How Bible Stories Work
This lesson looks at the basic ingredients of stories — setting, character, and plot — and the unique qualities of biblical storytelling.
The Lure of the Story
“Humankind is addicted to stories. No matter our mood, in reverie or expectation, panic or peace, we can be found stringing together incidents, and unfolding episodes. We turn our pain into narrative so we can bear it; we turn our ecstasy into narrative so we can prolong it. We tell our stories to live.”
— John Shea, Stories of God
The Appeal of Stories
“Tell me a story.” These four simple words embody a universal human longing. From early childhood to old age, we look for stories in our lives, and we find the cycle of life itself has a classical narrative structure — beginning, middle, and end.
Think about the stories you love, the stories that linger in your memory. What do they have in common? What makes them compelling? Are they revealing, surprising, funny, moving? Maybe all of the above?
Stories appeal to us for all kinds of reasons, but the best stories tell us about the world and, perhaps most importantly, about ourselves. This is as true of the stories of the Bible as it is of the writings of Charles Dickens in the 19th century or J. K. Rowling today.
The Bible’s stories are told quite differently from those in modern novels and short fiction. In the Bible, the writing style is spare, unembellished. Only a few details are provided, and much information is inferred or even omitted.
The art of biblical storytelling is not unlike that of the Impressionist painter Seurat. The storyteller gives you, the reader, a handful of little dots — details — and you must assemble them into a whole picture in your mind’s eye. In the world of the Bible, every detail that is given — about setting, character, and plot — conveys a world of meaning.
The Where of It
“Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colors the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it. A scene is only justified in the novel where it can be shown, or at least felt, to act upon action or character”
— Elizabeth Bowen, Pictures and Conversations
Location, Location, Location
In the Bible, the question isn’t always, “What’s happening?” Sometimes, the question is, “Where’s it happening?”
If you’re like most readers, you’re probably so preoccupied with plot and character that you don’t pay much attention to a story’s setting. But in the Bible, the location of a story often represents more than just a physical space in which action unfolds. It can provide symbolic meaning as well. Here are a few examples:
- In the story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2), the Garden of Eden is not only a physical place but a way of life. It symbolizes the simplicity and innocence of Adam and Eve’s life before the fall.
- In the book of Ruth, the romance between Ruth and Boaz unfolds in a pastoral setting, a popular locale for love stories throughout the centuries. Why? Because the idealized “green world” mirrors the idealized romance unfolding within it.
- In the story of Jonah (Jonah 1:17), when Jonah is trapped inside the belly of a huge fish, the setting represents the imprisonment of Jonah’s futile attempt to flee from God.
Settings serve as a “container” for characters and actions, to establish atmosphere as well as embody symbolic meanings. A setting contains an action the way a dining room contains a dinner party: Without the specific context and “props” provided by the room, the dinner party would not exist.
Let’s take a close look at the story of Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Read the story, then ask yourself the following questions:
- What atmosphere does the setting of the story establish?
- How is the setting of the story symbolic?
Take a minute and jot down your thoughts on a sheet of paper. When you are finished, continue with the lesson.
What atmosphere does the setting of the story establish?
The story tells of a journey to a far-away mountaintop where Abraham has been commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The setting — the journey from home, the trek across a great distance, the ascent up the mountain — generates an atmosphere of suspense. When, after three days, Abraham sees “the place far away” that God had designated, our hearts virtually stop with dread.
How is the setting symbolic?
It is no accident that Abraham offers Isaac and encounters God on a mountaintop. With their physical elevation, mountains represent heightened human insight. They are also unique physical spaces where earth “meets” heaven. Throughout the Bible (and in the religious traditions of many other cultures), mountains are places where encounters between the human and divine routinely occur.
Having looked at the ways in which setting can shape the symbolism and atmosphere of a story, let’s explore how storytellers create characters in the Bible using the sparest of details.
Reading Between the Lines
“[In the Bible] the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized. What lies between is nonexistent; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, only suggested by silence and fragmentary speeches.”
— Erich Auerbach, Mimesis
Characterization in Bible Stories
In the Bible, character is action. Since the storytelling technique is minimal, what a character does speaks volumes about who the character is. For an example, let’s look at the story of how Jacob convinces his older brother Esau to sell him his birthright:
Once, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff.” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.
— Genesis 25:29-34
Solely on the basis of Jacob’s actions — and without any commentary from the storyteller — we learn that Jacob is selfish, opportunistic, materialistic, and unsentimental. We also see that he possesses a canny business sense: He makes the exchange of the birthright legally binding by having Esau swear an oath.
Here are some other ways that biblical storytellers convey character to us:
- Direct description. Sometimes a storyteller will comment on a character in a simple, straightforward way. When we read that “Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6), we can take it as fact; the storyteller knows.
- The reactions (or commentary) of other characters in the story. For example, when Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me'” (Genesis 39:7), it confirms the storyteller’s comment that Joseph was handsome.
- Self-description. Occasionally a character in the Bible describes him or herself, such as when Jacob stands before the king of Egypt and says, “The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred thirty; few and hard have been the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9).
The Bible is packed with characters, and figuring out who’s who can be difficult since storytellers tend to show events without explaining their significance. To learn what traits define a character, you should pay attention to his or her:
- Relationships and roles (e.g., husband, mother, ruler)
- How other characters in the story react to him or her
The reader’s job, simply put, is to get to know the characters as thoroughly as the details allow. Also, bear in mind that characters tend to fall into archetypal roles, such as: the hero, the villain, the trickster, the lover, and the underdog, among others.
Setting and characters provide the “where” and “who” of a story. Now you are ready to look at the “what,” perhaps the most complex ingredient of a story — plot.
Types of Stories
“Some good stories . . . turn upon the fortunes of men, the ups and downs of life, success and failure, surprise and disappointment. Other good stories turn on the perennially interesting topic of character in men, their varying traits and types, and the consequences of these.”
— Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel
Plot in Bible Stories
The heart of any plot is conflict. Conflict occurs between the main actor in the drama, the protagonist (from the Greek, meaning “first struggler”), and the character or forces arrayed against him or her, the antagonist(s). What draws us into a story and keeps us interested is suspense or curiosity about its outcome. The stories of the Bible are full of suspense; the best ones grab your interest and hold it to the end.
Of course, stories are not random bits and pieces of action, but carefully arranged events with a beginning, middle and end. Three time-honored principles of good writing are unity (everything relates to a central focus), coherence (individual parts relate to the unifying parts and to each other), and emphasis (at the end, we are not left to guess what the main point is).
Biblical storytellers use many narrative devices in their plots. One of the most common strategies they employ is to put their protagonists in situations that test them. The hero’s test may be physical (such as David’s battle with Goliath), mental (such as Moses’ leadership ability in the Exodus from Egypt), or spiritual (such as Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert). Through conflict, fortunes rise and fall, and characters, inevitably, change.
Other common plot devices you’ll find in Bible stories include:
- The use of foils:
A foil is a character who dramatically heightens or sets in relief something that is important about the protagonist. A good example is the way in which Abel’s virtue offsets Cain’s villainy.
- Dramatic irony:
Irony occurs when the reader knows something of which characters in a story are ignorant. Example: In the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon, we know that the left-handed assassin is carrying his homemade sword on the unexpected right side and has therefore escaped detection by the guards.
- Poetic justice:
You will find countless stories in the Bible that end with virtue rewarded and vice punished.
As you read the stories of the Bible, you’ll find many compelling plots, but in all of them, the storytellers’ purpose is not simply to entertain. Setting, characterization and plot all work together to raise significant issues about life and how to live it. In the next section, we’ll look at how Bible stories are not constructed merely to be good yarns, but carefully woven to convey meaning.
Window on the World
“All writers have, and must have, to compose any kind of story, some picture of the world, and of what is right and wrong in that world. And the great writers are obsessed with their theme” — Joyce Cary, Art and Reality
From Story to Meaning
Storytellers, said 19th-century French author Charles Baudelaire, choose to tell tales “in which the deep significance of life reveals itself.” If this is true of narrative in general, it is doubly and triply true of a book as religious and moral in purpose as the Bible.
In some Bible stories, the lesson is readily clear, but in others the stories’ meaning is ambiguous or hard to pin down. If you want to understand the meaning of a Bible story, first ask what the story is about (bearing in mind that it may be about more than one thing). Then begin to look at what the story says about its subject.
It’s safe to assume that, in some sense, every story in the Bible is an example story, either demonstrating a positive example to emulate or a negative example to avoid. A good clue as to what a story means is what the storyteller chooses to repeat, be it an action or character trait.
Let’s look once more at the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon in Judges 3:15-30 (pages 373-374 in The Harper Collins Study Bible). Take a few minutes and read the story. Jot down a few thoughts about what it means.
What is the meaning of the story of Ehud’s assassination of Eglon? The story itself tells us it is about deliverance (“God raised up for them a deliverer”). What does the story show us about how God delivers his people?
Ehud is the deliverer, and in every detail, the storyteller emphasizes his cleverness and resourcefulness. How is he resourceful? He makes a homemade weapon; concealing it, he penetrates his enemy’s defenses; he manipulates words so cleverly that he even gets his enemy to stand up to receive the sword thrust; he makes a clean getaway; and, lastly, he capitalizes on the assassination by rousing an invading army.
According to the story, how does God deliver his people? He uses gifted and resourceful people like Ehud to deliver them. Therein lies the meaning of the story.
The Bible is chock full of stories. In this lesson, we’ve looked at the most universal aspects of those stories. Next, we’ll begin to examine the specific genres of stories found in the Bible, from hero stories to comic and tragic tales.
Assignment: How Bible Stories Work
The reading assignment for this lesson is Chapter 2 in How to Read the Bible as Literature, “The Stories of the Bible.” It is found on pages 33-73. Come to the Message Board to discuss your impressions and raise any questions.