CHAPTER 7 REVIEW
This week’s chapter review covered material from chapter seven of our primary text. The bibliographic information is: Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Crain, Jeanie C.. United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2010. Pages 129-151.
Chapter seven of Crain’s Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction focuses on how themes and motifs are used to unify the Bible. Both literary and theological themes display continuities between texts and amongst the Old and New Testament. Themes provide the framework a reader needs in order to completely understand the Bible as a whole. Sometimes reading the Bible as a unified piece is difficult because readers are timid to read in such a broad manner. Although themes provide a coherent set of texts, it is vital not to reduce the text to theme alone. It is necessary to recognize that some sections within the texts fall under a different category of theme, and must be analyzed accordingly. Themes are displayed through the Decalogue, the Covenants, and through the two different representations of God.
Crain is currently a professor at Missouri Western State University where she has been teaching this course since 2000. She is the author of both Biblical Genres: Introduction, and Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Her academic achievements include: Ph.D. English and Philosophy, Purdue University; PhD. Biblical Studies; M.A. English, Purdue University; M.S.A. Management, Georgia College and State University; B.A. English, Berry College.
Chapter seven begins with the Preliminary Considerations section. Themes and motifs are arguably the most important literary elements to utilize when reading the Bible as a whole. Theme is defined as an organizing idea that holds together a work. Theme is the emotional and analytical core within a text and emerges from the genre of that text. Thematic analysis deal with how theme affects reality as well as the systemized process of identifying patterns of the text. Motif differs in that it possesses recurrent patterns and groups of associated concepts. Motifs promote reader expectations. Themes are considered to be abstract whereas motifs are concrete. Together, they form an archetype which is defined as a universal image. There are objections with thematic analysis, however. There is an argument as to whether or not theme exists in the text, the reader, or the culture of the moment. The current method is to look at how these three elements relate to one another. It is stressed to not reduce a text to theme alone. Crain says, “ Dangers…include reader bias, cultural and social shortsightedness… and encourages sweeping and holistic reading that missed or ignores significant details” (131). Most readers read the Bible for its theological themes and for moral instructions. Therefore, it is difficult for these readers to analyze with an aesthetic literary approach.
The next section of this chapter focuses on the Divine-human relationship and the human-human relationship. The Decalogue and the Shema provide the “right” relationships. The Decalogue is the name given to the Ten Commandments. These commandments are unconditional laws that establish the duties to God and to neighbors. The Decalogue also commands that God alone is to be worshipped, and to not use his name in vain. Ethical monotheism emphasizes that because God is the creator, only He is allowed to declare how human kind behaves. Characters in the Bible live their lives in relation to the Ten Commandments and when they disobey, God uses retributive justice to punish them accordingly. The Shema is used to promote unity and advances the belief that there is only one God. The Shema calls attention to the unique God that Israel must be loyal to. Combining the Shema and the Ten Commandments emphasizes the oneness of God and the demand of ethical behavior from His people. The Bible’s narrative focuses on the plot motif that presents Israel’s founding fathers becoming established upon the land that was promised by their deity. Crain says, “The Shema works structurally to bring together what has come before, the Ten Commandments, and what came after” (137).
The next section focuses on covenants established between God and his people. The Commandments form a covenant between God and His people. Genesis establishes covenant as the basis for God’s relationship with human beings. Adam and Eve are prototypes for all humankind and serve to display how humans behave and the consequences that result from choice. Genesis reveals the unbridgeable gap between humans and God through showing that what Adam and Eve deem as “good” differs from what God sees as “good”. This displays God as a transcendent and incomprehensible being. The Noahic Covenant marks the beginning of a new creation. As a consequence for increased violence, God vows to end all of mankind. God spares Noah because of his righteousness. Crain says, “God’s relationship now enters a new phase based on the covenant and a binding promise that sets conditions for a continuing relationship” (139). He promises to never create another flood to destruct mankind. The Abrahamic Covenant focuses attention on descendants and reiterates the promise of God. It connects punishment to rebellion. The motif of the “barren wife” emerges. God’s promises are fulfilled through generations by the provision of children. This “birth story” is a narrative genre. Isaac’s near sacrifice threatens the fulfillment of God’s promise. The Mosaic Covenant emphasizes divine behavior. God spares Moses from death, which carries some obligatory overtones and warns of consequences for undesirable behavior. Moses is the hero of the OT and commits his people to obey the Ten Commandments. God warns that if people become complacent, they will perish. This creates tension in the representation of God. The Davidic Covenant establishes the promise of a succession of Kings for Israel’s throne. However, human destiny is determined by obedience to the Torah. The human kings often perished as a result of their disobedience.
The next section looks into the character of God and the paradox that exists between different representations of God. The first portrayal is a loving God. Love is the binding power of the Divine-human relationship. Reciprocal love is the basis for society. However, love has more to do with serving God and less to do with the emotion. Love becomes synonymous with servitude in this aspect. God commands individuals to abide by the Ten Commandments and often tests his people to determine love and loyalty. Life and death are results from humankind’s decision to keep the commandments. He chooses Israel because he loves the people like a loving parent would. He rescues, restores, and delivers His people. This is a stark contrast in the representation of a just God. The Bible presents Hebrew History as suffering being a deserved consequence of human failure. It is often questioned that God can allow righteous people to suffer. Seemingly unjust, it is important to remember that God’s decisions are always just and right, and beyond human comprehension. The Bible reveals God as a standard of justice, and demonstrates that humans fall short of this moral standard. God’s character is based on the tension between mastery and compassion. He is often portrayed as a flat character, but it can be inferred that he possesses traits similar to human beings.
The last section involves the heroic quest. The Bible possesses many examples of the heroic quest common to other forms of literature. The quest envisions fulfillment of desires. The OT and the NT comprise the archetypal story of loss and recovery. The first three sets of heroes- Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau- present motifs as well as playing a role in the beginning of a nation. Each pair demonstrates human struggle and destiny. Abraham and Lot encapsulate the theme of progeny and land. Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau function as the motif for family struggle, and preferential treatment for one son. The macro-plot of Genesis links the beginning of humankind to these Patriarchs and the quest for a nation. Abraham’s quest for continuity and God’s promise of Canaan becomes the focus of the OT creating a narrative that must be read as a whole.
I enjoyed this chapter, and could definitely see why Crain left it for last. Themes and motifs in the Bible are a broad and somewhat subjective literary element. It proves difficult to utilize theme when some readers are skeptical to read the Bible as a unified piece of work. This is why I think it might prove difficult for some beginning readers to fully appreciate this element. However, if a reader is able to read with a theological and literary approach, their understanding of the Bible as a whole can vastly increase. Paying attention to motifs, themes, and archetypes enable a reader to understand the Bible as a set of complex parts in which recurring patterns enhance the meaning of the text and provide coherence. It is important to note that looking for meaning can cause a reader to settle too quickly on one specific theme. Holistic reading for a central theme results in overlooking significant details. It is imperative to recognize that different sections within a text might fall under different themes. If a reader is able to accomplish all of these tasks, understanding that the Bible is composed of unifying themes promotes reading the Bible as a whole.
When the Bible is read as a whole, it achieves unity through the elements of theme and motif. The core themes include: Divine-human relationship and human-human relationship, the oneness of God, the covenant between God and His people, and God’s love and justice. Together, these themes unite the sixty-six books of the Bible.