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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Heidi (Ruben's wife)

3 years ago

Arjen, I read all five parts and found a lot of wonderful things to go on thinking about — and made some notes.
1. I know his views on the OT were not sound but wondered if Lewis could be more charitably read as saying what you essentially say in pt. 3: that scripture has to be approached primarily on the basis of its unique assertions — only then will it make sense to analyze it literarily, as a unique kind of literature. Lewis was convinced of the truth of the gospels as a literary critic because their literary quality not that of myth but of history.
2. John uses a cycle of sevens in Revelation to convey a powerful vision of history. So a pattern with numbers would not be as surprising from him in a gospel as it might be from some other author. I can’t help observing that the first chapter of John, which echoes the creation narrative, also speaks of day/day/day — if you count up til you have to lose count you have a week, and then this miracle with a wedding and a ‘woman’ in which Christ is the central male. It suggests perhaps that if there is pattern of sevens here, it is about new creation? This would also be in line with John’s vision of history in Revelation.
3. As you note, the literary approach seems hindered in interpreting important considerations wherever a critic is anchored to smaller frameworks than God’s. So for instance one could interpret Biblical histories as primarily political polemic if the one can’t see past politics in interpreting one’s own time. I can’t help wondering about this in connection with our age’s devaluation of allegory — even as we’ve become better at other kinds of interpretation. Most of our children now live to adulthood and this was not the case even in Puritan times: we also now expect eternity to be an extension of a our busily temporal life in many ways, where previous ages were thinking of something quite other than our experience of time, a transcendently beatific vision. I don’t think everything is allegory, but we may have lost a framework to spot or interpret what is allegorical through dimmed vision of ulterior reality — vision that would have been sharper to those reading in more difficult earthly conditions. Just a hesitant thought.
4. Judges concludes with a lot of nameless women suffering terribly through the failure of men (two significantly from Bethlehem of Judah). Ruth provides a contrast — it starts off with the same failure of a man from Bethlehem and the ruined lives of women: but we know these women’s names. And there is another man in the story from Bethlehem, a redeemer. That it culminates in the lineage of David is just beautiful (also a contrast, though what implications are to be drawn are a bit beyond me, with Judges’ lack of a king).
5. I wonder if example 2, part 5 may be resolved by the literary device of anthropopathism and the difference between dialogue and narrative. Samuel is not *speaking* anthropopathically, but that does not mean the narrative will not use the same language so. Authors do use the same language differently when reporting and narrating (so Luke only seems to use the word translated ‘room’ in a non-literal fashion when he’s reporting a speech of Paul, I discovered in a word search the other day — which makes perfect sense.)

Arjen Vreugdenhil

3 years ago


Thank you for your thoughtful observations. The theory of “Bible as literature” is certainly no exact science, and I love to see how different people observe different aspects.

1. Yes, Lewis nuances his disparaging assessment later on. Still, I found his statement useful as representative for those who are only negative about a “literary” approach. As someone who appreciates both the literary character of Scripture and C.S. Lewis, I was shocked when I first read it–and glad that he showed to have more nuance…

2. Intriguing thoughts about the John and his sevens… It is certainly a good approach to compare works by the same author. (Although the equation of John the Evangelist and John of Patmos is not entirely straightforward, and the books have a very different style.)
John 1 definitely gives occasion to compare more in-depth with Gen. 1 and following. The association of the Cana wedding with Adam’s wedding is fascinating. Add to this the fig tree scene in comparison to the garden; and John 1:51 compares Jesus to the Bethel “ladder”, which may also be connected to Eden as the primordial worship center.
I am skeptical about the association of the “days” in John 1 with the “days” in Gen 1. John does not use the word ἡμερα ‘hemera’, which is found in all ancient Greek versions of Gen 1, but a very different word ἐπαυριον ‘epaurion’ = “the next day”.

3. Your suggestion that we may have lost a transcendental outlook on eternal life is profound. In general I like to emphasize that the New Earth will be truly physical, more so than our current earth–because I find people talking about “going to heaven” in a rather abstract way. At the same time, I think that we easily think to low of the glory and the qualitative otherness of the world to come. We can mine the Bible for a deeper understanding and appreciation of it.
Yet I am not sure that this connects to a loss of allegorical reading of the Bible. Perhaps we use the word “allegory” in a slightly different sense. For example, a passage like Isaiah 35:1 does not describe a literal blossoming desert, that much is clear; but it is not purely symbolical, either. I would characterize it as “typico-symbolical”, where the image of a flourishing landscape points us to a higher, yet very real physical land, which is blossoming in a way “no eye has seen, no ear has heard”, yet not unlike the blossoming of earthly plants.
I would warn against “allegory” in the sense of more or less arbitrary symbolism, or of connecting physical descriptions to entirely spiritual concepts. The church rejected this approach already in the 4th century, and has continued doing so, with good reason.

4. Yes, a beautiful contrast between the end of Judges and the beginning of Ruth. This is undoubtedly deliberate. Ruth begins with “in the day of the Judges”, and ends with the announcement that there is a king!

5. The statements about God having (no) regret in 1 Sam 15 continue to be difficult! You are right, we must account for the different “forms” within a book, and that affects the semantic fields of words, especially in matters such as referrential/metaphorical. E.g. proverbs and prophecies use figurative language, hyperbole, etc. much more than narrative. Another example is the parable, where the introductory statement “There was a man who …” does not actually say that there actually was such a man.
However, I find it hard to fathom that the narrative statement in 1 Sam 15:35 (“the LORD regretted”) is meant more anthropopathically than in Samuel’s words. If anything, Biblical narrative is a form marked for historicity and factuality. (This is essential the conservative Christian argument against mythological interpretations of Gen 2-11 etc.) Therefore I think that the burden of proof is on those who deny that God actually regretted that he made Saul king: what elements in the text warrant such a deviation from the usual narrative function?
I am not quite sure what you are saying about “room” in Luke’s reporting of Paul’s speech. Could you give more detailed examples?

Those are my two cents. Thanks for your comment and I am looking forward to further discussion!


3 years ago

Thank you for more to think about, Arjen. Just to reply here on point 5 —

Surely the narratives in Scripture do ascribe human activity/strategy/emotion to God? So though He sees all and fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24), He ‘came down’ to look at the tower of Babel — & in the same passage, though humans are utterly dependent creatures who can do nothing without His upholding (Isa. 51:12), He strategizes as if afraid of the joint power of creatures (‘nothing will be impossible to them’). Samuel speaks earlier without a narrative note that he has heard from the Lord (1 Samuel 7:3), yet we are not in doubt that he is speaking truth. It seems quite likely that as a prophet, in the vein of Isaiah, Jeremiah, above etc., he is speaking ‘high theology’ of God? — using the kind of literal negations that high theology often has to use (not a man that he should regret). Whereas the narrator would seem to be using the conventions used as early at least as the story of Babel to describe God’s interaction in history in human terms — using ‘regret’ in that sense. It makes sense to me that Samuel stands in a tradition with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others in affirming an utterly transcendent and non-creaturely reality of God — while at the same time we are supposed to see God interacting in our history. We’re supposed to be holding these realities in balance, not letting one cancel out the other?
When I did a word search for τόπος/tópos in the writings of Luke, the usage seemed rooted in literal space except for a speech of Paul’s in Acts (25:16) where it’s used more metaphorically. So Luke uses this word in reporting dialogue quite differently than usage in his own narrative.



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