Things to Look for in Discourses
1. Connections between Paragraphs and Episodes
After reading carefully and observing thoroughly at the sentence level and at the paragraph level, it is important to ask how your paragraph (in the letters) or your episode (in the narratives) relates to and connects with the other paragraphs/episodes that come before and after the one you are studying.
So far we have focused on the relationships between phrases, clauses, and sentences. We have looked at cause-and-effect relationships, general-to-specific relationships, conditional clauses with resultant or consequential effects, and other relational features within sentences and between sentences. These same features will also often connect paragraphs and episodes.
Look for connections. Look for repeated words or repeated themes. Look for logical connections like cause-and-effect. Be sure to note the conjunctions between the paragraphs. In narrative episodes pay attention to the time sequence of each episode. And remember—keep looking and keep digging and keep reading and keep looking and, whatever you do, don’t stop after one short glance at the text. Immerse yourself in the passage. Search for these connections. They are critical to the meaning.
Example: Mark 8:22–26
Let’s look at the episode in Mark 8:22–26 and see if we can determine any connections between it and the episodes that precede (8:14–21) and follow (8:27–30).
First, read Mark 8:22–26:
22They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”24He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”25Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”
Taken by itself, this is a strange passage. Why does Jesus only heal the man partially at first? Is he unable to heal the blind person completely all at once? Why does Jesus ask the man if he can see anything? Doesn’t he know? Is he uncertain about his healing ability? At first the man can see nothing; then he can see partially, but not clearly. Finally, Jesus enables him to see clearly. Is there a point to this? Let’s look at the surrounding episodes and look for some connections. Perhaps the connections will help us understand this puzzling passage.
The previous episode is Mark 8:14–21:
14The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”16They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”17Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”“Twelve,” they replied.20“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”They answered, “Seven.”21He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
The following episode is Mark 8:27–30:
27Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”28They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”29“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”30Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Now let’s search for connections between these three episodes. Note the following observations:
- All three episodes are basically dialogues.
- In all three episodes Jesus asks a question.
- In the first episode (8:14–21) Jesus’ dialogue is with his disciples. In the third episode (8:27–30) Jesus’ dialogue is also with his disciples. The middle episode (8:22–26) is different: Jesus’ dialogue is with a blind man. In other words, the dialogue with the blind man is bracketed on both sides by a dialogue with the disciples. Is there a suggested comparison or contrast?
- The middle episode (8:22–26) mentions “the village” twice (8:23, 26). The third episode mentions “villages” (8:27).
- Jesus ends the blind man episode (8:22–26) by forbidding him to go back into the village. Jesus ends the third episode (8:27–30) by forbidding the disciples to tell anyone about him.
- The middle episode (8:22–26) revolves around terms related to seeing. Observe the following repetition:
- a blind man (v. 22)
- the blind man (v. 23)
- he had spit on the blind man’s eyes (v. 23)
- Do you see anything? (v. 23)
- he looked up (v. 24)
- I see people (v. 24)
- the look like trees (v. 24)
- Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes (v. 25)
- his eyes were opened (v. 25)
- his sight was restored (v. 25)
- he saw everything clearly (v. 25)
- In light of the preponderance of terms related to seeing in the blind man episode, it is interesting to note similar terms used in reference to the disciples in the first or preceding episode (8:14–21):
- Do you still not see? (v. 17)
- Do you have eyes but fail to see? (v. 18)
This repetition of seeing in the first two episodes is undoubtedly an important connection between the two.
- Note that seeing in the blind man episode is being used literally, referring to literal vision. In the first episode, however, seeing is used figuratively, referring to understanding. Jesus makes this particularly clear when he states, “Do you still not see or understand?” (8:17). Jesus repeats this nuance as he ends the episode with the repeated question, “Do you still not understand?” (8:21)
- Peter’s statement in 8:29, “You are the Messiah,” indicates that Peter now understands who Jesus is, even though others may not. In essence he now sees clearly.
Conclusion about the connection. In the first episode Jesus asks his disciples some questions and realizes that they do not really understand who he is. They see only partially. By the third episode, however, they see clearly, acknowledging him as the Messiah. The middle story, the blind man episode, is an illustration of the process that the disciples are experiencing. It is not so much a story about Jesus’ healing as it is about a man’s seeing. He only sees partially at first, as do the disciples. Then he sees clearly, as do the disciples. So the blind man episode is really an interruption in the flow of a section about the disciples’ understanding of Jesus. It provides a colorful, real-life illustration of what was occurring in the lives of the disciples.
Example: Colossians 1:3–8 and 1:9–14
In unit 3 we studied Colossians 1:3–8, making numerous observations within the paragraph. Now let’s make observations in the following paragraph (1:9–14) and see if we can find any connections between the two. Here we repeat Colossians 1:3–8:
3We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—5the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel 6that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. 7You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.
The next section, Colossians 1:9–14, reads as follows:
9For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Let’s summarize the connections that seem obvious:
- In both paragraphs Paul refers to having heard about the Colossians’ conversion (1:4; 1:9).
- In both paragraphs Paul and Timothy are praying for the Colossians (1:3; 1:9).
- In the first paragraph Paul and Timothy are thanking God in their prayer because they have heard of the Colossians’ faith and love (1:4). In the second paragraph Paul and Timothy are petitioning God in their prayer to fill the Colossian Christians with the knowledge of his will (1:9). Thus, the first paragraph is the cause for prayer, while the second paragraph is the content of the prayer.
- In the first paragraph Paul and Timothy are thanking God (1:3), but in the second paragraph they want the Colossians to thank God (1:12).
- In the first paragraph the gospel is producing fruit and growing (1:6). This is a figure of speech, referring to the spread of the gospel. The fruit is the new church in Colosse. Paul uses the same figure of speech (fruit and growing) in the second paragraph (1:10), but with different referents. Here the Colossians are the ones producing fruit, and they are the ones who are growing. Their fruit is “every good work” and their growth is in “the knowledge of God.”
Conclusion about the connection. In the first paragraph Paul and Timothy have heard of the Colossians’ initial saving faith and love, and Paul and Timothy are thanking God for this. However, they do not stop at simply thanking God for new believers. They continue in the second paragraph to pray that these new believers will move on to maturity, being filled with the knowledge of God’s will, doing good works, and continuing to grow in the knowledge of God.
2. Story Shifts: Major Breaks and Pivots
As you read larger units of text, look for critical places where the story seems to take a new turn. In the letters this takes the form of a major break. The writer will shift topics, frequently changing from doctrinal discussion to practical discussion. These shifts are important to note. Such shifts occur in narrative also, but they usually take the form of pivot episodes. Usually a shift in the direction of the story will be signaled by an unusually significant episode. Let’s look at an example of each.
In the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he presents a doctrinal explanation about the Ephesians’ new life in Christ and the implications of that new life, especially regarding the unity of Jews and Gentiles in that new life. Ephesians 4:1, however, signals a major break, for Paul now begins to give practical exhortations about how the Ephesians ought to put the doctrine of chapters 1–3 into practice. So while chapters 1–3 deal primarily with doctrine, chapters 4–6 focus on practical living. One way to spot this kind of break is by closely observing the change in verbs.
In Ephesians 1–3 Paul uses a large number of “explanatory” or “descriptive” types of verbs. There are almost no imperative verbs in chapters 1–3. For example:
- who has blessed us (1:3)
- he made known to us the mystery of his will (1:9)
- you were dead in your transgressions and sins (2:1)
- God made us alive (2:5)
- it is by grace you have been saved (2:5)
- God raised us up (2:6)
- he himself is our peace (2:14)
- this mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel (3:6)
Starting in Ephesians 4:1, however, the imperative verbs dominate:
- be completely humble (4:2)
- make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit (4:3)
- you must no longer live as the Gentiles do (4:17)
- put off all falsehood (4:25)
- do not give the devil a foothold (4:27)
- be kind and compassionate to one another (4:32)
- follow God’s example (5:1)
- be filled with the Spirit (5:18)
- husbands, love your wives (5:25)
- put on the full armor of God (6:11)
This verb change signals the major shift in the book. Overall, the two halves connect as a cause-and-effect relationship. The cause is explained in chapters 1–3 (what Christ has done for us and its implications), while the effect is stated in chapters 4–6 (live in a manner worthy of Christ and all he has done for us). A similar major break occurs between Romans 1–11 (doctrine) and Romans 12–16 (practical application).
In narrative passages these shifts are usually episodes. They function as pivots because the story will pivot on that episode and take a new turn. A good example occurs in 2 Samuel. In the first half of 2 Samuel the story is about David’s rise to power. Everything is going great for David. He wins the civil war and succeeds Saul as king (chs. 1–5). He conquers Jerusalem, brings the ark to his new capital, and receives a covenant from God (chs. 5–7). He wins all his battles, defeating the Philistines, Moabites, Arameans, Edomites, and Ammonites (chs. 8–10). Life is good for David and his nation.
The second half of the book, however, is incredibly different. Events in that half are almost all negative for the king. David’s oldest son, Amnon, rapes Tamar, Amnon’s half sister, prompting Absalom, Tamar’s brother, to kill Amnon (ch. 13). Next, Absalom, a son whom David loves, conspires against him, creating a bloody civil war. David is forced to flee Jerusalem. Eventually Absalom is defeated and killed, but David remains heartbroken (chs. 14–19). Next another rebellion arises (ch. 20). David then ends his career by fighting the Philistines again (ch. 21). In contrast to his earlier defeat of the Philistines (and his single-handed defeat of Goliath), David becomes exhausted and must be rescued by his troops; other heroes kill the giants this time (2 Sam. 21:15–22).
The difference between the first half and the second half of 2 Samuel is striking. The strong, victorious, confident David in the first half of the book is contrasted sharply with the insecure, weak, indecisive David in the second half. What happens in the middle that leads to this change? Where does the pivot occur and what happens to bring it about?
The pivot event is in 2 Samuel 11–12. David sins by sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. Prior to this episode, David cruises through life as the beloved, respected, national hero; afterwards, David’s magnificent reputation begins to unravel. It is crucial for understanding 2 Samuel to see this pivot and to note the central role it plays in changing the direction of the story.
Interchange is a literary device, used primarily in narrative, that involves contrasting or comparing two stories at the same time as part of the overall story development. Usually the narrative will move back and forth from one story to the other, often to show contrast.
The early chapters of 1 Samuel exhibit this feature. In the first few chapters the story develops two contrasting families. Eli, the fat, lazy priest, and his two decadent, disobedient sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are contrasted with devout Hannah and her pious, obedient son, Samuel. The two stories unfold at the same time, with the narrative moving back and forth from one to the other. As you read narrative, look for interchange between two different stories. Next look for some purpose in the interchange. Why does the author employ this literary device in the telling of his story? In 1 Samuel the interchange is used to underscore the strong contrast between Samuel and the corrupt priesthood he replaces.
Luke also uses interchange in the middle chapters of Acts to present the transition in central characters from Peter to Paul. Peter is the central character in the first seven chapters. Paul (as Saul) is introduced in Acts 7:58; 8:1–3. Peter returns to center stage in 8:14–25. Paul (as Saul) is the focus in 9:1–30 (his conversion), but Peter has the important encounter with Cornelius in 10:1–11:18. Paul returns briefly in 11:19–30, followed by Peter’s miraculous escape from prison and his departure from Jerusalem in 12:1–19. In chapter 13, Paul moves onto center stage, and he remains the central character in the story for the next fifteen chapters.
What is the purpose of the interchange in Acts? What is Luke trying to say by switching back and forth? Clearly he is not contrasting a positive character with a negative character, as was the case in 1 Samuel. Both Peter and Paul are exemplary characters in Acts. In fact, Luke seems to be stressing the similarities of the two. Paul will do the same miracles that Peter does and preach as powerfully as Peter does. Luke uses interchange to demonstrate that Paul is as powerful (and authoritative) an apostle as Peter is and to show that the message of Christ that began with the Jews is spreading successfully to the Gentiles.
Chiasm is a fascinating literary feature that is seldom used in English but is employed frequently by the biblical authors, especially in the Old Testament. In a chiasm a list of items, ideas, or events is structured in such a manner that the first item parallels the last item, the second item parallels the next to the last item, and so forth. For an illustration of chiasm consider the following silly example:
I got up this morning, got dressed, and drove into town. I worked hard all day, returned home, put on my PJs, and went to bed.
To analyze the chiasm we list the events and look for parallels. We will list the first item as a and the corresponding parallel item as a’. The parallels of the story line up as follows:
a I got up this morningb got dressedc drove into townd I worked hard all dayc’ returned homeb’ put on my PJsa’ and went to bed
I got up this morning is noted as a, and it parallels the last event, I went to bed, noted as a’. Likewise got dressed parallels put on my PJs and so forth. Note that the middle event (I worked hard all day) does not have any parallel. Frequently in chiastic structures, if the middle event does not have a parallel, it functions as the main point or the focal point of the chiasm. The stress of this ridiculous example is on the narrator’s working hard all day. Often, however, there is no middle event in chiasm.
Chiasm can be simple and short. For example, consider Psalm 76:1:
God is renowned in Judah;in Israel his name is great.
Can you spot the chiasm in this verse? The parallels look like this:
a God is renownedb in Judahb’ in Israela’ his name is great.
Sometimes chiasms are lengthy and complex. They can be subtle and difficult to notice. There is often disagreement among scholars over whether the author intended the chiasm or whether perhaps the chiastic structure is merely the imagination of the reader. Read the following story from Genesis 11:1–9 and see if you are convinced of the suggested chiastic structure.
1Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.3They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”5But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the people were building. 6The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”8So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Read through the text and search for repeated words. Also look for similar ideas and contrasted ideas. Look to see if the end of the episode parallels the beginning. Next line up the paralleling items and see if they fall together in order. Look to see if there is a center and an associated central idea that may be stressed. One suggested chiastic structure scholars have observed in this passage is as follows:
a the whole world (11:1)b had one language (11:1)c Shinar and settled there (11:2)d “Come, let’s make bricks” (11:3)e “Come, let us build” (11:4)f “a city, with a tower” (11:4)g But the Lord came down (11:5)f’ to see the city and the tower (11:5)e’ the people were building (11:5)d’ “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (11:7)c’ Babel—because there (11:9)b’ the Lord confused the language (11:9)a’ the whole world (11:9)
The evidence is rather convincing that Genesis 11:1–9 has been written in a chiastic literary form. Six specific words or concepts in the first half are paralleled in the second half. Note that the chiasm centers on the phrase in verse 5, “But the Lord came down.” This is the central event in the story and focal point of the chiasm.
Inclusio is closely related to chiasm, but is not as complicated. Inclusio is a literary technique in which a passage (a story or a poem, etc.) has the same or a similar word, statement, event, or theme at the beginning and at the end. This is also called “bracketing” or “framing.” Psalm 8, for example, opens with, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1). At the very end of the psalm we find the exact same statement, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” These two identical statements “frame” or “bracket” the rest of Psalm 8.
The inclusio is easy to spot if the beginning and end elements are completely identical, as in Psalm 8 (see also Eccl. 4:4–16). However, often inclusio involves similar events or themes. Sometimes the beginning and ending brackets can be separated by several chapters of narrative. For example, Joshua 3–6 is about how Israel prepares for and then captures the city of Jericho. This story is “framed” or “bracketed” by two stories about individual people. The story of Rahab (who believes and is saved) comes in Joshua 2 and the story of Achan (who disobeys God and is destroyed) comes in Joshua 7. This inclusio indicates that the opening event (Rahab) and the closing event (Achan) provide critical context for understanding the bracketed material (Joshua 3–6, the capture of Jericho). We will explore this fascinating unit (Joshua 2–7) in more depth later.