Structure of Biblical Narrative

Admittedly this is a long post, and somewhat technical, but I think it can help you make sense of some parts of the Bible that otherwise might be a bit confusing. One of the mistakes we make all too often is in some of our assumptions, or the things we take for granted. That is, when we hear the word “earth” we picture a blue ball spinning in space. We forget that the authors of the Bible would never have had this image in their heads. Likewise, even such basic concepts as how to tell a story don’t necessarily work the same way in all cultures, anymore than you’d expect the same elements and approach in a play verses a novel, or a short story versus a movie–or even what to expect from a romantic comedy versus a science fiction epic.

So, the authors of the Bible often don’t tell stories like we do. We tend to use the chronology of events to serve as the basic framework holding our tale together. Not so much in the biblical narratives. Chronology is not, in fact, the overriding structural principle in Hebrew writing (and this would include the New Testament as well, because, though written in Greek, it was not primarily composed by Greeks). Rather, chronology is subsumed by what to the ancient Jewish people (and their neighbors in the Near East) were more important principles, at least in Hebrew thought: namely, theme and content.

While chronology is not lacking, it is not the only, most important or overriding sequencer of the material. Rather, other things can become more important, thereby skewing the chronology in unexpected ways. Perhaps this is not so surprising. After all, the very nature of the Hebrew verbal system is suggestive of the possibility; instead of tense, ancient Hebrew (unlike the modern language that is today spoken in Israel) has aspects which describe action in terms of completion or incompletion, rather than in terms of past, present and future. This outlook cannot have avoided having an impact on narrative techniques. Yet, in the teaching of the language, the true nature of the aspect system in Hebrew is commonly obscured. For instance, Menahem Mansoor, in his first year book Biblical Hebrew Step by Step, states:

Strictly speaking, Biblical (i.e. Classical) Hebrew has no tense similar to those used in English, French, or German. The action is regarded as either complete or incomplete. Hence most scholars prefer to call a completed action perfect and an incompleted action imperfect….

The use of the Hebrew tenses is relatively easy to learn….Thus, many different types of past action are expressed by the Hebrew perfect tense. This reductionism is largely true of the Hebrew imperfect tense in expressing various types of future (and sometimes also present) action.

Rather than stressing the peculiarity of the Hebrew verbal system, the attempt is made in most language courses to simply force it into a familiar mode, so that students are invariably left with the impression that the imperfect is present or future and perfect is past tense, with no awareness of the non-chronological character of the verbal system. Rather than adjusting minds to the Hebrew mold, ancient Hebrew is all too often pressed into a Western European mold — thereby obscuring what is actually transpiring in the text.

Hebrew narrative structure contains what can be called a thematic expansion of topic — a format that commonly replaces chronology as an organizational principle even in straightforward narrative. This structuring can be illustrated in various portions of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and is especially illuminating when it comes to certain passages that otherwise would be problematical.

Examples:

Jonah 3:5-9

5The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

Jonah displays an example of this thematic structuring–a structuring that plays havoc with chronology. Jonah 3:5-9 is a description of Nineveh’s reaction to Jonah’s preaching. 3:5 gives a summary of the response of the city to Jonah’s preaching, while 3:6-9 gives specific details about what happened and how. If an attempt is made to read this as strictly a chronological description of what occurred, a certain confusion results. Verse five recounts how the people repented and wore sack cloth. If verses 6-9 follow chronologically, then why does the king order his people to do what they’ve already done?

However, if the thematic arrangement is recognized, the problems evaporate, and the narrative is perfectly clear and consistent. Look at the pattern:

  A The Ninevites believed God (3:5a)
      B They declared a fast (3:5b)
         C They put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least (3:5c)
         C’ King puts on sackcloth (3:6)
      B’ Proclamation that no one is to eat or drink (3:7)
         C’ Man and beast covered with sackcloth (3:8a)
  A’ Let them call urgently on God and repent (3:8b-9)

Proverbs 1:10-19

(10) My son, if sinners entice you,
do not give in to them.
(11) If they say, “Come along with us;
let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood,
let’s waylay some harmless soul;
(12) let’s swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
(13) we will get all sorts of valuable things
and fill our houses with plunder;
(14) throw in your lot with us,
and we will share a common purse”–
(15) my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot on their paths;
(16) for their feet rush into sin,
they are swift to shed blood.
(17) How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds!
(18) These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they waylay only themselves!
(19) Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the lives of those who get it.

  A My son, if sinners entice, (1:10a)
      B do not go (1:10b)
  A’ 1:11-14 How sinners entice (1:11-14)
      B’ Do not go with them (1:15-19)

The first line of the pericope establishes the structure for what follows; the first half of the line, dealing with the enticement of sinners is expanded upon in the next four verses. At that point, there is a shift, and the second half of verse ten, about “not going” is then expanded upon for the same length of time.

Joshua 15:16-19

The book of Joshua can present significant problems for the average reader. Consider this episode from Joshua 15:16-19:

And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.

One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.

It shows up again essentially word for word in Judges 1:12-15:

And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Aksah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Aksah to him in marriage.

One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?”

She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.

Which probably wouldn’t be a problem except for the chronological issue. You see in the book of Joshua, the story of Caleb and his daughter show up in chapter 15–and then in chapter 24, we have Joshua’s final words, followed by his death and burial. But in Judges 1, the book opens with the statement that Joshua is dead–and then the story of Caleb is given. So the order of events is different in the two books. This is puzzling–but only if you fail to recognize that theme takes precedence over chronology rather frequently in Hebrew narrative.

In the final chapter of JoshuaThe book of Joshua falls into six parts easily enough:

  I. The Entry into Canaan 1-6
  II. Incident at Ai and renewal of the covenant 7-8
  III. Conquest of the South 9-10
  IV. Conquest of the North 11-12
  V. Division of the Land 13-22
  VI. Farewell and Death of Joshua 23-24

Section V is devoted to the distribution of the land among the tribes. The story of Caleb and his daughter appears in 15:13-19. This same story is repeated near the beginning of Judges (1:1-15), which explicitly informs us that Joshua died before the incident with Caleb occurred. Yet in Joshua, we do not see the death of Joshua until the end of the book (Joshua 24:28-30).

There is no difficulty, however, if it is understood that theme will override chronology in the arranging of a narrative, even a story, because the incident with Caleb is described in a section of the book devoted to the theme of the conquest. Caleb’s story of the conquest of Hebron fits in perfectly at that point thematically, although certainly not chronologically. But chronology was subsumed by the theme.

Judges

The structure of Judges, likewise, is probably not chronological — especially chapters 17-21. The last chapters of the book do not necessarily follow chapters 1-16; instead, they perhaps offer a snapshot of what transpired in the land during those times when there were no judges. They illustrate the phrase “there was no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

  I. The Time of the Elders 1:1-2:10
  II. The Time of the Judges 2:11-16:31
  III. A Picture of Anarchy 17-21.

2:11-3:6 is a summary of the entire period of the Judges, with 3:7-16:31 expanding upon 2:14-3:6 and 17-21 being an expansion of 2:11-13, creating a chaiastic structure for the book.

  A 2:11-13
      B 2:14-3:6
      B’ 3:7-16:31
  A’ 17-21

It is interesting to notice the common phrase used four times in 17-21: “Israel had no king”. It appears in 17:6, 18:1, 19:1 and 21:25.

Besides the importance of recognizing the structure of Joshua and Judges, this knowledge then has implications for when the book of Joshua was composed. Perhaps later than many might otherwise think. Review the information in yesterday’s blog post, Human and Divine.

Matthew 5:3-11

This structuring principle, the thematic expansion of topic, continues in the New Testament, and not infrequently. For instance, it is how Jesus arranges the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11: “the poor in spirit” begins the narrative in 5:3; the lines beneath (4-11) are simply expansions and details of who and what the poor in spirit are.

Once you recognize this structure in the Bible, some of the stories and poetry may begin to make more sense. Consider that the order of events in the Gospels is not always the same. John’s gospel, especially. Overall, you’ll discover that the importance of theme over chronology will help John’s gospels and letters begin to make greater sense. It has a huge effect on making sense of Revelation, even; for instance, notice that words that seem to describe the end of the world are repeated in 6:12-17, 11:15-19, and 16:17-21, not to mention 18-22. This is not strange, if a thematic rather than a chronological arrangement is recognized, however, with the repetition inherent in the process.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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