the ark of the covenant (i.e., the presence of the Lord) into battle as a good-luck omen. The Philistines, however, defeat the Israelites and capture the ark. They think that they have defeated not only the Israelites, but also the Israelites’ God. They treat the ark as the idol of a conquered nation and place it at the feet of their god Dagon. We, the readers, are anxious. Has the Lord been defeated? How can the ark be captured by pagan Philistines?

The Lord, however, is playing ironic tricks on the Philistines (and the narrator is playing tricks on us as well). The idol of Dagon falls to its face each day before the ark in submission to the Lord. Eventually his hands and head are cut off (a common fate executed on defeated kings). A plague of tumors breaks out in the Philistine city, and in terror they transfer the ark to another Philistine city. God strikes that city with the plague as well, throwing all of Philistia into a panic. The Philistines then give gold gifts to God to placate him and allow the ark of the covenant to return to Israel.

On the surface the Philistines think that they have won the war, defeating the Israelites and carrying off the Israelite God as a trophy. In reality the Lord invades Philistia. He destroys the Philistine god Dagon and continues to move through the country of Philistia, smiting city after city, as if on a military campaign. Finally, the Philistines capitulate and pay tribute to God. He returns to Israel victoriously and with gold tribute. The two clods Hophni and Phinehas may have been defeated by the Philistines, but the God of Israel was not; he was victorious. The irony is rich.


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