The book of Genesis is a collection of stories woven together by some unknown redactor. The work contains legend, poetry, fantasy, genealogy, short story, and other literary forms which are blended together to form a more or less coherent whole. Genesis is a kind of universal history; like other myths, it presents a story about what the beginning of time may have been like. It opens with two distinct creation myths: one emphasizing the transcendental nature of the creator god and the other emphasizing the human-like properties of the same creator god. The first god creates by fiat, by giving verbal commands; the second creates by breathing air into a lump of clay. The two may be different versions of the story by different poets, or they may be contrary projections of the complex human creation called god. The “third,” if the projection is read as a psychological ground, would be this: the verbal is the lump of clay. God speaks and the world begins. God speaks and life begins. The creative power of speech is celebrated in the beginning. Language with its formal aspects – its rules of syntax and semantics – is the perfect analog for creation itself, since language gives us the power to create order and meaning out of the chaos of experience.
The creation myth can be read as a description of any act of creation: first the intention, then the translation from mind to matter, and then the evaluation: “and it was good.” Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught The Bible as Literature at the University of California in the nineteen sixties, pointed out in lectures that the creation myth, when read aloud, will be heard to be an accurate description of the completion of any creative act. He told us the story of his first wife, a blind poet, who had asked him to read Genesis 1 and 2 aloud to her and who when he finished said “that is precisely the feeling of creating a poem.” In writing a poem one starts with an idea and a blank and formless page. The creative act of beginning to “blow” life into that page and after some time (and with some luck) giving form to the stuff of the mind, transforming it into a new medium has formed a completed work. Human creation, like Eliot’s The Wasteland, is often a multi-staged affair with false starts, revisions, crumpled failed attempts tossed away, and a complex of discovery and creation. The poet does not know the poem until it is finished. And when finished the feeling is there to be expressed: “And it is good.”
Read this way `good’ is an aesthetic term, as in “Shane is a good movie” or “King Lear is Shakespeare’s best play.” Value terms are ambiguous in that sense, for we use many of the same words to describe both aesthetic and moral judgments, `good’ doing service in both categories of judgments. “And it was good” as used in Genesis is evaluative, but not in the moral sense. The story itself is silent on the moral status of the creation and therefore the puzzle of how evil can arise in a perfect creation arises only because of the confusion between aesthetic and moral uses of the word `good.’ `Is the universe and everything in it good?’ is the wrong question to ask when `good’ is used in the moral sense. Such a question gets currency only if one presupposes that the logically prior assertion `God is good’ is true, and that there is a perfect transfer from creator to creation. But in the creation myths in Genesis we have no argument to establish the truth of that claim, in fact, Genesis actually tells us very little about God. “In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth…” presupposes the existence and nature of God and the reader has the task of creating God from the narrative stuff provided. From the first line of the book the main character is a given, yet a mystery, a term looking for a referent. Here again confusion arises when we fail to see that the particular kind of verbal act the writer uses in the story is not one to be evaluated by some correspondence theory of truth, but is rather a proclamation or statement in the sense that the Canadian Constitution is a proclamation or set of statements. If one says of a country’s constitution, `It is true’ what exactly is one saying? Constitutions constitute the rules of the game, and are, as we all know, subject to interpretation throughout time. The logical status of many statements in the Bible is similar to the logical status of rules of a game: `three strikes and you are out’ not only regulates the game of baseball, it also constitutes the game. “And it was good” is thus proclamation and aesthetic judgment. The priests who compose the account of the creation presuppose God, as an objective being. God, as a character in a narrative, is yet to be discovered.
After the creation stories come a series of “beginnings” stories. We are given a story that “explains” the multiplicity of languages in the world. We are told why pain and death enter the world. We are told of the first murder and of god’s method of dealing with the first murderer. He does not use capital punishment but instead marks Cain as a stranger, someone cut off from society and from the earth itself. The jealousy that motivates the act of murder is the second indication (the first had been the disobedience of Eve and Adam) we have of the source of conflict and that conflict comes from the human creatures’ inner thoughts and feelings. A seed of conflict, of internal disruption grows in the psyches of the humans and proves to be the narrative source of the evil that enters the story in opposition to the expected goodness transferred from creator to created. Cain, unable to accept God’s rejection of his gift, strikes out against his brother instead of addressing his own psychic problems of insensitivity and jealousy, and is punished by complete and awful rejection. We are shown in this story of the first murder that the results of murder are to make the murderer non-human: God removes Cain from life, from human society, and even from the fruits of the garden. Isolated, Cain must walk the earth alone and friendless marked so that no one will kill him to relieve him from his life sentence. Cain’s mark is a visible sign of God’s absence and punishment as well as a symbol of the burden Cain must carry to his grave as a result of the inner turmoil that led him to commit fratricide.
As human-like characters enter the narrative, they are presented as nomadic mideastern tribesman who wander the semi-arid country of Canaan and Egypt and who learn the importance of dreams and of a belief in the future. Abraham, who is a hero to three religions, walks onto the stage as the father of countries who has, above all, the virtues of loyalty and obedience. In the most powerful and disturbing narrative in the collection, Abraham is commanded by Yahweh (the Hebrew name for the creator-god) to sacrifice his young son. This, Abraham agrees to do, but is stopped at the last moment by Yahweh, who it seems, is only testing Abraham’s obedience. A ram is substituted for the boy and the end of human sacrifice is signalled. This story has haunted the twentieth century imagination – Kirkegaard wrote a book based on the questions raised by this 300 word story – because it raises so many profound questions. If a voice orders you to do something how do you know the voice is the voice of god and not of the devil? If god demands complete and unthinking obedience is god worthy of worship? Can we worship a being willing to murder to make a point? Is an action good because god says so or does god say so because it is good?
The other key idea in the book of Genesis is nationality. Yahweh and his chosen people join in the covenental stories that image the agreement and promise between Yahweh and the Patriarchs. If you will follow me, says Yahweh, I will provide you and your offspring with land. The narrative that follows traces the covenant from generation to generation through a number of deceitful, lustful, conflict-ridden, loving, loyal, ordinary people.
But the overriding theme developed in this set of stories is this: how can human beings learn to resolve conflicts without committing fratricide? The first murder, of brother by brother, is a description of the worst failure: homicide. The relationship of brotherhood is expanded and developed to meta- phorically include our relationship with each other within the human tribal family, and in the triumphant meeting of Jacob and Esau hatred and conflict melt away into a very human embrace that suggests a way for all of us to behave. Esau, who had lost his birthright to Jacob his younger brother, had said to himself, “The time for mourning for my father will soon be here; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Esau’s threat is real; his injury greater than Cain’s, and the expectation of yet another murder of brother by brother is acute. When finally the two brothers are reunited we are prepared for the worst.
Jacob raised his eyes and saw Esau coming towards him with four hundred men; so he divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two slave girls. He put the slave girls with their children in front, Leah with her children next, and Rachel with Joseph last. He then went on ahead of them, bowing low to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Esau ran to meet him and embraced him; he threw his arms round him and kissed him, and they wept. (Gen. 33 1-5)
Instead of arms raised in anger we get arms that embrace. Anticipating a weapon we get a kiss. Conflicts between brothers need not end in murder. The word “brother” is given to us just at the moment of recognition to remind us that these two are brothers. Reconciliation occurs in the midst of danger as we are reminded by the mention of an army of men and by the prudent way that Jacob arranges his people, using the slave girls and their children to protect the inner circles of Leah and his favorite Rachel. And who is in the centre of the protective shields? Joseph. Joseph of the many coloured coat; Joseph the special.
Robert Alter, in his excellent book The Art of Biblical Narrative (upon which I draw heavily in the following), writes:
The God of Israel, as so often has been observed, is above all the God of history: the working out of His purposes in history is a process that compels the attention of the Hebrew imagination, which is thus led to the most vital interest in the concrete and differential character of historical events. The point is that fiction was the principal means which the biblical authors had at their disposal for realizing history.1 (emphasis mine)
Fiction is the key to understanding the many biblical stories. “Fiction” comes from the Latin, “fictio,” which means “a making, counterfeiting.” It is a form of “fingere”, “to make, to form, to devise.” Think of “fiction” in the sense of making or forming and not in its sense of “false”. When I say the bible is fiction I am not saying that the Bible is false. What I am saying is that the Bible is a creation, a making, a story which is formed and molded to certain ends; it is a formed and molded story in the same way that The Great Gatsby is a novel. Obviously, there are many differences between the stories presented in the Bible and the stories presented in twentieth century novels. The techniques of narration have evolved and the conventions that stand behind a literary work have also changed over the last 2,500 years. But the basic enterprise of story telling has not changed significantly. And, what we need to realize is that the religious vision of the Bible is given depth and subtlety by being conveyed through the sophisticated resources of prose fiction. Like the Greeks, the Hebrews learned to tell their story in a unique way, to glorify their God in songs, poems, and anthems. Unlike the Greeks, they chose a different genre.
The ancient Hebrew writers purposefully nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre, which by its content was intimately bound up with the world of paganism, and appears to have had a special standing in the polytheistic cults. The recitation of the epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic. In the process of total rejection of the polytheistic religions and their ritual expressions in the cult, epic songs and also the epic genre were purged from the repertoire of the Hebrew authors.2
Any comparison of the Homeric gods with the god of the Old Testament reveals the essential difference between the two cultures. Although the Homeric poems played the same role in Greece that the Old Testament stories did in Palestine, in the subsequent development of the civilization from which they grew, the differences are dramatic. The Olympian gods, as conceptual representations of the power which governs the universe, are totally irreconcilable with the one god of Abraham. The Greek conception of the nature of the gods and their relation to humans is so alien to us that it is difficult for the modern reader to take it seriously. The Hebrew basis of European Christianity has made it almost impossible for us to imagine a god who can be feared and laughed at, blamed and admired and still worshipped with sincerity–yet these are all proper attitudes toward the gods on Olympus.
The Hebrew conception of god is clearly an expression of the emphasis on those aspects of the universe that imply a harmonious order. Any disorder in the universe is blamed on man and woman, not on God. Thus we have a story to explain why there is death and pain in this otherwise perfect world. Human errors bring about the advent of pain, sin, and death. Interestingly, there can be no sin without God since “sin” is a thoroughly religious word. Those ancient Hebrews expressed their feelings and awe when faced with the wonder and miracle of life; yet, they also had to make sense of the world they found themselves a part of – a world with life and joy but also death and suffering.
In all the stories in the Bible the Hebrew writers struggle to reconcile evil with an a priori assumption of one all-powerful, all-knowing and just God. Greek poets and philosophers conceived their gods as an expression of the disorder of the world they inhabited: the Olympian gods, like the sea and the wind, follow their own will even to the extreme of conflict with each other, and always with a sublime disregard for the human beings who may be affected by the results of their actions. They are not concerned with morality and leave it for human beings to talk about. The Old Testament God, on the other hand, is presented most of the time3 as one who is intimately involved in morality to the extent of providing in the decalogue the covenant between him and his people and following (cf. Numbers) with hundred of rules and regulations to be followed by the people.4
The epic poems of Homer provide a much different conceptual scheme than do the prose narratives of the Hebrew writers. The difference between the Greek and Hebrew hero, between Achilles and Joseph, for example, is remarkable, and has led many to claim that there are no heroes in the Old Testament. These Hebrew heroes are all tentative; all flawed in spirit or in body and seem too common to be real heroes. Homer’s poetry depends largely on image and other poetic devices for its marvellous effect while the Hebrews use the devices of a newly developed prose narrative to convey an equally marvellous subtlety. The subtle interplay of Homeric lines is not often found in the Bible, not because the Hebrews were inferior artists but because they were writing in a different genre and hence employing different techniques.
As Alter puts it:5
The Bible presents a kind of literature in which the primary impulse would often seem to be to provide instruction or at least necessary information, not merely to delight. If, however, we fail to see that the creators of biblical narrative were writers who, like writers elsewhere, took pleasure in exploring the formal and imaginative resources of their fictional medium, perhaps sometimes unexpectedly capturing the fullness of their subject in the very play of exploration, we shall miss much that the biblical stories are meant to convey.
In the next few pages we shall consider some of these “formal and imaginative resources” in an attempt to see how knowledge of them can help us to understand the complex stories we are told in the Bible. While discussing these formal attributes of the literary style we will also want to know more about the informal attitudes, the conventions, that the writers and readers shared and which, as in all literature, provided the soil for the growth of the formal structures which we call narratives. To stay with the plant metaphor for a moment, one can say that the conventions extant at a given time provide the “root system” for the literature, which grows above ground as a formal production of the human mind. Let us look at a few of the key literary devices employed by the Hebrew writers:
1. verbal repetition
2. thematic key words
3. delayed exposition
4. reiteration of motifs
The very famous opening passages of the King James Genesis will serve to show several of these devices at work.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was
upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the
face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the
light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called
Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the
waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which
were under the firmament from the waters which were above the
firmament: and it was so.
8. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and
the morning were the second day.
9. And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered
together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering
together of the waters called he Seas: And God saw that it was
11. And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb
yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose
seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed
after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself,
after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13. And the evening and the morning were the third day.
14. And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the
heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs,
and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15. And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to
give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the
day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give
light upon the earth,
18. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide
the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
20. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the
moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the
earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21. And God created great whales, and every living creature that
moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their
kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was
22. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and
fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23. And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
24. And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature
after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beast of the earth
after his kind: and it was so.
26. And God said, Let us make man in our image… in the image
of God created he him; male and female created he them…and He
rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.
Perhaps the first thing we notice about this creation story is that we are confronted with a very talkative God. The writer chooses to present the story (and uses the word “story” to describe it) in a kind of permanent present tense with the commands of God clearly presented as verbal performances. This is a God who creates by verbal fiat. And stories are verbal constructs, which also create by verbal fiat: there is no character, no action, no place until some words are spoken or written; until we name the objects of the world we have no way of linguistically referring to them: no words, no world. The repetition of the imperative `Let there be…’ shows us that we are confronted here with one god, with one God for whom language is important: after creating something he immediately names it, and then evaluates it. Everything is brought into being by the verbal order of God; then named by him (later Adam will be given the task of naming the animals) as if the creation of an entity is not complete until it is given a name. The repetition of the imperative `Let there be…’is an obvious literary device which draws our attention to the verbal power of this unique god. A comparison with other creation myths is instructive.6 Nowhere else is this verbal quality so dramatically presented.
A pattern emerges: on the first day light enters the world for the first time and then each day’s creative work produces more complex components of the world and its inventory. By the sixth day mammals and complex fruits and trees are present. These created things are not part of a logical progression of ever more complex structures; for example, how can there be day and night before there is a sun? They are more an expanding circle of consciousness. From the instant of conscious awareness (light) the child’s world expands until it finally includes a sense of the cycles of day and night, a realization of something outside the individual ego, and a powerful acquaintance with the external world with all of the stuff which it contains. A psychological, not a logical pattern develops.
KEY WORDS IN THE STORIES
“And God saw that it was good” appears after each creative act, after each day’s work. One way of reading the Hebrew creation story is as a description of any creative act. Write a poem, make a pot, or build a bird house – if all goes well the feeling of “and it was good” comes after completing the day’s work. Further, the description is accurate in that first comes the idea (“Let there be…) and then that idea is given reality (“and it was so”), and then the reality is blessed (“and it was good”). From concept to concrete being is a good description of a creative act – and with the act comes the sense of making something out of formlessness by acting on raw material with a consciousness that can then see that it has form, and can value the new creation. The voice of God in this creation myth is a voice which imparts value to the universe (“And it was good”), gives form to an earth that was without form (“Let there be”), and fills up that which was void (“and it was so”).
Does that mean that value is in the universe? That is certainly the position presented here in this story, presented in the narrative, but not argued for. The value claim is asserted, is given form in the repetition of the evaluative utterance of the only character in the story, but it is presupposed, not offered as the conclusion to an argument. At this point we are given a god who is different from his creation, a god who acts verbally on the stuff of the universe to give it form and announces the aesthetic value of the creation. Unlike other mid-eastern creation stories where the god-creator is the stuff of the creation here we have a distinct verbal character who commands the things of experience into being. This god does not make things from parts of his body, does not give birth to his creation, but, instead, commands the mental to produce the physical.
Thematic key words in this narrative include: “let”, “God”, “and”, “good”. To reiterate: “let” serves as an imperative, a command on each of the days of the creation and tells us of a god who creates by fiat and who infuses matter with concept and name. “God” is the name of the author of this creation and we are made to feel that he is one, that he is all powerful, and that he is a god who speaks in a human tongue. “And” functions to introduce each day and each part of the total creative effort. It gives each sentence equal weight, hence equal importance. Coordinating conjunctions tend to do that, especially “and”, which refuses to attach more weight to one main clause over another leaving each conjoined clause separate and equal. There is also the sense of a huge enterprise which the series of “and” introduced sentences provides: and …, and…, and…, filling up the void with earth and stars, sun and moon, plants and animals, oceans and dry lands.
Using this passage as a model as one reads the stories can provide a key for several of the literary devices used by the Hebrew writers to relate their accounts of god, man and woman, and their relationships. Anytime one notices verbal repetition it brings about an effect which influences meaning. Sometimes repetition changes from verbatim repetition to near repetition with slight changes that subtly introduce a new level of meaning. For example, at the end of the sixth day, for the first time, an adverb (“very”) is used in the value assessment: “And god saw every thing that he had made, and , behold, it was very good.” Also, we get “behold” for the first time. It is as if we were present to review all of the week’s work, to look back at the creative activity of those first six days with a cumulative feeling of the celebration of creativity urged on by “beholding” the fruits of the creative spirit which now flourish in what was before a formless void. Land, sky, sun, moon, plants and animals are all celebrated in this short creation myth. That feeling of celebration, of creativity, is what is true about this story. Those who insist that it is a literal explanation of the beginnings of species reduce its meaning by failing to recognize the literary subtleties of the piece that raise it above mere literal prose. What we find in the creation account is not a psuedo-scientific description of the origin of the species but a fully conceived and richly presented story about creativity.
Creation as described in this story is a process and not a series of events. The question of how there can be days before there is a sun disappears when one realizes that the acts of creation are presented as process and are of a whole. Critics who argue that these kinds of inconsistencies are evidence that the story is not to be taken literally because to do so leads to inconsistency have not realized that they too are depending on a literal model as their stalking horse. But this is not a newspaper account of the creation of the universe, full of brute facts to be checked against what is, nor is it theory to base predictions on; it is a poem celebrating creativity and worth.
Later in Genesis we are told of Joseph and his many brothers; brothers who are jealous of him and of his special treatment by their father Israel (Jacob). The brothers decide to kill him, are talked out of it by Reuben, and then they decide to throw Joseph into a pit:
When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped him of the
long, sleeved robe which he was wearing, took him and threw him
into the pit. The pit was empty and had no water in it….Meanwhile
some Midianite merchants passed by and drew Joseph up out of
the pit. They sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites,
and they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Gen, 37, 23 ff.)
What is important in this passage is what we are not told. We are not told anything about Joseph’s feelings or whether he was afraid that he would be killed by his brothers (fratricide again) or sold into slavery. The author delays telling us anything about Joseph’s response to the attack by his brothers until much later in the story when the brothers are sent to Egypt to get food. There, in a brilliant scene where Joseph knows his brothers but they know him not, we are told of the feelings Joseph had when his brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites.7 We are told that when his brothers sold him he pleaded with them but they turned a deaf ear to his pleas. Now they are in a position where they must plead for food from this same brother (although they do not yet know it is Joseph, we do) and hope that he will not turn a deaf ear to their importuning. Joseph, who had his coat of many colours stolen by his brothers, now provides each brother with a new suit of clothes. By delaying this information until later in the story the writer is able to create an ironic scene where we know more than the characters and can see the relationship between the attack on Joseph and the request to Joseph.
Joseph could no longer control his feelings in front of his
attendants, and he called out, `Let everyone leave my presence.’ So
there was nobody present when Joseph made himself known to his
brothers, but so loudly did he weep that the Egyptians and
Pharaoh’s household heard him. Joseph said to his brothers, `I
am Joseph; can my father be still alive?’ (Gen.
45, 1-3, )
Joseph is alone with his brothers, and he must announce himself in Hebrew: `I am Joseph…’! There in a strange land, surrounded by people speaking a strange language, the sound of Hebrew would surprise, and the announcement `I am Joseph’ would be like hearing a person returned from the dead. “His brothers were so dumfounded at finding themselves face to face with Joseph that they could not answer.” We heard nothing from Joseph in the pit; now we hear nothing from the surprised brothers responsible, albeit it unknowingly, for Joseph’s dreams coming true. Delayed exposition plays a key part in producing the complex of feelings that we go through in the recognition scene.
A motif is a concrete image, sensory quality, action, or object that occurs in the narrative and that takes its meaning from the defining context of the narrative (water in the Moses cycle, stones in the Jacob story). When a motif is reiterated throughout the story, take note, for it may carry a shifting meaning from context to context. In the story of Samson we are introduced to the motif of flame or fire from the beginning. “And while Manoah and his wife were watching, the flame went up from the altar towards heaven…” (Judges 13, 20 ff.)…and there are torches and burnt tow, and the destructive force of fire. Samson’s father makes a burnt offering after hearing that he was to have a brave son. As the flame goes up toward heaven from the altar, an angel of the lord ascends in the flame. Later Samson catches three hundred foxes, ties firebrands between them and turns them loose in the cornfields and vineyards of the Philistines. Imagine the foxes running desperately, wildly, and spreading destruction wherever they run. Destruction comes in a blind rage of fire, and the Philistines answer with fire torture for Samson’s wife and her father. Fire becomes a defining characteristic of Samson; not a metaphor for him, but a metonym for his destructive rage at the end of the story, a rage, which is, like fire, blind.
When King David is “old and stricken in years” the process of maneuver- ing for the crown begins as the various sons of David prepare to make a claim for the throne. Adonijah, believing he has a right to his father’s position, declares himself next in line and gathers a group of loyal followers, priests and soldiers. Bath-sheba, the mother of Solomon, has an interest in the outcome of this struggle for power, and wants very much for her son to be the one who gets David’s blessing and David’s crown. In the King James translation of the First Book of Kings we hear:
11. Wherefore Nathan spake unto Bathsheba the mother of
Solomon, saying, Hast though not heard that Adonijah the son of
Haggith doth reign, and David our Lord knoweth it not?
12. Now therefore come, let me, I pray thee, give thee counsel,
that thou mayest save thine own life, and the life of thy son
13. Go and get thee in unto king David, and say unto him, Didst
thou not, my lord, O king, sear unto thine handmaid, saying,
Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me, and he shall sit
upon my throne? why then doth Adonijah reign?
14. Behold, while thou yet talkest there with the king, I also will
come in after thee, and confirm thy words.
15. And Bathsheba went in unto the king into the chamber: and
the king was very old; and Abishag the Shunammite ministered
unto the king.
16. And Bathsheba bowed, and did obeisance unto the king.
And the king said, What wouldest thou?
17. And she said unto him, My lord, thou swarest by the Lord
thy God unto thine handmaiden, saying, Assuredly Solomon thy
son shall reign after me and he shall sit upon my throne….
20. And thou, my lord, O king, the eyes of all Israel are upon
thee, that thou shouldest tell them who shall sit on the throne of
my lord the king after him.
We can be sure what Nathan the prophet will say. Bath-sheba addresses her husband with honorifics while remembering all the time to repeat his name and to repeat the name of Solomon. David the king must pass on the kingship to Solomon. But, an even more magnificent use of dialogue comes when Bath-sheba changes the rehearsed script crafted by Nathan to an even more effective rhetoric. She reminds the king of his vow to his God. The promise to make Solomon king is not just a promise to her but also to God. Bath-sheba, by adding the oath to god and the idea that all of Israel is watching David to see that he does right by Solomon, is very convincing and we see she knows how to talk to her husband. She knows of his need for public ego massage. She knows of his susceptibility to clever flattery. The artist here is presenting us with a complex and subtle change in dialogue which reveals, in the context of the scene, the character of the speaker, as well as the relationship between Bath-sheba and King David. Nathan’s entrance completes the task as David is overwhelmed by the two of them, and of course, Solomon will get the job.
Spoken language is the substratum of everything that is human and divine in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to present stories by giving us speech is testimony to this belief that the spoken word will lead us to the essence of things. Dialogue can also be effective when used in a contrastive way. In the Second Book of Samuel Amnon pretends to be sick so that he can ask his sister Tamar to come into his tent to nurse him. Amnon lusts after his sister and finally after sending all the servants away, rapes her. Their exchange:
…he caught hold of her and said, `Come to bed with me, sister.’
But she answered, `No, brother, do not dishonour me, we do not
do such things in Israel; do not behave like a beast. Where could I
go and hide my disgrace? – and you would sink as low as any beast
in Israel. Why not speak to the king for me? He will not refuse you
leave to marry me.’ He would not listen, but overpowered her,
dishonoured her and raped her. (2 Sam. 13.12-15)
Tamar’s eloquent refusal, couched in a long speech is dismissed by Amnon, whose response to her plea is the brutal act of rape followed by his only words – the three words, `Arise, be gone,’ by which he dismisses her after the incestuous rape. The contrast between Tamar and Amnon is heightened by this skillful use of dialogue in this scene. It is important to realize that these stories are not primitive, but are presented with a set of literary conventions as complex and valid as any of our current ones. Dialogue is one of those literary conventions which, when we pay attention to its use, can enhance the meaning and enjoyment of biblical stories. As Alter says:8
In any given narrative event, and especially, at the beginning of any
new story, the point at which the dialogue first emerges will be
worthy of special attention, and in most instances, the initial words
spoken by a personage will be revelatory, perhaps more in manner
than in matter, constituting an important moment in the exposition
Biblical narration is the subject of many critics9 and in this matter it is instructive to compare the Greek with the Hebrew writers. The differences are easy to spot. As Auerbach puts it, “…the basic impulse of the Homeric style: to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations”10 while the Hebrews externalize only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the story, leaving in the background time and place, feeling and thought unless such expression is crucial to the narrative. As he puts it:11
It will at once be said that this is to be explained by the particular
concept of God which the Jews held and which was wholly different
from that of the Greeks. True enough – but this constitutes no
objection. For how is the Jewish concept of God to be explained?
Even their earlier God of the desert was not fixed in form and
content, and was alone; his lack of form, his lack of local habitation,
his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed
even further in competition with the comparatively far more
manifest gods of the surrounding Near Eastern World. The
concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of
their manner of comprehending and representing things.
While Homer is celebrated for his precise detail and descriptive power, the biblical writers can be celebrated for their superb economy – economy to the point of sparseness at times. But, as Auerbach says, “in Homer, the complexity of the psychological life is shown only in the succession and alternation of emotions; whereas the Jewish writers are able to express the si- multaneous existence of various layers of consciousness and the conflict between them.”12 It is different with biblical stories partly because the aim of the Jewish writers is not to bewitch the senses but to provide the”necessary” narrative that makes up and expresses their claim to absolute historico-religious truth.
In Homer’s famous opening to the Odyssey:
Sing, Muse, of that versatile man, who wandered far, after sacking
Troy’s holy citadel. He saw the cities of many men, and knew their
mind; he suffered much on the deep sea, and in his heart,
struggling for a prize, to save his life…
we notice the invocation to the muse, the placing of the story in time, and a preview of the events, the travels that will be sung about. His story of wandering is to follow the Trojan War and the time and place are explicit. Compare that opening with the opening of the Book of Ruth:
Long ago, in the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land,
and a man from Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the Moabite
country with his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was
Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two
sons Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem
in Judah. They arrived in the Moabite country and there they
Elimelech Naomi’s husband died, so that she was left with her two
sons. These sons married Moabite women, one of whom was called
Orpah and the other Ruth. They had lived there about ten years,
when both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was be-
reaved of her two sons as well as of her husband.
The stacking up of information, sentence atop sentence is typical of the Old Testament. Compression of time, economy of narrative, speed of narration all are a part of the biblical style. In this compressed narrative we are given a tremendous amount of information and absolutely no description, we are given motivation for action but no feeling by the characters. Deaths are re- corded but reactions to them are not. All of this allows for concentration on Ruth alone as this short story unfolds. Her eventual marriage to Boaz will make her the great grandmother of King David; hence cleverly suggesting that racial intermarriage is to be tolerated since Ruth, as we are told, is a Moabite, and is the mother of Ohed: the father of Jesse, the father of David. The theme of the story is beautiful and simple: we must show hospitality to strange or new ideas or persons. And, the writer presents this bit of didacticism by a simple narrative style that gains power from the context of the entire Jewish story – from Ruth to David to Jesus with the mention of Bethlehem. Biblical writers seem motivated not by a desire to be accurate poets of the senses but rather to fit their stories into a predetermined “Story”. The purpose or intention of this official “story” is always accessible; from the Christian point of view Ruth is an important reminder of the universality and Old Testament authority of the Christian story. The human story is the more important one: the love and openness to the new, of a loyal and steadfast woman, can give birth to new nations.
Form and content have long been recognized as two distinct aspects of literature. Many have argued that the two can not be meaningfully separated – that form is content or content is form. Though interesting, those arguments are not very useful to the practical critic. For the purposes of discussion here let us assume that there is a real difference between form and content in a literary work. One of the ongoing dialectical processes in literature comes about because of the necessity to use established forms in order to be able to communicate coherently while at the same time struggling to break and remake these forms because they are arbitrary restrictions and not an a-priori part of literary “knowledge”. Each generation of writers, it seems, struggles to break free from the perceived fetters of the past generation. As criticism has taught us, it is helpful to know where a particular form came from, or what its ancestors were like, in order to understand the new form. Romantic poetry can be studied as a rebellion against the Neo-classical poems that came before. Wordsworth, striving to break free from Pope’s couplets, created a new poetic line; and, of course, many of today’s poets fight to be free from Wordsworthian influence.
In any case, the form of a literary piece can be important to understanding the piece. It is important to notice that the “Song of Songs” is a wedding idyl, and that “The Book of Job” is a play. “Ruth” is the first short story. “Type-scene” is the name of a literary device worked out for Homeric poems by Walter Arend and used by Alter in his analysis of the Old Testament.13 The idea is that there are certain fixed situations which the writer is expected to include in his/her narrative and which he/she is expected to perform according to a set order of motifs – situations like the arrival of a messenger, the hero’s voyage, the oracle, the arming of the hero and several others. The type-scene of the visit, for example, should be presented according to a conventional blueprint which includes: a guest approaches; someone spots him, gets up and hurries to greet him; the guest is taken by the hand, led into a room, invited to take the seat of honour; the guest is enjoined to feast; the ensuing meal is described. Almost any description of a visit in Homer will reproduce more or less this sequence not because of an overlap of sources but because that is how the convention requires such a scene to be rendered.
In the Bible we find several common type-scenes. As Alter says: “Some of the most commonly repeated biblical type-scenes I have been able to identify are the following: the annunciation…of the birth of a hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; the danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of a dying hero.”14
When one looks carefully at the many betrothal scenes in the Old Testament a pattern emerges. A young man must find a mate in the outside world; hence, he travels to a foreign land. The well or oasis where he meets his future mate is an obvious symbol of fertility and life, a clear and powerful female symbol. Drawing water from the well establishes a bond between male and female, host and guest, benefactor and benefited, and leads to the excited announcement and the actual betrothal.
What is interesting is not the recurring form of the type-scene but the variations writers use for character development and emphasis. These variations of the application of this pattern yield rich interpretive differences, which can be seen by comparing the betrothal of Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, Boaz and Ruth, and Samson and the woman in Timnath. In each case a careful analysis will reveal (as Alter does so well in his book) how slight variations of the pattern can light the story with new meaning and subtle change. Far from being primitive, the biblical stories are rich in narrative complexity and subtlety of character.
An intelligent reading of any work of art requires some knowledge of the grid of conventions the work is laid out on and against. Though we have lost some of the conventions of the biblical writers we can come to see how they define the story after coming to appreciate these old and different conventions. And remember, the conventions change but the stories remain the same.