Professor Jeanie Crain
Bible as Literature
November 18, 2012
Jeanie C. Crain, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 111-126
Crain begins chapter six by introducing the importance of characters in literature. The Bible contains thousands of multifaceted, lively, and complex characters representing a wide range of human activity, appearing as both one-dimensional and multidimensional. Characterization refers to the revelation or display of a character’s habits, emotions, desires, and instincts. Motives, attitudes, and moral nature must be figured out through direct speech, reported speech, quoted interior dialogues, statements and facts presented by the narrator, what other characters say, actions and reports of actions, and physical appearance. In the end, Crain suggests that like people, the Bible’s characters will remain fragmented, contradictory, mysterious-eluding any attempt to say who they are concisely. In the Bible God becomes the central character, revealing himself thorough acts in history, through the stories of the early ancestors of Israel, the Patriarchs, and subsequent generations.
Instead of giving abstract propositions about virtue or vice, the Bible presents stories of characters in action. It embodies its meaning experientially through characters who change, grow, and develop; almost always they face choices that contribute to their development. Not all characters represent human beings: things and animals in the Bible may be personified. Generally, animals provide the backdrop for human beings. The Bible makes over 300 references to sheep and lambs.
The reign of Solomon in 1 Kings consists of actions that give the character of Solomon tragic overtones: his rise to power, his tainted glory, and his downfall. Through his early struggle and bloodshed, Solomon emerges largely as a positive figure, doing what he has to do: a secure throne represents fulfillment of prophecy, a united Judah and Israel, and a Temple built and dedicated to “a God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” (1 Kings 8:23). The memorable story of two prostitutes laying claim to the same child advances Solomon’s reputation for wisdom and demonstrating his ability to execute justice. The less than admirable roles of the woman can be explained, in part, relative to local customs: women sometimes resorted to prostitution for commercial reasons. The Bible presents the details of this tory through the point of view of one woman, who reports that the two live together, that they gave birth at about the same time, that the son of the other woman died when she rolled over on him in the night, and that, discovering this, she substituted her dead son for the other woman’s live son. The seemingly insignificant detail, “there was no stranger in the house,” makes clear that only the women know that has happened, and the narrator seems to have all the advantage in recounting the story. Solomon, by proposing to cut the child in half to resolve the dispute, appeals to the strong maternal ties that exist between the real mother and son, and she responds “O m lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it,” this in contrast to the callous reply of the other to “divide it (1 Kings 3.26). At the height of his power, Solomon begins to become corrupt and ultimately loses his kingdom and falls from power. While Kings portrays a multidimensional Solomon, the narrator of 1 Chronicles presents a largely idealized and flat character, a wise political leader who succeeds in gaining the support of his nation and who rules as a religious leader. This leads Crain to remind us that by the time we think we have characters in the Bible figured out or know what they mean, a full grasp of their motives or the narrators’ intentions for them eludes us. Characters in the Bible cannot be reduced to a simple statement of meaning but must remain characters within the story or episode within which they are found.
In addition to be being introduced by narrators, characters in the Bible can describe themselves through their words. Crain uses Stephen from the New Testament as an example. The New Testament presents him as a martyr; while in reality, he plays a role close to that of a prophet, a person raised up by God to deal with the problems of day-to-day life. In a memorable speech (Acts 7.12-50) Stephen calls the people into account for their resistance and absolute rejection of God. Stephen’s speech has five parts, these interlinking with Old Testament history and making the Old indispensable for understanding the New: Israel’s rejection of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, their idolatry, and their disobedience in building the Temple. Stephen uses the literary tools of foreshadowing and allusion to connect his speech with Old Testament and to make a theological point. His speech reveals the retributive formula, God’s justice, but emphasizes also the mercy of God which continues to work among rebellion. The narrator leaves little doubt about Stephen’s moral integrity, comparing him with Christ: both were filled with grace and power and performed signs and wonders. The narrator introduces Stephen as one of “seven men of good standing, full of the spirit and wisdom…full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Ultimately Stephen’s death as a martyr has overtones of Christ’s crucifixion and death, described as a sacrifice.
Almost everyone recognizes Ezekiel as a major prophet in the Old Testament, but few know that he was married to an unnamed and unmourned wife. In biblical tradition, the dead received care and respect, in fact, mourning usually continued for seven days. When Ezekiel does not mourn the death of his wife, the people press him for a reason why. Little do they know, God has warned Ezekiel of his wife’s death and has instructed him not to mourn. Possibly more than in any other book, except perhaps Job, questions arise in Ezekiel about God’s justice. God simply tells Ezekiel that he will take away his wife; God will show no mercy. More than at any other time in history, a people of God experience a loss of hope. Why are they in exile? Why did God not keep his promise to their ancestors? The answer fits the retributive justice formula: the people have turned away from God, become like other people, have violated God’s holy presence. The Temple, their pride, delight, and desire, is taken away and they pine away in their iniquities and groan to one another, all the result of their turning away from God. No such explanation, however, accounts for the death of Ezekiel’s wife, just that she serves as a sign to the people; and Ezekiel, unlike the people, does what he is commanded.
Among several women who followed Jesus and were present at his crucifixion and resurrection, Salome, the mother of James and John, achieves special significance simply through making one request: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt. 20. 21) The request contrasts a mother’s ambition for her sons to the kind of greatness modeled by Jesus and expected of his followers: “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom of many” (20. 26-8). Salome can be compared with Mary, the mother of Jesus, who never expressed ambition for her son, only pondering what others speak about Him.
Nearly everyone recognizes Timothy but may not know the name of his mother or the role she played in the establishment of the Church. The pseudonymous 2 Timothy 1.5 tells Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you,” the linkage between generations echoing the ancient instruction to keep the decrees and commandments and to pass them on by actively reciting them (Deut.6.7). Acts 16 describes Timothy’s mother as a Jewish believer and his father as a Greek. Although the Bible says very little about Timothy’s mother, it makes clear that Eunice was instrumental in shaping her son’s sincere faith in the same way that hers was nurtured by his grandmother; Timothy, in turn, contributed to the establishment of the early Church.
Chapter 6 was very informative regarding characters in the Bible and how the characters can be identified. I had no idea the vast number of methods in which the narrator could introduce and describe characters throughout the Bible. It is just a reflection of how the different narrators throughout the Bible used different writing methods and styles to get their message across. I enjoyed learning about the importance women prophets played in this chapter, it was very refreshing to read of the great things women did in the Bible rather than just focusing on what men did. I think Crain did a very nice job of providing specific examples to each method of character introduction, which helped me greatly in understanding how and when each method was used. I feel like this chapter hit on perhaps the most important feature of the Bible, which is the vast amounts of colorful characters sprinkled throughout the Bible. I feel like through understanding the characters we can look through their eyes and compare their experiences with ours, which allows us to come closer to truly understanding the events in the Bible.