Explore how setting plays a key role in the biblical story and see how biblical authors use time and place to mess with our expectations.
Jon: In every story you’ve ever heard, the action took place somewhere. And that place is called “the setting.” And since we’ve been learning how to read Biblical narratives, let’s talk about how settings work in the Bible.
Tim: So settings are a crucially important tool in the hands of the biblical authors.
Tim: Yeah. Think of it this way. When you start a story, everything is new. The plot and the characters are a mystery until things unfold.
Jon: Yeah. We have no idea what to expect.
Tim: Except authors can use the setting of a story to prepare you for what’s coming.
Jon: How so?
Tim: Well let’s say a story begins in a courtroom. What do you think is going to happen?
Jon: I expect a story about crime and justice.
Tim: Yeah. Or how about the setting of a dark, old, run-down house?
Jon: Oh. Something scary is about to happen.
Tim: Exactly. So settings evoke memories and emotions because of other stories you know that happened in similar places. The authors know this, and they can use settings to generate expectations about what could happen in this story. And a good author will get creative with settings, and he’ll mess with your expectations in order to make a point.
Jon: This happens in the Bible?
Tim: All over the place. For example, think about the setting Egypt in the Bible.
Jon: Yeah. Big, middle eastern empire on the Nile.
Tim: Sure. Now think about the first biblical story where someone ends up in Egypt. It’s about Abraham. God calls him to journey by faith to a new land, and he promises to give him a huge family. So he sets out, but he arrives during a famine. Now, is he going to trust God and stay in the promised land? Or will he leave the land and go look for food on his own?
Jon: Yeah. Abraham leaves and goes down to Egypt.
Tim: And there in Egypt, things go downhill fast. Abraham denies that Sarah is his wife to save his own neck, and then Pharaoh tries to marry her for himself.1
Jon: Okay. First impression of Egypt—not a great place to visit.
Tim: But God then rescues them. He strikes Egypt with plagues, and so Pharaoh relents and sends Abraham away with loads of wealth. So what do we learn about Egypt as a setting from this story?
Jon: It’s the place people end up because of stupid decisions, but it’s also a place where God comes and rescues his people. Tim: Yep, and the next main story in Egypt follows the same pattern. Abraham’s great-grandsons make a bunch of stupid choices, and they eventually lead them to Egypt because of another famine.2
Jon: Down in Egypt. Uh-oh.
Tim: So generations pass, and the family ends up as slaves in Egypt. And what do you think is going to happen?
Jon: God’s going to send some plagues and rescue his people.3
Tim: It’s like you saw it coming! After the Israelites get back to the promised land, God tells them to never go back to Egypt for any reason.4 It’s the place of trouble and oppression.
Jon: So when future biblical characters go to Egypt, I’m supposed to cringe.
Tim: Right. Like Solomon, at the peak of his wealth and power, he married the king of Egypt’s daughter, and then he started sending Israelites there to import Egyptian stallions.5 And then a generation later, that alliance goes bad. Egypt oppresses Israel all over again.
Jon: So biblical settings carry with them all of these memories of previous stories, which create expectation.
Tim: Yeah. It’s a brilliant literary device to infuse stories with meaning. Now, biblical authors, they’re brilliant. They can build up your expectations but also creatively mess with them.
Jon: Like how?
Tim: Egypt is a perfect example. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is born, his family flees to Egypt.6
Jon: Uh-oh, so this is a problem?
Tim: You would think so, but pay attention. Instead of Egypt being the bad place, it’s the place of safety. Because who are they fleeing from? King Herod, who is behaving exactly like Pharaoh did. But he rules Jerusalem not Egypt.
Jon: Matthew is messing with me to show how Jerusalem has become Egypt.
Tim: Exactly. You can find these kinds of patterns in many different biblical settings: Babylon, Moab, the wilderness, Bethlehem, the list goes on.
Jon: Which is a big list.
Tim: And it gets bigger because sometimes the setting isn’t just a place on a map. It’s a type of situation, but they work the same way that settings do. For example, when people move “toward the east,” expect trouble. Adam and Eve were banished to the east,7 and then Cain wanders to the east. 8
Jon: People move to the east to build Babylon.9
Tim: And all of these narratives are designed to point forward to when the Israelites as a people will be exiled to the east in Babylon.10
Jon: Aha. Nice.
Tim: Which leads to one more type of setting in biblical narrative, and that’s time, or how long events take. Like time periods of forty are often associated with stories where people’s faithfulness is tested.
Noah in the boat for forty days and forty nights. Then he gets off and gets totally drunk.11 The Israelites got impatient during their forty days of waiting for Moses on Mount Sinai, so they made the golden calf.12 Or after the Israelite spies investigate the land for forty days13, the people rebel, so they have to wander in the desert for forty years.14
Jon: But then there’s the story of Jesus, who is tested in the desert for forty days. And he reverses the expectation. He overcomes the test!15
Tim: Exactly! Across the whole Bible, places, situations, and time periods become full of meaning by evoking memories and setting expectations. And the New Testament authors reuse all of these settings to show how Jesus is the one carrying our world from the garden, out of Egypt and the wilderness, and into the new creation.