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Reading the Bible as Literature (1)


At the beginning of every school year, my Literature teacher would give each student an index card to write down the works of literature we read that year. The first entry was always: “The Bible.” This was not only to encourage us to read the Bible, but also to remind us that the Bible was, in fact, a work of literature.

In the last few decades, many biblical scholars have begun to deliberately read the Bible as literature. This approach has many names, and there are various aspects to it. Thus we hear about “literary criticism,” “rhetorical criticism,” and “narrative criticism,” to name just a few. This relatively new trend is the topic of this article series. First, I will give a summary and some examples of a literary approach to Scripture. Next, I will address possible concerns about this method, especially as it relates to the inspiration and historical reliability of the Bible. Finally, I will discuss some of the benefits of a literary approach for Reformed believers today.

Paying Attention to the Way Stories are Told

By “literature” we usually mean more than just a (written) text. Literature is text deliberately composed in an artful manner. When we read the Bible as literature, we do not just consider the information it contains, but study the artful way in which it is written. This is similar to what high school and college students learn to do in their Literature classes. They study a book by Charles Dickens not only for the facts and information presented in it, but to appreciate the artful way in which the story is told.

An important pioneer in the literary approach to Scripture is Robert Alter. In his book The Art of Biblical Narrative he writes, “What role does literary art play in the shaping of biblical narrative? A crucial one, I shall argue, finely modulated from moment to moment, determining in most cases the minute choice of words and reported details, the pace of narration, the small movements of dialogue, and a whole network of ramified interconnections in the text.”[1] In other words, the way in which the Bible tells its stories, with all its details, is deliberately artful. If this is true, then it is worth uncovering this art by reading and analyzing the text carefully, just as one would read and analyze a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Hemmingway.

A story can be told in many different ways, and it is instructive to think about the choices the author made. How does he describe the events, the characters, the setting?[2] In Biblical narrative, we often learn about the characters by what they think, say and do. If the author chooses to introduce them a different way, we should pay extra attention. Many scholars have noted that the Bible tells stories in a terse, compact and effective manner. When we therefore find detailed descriptions, we should pay extra attention. Here are some examples to illustrate.

Example 1: 1 Samuel 25 (Nabal and Abigail). This story shows how two people react very differently to David, the anointed of the Lord. At the very beginning we are told that Nabal is wealthy enough to help David, but is also ill-mannered; but his wife Abigail is smart and beautiful. This contrast raises expectations about the rest of the story: we know that something must go wrong in that marriage! The description of Abigail also suggests that she would have been a good match for David, whom we already know as clever and good-looking. Abigail would make a great queen; too bad she is already married… As the story unfolds, each of these two characters make one speech. Nabal mocks David and calls him a runaway slave. Abigail honors David and calls herself “his servant.” The sharp contrast between Nabal and Abigail is heightened by the way in which the story is told.

Example 2: Judges 17-18 (Micah and the Danites). This narrative begins with a minor crisis in the house of someone called Micah. Then the story grows, until it ends with the migration of an entire Israelite tribe. What is the heart of the story? What keeps it together? It turns out that the narrative follows the silver, which initially was lost (17:2) and ends up as a religious statue in the new Danite colony (18:31). At the end, the Danite sanctuary has become a competitor with the true worship center. The story ends with this conclusion: “So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.” The entire story is about idolatry, beginning small and ending big. The problem of idolatry is underlined in a subtle, ironical way: the name of the Lord is used four times in these chapters, each time by one of the characters, in defense of an idolatrous activity. Thus the story is told in a way that brings out the wickedness of idolatry and underlines the religious decay in Israel.[3]

Example 3: Judges 19 (The Levite and his girlfriend). In this story, a man comes to retrieve his girlfriend (“concubine”) who broke up with him a few months earlier. He wants to leave after three days, but the girl’s father keeps pushing for a longer stay. It takes only three verses to introduce the situation, but the father’s insistence is told in six verses. As readers we are made to feel the annoyance of the extended stay. When the Levite finally says “No” to his girlfriend’s father, we feel relief—finally the story moves on. But it all ends in disaster, in part because the man and his girlfriend left too late in the day.

Recognizing Repetition and Patterns

The biblical style of storytelling is different from that of modern novels. To gain more appreciation for the biblical text we must become aware of the way it is shaped. Often a paragraph or chapter or even an entire book is structured in a deliberate, artistic way. This can serve a number of goals: to focus our attention on something, to highlight certain themes or to bring out contrasts. The most common literary devices in the Old Testament are repetition of words, parallel stories and chiastic patterns (A B C B A).

Example 4: Genesis 37-38 (Joseph; Judah and Tamar).[4] The story of Judah and Tamar seems to interrupt the Joseph narrative. Undoubtedly the main reason is to tell us more about Judah. At first he is one of the brothers who sold Joseph into exile, but later he is willing to sacrifice himself on behalf of Benjamin. What brought about this turn of character? Genesis 38 tells us as it records how Judah learned his lesson about righteousness. But there’s more. The author underscores the unity of the stories by word repetition. In 37:32 the brothers show Joseph’s robe to Jacob and ask, “Please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” In 38:25 Tamar asks Judah in parallel fashion, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” The two stories are literarily connected: Judah, the deceiver, has been deceived. In fact, the theme continues in Genesis 42:7-8 when the same Hebrew verb (“identify” or “recognize”) is used. In that chapter not only Judah, but also the other brothers face the fact that they are unjust (42:21).

Example 5: Judges 14-16 (Samson).[5] In Judges 14, a woman pressures (Heb. sûq) Samson into telling his secret. This gets him into trouble, but the Spirit empowering Samson turns the situation into a great blow against the Philistines. In the next chapter, we find Samson bound with ropes and delivered to the Philistines; again, the Spirit gives him strength to escape. Remarkably, these narrative elements are repeated in chapter 16: Delilah pressures (Heb. sûq) Samson into telling his secret, and once again he is bound and delivered. This time there is no power of the Spirit to rescue Samson. The parallel structure of these chapters invites us to compare Samson’s activities in Timnah/Lehi and in Gaza, and look for the differences.

Example 6: 2 Kings 2 (Elijah and Elisha). In this chapter Elisha is appointed successor of Elijah. The two prophets are on their way to the Jordan and make quick stops in Bethel and Jericho before arriving. Elijah strikes the river with his cloak and the water parts. On the opposite bank Elijah is taken away. Elisha swaps out his own clothes for Elijah’s cloak. From this point onward, Elisha traces back the same route: a miraculous crossing of the Jordan, a visit to Jericho and a visit to Bethel. The obvious symmetry emphasizes that Elisha is the legitimate successor of Elijah. Once we are aware of this symmetry, we find it extends beyond the chapter. For instance, both Elisha and Elijah are instrumental in the raising of a dead child (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4).

Example 7: Jesus’ Signs in the Gospel of John. In contrast to the other three gospels, the gospel of John records only a few of Jesus’ miracles. Also, John does not speak of “miracles” but of “signs” (Gr. sêmeion). The first two of these signs are clearly labels: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana, and manifested his glory” (John 2:11). And, “This was now the second sign Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee” (John 4:54). For the reader this is an invitation to pay attention;[6] we keep track of the signs and wonder why John chose to tell us these particular signs, while he could have chosen from many more (see John 20:30). Scholars generally recognize seven or eight signs in the gospel of John:

  1. Water to wine in Kana (John 2)
  2. Healing of the centurion’s son (John 4)
  3. Healing at the pool (John 5)
  4. Feeding of the 5000 (John 6)
  5. Walking on water (John 6)
  6. Healing of the man born blind (John 9)
  7. Raising of Lazarus (John 11)
  8. Net full of fish (John 21)

It has also been suggested that these signs form a chiastic pattern. Signs 1 and 8 are about an abundance of food; signs 2 and 7 are confrontations with death; signs 3 and 6 with long-term illness. Others have seen a connection between the signs and Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. While some of this may seem far-fetched, it is clear that these signs play an important, thematic role throughout John’s gospel.

To be continued…

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 2nd edition (New York: 2011), p. 1.

[2] “Every story encompasses three elements: event, characters, and setting. Somebody does something to someone, somewhere, at some time. The ‘something’ that is done is an event, the ‘somebody’ and ‘someone’ are characters, and the ‘somewhere’ and ‘sometime’ are setting.” Mark Allan Powell, What is Narrative Criticism (Minneapolis: 1990), p. 35.

[3] Where did Micah’s mother get 1100 pieces of silver, anyway? It is intriguing that the only other place where 1100 pieces of silver are mentioned in the Bible is in the previous chapter, Judges 16:5. Was Micah the son of Delilah and Samson? If so, then the idolatrous sanctuary of the Danites was actually made with Philistine blood money, used to entrap Samson who worked as a judge among the Danites! To what extent does the narrator of Judges invite us, the readers, to fill in the gaps?

[4] Alter, op. cit., p. 9-10.

[5] For more details, see Dale Ralph Davis, Judges (Focus on the Bible Commentary Series: 2000), pp. 183ff.

[6] “We are thus invited to continue and carry out this important enumeration to the completion of the eighth.” W.E. Bullinger, The Companion Bible, p. 193.


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