In this series, we are taking a narrative approach to Scripture: reading the Bible as literature, and specifically, as literature that is telling a grand, overarching story about who God is and what He is doing in the world. In the last post, we looked at that story itself, and in today’s installment, I want to continue our look at the Bible as literature by considering some specific examples in Scripture where reading narratively helps us to better understand what is going on. Here is the basic idea: good literature uses certain techniques to tell stories more powerfully, in ways that impact the reader (or hearer) on a deeper level, and the Bible does this too.
When I was first taught about this, I initially resisted it, but then it dawned on me: it really shouldn’t surprise us that God, though His Spirit, would inspire biblical authors to write in this way. After all, if God chooses to reveal Himself to us through a book, through a story, wouldn’t we expect it to be a really good story? Wouldn’t we expect it to be a very well-written book?
And that’s exactly what it is: even people who aren’t Christians, and don’t believe in the teachings or claims of the Bible, still hold it up as a literary masterpiece, because it is—it is an amazing story! I think it is fascinating when we examine this more closely, and when we look for literary techniques that Scripture uses, it helps us better understand the True Story that God is trying to tell us.
The first technique I want to talk about is figurative language, which occurs when Scripture tells us something (often about God) using language that is meant to be taken metaphorically rather than literally. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Short Hand, Dull Ear
“Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
Here, Isaiah talks about God’s hand and His ear. What’s the point here? Is he saying that God literally has a hands and ears and other body parts like we do? No. Using figurative language, Isaiah is saying that God has the power to save His people and that furthermore, He knows their struggles and desires to save them. But at the same time, sin separates God’s people from Him, and limits the blessings that He bestows upon them.
East and the West
In Psalm 103.12, the Psalmist says,
“…as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
Well, how far is the east from the west? Literally, it is impossible to measure, since both east and west are relative locations and directions. But figuratively, we get the point. This verse comes in the context of an entire psalm about God’s grace, mercy, and love, and the message is clear: the God of Scripture is a God who is eager to forgive, and when He forgives, He completely takes those sins away. He doesn’t hang them over our heads; they’re gone for good.
There are tons of examples of figurative language in Scripture, but I think you get the point: the Bible frequently uses metaphorical language to tell us very important things about who God is: He is powerful, He cares about us, and He is eager to forgive us, but He also takes sin seriously.
Foreshadowing is a literary device where the author gives a hint of what is to come. This builds anticipation as you read or hear a story, and it also helps to highlight really important features of the story.
In Judges 13-16, there is a cycle of stories about Samson. I am not going to quote all of that here, but the basic story of Samson is pretty well-known. He is famous for being incredibly strong and using his strength to wreak havoc on the Philistines, who were the primary enemies of the Israelites in his day. That strength was tied to a vow that his parents had made with God, where Samson was never supposed to cut his hair.
As we read about Samson, we get a picture of a guy who doesn’t seem to be very bright, and who also seems to be ruled by his passions. He chases after women who get him in lots of trouble, he violates the vow he is under on a whim, and he gets angry and does incredibly violent things.
Eventually Samson falls for a woman named Delilah who doesn’t seem to care about him at all, and who tries to figure out the secret to his great strength so she can betray him to the Philistines. Delilah pesters him day after day, and if you read the story in the first half of Judges 16, you really get the idea that Samson is dumb or foolhardy (or both), and eventually he tells her his secret. Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair while he is sleeping, his strength leaves him, and the Philistines come and capture him.
And we read this:
And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison. But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.
“But the hair of his head began to grow again…” This is an example of foreshadowing: we know that Samson’s long hair and the vow it represented was tied to his strength, and here we have a hint that despite the fact that Samson has been captured and his eyes have been gouged out and he is in chains, perhaps he is not done yet.
And if you know the rest of the story, Samson finds himself in a Philistine temple, standing between two pillars, and he prays to God, and God returns his strength to him, and Samson pushes the pillars down and the temple falls and he and all the Philistines are killed.
In this instance, the foreshadowing is a reminder of God’s grace: Samson might have been down and out, but that doesn’t mean that God was done with him yet.
David’s “Secret” Sin
King David is one of the great heroes of the Old Testament. He is called a “man after God’s own heart,” but the Bible doesn’t try to hide the fact that, like all of us, he was deeply flawed. We see this most clearly in 2 Samuel 11, where we have the story of David and Bathsheba.
David is walking on the roof of his house, and he sees a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing, and (not unlike Samson) David shows no self-restraint and just gives in to his desire. He sends for Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is off fighting in David’s army, sleeps with her, and she becomes pregnant.
The fact that Bathsheba is pregnant presents David with a problem, because he’s afraid that his sin will become known, and so he does various things to try to cover it up, and ultimately, has Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed in battle and then takes Bathsheba as his own wife to hide what he has done. And David thinks that he has successfully gotten away with his sin, but 2 Samuel 11 ends with this verse:
But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.
(2 Samuel 11.27b)
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD…” This is another example of foreshadowing: the author hints that David hasn’t actually gotten away with anything, that the LORD knows about it, and that there will be consequences.
And sure enough, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David about his sin. David and Bathsheba’s child dies as a result, and really, the rest of David’s life is pretty miserable because of what he did.
In this instance, the use of foreshadowing is a reminder of the destructiveness of sin, and the judgment that it brings.
Sometimes, the biblical authors will repeat a key word or phrase to emphasize a main theme or idea. This happens frequently in Scripture, but a really good example of this is in the Book of Judges.
The period of the judges was a dark time in the history of Israel. It was a wild and lawless time. There was no centralized leadership of the people of Israel, and instead, God periodically raised up judges—regional, tribal leaders—to deliver His people from their enemies.
As you go through the Book of Judges, there is a repeated cycle that develops that looks something like this:
(1) The people of Israel commit sin; (2) God allows them to be oppressed by their enemies; (3) They then repent and cry out to God for deliverance; (4) God raises up a judge to deliver His people; (5) The people remain faithful while the judge lives, but after his/her death they sin again and the cycle repeats itself all over again.
But as you go throughout the Book of Judges and follow this repeating cycle, you notice it’s actually a downward spiral and that things are getting progressively worse. The judges are increasingly flawed and immoral people, and even when they save Israel, the peace doesn’t last for long.
Finally, at the very end of the book there are two horrible stories told that emphasize the lawlessness of the land. And bracketing those stories there is the repetition of a key statement:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
(Judges 17.6; 21.25)
What is the point of this repeated theme? Well, in the larger story of the people of Israel, it is justifying the need for a king, and in fact, Israel will get a king in the very next book—1 Samuel. But also, this repeated theme teaches what is a very fundamental biblical idea: humans are flawed, frail, and fallen, and when we try to do things on our own, wickedness and chaos is the result. This is the story of our world going back to the Garden of Eden—when we think that we know what is best rather than what God has told us, disaster is the inevitable result.
What I am calling echoing is the frequent practice of the authors of Scripture to refer back to an earlier event in the Bible by repeating certain language, or telling stories in similar ways, or comparing certain characters.
Creation and New Creation
One example that shows this very clearly is a comparison between Genesis 1-3, which talks about the Creation of the heavens and the earth, and Revelation 21-22, which talks about the New Creation of the New Heavens and New Earth. Over and over again, what we read in Revelation echoes what occurred in Genesis:
|Division of light and darkness (Gen. 1.4)||No night there (Rev. 21.25)|
|Division of land and sea (Gen. 1.10)||No more sea (Rev. 21.1)|
|Rule of sun and moon (Gen. 1.16)||No need of sun or moon (Rev. 21.23)|
|River flowing out of Eden (Gen. 2.10)||River flowing from God’s throne (Rev. 22.1)|
|Tree of life in midst of garden (Gen. 29)||Tree of life throughout the city (Rev. 22.2)|
|Gold and precious stones in the land (Gen. 2.12)||Gold and precious stones throughout (Rev. 21.19)|
|God walking in the garden (Gen. 3.8)||God dwelling with His people (Rev. 21.3)|
|Cursed ground because of sin (Gen. 3.17)||No more curse (Rev. 22.3)|
|Pain and sorrow (Gen. 3.17-19)||No more sorrow, pain, tears (Rev. 21.1-4)|
|Returning to the dust=death (Gen. 3.19)||No more death (Rev. 21.4)|
|Cherubim guarding the Garden (Gen. 3.24)||Angels inviting into the city (Rev. 21.9)|
As John is writing Revelation, over and over again, there is a clear comparison to what happens in the beginning in Genesis, and what will happen in eternity, and his point is clear: the creation that God began which was tainted by sin, He is going to redeem, recreate, and perfect!
Echoing also happens when Bible authors describe events in a way that calls to mind similar stories in earlier sections of Scripture.
I mentioned earlier that at the end of the Book of Judges, you have a couple of really dark and horrible stories, and the worst is in Judges 19. This is an extremely graphic story, and because of length I won’t quote it here, but I encourage you to read it and then compare it to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. These stories are eerily similar in a lot of respects. This doesn’t mean that the stories are made up, but it does show that the author of Judges is telling his story in such a way that it is supposed to remind you of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the point is what a dark and wicked place that Israel has become now that “everyone has done what is right in his own eyes.”
A really common form of echoing is to compare different characters, especially characters from the Old Testament with characters in the New Testament, and to do so in order to tell us more about the character on a deeper level.
For example, in multiple places John the Baptist is compared to the Old Testament prophet of Elijah. Jesus is a particularly good example of this, as He is compared to a lot of different Old Testament characters: Adam, Melchizedek, David, Jonah, and especially to Moses (and I intend to do an entire post later in this series on Jesus as the new Moses).
But comparing characters is another way that biblical authors echo other portions of Scripture.
Really, I could write entire posts (or series of posts) on each of the literary devices we have talked about—Figurative Language, Foreshadowing, Repetition, Echoing—and there are a lot of other literary techniques that I didn’t even mention.
But hopefully we have covered enough to make the point, which is that when God inspired the biblical authors to compose the books of the Bible that make up His Story, they told that story as storytellers, and we read the Bible better and more accurately if we realize this, look for the storytelling techniques they use, and see how that helps us to have a better understanding of what God is trying to reveal to us.
The Bible is not written as a history textbook. It’s not written like a police report, with just the facts and no interpretation. It is written narratively, and the ways that the authors tell their stories give us important information about the character of God, and the grand overarching Story of Scripture that we talked about last time:
- As we see in the repeated refrain of the Book of Judges, when people do what is right in their own eyes, the result is sin and evil and chaos, just like we had with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
- As we see in the story of David and Bathsheba, sin brings judgment and consequences.
- But as we also see in the story of Samson and in the figurative language of Isaiah and Psalms, God is gracious, and sin doesn’t have to have the last word. God is powerful to save and eager to forgive and restore.
- And as we see in the way the whole Story ends in the final chapters of Revelation, God is redeeming and restoring the creation that He spoke into existence in Genesis: a New Heavens and a New Earth, where there will be no crying or mourning or pain, where we will dwell with the Creator forever.
I hope you will continue to follow along. In future posts, we will look at a few “case studies” that illustrate some of the ideas and literary techniques described above.