Bible characters are morally complex, neither all good nor all bad. See how biblical authors use character to make key points in the biblical story.
Jon: We’re talking about how to read biblical narrative, or in other words, how to read stories.
Tim: Right! And one of the main ingredients of any good story is characters who encounter conflict and then have to overcome it.
Jon: Yeah. Let’s talk about characters. In most stories, we quickly identify with characters because, just like them, we’re in our own story having our own conflicts that we need to overcome.
Tim: Yeah, and good stories have characters with relatable struggles. We can watch them react to these challenges in different ways, and we get to see what happens as a result. Through characters, an author can show us their view of what it means to be human. The Bible is no different. Biblical stories use characters as a mirror, so we can see ourselves and discover our own human nature in the reflection.
Jon: The thing about characters in the Bible is that they can be hard to relate to. Often there’s very little detail about them.
Tim: Yeah. Biblical authors develop characters differently than modern narratives. They prefer to communicate a lot through minimal detail. For example, we rarely hear what people look like in the Bible, but when we do, it’s crucially important for the story.
Jon: Like we’re told that Saul is tall and David was kind of a runt.
Tim: And these become images of their moral character. Saul’s height matches his love of status and power to impose authority, while David humbly accepts his low status and allows God to exalt and deliver him.
Jon: So people’s physical appearances are symbolic?
Tim: Yeah, very often. Like Esau’s hairy body fits his animal-like behavior, and Jacob’s smooth skin matches his deceptive, slippery nature.
Jon: What other clues do we get about biblical characters?
Tim: Well, often people’s names symbolizes their role in the story. “Abraham” in Hebrew sounds like “father of a multitude.” “Jacob” means “deceiver.” “Ruth” means “refreshment.” And Saul, his name means “the one asked for.” He’s the flawed king that the people requested.
Jon: So by packing all this meaning with very little detail, biblical stories can do a lot with a little space.
Tim: And they even leave out things that modern readers want to know about these characters. Like they rarely come out and tell us people’s thoughts or motives.
Jon: Right, like when Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he kills him on the spot. But why? Was this righteous anger, or did he just lose his cool? And was it okay with God that he did it?
Tim: Yeah. We’re not told because biblical authors usually avoid giving moral commentary. They would rather have a character’s words and actions reveal their motives and then leave us to judge their behavior by seeing the consequences.
So in the case of Moses, this murder’s the beginning of a pattern of his anger getting the best of him with bad results. This choice forces him to run and hide in the desert for forty years.
Jon: So it was a bad thing. But he does meet his wife out there, so it’s a good thing?
Tim: Exactly. It forces you to ponder. Through all these techniques, the biblical narrators keep the stories compact, memorable, but also engaging.
Jon: But seriously. Was Moses being good or bad? Right? Like in classic stories, there’s always a good guy and a bad guy––some admirable hero who faces off against some horrible villain.
Tim: Sure, and simplified characters like that are helpful for teaching children there’s such a thing as good and evil. But the Bible is not a children’s book. Its characters are very complex, a mixed bag of good and evil just like us. There’s hardly any flawless characters in the Bible.
Jon: What about the heroes of the faith like Abraham or King David?
Tim: So you mean Abraham who used an Egyptian slave for sex and then lied about his wife two times to save his own neck? And David?! The man after God’s own heart who sleeps with another man’s wife and then murders him? These stories are anything but simplistic. They offer us realistic portraits of compromised people like ourselves.The real surprise is that God keeps working with them despite their failures.
Jon: So just because a person is called by God, or wins a battle, or becomes successful or wealthy, doesn’t mean the author wants me to act like them?
Tim: Right. It would actually be really dangerous to imitate most biblical characters.
Jon: True, but there must be something admirable in biblical characters, something I can imitate.
Tim: Absolutely! Pay attention and you’ll notice that most biblical stories highlight the moments when characters fail or come to the end of themselves, and then they choose radical trust in God’s grace and wisdom. It’s in these stories that the authors show us how to be a human who truly pleases God through humility and surrender.
Jon: Yeah. The fact that God stays committed to biblical characters is a profound statement about the patience and love of God, who is also a character.
Tim: Right, and by studying biblical characters, we can observe our own worst tendencies on display. And we see time and again God’s gracious response that will see this story through to the end.