Have you ever wondered what Jesus looked like? Or maybe why the Bible rarely tells us what a person what thinking? Characters in Bible stories are described and portrayed very differently compared to characters in modern stories.
In this episode Tim and Jon discuss character design in the Bible.
The guys start out (0-9:50) showing how our modern tradition of telling every detail about a character in a story, where they are from, what they look like, what their inner thoughts are, comes from Greek story telling tradition. This is the exact opposite of ancient Jewish storytelling. The biblical authors didn’t rely on telling you about a character, instead, they would tell you what they did. The characters themselves remain very mysterious. Tim says this lack of detail is done intentionally so the reader has to work for an interpretation.
In the second part of the episode (9:50-21:13), Tim explains the two ways biblical authors use character details. One, a narrator will use “direct characterization.” A specific detail will be given because it is useful in the story. We are told Saul is tall because later, we find out that David is short. We are told Joseph is handsome because later, Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him. Jon asks if this technique is used because the of the constraints of passing stories on pre printing press.
The second way is the names of characters. In Hebrew literature, a character’s name represents the very essence of their being and shows their role in the story. Saul means “The one who was asked for” because Israel asked him to be king. The two sons of Naomi in the book of Ruth, their names are Mahlon and Chilion mean “one who is sick” and “to die”. Their only role in the story is to die and set up the plot conflict.
In the third part of the episode, (21:13-25:56) Tim explains that just because a character does something in a story, doesn’t mean the author is endorsing the action. Many authors use a minimalist technique of telling the reader the character’s choices but not saying why the character made these choices. A famous is example is when Moses kills the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew. We don’t know why Moses killed him, we only know that he did. Biblical narrators refuse to tell us if a character is “good” or “evil” instead they let us decide for ourselves.
In the fourth part of the episode (25:56-end) Jon asks why. Why would biblical authors take the risk of their work being misinterpreted? Tim says the Biblical authors want readers to puzzle over the ambiguities of their stories because it is meant to represent the ambiguities that are inherent in life. The big narrative of the Bible puts meaning and purpose in the world, but individual stories are meant to create a feeling of opaqueness and mystery.
More Bible Project resources are here on the website: thebibleproject.com
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"Narrative Art in the Bible" by Shimon Bar-Efrat
"Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative" by Adele Berlin
"The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading" by Meir Sternberg
"The Art of Biblical Narrative" by Robert Alter
"Reading Biblical Narrative" by Yairah Amit
"The Road and The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses," "The Crossing," "Cities of the Plain" by Cormac McCarthy
Defender Instrumental by Rosasharn Music; Educated Fool by Jackie Hill Perry; Ruby by CJBeards; Flooded Meadows by Unwritten Stories
Dan Gummel. Jon Collins. Matthew Halbert Howen.
Podcast Date: January 15, 2018
Speakers in the audio file:
Jon: Hey, this is Jon at The Bible Project. Today on the podcast, we're going to talk about
[short skit 00:00:15]
Not just any kind of character. We're specifically going to talk about characters
found in the Bible. You see, we're in the middle of producing a series of videos called
How to Read the Bible. What you'll notice reading the Bible is that there's a lot of
stories and every story has characters.
Now, if you're like me, you might have wondered, why is there such little detail given
to characters in the Bible? I want to know, what did that person look like? What were
they thinking? Why did they do what they did? I want rich filled out characters.
Tim: The lack of detail is intentional and strategic, and it's frustrating for modern readers.
We mistake it as just "Oh, this is a primitive, poorly the told story. Look, all the
characters are simple and that's just totally missing biblical narrative style.
Jon: Oftentimes, when we read the Bible, we have a tendency to put the characters in
categories that we understand. You're either a good guy or you're bad guy. But to
biblical authors, people aren't always that simple.
Tim: For the most part, biblical narrators refrain from sermonizing or moralizing
characters. What they do is just set their choices in front of you, and then you have
to be the one to evaluate. This minimalist style is trying to recreate, in the narrative,
your experience of your own life. Moral realism of the human condition, most people
aren't only good and only bad. We're all a mixed bag of different amounts.
Jon: That's today on The Bible Project podcast. Thanks for joining us. Here we go.
We're talking about how to read the Bible. We're in biblical narrative. We talked
about plot and setting.
Tim: We're talking about the toolset that the biblical authors who are also artists have in
Jon: The techniques they use.
Tim: Yeah, all the different size brushes and colors and techniques that a painter uses that
biblical authors have equivalent, or storytellers. When it comes to the role of
characters in biblical narrative, I think this is actually one of the biggest hurdles these
modern western readers have because our narrative tastes, through movies and
through modern literature, have been shaped to expect a certain way the characters
are described and develop. And biblical authors just have a really different way,
really different way of employing characters.
In biblical studies, the most describe voices in this field, it's called narrative poetics,
or the poetics of biblical narrative, they're Israeli Jewish scholars. It's just right down
my book list. There's Shimon Bar-Efrat, and Adele Berlin and Meir Sternberg and
Jon: Do you read those in Hebrew?
Tim: Some of them write in Hebrew, but their main works are in English. But they either
grew up in Israel, or they're Jewish and have been reading Hebrew since childhood.
Actually, I think that's the key. I think, for readers who were able to read biblical,
especially the Hebrew Bible narrative as a part of their first or second language, you
just experience it completely differently.
When you've grown up on this literature, it doesn't seem foreign to you, and it sure
doesn't seem like children's literature to you. That's interesting. The most important
works in the last 50 years have all been by Jewish or Israeli scholars.
Speaking of Robert Alter, who wrote one of the most significant works on biblical
narrative - it's called "The Art of Biblical Narrative" - he has a couple chapters on the
way characters’ work in biblical narratives. He has this great quote.
He says, "The Greek storytelling tendency of loading the story with details is one that
modern literary practice has by and large adopted and developed." His point is, is
our modern taste for all kinds of descriptive characters, what they look like, where
they grew up, this whole idea of when you introduce character, you're There are
being given a window into their psychology. You get a little miniature biography,
you're...we're just used to all of that detail.
Jon: That's the Greek thing?
Tim: That comes from the Greek narrative tradition. He says, "Precisely, for that reason,
we have to adjust our habits as readers in order to bring an adequate attentiveness
to the different narrative maneuvers that characterize the Hebrew Bible." This is
great. "The underlying biblical conception of people's character is that they're
unpredictable, constantly emerging from and slipping back into ambiguity."
Jon: What does he mean there? What does he mean by ambiguity?
Tim: Well, finish the last sentence. "Thus, biblical narrative style is marked by the art of
reticence." Such a great phrase. Biblical characters are rarely almost never described
with very much detail. There's just a small handful of characters whose appearance
has ever described. You are seriously on the count of two hands moments where
you're given the inner thoughts of a character for why they're doing something.
So the art of reticence, biblical narrative uses characters as a vehicle, primarily shoot
through showing what they do, and what they say, rather than telling you about
them or telling you why they do what they do. Showing rather than telling is the
shorthand for that.
In other words, biblical characters are incredibly mysterious. That's why he says, "The
underlying biblical conception of people's character is that they're unpredictable."
God called Abraham to leave his family and go to this new land. Abraham left his
family, and he went to the land and Lot went with him. And you're like, What? Wait.
That wasn't the plan. He wasn't supposed to do that, why did not go with him?"
Then you're just left with this gap in this strange detail. You're never given
Abraham's in your psychology of why he did what he did. You are shown his choice.
Then as a narrative technique, it's a way you're showing a choice of a character, but
the reader has to work for an interpretation. This is typical all the way through.
Genesis 22, God tests Abraham: "Take your son, your only son and give him as
offering on the place I'll show you." And the reader, you're scandalized. You're like,
"Why is God doing this? Why is God saying this? What's going on inside Abraham's
mind? And you're never once given psychology. You are just given, "He wakes up
early in the morning, he packed his bags."
Then, Isaac speaks up, "Dad, we have the wood, we have the fire, where's the ram for
the offering?" "God will provide my son." But the richness of the story is precisely in
the lack of detail because it makes the reader ponder and fill in the details yourself
until you are given more information.
Jon: So the lack of detail is on purpose?
Tim: The lack of detail is intentional and strategic, and it's frustrating for modern readers.
We mistake it as just, "Oh, this is a primitive, poorly told story. Look, all the
characters are simple, black and white. They are not..." And that's just totally missing
biblical narrative style.
That's what Alter is saying, we have to adjust our habits from constantly being given
the inner dialogue of characters and learn how the biblical narratives force you to
work. They are engaging you in a wrestling match by this.
Just think through all these stories of the Bible, and all of a sudden, you'll start
asking, "Oh, why did he do that? Why did God accept Abel's offering but not Cain's?
Oh, was Cain jealous?" The story actually never says that. The story just says he got
Almost everyday story is capable, ultimately, of about three or four different
interpretation in a way at a first pass, because you realize, "Oh, I'm not being given
information. Half the information, I wish I had to make sense of the story." And you
think it's an error in the narrative, but in fact, it's intentional thing.
Jon: And you're saying the value of it is it forces you to wrestle with it more.
Tim: We'll get there. We'll get there. But just it forces the reader to do a lot of things. It
forces them to work. Ultimately, it's a very powerful tool that biblical narratives use.
It might help us just get into some examples, and you'll just kind of see it.
Tim: There's two ways that biblical authors can use characters. One is what's called direct
characterization. The narrator will actually describe the character for you or tell you
about them. This would be like physical appearance on a small list of people whose
looks are described and it's only ever because it's irrelevant, it will play a role in the
Joseph was very handsome. Potiphar’s wife is going to get after him. "Lie with me,"
Tim: Saul is very tall when you first meet him. And you're like, "Okay, why is that
important?" Then you get into the story—
Jon: David is short.
Tim: Yeah, David is short, but David's good looking. Esau, he's red hairy. He's covered
with red hair. All these kinds of things. Looks are only described functionally because
they'll play a role in the story. Occasionally, the narrator will just straight up tell you,
"Yeah, this guy is bad." But it's very rare. It happens a lot. Like in the kings, the
stories of the king, "This king was bad because of this."
But for the most part, biblical narrators refrain from sermonizing or moralizing
characters. What they do is just set their choices in front of you and then you have
to be the one to evaluate.
One Jewish scholar, her name's Adele Berlin, she has a really great wave of talking
about this about when the biblical authors do directly described characters, it's very
rare, and it's always very strategic. And she compares it to impressionist painting.
Similar to René Magritte about his contrast with realism and saying, "That's always
representation." So he's a part of Surrealist Movement. The Impressionist movement
was explicitly trying to draw attention to the fact that we can never describe things
as they are. This was a movement that didn't try to achieve detail. But they did try to
achieve the same effect that image would have on you through minimal detail,
through tiny strokes. Or pointillism was the same through tiny, just thousands of tiny
dots, so that when you get up close to the painting, it's like, there's hardly anything
here. But then you back up, and it's the impression actually creates more.
For example, by just telling you Esau is hairy, what else is hairy? Animals are hairy.
We're told he's an outdoorsman. Then he goes on in the story to behave like an
animal - accumulating wives, he sees women and marries them on the spot in
narrative time. The whole thing is that he's hasty and he's hungry. "Gives me this
food and..." So actually, so his hairiness creates an animal primitive man impression
about him. But it's just two words in Hebrew.
Jon: Small brushstroke.
Tim: And all of a sudden his whole persona has this aura of animal likeness about him. Eli,
the priest Eli, being speaking to Samuel, he's old and blind. But then he is also
morally blind to the horror of what his sons are doing. He's old and feeble physically,
but then he's feeble because he can't stand up to his sons. So his blindness, and age,
and weakness actually become his character.
The same thing - you already brought this out - that Saul is really tall and David is
short. That actually describes the whole plot conflict of the Saul and David narratives,
where Saul's this oppressor, but his height betrays the weakness of his character,
flaws in this character.
David's short, but David shortness and radical faith and humility is exactly what
allows him to be exalted to this position of power.
So Berlin's point here...actually here is a great quote from her. She says, "In
impressionist art, the suggestion of a thing may be more convincing than a detailed
betrayal. This is due to the tendency of our brains to project meaning onto images in
order to complete our expectations." She's talking about impressionist art here.
"We see what we expect to see and the surrounding information guides are
perception. This is why we fill in a partially drawn figure to conform to our
expectations. In some cases, too much detail might destroy the image. So the trick
from the artist point of view is how much detail to include and how much to omit."
Then she applies this to reading the book on narrative. "This is a good corrective for
those who wish biblical stories provided more concrete details. But this is precisely
its narrative technique. The gaps left in biblical narratives are intentional so that with
a few deft strokes, the biblical author engages the imagination of the reader to
construct a picture that's more real than if he had filled in David, or Abraham or
Joseph portrait with more detail. Minimal representation can give maximal illusion."
Jon: Do you think that this technique was born out of the constraint?
Tim: That's interesting.
Jon: Because to write down a story, you need scrolls, which are very limited. To memorize
a story, you want to keep it as tight as possible so that can be passed with some sort
of fidelity. So you're constrained to be as minimal as possible. Then now, anytime
you bring up a detail, it's got to be so important.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: It's like giving a painter and saying, "Paint the scene, but I'm only giving you this
much ink." Right?
Tim: That's right.
Jon: And so every stroke they make is like they're maximizing that stroke. And because of
that constraint, their literary genius bears out something that's very different than
what we have when we don't have [inaudible 00:16:02].
Tim: That's interesting. I think we could probably list a number of different factors. So
yeah, that's it. They're not typing on digital documents. They don't have infinite
amounts of space.
Also, the Hebrew narrative tradition grew out of...As far as we can tell, the oldest
narrative style in human literature is poetic. The epic poetic style.
Jon: Like the Iliad and Odyssey and that kind of stuff?
Tim: Iliad and Odyssey. The oldest Canaanite and Mesopotamian, Babylonian literature
the way it predates the Bible, it's narrative and that it's telling a story, but its literary
form is poetry, which is hyper-condensed. Really condensed language.
Jon: And has a rhythm to it?
Tim: It has a rhythm, and certainly that was the oldest form of Israelite writing. Some of it
is preserved in the Hebrew Bible. Like Exodus 15, Song of the Sea that describes
Exodus. We talked about this in previous podcast conversation. Or the Song of
Deborah and Barak that describes the battle.
There's different snippet quotes from these old Israelite epics. But for the most part,
they've been converted into prose narrative, which is what we have before us, 43%
of the Hebrew Bible.
I think that's also to the development of the narrative technique developed from a
condensed form into more prose narrative. But I think it's the same challenge we
come across. Just think of any biblical story that's ever confused you and I guarantee
it's from some lack of detail that would unlock the whole thing for you.
Why did Moses strike the rock instead of speak to it and why does he get
disqualified for that?
Jon: We don't know.
Tim: The Gospels represent a continuation of this tradition in the New Testament. The
stories of the calling of the disciples, the sons of Zebedee leaving their boat, leaving
their dad. There's so much more to say about that. Like, what did their dad feel like?
Did he say anything? Jesus just walks up? Did he say anything else? Did he only say,
We're just given the barest minimum, but also that bare minimum forces the reader
to create a fuller story at the same time in your imagination as you read. It seems
like that's exactly the aim of this economic storytelling style.
Jon: Is to make you do some of the imaginative work.
Tim: That's right. That has to do with how characters are described. It's very minimal. The
very minimal details you're ever given; you make a lot of. Then that forces you to
think, "Well, how do I learn how to evaluate characters?" Characters become
important vehicles for narrators to communicate their message and they'll often
speak through the characters instead of about them.
There are different ways that biblical narratives will show you indirectly what
characters are like. Names. First of all is names. And this is not something that it's
very common in modern western culture, but it's almost over the top in Bible. And
it's not just when parents name their children, although that is significant.
All the tribes of Israel are given their names in Genesis 29 and 30. Judah. "I praise
God. I praise God for giving me a child." Judah means praise. There's lots of that
going on. But many times, characters names embody their role in the story. Saul's
name is "the one who has asked for." And you're just like, "Oh yeah."
Jon: They wanted a king.
Tim: They wanted to King. We've talked about Abraham as "exalted father." Israel means
"struggles with God."
Jon: That's a good one.
Tim: Adam, "human," "Humanity." But then you get some that are almost too good. In
Ruth chapter 1, the two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Mahlon means "sick man," "one
who is sick," and Chilion comes from the word "Chala [SP]" which means to "die or
expire." And their only role in the story is they're introduced in one sentence and
they die in the next sentence.
Jon: And they call them the sick one and the dead one.
Tim: Yeah. I call them sicko and done-for. If you're reading this in your language, that
would be what you would hear. There's these two guys, sicko and done-for, and they
die. But that's their role in the story is to die to set up the plot conflict. This happens
everywhere. It's unbelievable and cool.
So the name, character's name, that's a small brushstroke that can have a huge
effect on your perception of them.
Tim: The main ways that biblical authors will evaluate characters for you is mostly just
through their choices - what they do - or through their speech. This is where the
minimalism of biblical narrative comes in. Instead of editorializing, biblical narrators
will just think of half the scandalous things that biblical characters do. Really screwed
Think of all the classic questions of like, there are all these polygamous marriages
among important biblical characters. Then the question is, is God endorsing this? So
you have to back up and you have to say, "Just because a character doesn't
something in a story, doesn't mean it's been endorsed."
Look at all of the characters who have multiple spouses and just look at how the
narrative shows you the consequences. It's always bad. Are you with me? That's the
narratives technique of depicting this as an extremely poor choice.
Jon: So it's not like going around saying, “This is good behavior. This is bad behavior." It's
just "this person did this and now look what happened."
Tim: Now look what happened, and it's all bad. Parents who show favoritism, multiple
stories about this, always bad. A good example of this art of reticence or minimalism
as these scholars call it is Moses.
He goes out one day and he sees an Egyptian taskmaster abusing an Israelite, so he
matches in. That doesn't produce a good result because he goes out another day
and some Israelites are like, "Hey, you're the murderer. Are you going to kill me
So you're left wondering, "Oh was that good? Did he do that? Was that justice or
was that bad? Was that the first evidence of a bad temper," because his temper is
going to come out a time or two later in the story. It seems maybe. Am I supposed
to read the story of I'm striking the rock in the wilderness as another story of his bad
temper? Neither story said, "And he got angry right boiled over." Though if you look
at movie depictions of the Moses story, they'll always depict that as a justice
Jon: The murder.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. As the moment where his conscience—
Jon: He stood up for the innocent.
Tim: Yeah, totally. Narratively, it's way more ambiguous than that. This is a good example.
It's a little brushstroke, but unlike Esau, where his hairiness and bodies is this kind of
negative evaluation of him, here, you're just left to sit with it. Then you have to
watch him as a character develop, and then you have to watch other moments
where Moses might act in anger, maybe - you have to make the call as a reader. This
is how it works.
Abraham gives Sarah away twice because he fears for his own life. So what's this? Is
this a cultural practice? Is this him selfishly saving his own skin? When the kingdom
passes on to Solomon from David, and David says, "Follow the Torah. Be faithful to
the covenant," and you're like, "Oh, yes, good father-son moment deathbed scene."
Then he gives this hit list of like, "Go assassinate this guy and take out this guy." And
you're like, "Oh, what? Wasn't there that one commandment don't murder?" And so
you walk away going, "Was that good or bad?"
Then Solomon goes and does this. Then the whole Solomon story. Is he a good guy,
or bad guy? All the way through, this is it. So it makes the story so frustrating to
read. You can experience it differently. You could experience the frustration. Just tell
me the point. Am I supposed to be like this guy or Am I supposed to not be like this
guy? And biblical narrators just refuse to give us things on a silver platter. It's like
they force you to work for it.
Jon: Because they could have. I mean, there was nothing keeping them from telling you.
Tim: They're totally capable of saying, "And he was evil in the eyes of the Lord. He was
Jon: And they've done that a time or two.
Tim: Yeah, they do it sometimes, but it's rare.
Jon: But for the most part they don't because they want you to wrestle with it.
Jon: We still haven't really gotten to why. What is the value? Because here's the
downside. The downside is you come up with a bad interpretation. You're filling in
the gaps and you create a picture that they weren't intending. If that's the risk,
what's the upside that makes that risk worthwhile?
Tim: I've been saving this quote for last. This is the single most important work on biblical
narrative in the last long time by a Jewish scholar Meir Sternberg, called "The Poetics
of the Biblical Narrative. It's absolutely brilliant. It's a long quote, but this is worth the
price of the expensive book.
Jon: The price of the podcast?
Tim: Yeah, that's right. He says, "Once you realize that the Bible's anti didactic style—
Jon: Anti didactic? He doesn't use a lot of words?
Tim: No. Didactic meaning moral education. In other words—
Jon: It's not giving lessons.
Tim: Well, moral literature, “so and so did this, that was bad, wasn't it? Don't be like that
Jon: The boy who cried wolf.
Tim: Yeah, that kind of thing. It's just on the surface, be like this character, don't be like
that character. He calls the Bible anti didactic based on this quality. That even
though it tells you all the stories of people making good decisions or horrible
decisions, it never explicitly says, "Be like, this person. Don't be like that person."
Jon: Which is so funny because that's what we turn in to.
Tim: It's precisely what the modern Western Christian tradition has done with biblical
narrative. And he would argue we've ruined it. Actually, you were working against
Jon: It does feel like you're working against it often times.
Tim: Yeah, because it forces you to fill in gaps and make interpretive decision on behalf of
the story, whereas the point of that story is to make every reader do the work
Jon: All right.
Tim: He says, "Once you realize the Bible's anti didactic style is its narrative policy, you
gain insight into the role of the aesthetics subtlety of these stories. They almost
always shun extended commentary or exploration let alone that is sermonizing.
These authors intentionally leave gaps for the readers to puzzle over discontinuities,
indeterminacies, nonsequiturs, unexplained motives. And they're fully aware of the
disorienting effect this has on readers as they try to draw lessons from that." He's
going to keep describing the problem - what we experience as the problem. "Biblical
narrators conceal the meaning of their stories to an extent seldom equaled by any
other literature in history."
Tim: He's a comparative literature professor.
Jon: He reads a lot of different ancient literature.
Tim: Look at what he says. "This style literally says this style was not inherited by Israel's
neighboring cultures. It was invented and elaborated in the Israelite tradition of
narrative, and it's nothing less than deliberate." So in the ancient world, there's no
parallel for the style and in literature ever since then. This is a uniquely biblical
narrative trait. Super interesting.
Here's his take on the effect that this is designed to have. He says, "In day to day life,
our day to day life, knowledge and information, the ability to understand the
meaning of events is power. But in reading the Bible, we're constantly puzzling over
the gaps in the story. Why did Moses do that? Why did God do that? And this is
Our puzzlement is an imitation of our real position in life. It exposes our ignorance
about the meaning of history and lives. Biblical stories imitate our real-life conditions
of inference as we too are daily surrounded by ambiguities or we're baffled, we're
misled by appearances, we're reduced piecing fragments together by trial and error
of interpretation, and we're often left in the dark about the meaning of our lives until
the very end.
Jon: To the very end."
Tim: I'm so sorry. To the very end. Yeah, that's right. He goes on. "The scarcity of
commentary by the biblical narrators forces us to constantly evaluate characters’
motives and the meaning of the plot as we look for clues. It is only by sustained
effort that the reader of biblical narratives can attain the point of view that you come
to realize only God possesses all long. Making sense of biblical stories is to gain a
sense of being human."
So his first point is that this minimalist style is trying to recreate in the narrative your
experience of your own life. Like the same difficulties that I have interpreting why I
had that conversation yesterday and what that weird thing that happened yesterday,
and why I got that email and why that fender bender...
Jon: Isn't that the reason why we tell stories? Is to give clarity and coherence to events.
So when we think back at the past, we tell ourselves a story and we began to tell
ourselves why it was important, why that thing had to happen. Whatever it was, we
tell it in the story.
And what is so enriching and wonderful about other stories is it gives us an
opportunity to discover the meaning of things. That's why stories are enjoyable - a
large part of the reason why stories are enjoyable.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: He saying the biblical authors are trying to strip you from that intentionally?
Jon: That thing you want in the story; they are keeping out of arm's length.
Tim: Or they're making you work for it and you can never be fully certain. Why did Moses
kill the Egyptian?
Jon: They don't want you to know. They don't want you to fully know.
Tim: Or they want you to be left with options. He was a righteous indignation.
Jon: That's another way of saying they don't want you to know. They don't want you to
be certain because, in life, we can't be certain about things.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: We crave certainty, and we don't have it so we pretend we have it. And so we tell
ourselves stories and we allow ourselves to believe things we often deceive
ourselves but in order to have some sort of stability. Are you saying they're trying to
create some instability in you as you're...?
Tim: I think that's what Robert Alter is saying, Adele Berlin. That's what all these scholars
are saying is that the large biblical narrative is constructing a very meaningful worry
of our world.
Jon: The bones of it?
Tim: Yes, that's right. And how God interacts with these characters is taking them
somewhere. So the fact that God is the anchor character from page one to the last
page, means that there is meaning and coherence. But when it comes to the
individual human characters in these stories, it's very minimalist, and their motives
and the moral evaluation of many of their decisions is really opaque.
It's not transparent. And what he's saying is, because the story is trying to place us in
precisely the same experience we have with our lives, that's why Robert Alter the
beginning of that quote, he says, "The underlying biblical conception of people's
characters that they're unpredictable."
"Abraham, why did you give Sarah away the second time? And then you start to feel
morally superior, because you're like, "Oh, I would never do the same mistake a
second time." And then you pause, and then you're like, 'Dang it. No, I did that thing
for the fourth time yesterday." It's both frustrating, but brilliant.
Many times the biblical characters can seem like bumbling idiots. And you're
wondering why they're doing what they're doing until you realize this is actually a
fairly accurate description of my moral progress and regress on a month by month
level. "Oh, yeah. Why did I yell at that person yesterday? Was that really just
righteous indignation? Or maybe I was just being selfish or I don't even understand
my own motives half not the time. How could I possibly hope to understand Moses's
Biblical literature has this unique style of intentionally withholding a clear
interpretation of characters.
Jon: I think it could be an argument made that some of our some of our newest
storytelling techniques when it comes to TV series and stuff, is starting to embrace
Tim: Yeah, it's disorienting. It's disorienting when the moral character in the story isn't
clear. Is this person bad? Is this person good? Think through the biblical story. You
can, on one hand, name the characters who are flawless.
You might be able to count Joseph if you discount his teenage years. Maybe. But the
thing he pulls with selling the people's land and then buying...interesting. You've got
maybe Joshua, but even he has a blunder with not seeking God when the Gibeonites
come to him. You've got Daniel, Boaz short story, but he's—
Jon: He's legit.
Tim: And Jesus. Even Paul has a couple of moments.
Jon: Paul the Apostle?
Tim: Mm-hmm. Where he and Silas get in that argument and they can't settle it, they part
ways. At least he's very humanized in that moment. The point is that the more—
Jon: It's not a lot.
Tim: There's not a lot.
Jon: And the ones you would expect like Abraham, Moses, David—
Tim: They all have whole narratives pointing out their flaws. So what's that about?
Tim: Yeah, totally. What's that about? You go back and reread those narratives and there
are almost always multiple interpretations you can make about why they made the
decisions in the first place. As a style, it's very engaging. It's realistic. It's moral
realism of the human condition that most people aren't only good and only bad.
We're all a mixed bag of different amounts.
In terms of literature, the novels of Cormac McCarthy, he wrote "The Road." But he
did also this trilogy called "The Border Trilogy," about this cowboy character living
on the US Mexico border before it was fully firmed up as a border.
People have compared his prose narrative style to biblical style, both in just the way
he verbalizes these things and long run on sentences. But also the minimalist
portrayal of characters and how the main character is this ambiguous and you never
quite know what's going on inside his head. And that's kind of what drives the
scenes is wondering what he's going to do and is he going to shoot somebody?
It's a narrative style that's in...The point is it's intentional. It's not primitive, it's not
just ancient, it's very sophisticated and realistic.
Jon: And it was contained to just Israel? Like the neighbors didn't use this?
Tim: Yeah. The Sternberg evaluation, if you look at contemporary Canaanite, Babylonian,
Egyptian literature, nowhere near this level of sophistication. They're beautiful poetry
but in terms of this prose narrative style, it just doesn't have that.
Jon: And it's to intentionally mess with you?
Tim: Well, to engage you. I like saying mess with you because it does. It's like it leads you
down a path and then—
Jon: Engage you, but a beautifully depicted character is engaging too. But it engages you
by messing with you. By not giving you what you want, right?
Tim: That's correct.
Jon: You want clarity as to the person's motives and you want understanding of why did
Tim: Correct. Because the way characters work in narratives is by identification. You paint
characters that the viewer or reader identifies with, and then for whatever, a
screenwriter, movie director, you want your audience to connect with the characters
so that their experience can map onto your own life experience to speak to you
Now we're talking about a technique where you constantly are wondering who
you're supposed to identify with. Do identify with Moses? Sure. I've had moments of
anger and injustice. And then you go, "Oh, but maybe he just has a hot temper and
it got him into trouble. Do I have that? Probably do I not?"
So it forces self-evaluation, but through a really different way than just being like,
"This person was good. Be like them? This person was bad. Don't be like them."
Jon: It's interesting. I mean, if you just think about what were the earliest stories likely
about, it would probably be like, "Hey, don't eat that berry because the other day
Joe ate those berries and he's dead." So it's like, "Okay, I don't want to die." Moral
story. Don't eat the berries.
Tim: I suppose. Man, that's really far back there. One of the oldest literary works is the
Gilgamesh Epic. It's like Homer's Iliad but predates it by millennium. And it's this
really sophisticated poetic exploration of mortality—
Jon: What's the earliest story we have record of?
Tim: Exactly. That's what I'm saying. We're talking about a story that comes from
somewhere between 3000 BC.
Jon: I'm going back further. I'm going back to like we're learning language. I'm like,
"Okay. Language. What language you're for?" "Oh, stories." Why would I tell you a
story?" "Oh, I don't want you to die."
Tim: "I don't want to eat the white berry."
Jon: "Don't eat that berry." "There's a bear over there." These are the stories we would
tell. That's where it starts to get to the point where you're intentionally leaving out
details just to mess with someone. You will come a long way.
Tim: Yes. It's extremely—
Jon: Which is actually making me think like, even with the way we're telling stories
nowadays, and it's back to the whole thing breaking bad as a great example, and all
this stuff. It's like, we are now getting more and more comfortable with making
characters more dubious, more ambiguous, more complex, blurring the boundaries
between heroes and anti-heroes, creating mysteries, and leaving out details that you
Tim: That would be the key to understanding.
Jon: Just letting it hang and sometimes never resolve. And we have this appetite for it
now. You have this palette for it. And it makes me wonder if this was such a literarily
saturated people they developed the same kind of palette for like that kind of
Tim: Yeah, that's right.
Jon: But it's not what we think we want. What we think we want is clarity. And what the
best storytelling will do is what this is doing, whatever it is, which is not giving
you...So your point, you back up and you get to the bones of the whole thing in the
overarching narrative. There is clarity there, there's clarity of like, "God created this
for a purpose. Here's the purpose. And God's going to recreate it. Here are the
things that God values and all that stuff." There's a lot of clarity to those things.
But then you get into the actual story like real time of someone living life on this
planet under the sun, then the clarity begins to disappear.
Tim: Two things that are relevant. One is the title of Meir Sternberg book is called "The
Poetics of the Biblical Narrative." Then the subtitle is "Ideological Literature and the
Drama of Reading."
Jon: Ideological meaning?
Tim: Ideological meaning this is narrative literature that has an agenda with a message.
It's trying to mess with you.
Jon: That's what ideological means?
Tim: Yeah. Ideology meaning a clear thought out message that it's trying to mess with
you and get you.
Jon: Got it.
Tim: So literature that has a message that also reading it is itself a drama. And really is
that "the drama of reading." This is why even though you think you know the story
because you read the Children's Book of Noah, or whatever, you can never replace
sitting down and reading it slowly from beginning to end. There's just something
about that experience of biblical narrative, you can't replace it with teaching it. You'll
always have to clarify and make it simpler than it actually is.
So the literature itself forces you to do the only thing with it it's meant for, which is
to sit down and read it from beginning to end. You cannot replace that experience,
because that itself is a drama. And that's how biblical literature is designed. Brilliant.
Anyhow, that's the first thing.
Then the second thing is about how God's depicted. This is kind of landing the
plane. God's the only character who unites the whole Bible. He's the only character
who's on page 1 and still around on the last page.
There are a few things relevant, namely, that that tells us something. That the
ultimate purpose of these stories isn't even necessarily human-centered, but that it's
revealing something about God's relationship to the human story: God's character,
God's identity, and God's purposes for history.
Those are all revealed in those same dramatic ambiguous ways. "Why did God do
that? Why did he do the whole Exodus showdown the way that he did it? Why didn't
he do it a different way? Why did he almost kill Moses in the middle of the night in
Exodus 4. right before the..." All this. I mean, God's a complex character in the
There's another Israeli biblical scholar who pointed this out to me. And the moment
she did - her name's Yairah - it was so clear and it helped make sense of many
biblical stories. She calls it the dual depictions of God. God's dual roles and biblical
She just says, "Pay attention. Stories where God is super involved, like God's talking
to people, they're talking back to him. God does this. Exodus story, Genesis 1
through 11, Abraham stories, these are stories where typically the human characters
are less developed and they're more simplistic and their moral evaluation is more
black and white either they listen or they don't listen, either they obey or they
disobey, either they're blessed or they suffer consequences.
But then there are other stories where God is depicted more as a behind the scenes
character - where God doesn't say a lot, but he's just said to be with somebody. Like,
the Joseph story, God doesn't explicitly show up 'Dear Joseph, do this." But we're
just told God's with Joseph a couple times, and then it's just random coincidences
She puts it this way. This is Yairah Amit from her book, Reading Biblical Narratives.
She says, "The more God is depicted as a present character commanding or testing,
punishing or forgiving, the more the human characters are depicted in a flat manner
in a singular type, like rebellious, obedient or sinful.
But when God is portrayed as more absent or behind the scenes, there's more
narrative space for multifaceted human characters and the complexity of their
motives. So the Joseph story, the David story, Esther...
Jon: Completely gone.
Tim: ...Ezra, Nehemiah, these are whole books where God doesn't show up a ton and
interact just like one of the other characters. It's more occasional mentioned behind
the scenes. Then those are the scenes where these really complex characters come
to the surface that will force you to work a whole lot this kind of work.
That's an interesting dynamic too that God's relationship, the way God's portrayed in
a story, the more he's involved, the more morally clear that narrative is. The more
he's behind the scenes, the more it imitates our real life day to day experience.
Which is like, "Is God got involved today? Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I feel
really confident. Those days see more clear to me. But then other days I feel like I
don't know and I question my motives, I question other people's motives."
It's another one of these ways that the biblical stories imitate our day to day life
experience in the journey of faith. It's brilliant.
Matthew: This is Matthew from Portland, Oregon. We believe the Bible is a unified story that
leads to Jesus. We're crowdfunded project by people like you and me. Find free
videos, study notes, and more at thebibleproject.com. Also, latest episode in our
How to Read series "Character in Biblical Narrative" is live on YouTube and our website