The structure of Narrative in the Hebrew Bible

The structure of Narrative in the Hebrew Bible

Yoel Halevi No Comments

– Yoel Halevi Hebrew In Israel

Storytelling in the bible is a complex process that includes space, time, and people. In this short paper, you will be presented with the basic principles of the Hebrew narrative and will be introduced to the core points of storytelling. 

Background vs. Foreground 

The Hebrew Bible uses backgrounding and not foreground as the method of presenting a scene. This is different from the method used in western and Greek storytelling where a place, time, and persons are sometimes sent into a flashback. In the bible we do find discourse that will describe a past event, however, the reader is not presented with a present time narrative, but rather with descriptive-narrated information. 

Examples can be found in Exodus 1 and 1Sam 1.

Exposition 

The exposition in the bible is similar to the principle of Greek drama. The reader is presented with:

The characters and their names

The place and time

If the situation is static or ritualistic it will be presented in the background presented in the beginning of the narrative (1Sam 1:3-7).

Many stories (especially in Genesis) are consecutive in nature and will begin with a consecutive Vav or a היה-ויהי formula. If the story is disconnected from the prevues story the consecutive feature will be absent, or a disjunctive ו will be used (Genesis 3:1).

Some stories happen outside of time and space of our world(such as the garden of Eden and maybe Job), In such cases, the time element will be missing, or the place will be ou tópos- non-realistic.  This does not mean the person/s and places did not exist at some point, but only that they are not attainable to us then and now. The garden and the tree for example are now blocked to us but this does not mean it did not exist.

If the situation is static or ritualistic it will be presented in the background presented in the beginning of the narrative (1Sam 1:3-7).

Many stories (especially in Genesis) are consecutive in nature and will begin with a consecutive Vav or a היה-ויהי formula. If the story is disconnected from the prevues story the consecutive feature will be absent, or a disjunctive ו will be used (Genesis 3:1).

Some stories happen outside of time and space (such as the garden of Eden and maybe Job), In such cases, the time element will be missing, or the place will be ou tópos- nonrealistic.  

Drama

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. This basic structure follows the ideal idea of a state of being which changes throughout the story. The information in the story is structured in a manner that allows the reader to logically follow the information. In some cases, we do have ellipsis where information is withheld (such as what happened to the daughter of Yiphtach), but the narrator sometimes leaves information out to give the readers room to fill in the blacks. This method of cleft-hanging and omission is practiced to this very day in books and movies. 

Many bible stories follow the three-act structure:

The conflict

Point

Resolution

In the conflict, the crisis or situation is presented with the background, characters, and the issues they have to deal with. 

The point is the peak of the story where the drama reaches the focal point. In this scene, the acting part reaches their final point of tension and the interventions which lead to the resolution.

The resolution is when everything returns to the normal state, and the conflict is completely resolved. In some cases, the ending is not a resolution, but a tragic ending. The tragic ending can be used as an opening to the next conflict, and function as the catalyst for it.

In a scene we can find two types of descriptions:

Narrated- the story is being told to us from the third person position (Genesis 11:1-9)

Involved- we are seeing the scene from the perspective of the acting parts (Genesis 12:10-20)

Structures

There are several types of structures the biblical narrative can be used:

Parallels- the narrative is placed in a structure which sets different parts paralleled to one another. Some parallels follow an abab structure, which others can be abba or abcba, and so on. 

Ellipsis- as mentioned relier, sometimes stories omit parts to allow the reader to fill in blanks. This is used between stories and in the stories themselves. 

Three and four- The three and four structure implies a basic three times attempt and failure, and a fourth successful attempt. This principle of numbers can also be found in poetry. 

Formula- the formula structure can be complex, and built from multiple stages. Not all states have to be found to define this structure and formulaic. There are seven basic stages:

Meeting

Appointing

Refusal

 Encouragement

Request for proof and fear

Acceptance

Sending and end of scene

Two classic cases can be found with Moshe and the bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17), and Gideon at Ofrah (Judges 6:11-25).

The characters 

The biblical text uses short concise descriptions and does not go into length on what characters look like and what their nature is like. Only when the description holds meaning in forwarding the story, or when there is a need for description in order for the reader to understand why the person in question is doing what it is doing, do we get a description. The background is sorties used to give exposition on the persons, physical traits can be used as a contrastive element or as an etiological tool. A good example of this is the description on Esav who was כלו כאדרת שיער- he was completely covered with hair. This trite is called שעיר-Sa’ir which explains why his descendants live in a place named Se’ir. 

In some cases, we learn about the nature of a character via a description of them from a different character, or we learn about a character from their own words when they try and reflect on a person in the story. In other cases, characters are contrasted via discourse between hem.  (see David and his brother Eliav 1Sam 17:28-29).

Characters are divided into main characters which tend to be richer in their behavior and more is said about them. These charters are considered to be “round” and “full” and have a larger spectrum of emotions and actions. Secondary characters forward the story, but they are considered flat, and less is known about them. In many cases, they are only an instrument of information or they drive the main character.  The recognition of the main versus secondary can be summed by saying that the main character is in the center of the story and theme. 

God in most stories is distant and does not intervene. In cases where God does intervene he is anthropomorphized and based on the level of intervention, the anthropomorphism increases. 

The narrator is above time and narrative, he is all-knowing, the interpreter, and can see into the hearts and souls of the characters.

Time

Time is the biblical narrative is divided between “story time” and “story length”. On average a biblical story length is short (20-30 verses on average, though some are much linger). However, story time can go over many years, and is rushed over a short story length. An important event usually takes more story length, while a less important t story would take less verses. 

To rush the time several tools are used:

Describing the information as a list

Formulas which describe the passing of time

Use of time indicators and modifiers 

However, when the story is to be lengthened other technics are used:

Repetition

Introduction of discourse 

Some stories will use different ways of passing time regardless of the story length:

Flash back- only used when it is functional and lends something to the story

Introspecting-  this would include using prophecy (used to describe future events), dreams, theophany, requesting an answer from God.

Story cycles

Though most stories are short, F. Polack has demonstrated that many stories are part of larger and complex storylines, which sometimes correspond in different ways to one another. Some stories follow the life of one person (Avraham, Shimhon), and some storms lead from one another creating an elaborate storyline spanning over several books. It is a way of thinking that is also connected to the idea that there is a master editor who edited Genesis-Kings to demonstrate the judgment of God over man, and how sin affects our lives. This is a very interesting idea considering the fact that such structure lends and envelop idea of the banishment of Adam from the garden, and the banishment of Israel from their homeland.  

Story interpretation

A final note on storytelling, I would argue that probably the most difficult part of the narrative is finding the core understanding of what the story is telling us. Many stories have a timeless idea attached to them, while others have a Sitz im Leben (a seat in life) which was the historical background of everything. The modes of interpretation vary from time to time, and in some cases have completely detached from the core principles of the bible. Some theories use a socio-economic idea, historical or metaphorical interpretation. From the overall observation, one can conclude that it all depends on the zeitgeist (spirit of the times). 

Bibliography

אמית יאירה, לקרוא סיפור מקראי, ירושלים 2000

פולק פרנק, הסיפור במקרא, ירושלים 1994

Alter Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York 2011

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