This is a special episode in our podcast series on “How To Read The Bible”. Tim and Jon went on the road to do this podcast live before an audience in Milpitas, California! Tim and Jon discuss literature design patterns in the Bible and answer questions from the audience.
The guys do a brief recap of the How to Read The Bible series. There are key elements to reading the Bible well. Understanding plot, character, setting and biblical narrative style. (We have videos on each of these, you can see the links below in the show notes.)
In this episode, the guys combine all of these elements to talk about “patterns and design elements” in the Bible. Tim and Jon use the “hyperlink” analogy, saying that all the stories in the Bible link to each other in subtle and creative ways. People can learn to see these links and see the stories layering on top of each other by understanding key design patterns and techniques.
Below are timestamps of questions and examples:
(36:16) Jon asks the question, "Is understanding design patterns in the Bible an “elite” way to read the Bible?" Isn’t the Bible supposed to be user friendly? It seems like studying to understand the historical context of the ancient Hebrew biblical literature is a time consuming task that some people might not be able to do.
(40:38) A gentleman asks a question about the city of Joppa being mentioned in both the book of Jonah and in Acts. Is this intentional and a reference to a hidden theme in the Bible?
(42:25) A gentleman asks a question about the creation of stories in the Bible. What’s the role of historical accuracy, retelling and condensing of events in the writing of the Bible?
(49:58) A gentleman asks a question: If the Bible is a magnificent piece of timeless art and literature, How do you explain the Bible to people who value brevity and directness, not artful literature and analogy?
(52:40) Tim gives an example of word plays and repetition in the Bible. The hebrew word “Tov” means good. Tov/Good is used in the creation story as a key repeating word. It develops first to describe creation. Then it describes humans (very good). Then it describes the “tree of the knowledge of good and not good/evil.” This theme culminates when the woman “sees that the tree is good” when the serpent tempts her, she has effectively switched places with God. God was the original one who “saw things as good”.
(1:03:05) Tim gives another example in Luke. The baptism of Jesus culminates with God speaking from heaven declaring Jesus is his son. Then the next story is not a story, it’s a genealogy that works its way backward to Adam being declared “the son of God”. Then Jesus is tempted, with the devil asking him if he “really is the son of God”. Then Jesus goes to his first town and people ask “Who’s son is this?” Then Jesus casts out a demon who declares that Jesus is “the son of God”. Luke uses repetition to make a point to the reader, that Jesus is indeed who he has been declared to be, he is the Son of God.
(1:07:10) Tim gives an example of the selection of Saul to be the king of Israel. The hidden word in the story is “see or seeing.” At the start of the story, we are told Saul is tall. This is a strange detail. Most Bible characters have no physical attributes described about them, but here, Saul is tall, which is later used as a symbol in the story. Saul looks for a “seer” or a “prophet” when searching for his father’s donkeys. Why would the word “seer” be used in the story? Because it is a hidden key word in the story. Samuel “sees” Saul. Samuel tells Israel to look upon Saul and “see” their king. Samuel and Israel “see” Saul and they are impressed by his height. But Saul is not a good king and God rejects him. God sends Samuel to anoint a new king. God says he has “seen a new king.” Samuel “sees” Jesse’s son Eliab and thinks one of these is to be the new king. But God speaks to Samuel and says “God doesn’t ‘see’ as humans ‘see’, humans ‘see’ with their eyes, God ‘sees’ the heart.” This line is the climax of a whole trail of breadcrumbs that started at the introduction of Saul.
"The Art Of Biblical Narrative" by Robert Alter
Our How To Read The Bible Video Series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak06MSETeo4&list=PLH0Szn1yYNedn4FbBMMtOlGN-BPLQ54IH
Defender Instrumental by Rosasharn Music
Dan Gummel, Jon Collins, Matthew Halbert-Howen
Thank you to all our supporters!
Podcast Date: April 2, 2018
Speakers in the audio file:
Members of the audience
Jon: Welcome to The Bible Project podcast. Last year, Tim and I, were in Milpitas,
California for a conference called Regeneration. While we were down there, we did a
live recording of this podcast with a couple of hundred leaders from around that
area, and today, we're going to release the first part of that live recording. It was a
ton of fun being down there with Tim.
If you've never been in a room with Tim while he geeks out about the Bible, well,
you're in for a treat. Tim just gets excited. No other topic lights Tim up like the topic
we addressed that day. The topic at hand is what we've come to call Design Patterns
in the Bible.
If you've been following this project, you know that we like to talk about how the
Bible is literary genius. One of the things that makes the literature of the Bible so
sophisticated is how every story in the Bible seems to be aware and riffing off of
every other story in the Bible. No matter what author, no matter what time period, it
all connects together with this amazing awareness of how stories are told, why
they're told that way. The patterns that emerge become immensely important for us
to understand what the authors were trying to communicate to us.
This might seem really geeky, maybe not that useful, maybe just sounds really
strange. Well, hang in there. We're going to break down what it is and we'll follow a
few design patterns through Scripture. As we do, I guarantee you're going to see
how rich, insightful, and profound the literature in the Bible is. Thanks for joining us.
Here we go.
Tim: How are you guys? Hello. Look at these chairs to sit in. I don't know if you can see
Jon: We brought in down special from my grandma's house, which makes me feel at
home. Thank you for doing that.
Tim: Hello. How are you all?
Jon: It's good to be here.
Tim: Welcome to here. Here we go. We're going to do this. This is a new kind of
experiment for us. As we were thinking about what to do with this time, Jon and I
also have a to-do list for video production. And so we needed to actually have this
conversation that we were going to have. Then Jon pitched the idea of "Let's just
have it with a group of people." Because he's always prodding me with questions,
and so let's just let a whole group people contribute.
This is actually part of our normal process where I put together a bunch of stuff, we
talk for hours, then he goes and writes a summary, and that becomes the first draft
of the script for the video. So a video will come out of this conversation. There you
go. Is that cool deal?
Tim: Deal. Cheers. Let's see. What's some other maybe introductory stuff?
Jon: Typically, it's just Tim and I in a room talking through his notes or have notes like
this, which I've never seen. I feel like a magician now. I've never seen these notes.
Then we'll also put them up on the screen so you could follow along?
Tim: Yes, what's in his hand, it'll just be up there. FYI.
Jon: Then, my role is just to be a really persistent, annoying student. What we'll try to do
is at certain times, stop, we'll have a couple mics, and if you want to jump in on the
annoying persistence, then you can ask a question as well. Tim loves it. He never
ever gets frustrated with me.
Jon: I'm always surprised.
Tim: For Jon and I, I guess we're just taking for granted that everyone knows what The
Bible Project is and that we make Bible cartoons for the internet.
Jon: The Bible Project, we make Bible cartoons in it. They're up on YouTube and on our
website. We go through themes of the Bible and how those themes are woven
through all Scripture from beginning to end and how they have its climax in Jesus.
Then also, there's a whole series of videos that Tim's pretty much solely responsible
for the literary structure and design of every book of the Bible, which are really
helpful. We've been doing a new series called How to Read the Bible. That series is
going to be about 15, 18 videos.
Jon: 22 videos?
Jon: Perfect. That's going to be 22 videos. And we've been going through biblical
narrative. Has anyone seen the biblical narrative videos? A couple of you guys? Cool.
There's one out on plots.
Tim: That's the one that's up right now.
Jon: Oh, that's the one that's up?
Tim: Yeah. Then, next comes characters. Then after that is setting.
Jon: Oh, yeah. Those aren't out yet.
Tim: They aren't out yet. They're in production, and written. But they are being made.
Then, this one's yet to exist.
Jon: Let's do a quick overview of the biblical narrative, plot, setting, character, and then
set this one out.
Tim: Nearly half of the Bible is ancient Jewish narrative. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and
in the New Testament, the Gospels and Acts are ancient Jewish style biblical
narrative. They're at the same time some of the most beloved parts of the Bible
because narratives are really a universal form of human communication. It's just
easy. But every culture has its own unique way of telling narratives.
In the biblical tradition, these authors developed a really brilliant, truly brilliant set of
tools for how they tell their stories, and they're really, really, really different than how
modern Westerners create, and perceive how stories work.
That was the goal of the video series. You might think, "Four videos?" Just read the
narrative. And it's like, "Okay, yeah, that's fine." But there's going to be all kinds of
things. I've discovered over the years, all kinds of really amazing layers of meaning
to stories in the Bible that I just simply was unaware of, or never saw before until I've
actually learned how to read them as Jewish narratives, Jewish literature with a really
particular set of conventions and attributes and ways that these stories work. There
Jon: Big picture, biblical narrative, there's plot setting character. Let me try to summarize
what the main takeaways for each of those were, really quickly.
Jon: And then you can correct me. Biblical plot - that video is out. I think the biggest
takeaway for me is that a biblical plot is like any plot. We're familiar with plots. We
watch movies, we read books. So there's character, and there's setting, there's this
call to adventure, there's all this rising tension that leads up to a conflict, which
ultimately has a resolution and then the characters change and comes to a new
normal, a new world. Biblical stories have the same plot structures.
In the video, we looked at Gideon and how if you don't see the overall plot and
understand a story in that context, you could easily say something the author didn't
intend. We looked at Gideon and The Fleece, and we saw how Gideon was asking
God for a sign and he put a fleece on the ground, make the fleece dry, and the
ground wet. And God does it.
You read that story and you're like, "Oh, my goodness, that's a great story on how to
discern God's will." But then you read the story in context of the whole biblical plot
and you realize that it's just one part of this whole rising plot tension of Gideon not
That's a big takeaway. But I think the bigger takeaway with plot, which the video
didn't have a lot of time to explain, but the podcast goes in a lot of detail if you've
listened to our episode on plot, is that there's like embedded plots in the Bible.
You have the story of Gideon, which takes place in a whole series of stories that
make up the Book of Judges, and that entire set of stories has its own plot structure.
You call those what?
Jon: Biblical movements?
Tim: I call them movements. It's like Acts because I thinking about acts of the play.
Actually, I thought that was really helpful.
Jon: Then those all fit into a grand biblical plot from creation to new creation. So seeing
how these plots are embedded, it's like at any given moment reading the Bible
you're like in inception. You're like a plot within a plot within a plot.
Tim: That's good. I don't think you've brought that up before. That's a good analogy.
Actually, each subplot you're in, it's easy to forget the governing plot. Like why are
they in this little sub-world? Because of something a plot conflict caused up here
that force them to go down and do this other one. It's actually really good. That's
Jon: Good analogy?
Jon: That's plot. the video is not out yet. It's almost out. Actually, I don't know if it's
Tim: Sorry. For plot, to conceive of the Bible it's an epic narrative, which means it's a
sprawling narrative - all huge cast of characters. It's like many epic narratives that are
out there in the world.
For modern Westerners, the most familiar ones now are Tolkien's. J. R. R. Tolkien's
world - "The Lord of the Rings." Epic narratives. Because even they're separate story
worlds. There's the Ring trilogy but then there's "The Hobbit" which is its own totally
own plot, but it is related. It's like the pre-plot that makes sense with the others. And
that's totally how the Bible works.
So it's all it's difficult when you're in the thick of the Book of Kings, and you're
looking at Jehoahaz and his wife Athaliah and you're like, "What does this have to do
with anything? Why do I care about this?" So you always have to rise above and be
like, "Family of Abraham, God's blessing to all of the nations through these people."
Another illustration I've used is of the Russian nesting doll of dolls within dolls,
within dolls within dolls. The whole point is to see them as a set. It's not just that you
have one of them, and then just sit them on whatever, your dresser. It's to display
them as a set because that's how they make sense is as a collection.
So learning how to keep track of the layer’s plot, each layer will give a new context
and new layers of meaning to events happening down here at the ground level. If
you begin to see how these authors have designed little mini-episodes within their
larger arcs, you begin to see bigger patterns, which is what we're going to talk about
today. But learning to track plots and subplots it's like one of the bread and butter
things about learning to read biblical narrative well.
Jon: Nice. Another basic element of narrative is characters. A character is the person
experiencing the plot - going through the plot. Biblical narrative is full of characters.
How would you summarize the big pic with characters?
Tim: At least in the history of Christian reading, especially of the Hebrew Scriptures, we've
had a hard time knowing what to do with these Bible characters. Some of them are
very relatable, and we sympathize with their struggles, like an Abraham or David or
Joseph or Ruth. But then other characters in the way they figure into God's plans are
really problematic for us, like a Samson or a Jacob.
I think somehow, especially in the Western Christian tradition, we tend to view the
Bible as some kind of moral instruction book. The characters in the Bible are
obviously there to be examples for us. The problem is that they're all mostly really
immoral people, really screwed up people. And that's thrown Western readers for
such a loop that look at our children's literature about the Bible. It's often hard to
recognize the actual biblical story in the children's versions that our kids are raised
I have a version of the story of Jonah in a children's book at home. I don't read it to
my kids, but I just remind my mind of an example of what so screwed up about how
we read the Bible. It doesn't even have the last chapter of the book of Jonah, where
he's doing outside the city bomb that his enemies didn't get roasted by fire from
Because if you end the story with Jonah obeying and going to Nineveh and then
Nineveh is repenting, that's a great story. It teaches you to obey God. It's a very clear
story. But the whole thing is about that last chapter, which turns the entire story
upside down. And all of a sudden, everything means the opposite of what you
thought it meant. It's absolutely brilliant.
Apparently, that's too sophisticated for children? In a way, it is because this is not
children's literature. This is extremely sophisticated literature.
So what tends to happen is that biblical characters are presented to people who
grew up in the church in these rewritten versions of biblical stories so that when they
actually come to read the Bible itself, the way these characters actually behave in the
real story is a scandalous to us. We don't understand it. Why does God bless people
who lie and murder and why does the Holy Spirit come on Samson when he's a
violent sex addict? Is he an example? Am I supposed to be like him? Well, I guess
not. I'm not going to kill people with [inaudible 00:15:20]. You guys are with me?
So what are these people here for in the stories? We're going to make a whole video
about that. Because we are supposed to relate to them, but they are not put there as
moral examples for us. They're more put there as mirrors for us to see ourselves and
to see our own flaws, and failures, and successes. And how these characters relate to
God begin to give me a clue of what it means to relate to God in complex ways.
There you go.
Jon: Great, perfect. The final element is biblical settings or settings in general. Every story
has to take place somewhere and that "where" is the setting. Settings are easy to
gloss over in any story, and not appreciate how effective of a literary device it
If I'm telling you a story, and it takes place in a spooky house, just an old rundown
house, that's the setting. You as a listener are going to remember other stories that
happened to take place in an old run down house. And what are you going to think?
You're going to think, "I know what's going to happen. I've been here before."
The author can set your expectation really quick about what a story is going to be
about simply by the setting that the author puts it in. In the video, we're going to
talk about the setting of Egypt as a case study, and how that setting becomes very
important. But they're all over, and I was super surprised.
When we got into this, I realized we could do a whole series of videos on settings
and how they're used. From the wilderness being a setting, Jerusalem, Mt Zion,
Bethlehem, on and on and on, they become these very important places where
certain things happen and author wants you to remember those stories. They're
building on that. I don't know if we have to really get into more of it.
Tim: Yeah, it's awesome. It's awesome. Again, for modern readers, because when we
read the stories were like, "Oh, this is the history part of the Bible," this is just what
happened and that just is where that event happened. That event happened in
Moab. That event happened in Gilead, Gibeah, or whatever. And so we don't think to
come to these narratives with the expectation that the last story that happened in
whatever, Gilead, that may be like four books ago, but the author knows. The author
What you'll find is that key places keep getting repeated throughout the biblical
narrative and places acquire a symbolism based off of the events that happened
there. You have to start from page 1, and they began to build significance as you go
through the story. It's absolutely brilliant.
Jon: Do you like to do wilderness? That's a good example.
Tim: Yeah, yeah. A great example is...maybe a shorter one, I think...I don't remember
doing the video. I don't remember. To the east?
Jon: Yeah, we did.
Tim: Especially, in the book of Genesis, there's this real echoing motif where after the
garden rebellion of Adam and Eve, they're banished. Little detail. They're banished to
the east. Then after Cain and his murdering his brother, he's also banished in the
very next story to the east.
Then the culmination of all the rebellion stories in the book of Genesis is in the story
of Babylon, where all the people had one speech and they moved to the east. What
happens in the east? The east is where you go when you've been estranged from
God. The East is where you go as a consequence of your stupid decisions.
Then with Babylon, where you end up is going to the east, where all humanity exalts
itself up to the place of God. Then you just track with it.
As you go through the biblical narrative, biblical authors now that they've
established the drumbeat of East, they'll just throw it in there now and then. It's like
a little seasoning - a little Easter season in the story or something. And so they'll just
Like the rebellion of Absalom comes in the story of David. And where does David
flee from his own palace? He flees to the east. When all Israel rebels and has to go
into exile, where do they go? They go to the east to Babylon. They replay the
Genesis 3 to 11 thing.
Jon: So that's not a detail because the author is like, "I should just put in where you
happen to [inaudible 00:20:07]."
Tim: It's not like an archival note. It's actually a really important part of the theological
message of these stories is where things take place.
Jon: Michael W. Smith song is making a lot more sense. "Go West Young Man." Suddenly,
it's clicking. I get it now. I do these Christian references; Tim never gets it because he
didn't grow up in Christian culture.
Tim: I know about Michael W. Smith. I don't know that song. But also periods of time are
a form of setting that work exactly the same way. We'll talk about that in the video.
Jon: So it's not just geographic location, it's also a situation like to the east, but then it's
also time, like 40 days?
Jon: The 40 as a time period becomes an important setting.
Tim: We're certain people get tested, and usually fail.
Jon: Except for Jesus.
Tim: Yeah, except for Jesus.
Jon: Yeah, he overcame. All of these elements of the plot are actually going to set us up
nicely for this conversation because we want to talk about is patterns of comparison
in biblical narrative - which sounds really boring. Tim has actually for the last six
months, just every day, he's like, "I can't wait to talk about this. I can't wait to talk
about this." Your mind's been exploding with things.
So it's a highly anticipated conversation for us. Hopefully, it will be really valuable for
you guys. But basically, from what I understand is that all these things: the plot, the
settings, the characters, they all become elements in which the biblical authors use
to build on each other, create patterns.
And you use the word a lot "hyperlink." That the author will hyperlink back to other
stories and ideas and just expect you the reader to see what's going on. He's not
going to tell you, "Hey, just like Moses did this, sometimes, I guess Paul would say
that." But oftentimes it will be just a very small hyperlink back to the story. So this is
what we're talking about, hyperlinks and patterns.
Tim: We still don't know the word we're going to use in the video. We're going to have to
work that out. You guys, I feel like this has just blown my mind over the last year or
so. I have a group of friends that we went through grad school. They're all Hebrew
Bible nerd professors all around the world. But we have been coordinating our
research efforts and reading around the set of topics.
So there are four other friends and it's like we've never read the Bible before. It feels
so fresh to me right now. There are two analogies. There are actually two analogies.
One is one that starts the notes, but the other one is...I've used it before already
actually with you. It's Yoda.
Tim: Yoda. It's the scene Dagobah in the "Empire Strikes Back" where Luke comes looking
for Master Yoda, but what he finds as a silly green creature. Of course, that is the
master. But the master is so wise that he won't impose his reputation on Luke. What
he's going to do is let Luke come to realize that he's in the presence of the master.
So truly it becomes a story about reality is for Luke what he expects to see. And what
he expects to see it is a silly green creature. Of course, this isn't the master, so he
never sees the master until he has this breakthrough moment and he realizes as all
along he's been in the presence. You're with me? It's a classic. That's how I feel
about the Bible.
I think it's essentially the way our relationships to these scriptural texts grows over
time, is realizing that we're in the presence of such brilliant minds, empowered by
God's Spirit to write and compose this literature in ways that I just never even
imagined was possible. But once you expect to see certain things, all of a sudden,
narratives that you thought you understood, you had no clue. That is happening to
me every day now.
Jon: When you say no clue, you do this like...
Tim: I'm being...
Jon: Well, it goes deeper.
Tim: It goes deeper. That's right.
Jon: It's like, "Oh, I got it, but now I get it so much more."
Tim: I wasn't level one, but now I realize there's actually four other levels.
Jon: It's not like, "Oh, I was teaching this wrong completely"?
Tim: No, that's true. That's a good point. That's a good point. You're right. Section.
Jon: Or maybe not.
Tim: I think I've used cave spelunking - actually, it's a bad metaphor of you thought you
had reached the deepest chamber, and then you realize there's a crack and then,
"Oh, my gosh, it keeps going." And there's more depth here than you first realized.
This particular skill set, there's actually not a lot written on it. This is not something
that you can find in any guidebooks on how to read the Bible. Where you do find it
is scholars who are familiar with the history of Jewish interpretation of the Bible.
Of course, that makes sense. These were crafted by ancient Israelite minds steeped
in this tradition and way of writing these texts. So it makes perfect sense that the
Jewish they've been reading the Bible 1000 years longer than Christians have, and
for one reason or another, the Christian tradition has lost touch with this dynamic
going on in biblical narrative. There you go. That's why we're excited to make a
video of it. We're hyping it up now. I think we should just dive in.
Jon: Let's jump in.
Tim: Notes appear on the screen. Are you guys ready for action?
Tim: Jon: Deal. All right. Let's start with a Jewish scholar named Robert Alter who wrote
one of the most helpful really profound introductions to Biblical narrative. It's called
"The Art of Biblical Narrative." He has a chapter where he lays out what we're going
to talk about, but it's like tip of the iceberg.
He begins it with this really great introduction and then there's analogy. He says, "A
coherent reading of any work of art, whatever the medium, requires some detailed
awareness of the grid of conventions upon which and against which this particular
work operates. Usually, these are elaborate sets of tacit agreements between the
artist and the audience that create the enabling context in which complex
communication of art occurs." He likes to write long sentences.
"Though through our awareness of convention, we can recognize significant or
simply pleasing patterns of repetition, symmetry, or contrast, we can detect subtle
clues and cues as to the meaning of the work. We can spot what is innovative, and
what is traditional at each part of the artistic creation. One of the chief difficulties
modern readers have in perceiving the artistry in biblical narrative is precisely that
we have lost most of the keys to the conventions out of which these texts were
That's a dense, nerdy way of putting it. Then, he has a great illustration that makes it
crystal clear. If you don't get his point, how would you put into normal words?
Jon: I think where this hits home for me the most is in telling jokes. Everyone kind of
understands that there is a structure to a joke, except for my mom. She doesn't
really get that. But you have a setup and then you have the punch line.
Oftentimes, especially in very simple jokes, the setup is one beat, second beat, and
then something unexpected. Hahaha. Is that similar to like, it's creating...It's like we
know as the audience, "Okay, I'm being set up for joke. I know what's coming," and
then the punchline lands.
Tim: I think of our kids; trying to teach our kids humor. It's so hard to teach a four-yearold
how to tell a joke. I realize you'd have learned the conventions. There are
unspoken rules to a joke. My four-year-old just tells these jokes that aren't funny but
because he tells them by the 1, 2, 3 pattern he thinks that's what makes it funny.
Jon: Right. But, he's learning the pattern.
Tim: Yeah. So he'll be like, "A [net 00:29:42] crossed the street and then a book fell down,
and the Jell-O fell out of the bowl." And he'll laugh or something because he thinks
that what makes it funny.
Jon: And you're like, "Well, good try."
Tim: That's a good analogy, though on a smaller level.
Jon: But he's got to give example of Western film?
Jon: Let's do it.
Tim: Let's do it. Let's pretend it's 1,200 years into the future and post-apocalyptic scene
and archaeologists discover in the ruins of Hollywood this old film vault and they
find all these cans of old Western films. Then they're given to some future university
professor of film history. Then he spends all summer watching them all.
I go to Robert Alter's quote here. He says, "Our future film critic notices that in 11 of
the 12 films, the sheriff hero has the same anomalous neurological trait of hyper
reflexivity. No matter what the situation in which his adversaries confront him, he's
always able to pull his gun out of its holster and fire before they can, even if they're
already poised with their own weapon." All right?
Jon: Yeah, impressive.
Tim: Again, just think. If you don't have any context for that, pretend you're an alien, and
you keep seeing this pattern in these human film. Would you make sense of that?
You'd be like, "Oh, this was a superior race among the humans...
Jon: ...and they're just really quick with their hand."
Tim: Yeah. But then in the 12th film, let's say there's a sheriff with an injured arm and so
instead of a pistol, he uses a rifle that he carries slung over his back. If you had only
seen the 12th film, that's the only one you ever saw and you were whatever, this
future film critic, you'd be like, "Oh, he has a rifle or he's different than the other...I
don't know. Whatever."
But if you've watched all 11, then you've been prepared. You know that all of a
sudden this 12 there's an innovation, it's a variation on the theme...
Jon: And it seems important.
Tim: And it's important. It becomes a contrastive spin on the motif. This is his conclusion.
He says, "Contemporary viewers of westerns recognize the convention without even
having to name it as such. Much of our pleasure in watching westerns derives from
our awareness that the hero, however sinister the danger is looming ahead, leads a
charmed life that will always, in the end, prove himself more successful than his
enemies. For us, the repetitive pattern across all these cinematic works it's not an
enigma to be explained." "Why does he have a rival over your shoulder? That's
weird. Just you get it?
Jon: Let's go with it.
Tim: Why does this guy always drive faster than that guy in these different movies? In
other words, we don't even think about it. It's so subconscious because we're
familiar with this particular convention.
That what he says here. With our easy knowledge of the patterns, we naturally see
the point of the 12th sheriff.
Jon: What's the point of the 12th sheriff?
Tim: Well, it would be like, he's the underdog. He's going to win anyway, but he doesn't
have the advantage that the normal sheriff has. He has a disadvantage, but he leads
such a charmed life he's going to overcome in the end.
So it becomes an underdog version of the story. But you already know he's going to
win, he's just going to win even despite this disadvantage. Within just a few subtle
moves, here in this 12th sheriff, it's actually the absence of the pattern that clues you
into the pattern.
Jon: Which then shows you the level of sophistication that the author intends for you to
have, which they could just leave out something that they know you would expect
and that is now bringing more meaning to the story.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: And that happens in the Bible?
Tim: It do to like the nth degree. I mean, I'm just going to show you. We're just going to
go through tons of example. But it's insane. What it means is that these narratives
are actually designed to do what Psalm 1 tells you to do. With the Bible is just to
constantly reread the thing, and to read it quietly aloud to yourself, to meditate,
because there will be things that you'll never notice until like the 85th time.
Something going on with Abraham story connecting with some weird thing in the
David story connecting to some weird hyper-reflexivity thing in Jeremiah. Then you
sit back and you realize, Oh, these are...Oh." And you see that they're all talking to
Jon: It's like a perpetual murder mystery night with your friends trying to figure it out.
Tim: What I'm saying is that these are intentionally repeated motifs that have been woven
into the fabric of the narrative by these authors. Many people actually noticed
patterns in the Bible. Maybe you've noticed them before - and we'll talk about a
bunch - but you've never thought to make anything of them.
But 9 times out of 10, they do fit into something the author is intentionally laid a trail
of breadcrumbs for you to go down, which is just like you're supposed to track with
every 11th sheriff with the Quick Draw, so that you understand the punch line of the
12th sheriff. There you go.
That's the basic point to be made. Repetition begins to build expectation, and then
variation can give you the punch line.
Jon: Is the rest of this just examples?
Jon: Okay. So we're going to read a lot of the Bible?
Tim: We're just going to look at a bunch of biblical stories. Because you can talk about it
in theory, the brilliance...You can talk about the Mona Lisa. But talking about the
Mona Lisa will never replace just actually staring at the Mona Lisa. It's like that.
Jon: Cool, great. Let's stop for a second, and see if anyone wants to jump in with a
question. There's a mic here, mic there. If you want to jump in at this point before we
start reading scripture, go ahead and raise your hand, we'll grab you. I'll ask a
question just to warm us up.
It seems like you could see this as a very elite way of reading the Bible. I think
everyone in this room is like a leader or a teacher in some capacity. It seems like
enough work just to get the basics across. And from the pulpit especially, to be able
to have someone track.
Now you're saying, well, let's go deeper and deeper and deeper. Are we just going
to confuse everybody? What would you say to someone who's a leader how this
should affect the way that they're thinking about not just them reading the Bible,
but then how they help other people read the Bible?
Tim: I'm trying to think of a good way to...It's kind of like really any form of music. Just
take some of the classic forums, classical music, or like a symphony. Almost anybody,
you don't even have to know anything about classical music to appreciate
Beethoven or Bach. But that doesn't mean that the uninitiated listener actually is
understanding and tracking with a full capacity of this particular symphony of
everything that's going on there.
That's why these narratives are so brilliant because even on their first reading, or first
few readings, you get the basic ideas of what's going on. And this is how art works.
Art is like this condensation of meaning, this density of meaning.
Jon: I like the image.
Tim: And that's how art communicates. It does—
Jon: Is that your image, condensation of meaning?
Tim: I don't know. I just wasn't doing this and it was the word that came to mind.
Jon: Is the word that came to mind?
Tim: The condensation.
Jon: That's cool. Condensation of meaning.
Tim: Or think of the most dense...This is a phrase a friend of mine uses. The dense
German bread. They're like, you cut into, it looks like a normal loaf of bread, like a
croissant. French croissant," and then you realize, "Oh, there's nothing in here. It's
But then there's the German bread, not the French bread, the German bread and
then it's like, "Oh, my gosh, this is hard to cut. It's so thick." That's what it's like.
I think how this works practically is fine both...if you're a regular teacher of the
Scriptures, it's just yourself having this conversion of your imagination to how
amazing these narratives are, and how they work and how profound the things that
they're communicating are. Then once you yourself are ignited to that, then you'll
find ways to invite people in. It's more about just the narratives never stop giving.
No matter what level you're at, you're always...
I wouldn't use the word elite. I would just say it's like the ultimate deep cave. You
can go on a tour to the first three chambers or you can go to the [80th] chamber.
Just like the matrix. The blue pill or the red pill.
Jon: Well, speaking of movies, there is that sense where there's certain movies that
they're so well-crafted you watch them over and over and over and you keep getting
something from it.
Tim: That's right. That's a good example. Coen Brothers movies are like that, I find.
Jon: And so if someone hadn't seen the movie wouldn't be like, "Okay, well, forget it.
You'll never get it." You'd be like, "You haven't seen the movie? Let's watch the
movie." But while you're watching it, you're thinking of things that they probably
aren't thinking about.
Tim: That's right.
Tim: Just to close that loop, I think it can come across from one perspective as elitist. I
think what I want is we invite people into this paradigm of reading the Bible is
actually to see it the opposite way. It's an invitation to discovery, to a lifetime of
discovery, that will likely never be exhausted because I'm not sure when human
brain contract with everything that's happening here.
Jon: Which means you have to do it in community.
Jon: And so you get to read the Bible with people your whole life.
Tim: There you go. That's at least how it's designed to be read.
Jon: Cool. Anyone who Sheriff to jump in?
Man: You had mentioned the role of setting in a narrative and I'm wondering if this might
be a legitimate example or not. In the book of Jonah, the prophet flees from God's
command to go to Nineveh leaving the city of Joppa going to Tarsus. Then in the
book of Acts, Peter receives his vision of the clean and unclean that launches the
mission to the Gentiles from the city of Joppa. Can we take it that it was intentional
that Joppa is mentioned and we're supposed to be thinking about Nineveh and
Tim: Yeah. That's an excellent example. Actually, the video about setting is really just a
whole set of examples of this technique right here. So yeah, it's so random. Like, why
does Luke in Acts, why does he bring up Joppa as this really key moment? And why
is it that Simon son of Jonah renamed by Jesus's Petrus, Peter? But his Jewish name
is Simon Bar-Jonah? There you go.
Simon, son of Jonah goes to Joppa from which the mission to the Gentiles explodes.
Come now. You what I'm saying? Do you get it? Here's what's brilliant about that is
because we're crossing. That's Luke. That means Luke is tracking with what's going
on with Joppa and Jonah, and he's intentionally introduced details into the story
to...That's a perfect example. Thank you. That's a great example. And it crosses the
testaments. This isn't just the Old Testament narrative. The Gospels and Acts are
written right as a continuation of this tradition. That's a great example.
Man: Hi. I know in some of the earlier podcast, you guys talked about kind of all stories as
is being representations of the facts that happened. You discussed a little bit about
how people think of truth or historical accuracy and things, but I'm curious in terms
of how do you or other scholars think about in the history of the writing and the
editing of the Scriptures, basically, maybe in the Jewish scriptures. To what extent do
people think that things are written in this way and then they were added on? Or do
some people think that these details we're back at it?
Like, say, for the east example that you mentioned where is it something where
post-exilic time then it becomes something that is a detail that's added to tie it
forward to where at the time they would have been putting together all the
Scripture together? I'm curious about the history and how people tend to see how
that would have unfolded.
Tim: Oh, man, that's an extremely complex conversation, mostly because we just have so
little hard data about the timing of the final composition of the books of the Bible. In
other words, we can date a whole bunch of stuff in terms of the events, but the
composition of the books themselves, it gives every evidence of having been a really
prolonged process with lots of Spirit-guided prophetic authors that were part of the
The best example is the conclusion of the Pentateuch, which the last chapter of the
Deuteronomy is about the death of Moses. Then the last sentences of Deuteronomy
are "And no one to this day knows where he was buried." Then the last sentence of
the Torah is, "You know a prophet like Moses just has never arisen among our
So the time perspective, even if the composition of the Torah, is explicitly at a far
distance from the events of Moses himself. Which doesn't mean the Moses didn't
play a role in writing the materials in. It actually says that quite a lot in multiple parts.
So the best analogy that I've found, at least one I've used the most is that these
books are like family quilts where we have quilt pieces or earlier even sections that
were already a bunch of quilt pieces combined, and they've been received and
passed on, carefully studied and preserved. And at some point in the post-exilic
period, the whole quilt of the Hebrew Scriptures gets put together.
A lot of times, that meant just providing stitching around pre-existing works, but
other times it involved some rearranging of older works and this kind of thing. And
the best example, you can see, this is in the book of Chronicles. The Chronicles is
itself a representation of the representation of Samuel and kings. This is what Bible
nerd scholars calls it. Author of Chronicles, they call them the chronicler. But you can
see exactly where he's doing biblical theology.
He's representing the story of David in light of the Torah and the prophets. So he's
constantly adding in little details or repeated phrases as hyperlinks to link the whole
Hebrew Bible together. There's an author, we can actually watch the chronicler at
work making the book in comparison with the sources. So anyway, I'm sorry.
Jon: I think this gets people a little queasy because then you start asking yourself, well,
can any of these stories be trusted? Are these authors just picking and choosing
details to make the point or did this actually happen? And that becomes specifically
really important when we talk about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I mean,
if it didn't happen, what are we doing? Can you speak to that queasiness?
Tim: We've talked about this before. The biblical authors are both concerned to pass
down to us their traditions and the memories of things that happened, but they're
not just archivists. They also want to make very clear to the readers the meaning and
significance of what these events have for God's purposes in history.
These events they both represent events and they present them in a way that shows
you how to fit into God's purposes for all of history. And the primary way they do
that is through narrative patterning.
One of the biggest ways this happens for sure is in characters’ names, like the
symbolic names that people have. Whether or not the husbands that Ruth and
Orpah married their names in...Mahlon and Chilion. Those Hebrew words mean
"done for" and "sicko." [SP] And because they come on to the stage for one
sentence only to die, the author brings them on to kill them off to create the tragedy
of the whole story.
Would you ever name your kid, sicko or done for? So I do think these authors
writing literature and they think about history and how to represent that history in a
different way than modern people do. We just have this hang up. And it's from a
good motive that the events, the core events really represent things that happened. I
think they care about that too. Otherwise, they wouldn't be telling us these stories.
But they also want us to understand the meaning of these stories. I don't think these
authors were as nervous as we were about airbrushing the portraits. I don't think we
need to be embarrassed of that either.
I want to make sure my expectations of these narratives are the ones that lead me to
see the master, not the ones that keep me in the presence of the silly green creature.
Jon: You gave me a really great example on that as on a previous podcast episode, I'm
sure of if I asked you how you met your wife, you and Jessica. You've told the story
so many times that the story it's got its own shape, and rhythm and movements.
And if you're telling it together, you have your own parts.
And if I actually had a video camera, and I saw exactly what happened, and I'm trying
to match that to what you guys are saying, I'm going to see some discrepancies. Like
you might have made a setting, maybe it wasn't exactly in that setting but that
actually really helps this story.
Tim: We will condense what was actually three conversations into one conversation or
that kind of thing.
Jon: But for you, the integrity of your relationship with Jessica is actually mostly or is
actually better explained in that way you're telling it.
Tim: That's right. It's a faithful representation, but it's not video camera footage.
Jon: And it's hard to feel comfortable with honestly. Even we've talked through that many
times, and it's kind of like, "Okay. It's weird." All right. One more question. Let's get
Man: As we're talking about leading people through the Bible, through this literary artful
approach, how do we help begin to navigate people through their own paradigm,
which especially for the younger generation it's increasingly being literal and linear,
where literature is not that way? They go to STEM programs where it's all about
linear thinking, and the linear approach, but we have this artful approach to
literature. How can we help them navigate, just break down some of those walls to
help them at least get to the point to begin to view it as literature and not just
Tim: Wow. So interesting. It might just be a difference of culture and where people are
from or where they live. Portland is a town that's obsessed with aesthetics, and
beauty, and design to the fault of it actually being an idol that ruins people. In my
mind, this is perfect.
This is perfect. There's no better way to bring people into the biblical story than to
show its high literary aesthetic because that's compelling. But you're right, there's a
whole other layer of our American culture that's like, "Why wouldn't you just say it
the way it is? Why do you get to use a metaphor? Or why do you have to write
In a local church setting, I think it is about trying to find creative ways to imitate the
literary diversity and beauty. Which the medium of the sermon can invite people into
that, but it's certainly not the only or most effective way to do that. So whether that's
having public readings of Scripture or biblical poetry or interpretation of Scripture
through other mediums to help get people using a different part of their brain to
process things that are real and true. Because that's what the Bible is doing. It's
using such a diverse set of tools to engage the whole human not just our brains. I
don't know if I answered your question. But it's a good one.
Jon: Yeah, that's a great question. Something to keep thinking about. Let's do one
example and then what we're going to do is we're going to then take a break to use
the restroom or whatever, and we'll come back, we'll do a couple more. Let's jump
Tim: Actually, we can do more than we one.
Jon: We can do more than we one?
Tim: Yeah, totally.
Jon: All right. Do it.
Tim: Here's the first tool. It's the most simple one to track in the biblical authors' toolset
and it's the most basic thing to human communication, which is repetition. Like, if it
matters, I'm going to keep saying it. The principle holds in biblical literature, but
especially in narrative that if you want the clues to what an author is emphasizing in
themes, just look for the repeated word image.
Jon: It is pretty basic. My kids get it.
Tim: It's super intuitive. You don't even need to say it. The way Hebrew works, Hebrew is
able to actually repeat words in more creative ways than most languages.
Tim: The language structure has three letter. All Hebrew words are built off of three
letters. What that means is that verbs, and nouns, and adjectives, you will almost
always see those three letters in them no matter what form the word is. So it's very
easy to spot repetition because it can be a verb, it can be a noun, it can—
Jon: The same three letters can be a verb, or a noun or...?
Tim: Correct. Like in English, you would say, "I go to the store. I went to the store. I am
going to the store." Well, I guess you have "go" and "going." That's an example. "Go"
and "going." But in Hebrew, it's much more adherent to that pattern. It means they
have this tool in their own language to create word plays and repetition in ways that
it's hard to do in other languages.
An example. There was a German scholar I was going to quote, but let's just do an
example. This will be intuitive to most people. I think it's the word "good," which, in
Hebrews the word "tob," right through the very first pages of the Bible. It strikes
most readers on page 1 of the Bible because you have that sevenfold repetition.
Jon: Yeah, it's really redundant. Good, it's good, it's good.
Tim: That's right. Each of each of the days, actually, not each of the days, day 2 doesn't
have any "goodness." So it's double "good" on the next day. But it gets repeated six
times. Then the seventh one, there's payoff if you've been noticing. Because this
phrase, "God saw that it was good" and "God saw that it was good." And then the
last one, "God saw that it was very good."
Jon: The last one, the sheriff was carrying a rifle over his shoulder.
Tim: Yeah, totally. That's right. And even you don't have to know anything about Hebrew,
ancient, anything. You just read page 1 of the Bible, the word good, keeps popping
up. Then the last one, "very good." Right? you're with me? There's aesthetic pleasure
that comes from tracking with that and it's the culminating point that God loves this
world. It's very, very good.
Then you figure like, "Oh, good. That's important. That's an important word. "Tob."
You go to page 2 and then you see that God provides all of these trees for humans
that are good. And good for what in particular? They're good for eating. That's the
first time where "good" appears after the sevenfold good in page 1.
Jon: For food.
Tim: Good for food. Like, "Oh, that's what trees are good for. They're good for food." But
then there's one particular tree, it's the tree of knowing good and not good.
Jon: Hold on a second. It doesn't say "not good."
Tim: It says "evil."
Tim: Well, what it says is "rah." The Hebrew word is "rah."
Jon: Tob and rah.
Tim: Tob and rah, yeah. What is good and what is not good. I find that using the word
evil...evil in English has all this philosophical baggage but metaphysical evil that
Hebrew "rah" doesn't quite have. The point is—
Jon: That sounds interesting.
Tim: It is interesting.
Jon: Tell us more.
Tim: The point is, God who up to page 2 who's responsible as the giver and seer and
acknowledger of what is good. And it's very clear. Page 1, God. Then what He does is
He gives that good now in a very tangible form to the humans. But also in front of
the humans is a way of knowing what is good, and what is evil, or not good. That's a
bit of a twist. It's like, "Oh, everything's been good, but now there's something that's
good and the opposite of good. What's that about?"
And knowing humans can know what is good or not good. Then you have to go
have a cup of tea, or you're supposed to go have a cup of tea. Well, if the humans
right now what's prohibited to them is knowing what is good and what is not good,
then, who does know what is good? Just think through the logic of the narrative.
Who knows what is good? It very obvious. That's intuitive, you follow it through.
That's off limits.
God is the provider of good and He's the knower. There's something about humans
knowing and discerning good and not good that's going to go really bad if humans
do that because the day you eat of it you'll die.
You also get some stuff about the gold of that land. That was good. It's good. So it's
not just what you eat, it's aesthetic beauty. Gold, value. The first thing that is not
good explicitly, is something that God identifies within His world, and it's of a human
Notice it's a repetition. He said, "It's not good." So God is both a provider of what is
good and He's the knower of what is good, and what is not good, because He can
discern what's not. So all these go together here. God's the one with knowledge of
good and evil, and the male and the female, and so on.
The next time the phrase appears is when the snake comes to the woman and says,
"You know about that tree. If you were to be the ones knowing what is good, and
what is not good, you would be like God." Which introduces an irony into the
narrative, because, of course, they are the image of God. But that's how we dupe
All of a sudden, knowing what is good and what is not good, it becomes into the
human’s mind like, "Oh, maybe that's something that God's holding out on me."
Which creates the irony in the story because all that God's been providing is good.
That's what He wants for the humans. But now the humans have this choice in front
The key line comes when the woman saw that the tree was good. Now, just that
phrase right there, who's the only other character up to this point who has seen and
truly identified "good"?
Tim: This is very obvious. You have now the human who's putting themselves in the
position of God to see what is good. It's a contrast. Using the same phrase, it's the
human acting in the role that God has put themselves in. When God sees good,
what results? More good. When the humans see something and be like, oh, that's
the good thing, what happens? It's the opposite.
That's a good example of it's an identical phrase "God saw that it was good" "the
woman saw that it was good," but they're contrasting. They are both in the motive
and in the result of what happens. There you go. So let's just pause right there.
Just on pages 1 to 3, you see, all of a sudden, oh, this is really important. This
keyword, it's not the only word, there are tons of other things we do, but this is a
really easy one to identify.
Jon: Like, the author could have chosen different words, different ways of saying it.
Obviously, it was crafted this way.
Tim: Yes. Just "tob," clearly it's keeps getting repeated.
Jon: We're talking about jokes before and it does remind me of a good comedian
chooses every single word very carefully and it's super important. The same thing
with a good author. Especially for writing poetry, I guess any work, but poetry's like
every single word, you're doing it for the exact reason.
Tim: Yeah. Actually, poetry is a good example. Typically, you expect that of poetry,
because, you know they're using fewer words to pack in more meaning. But in the
Western tradition of say, fiction writing or novel, or even writing biographies, the
point is not being concise. It's actually often the opposite.
Here with biblical narrative, it's already very spare, but you begin to realize every
word is crafted in the same kind of intentionality.
Jon: Because I could say, "I think you're getting a little too crazy in how you're..."
Tim: Reading too much in?
Jon: You're reading too much into this. You're trying to make it do too much because
you think this is a special text. But you're saying like, "No, everything's intentional."
Tim: It's a cumulative case. This is just the first example. This is about one keyword that
you find linked throughout a whole bunch of stories. Here's an example from Luke
where it's a key phrase—
Jon: You didn't do the last bit of Genesis 4. Does it matter? It doesn't matter?
Jon: We're cruising?
Tim: Yeah, we're cruising. Here's in Luke 3 and 4. This is where Jesus first comes on to the
narrative scene in the Gospel of Luke. The first is the story of his baptism. For the
reader, actually, Jesus has been introduced the birth narratives, but as an adult, this
is his entry onto the scene. It's the classic baptism scene of the sky opens, the
heavenly voice speaks, you are my son, the Spirit, all that.
So you walk away from that narrative. Who's Jesus? He's the beloved Son of the
Father. There it is. He's the son of God. The next literary thing is the genealogy that
Luke provides. He builds it in such a way that actually begins with Jesus, and then
works backward, all the way back through the Hebrew Scriptures. It's the reversed
genealogy all the way back through the Hebrew Scriptures, going back to the first
human character who's called the Son of God.
Jon: Luke calls him that?
Tim: Luke call Adam the Son of God.
Tim: All of a sudden, you're like, "Oh, two stories right next to each other, both culminate
in this phrase "the Son of God"" Jesus goes into the wilderness and the first thing
that the Satan is testing Jesus with is trying to undermine, and get Jesus to doubt his
identity as - it gets repeated - "If you really are God's Son, then do this."
After that, Jesus goes to the town of Nazareth, and he's giving his sermon, his intro
sermon. And the first thing Luke tells us that people ask is, "Whose son is this again?
Wait a minute. Isn't this the kid who grew up in town here?" Now it's people
doubting Jesus. After that is the story where Jesus cast out a demon and the first
thing that the evil spirit say is, "You are the Son of God."
Look what he's done here. He's put five episodes right next to each other.
Jon: All on a row?
Tim: Yeah. They all culminate in this moment of Jesus's identity being the son of God. But
notice in each of the stories it's a different type of claim being made. In the first, it's
the father. In the second, it's Luke appealing to Jesus's son ship as in continuity with
the story of the Scriptures. In the third one, it's about Jesus's identity as the son
being tested. In the fourth one, it's his identity being doubted. Then in the fifth one,
it's his identity being acknowledged but from a really surprising source, namely,
So you can see it's creative. This is creative way of forcing the reader to look at Jesus
identity from all these angles. It's Luke's way of trying to persuade you as to the
identity of Jesus, but he does it by showing how the identity of Jesus is complex and
contested, and it's something that you have to discover just like all these different
characters, and people do. It's brilliant. Because he could just write like the way Mark
does at the beginning. "This is the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
Jon: "And we're moving forward. We got thing to do."
Tim: "Let's move on." But instead, he does this. And so it kind of goes back to the
question of like, why didn't the biblical author just say it like it is? And it's just, well, I
don't know. It's a different culture. This is how God chose to reveal Himself is
through this literary tradition in Israelite culture that has a much more effective way,
I think, of communicating.
Jon: This sticks with you a lot more.
Tim: Totally, yes. The first time I noticed this, this was years ago that I noticed this, and
then it never left my memory.
Jon: Yeah, this will preach.
Tim: Yeah, totally. You want to do one more example and then maybe a potty break?
Jon: It looks like a long one.
Tim: This is the longest one, but it's cool.
Jon: All right. It's good.
Tim: This has to do with how the word site or seeing plays a crucial role in the story of the
selection of Saul and then of Saul's failure in the book of 1 Samuel. This is where it
begins to branch off into keywords is one crucial piece - repeated words. But also
when you see keywords repeating, you're supposed to start noticing all kinds of
other things happening in the story that begins to match up as you go through.
Themes - repeated ideas.
The first time that people ask for a king, and that's kind of screwed up and that's a