Chapter 7 Review
December 9, 2012
Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010. 129-151
It seems that there is an unwritten rule that there are certain things a literature class must discuss to be considered a literature class. One of these elements is theme. Theme plays a major role in true and developed reader understanding of a piece of literature. However, though an understanding of theme is essential to understanding literature, it is not common for readers to discuss the various themes found in one of the most prominent pieces of literature there is: the Bible. In Chapter Seven of Dr. Jeanie C. Crain’s book, Reading the Bible as Literature, readers are introduced to major themes in the Bible. In an attempt to enhance students’ understanding of the Bible and its themes, Dr. Crain provides multiple examples and explanations in this chapter, titled “Themes and Motifs: A Way of Unifying.” Throughout Chapter Seven, the author discusses major themes found in the Bible, such as God’s mercy, God’s justice, and the heroic quest. “Themes and Motifs” is the final chapter in Professor Crain’s Reading the Bible as Literature. Truly, this final chapter does not disappoint. Upon completion of this chapter, students will have confidence in identifying themes in the Bible, and understanding how they work together.
The concept of theme isn’t new. Any student that has taken a literature class has most likely learned about theme and how an understanding of it enhances an understanding of the text overall. However, as Dr. Crain acknowledges on page 129, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between theological and literary ideas in the Bible, making understanding themes in the Bible a little more challenging. Dr. Crain says, “I am not suggesting that you reduce your understanding of the Bible to a set of themes; I am, however, making the point that literary and theological themes contribute continuities among the texts and between the two collections and offer a framework for examining the Bible as a whole,” (p. 129). This quote shows Dr. Crain’s intent with the chapter. It also gets readers into the appropriate mindset for reading the chapter.
“Themes and Motifs” begins with preliminary considerations regarding the definition of theme (“an organizing idea that holds together a work” and “the main emotional, analytic, and perceptive core of a text”), thematic analysis (“the approach that systematizes the work of identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns in a text”), and motif, which is very similar to theme, but usually more concrete (p. 130). Dr. Crain also addresses certain objections to thematic analysis. The author initiates an important discussion concerning how the Bible has traditionally been read (usually theologically). After the preliminary considerations have been addressed, Professor Crain uses the remainder of Chapter Seven to introduce readers to major themes in the Bible. The first major theme readers are introduced to is “Relationships to God and with Other Human Beings.” In this section, readers are introduced to the Decalogue, also known as the Ten Commandments. Through the Decalogue, God established a set of rules that must be obeyed. According to Dr. Crain, “these commandments establish for ancient Israel its duties toward God and neighbor,” (p. 133). These relationships (people with other people and people with God) are a main focus throughout the Bible. Dr. Crain makes an interesting discussion about monotheism (“there is only one God in the world”) versus monolatry (“other gods exist but only one is to be worshipped”) that provokes thought in readers (p. 133). She proceeds to discuss law in the New Testament, focusing on the book of Matthew, where Jesus interprets the Ten Commandments. Dr. Crain provides multiple examples of people in the Bible suffering the consequences of disobeying the Ten Commandments (included in her examples are Moses, King Zedekiah, and King Saul, among others). The next section Chapter Seven explores is “The Shema.” According to Dr. Crain, the Shema “serves as a confession of faith in God for Israel,” and it acknowledges God as One (the monotheistic view). After explaining how the Shema and the Decalogue compare, the author then moves to a section discussing the four main covenants. These are the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. Dr. Crain examines each of these covenants, explaining what promises have been established (for example, in the Noahic covenant, God promises to never again flood the entire earth, destroying every living thing), and how different sources (Yahwist, Priestly, Elohist, and Deuteronomic) focus on different aspects. The remainder of the chapter examines three of the most common themes in the Bible. The first of these themes is God’s mercy. Dr. Crain provides multiple examples illustrating God’s mercy and love. The second theme is God’s justice. The author addresses the tension between the contrast of a loving and merciful God, and a God that is passionate for justice. Professor Crain also describes King David as “on a human level, a model for God’s standard of justice,” (p. 145). The final theme discussed in Chapter Seven is the heroic quest. Heroes are found throughout literature and the journey they take follows a particular pattern. This pattern involves separation, initiation, and return (Crain, p. 147). There is a multitude of heroes in the Bible, so Dr. Crain focuses on some of the first: Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. The author explains the heroic quest in terms of these characters. The chapter then comes to a close, providing readers with a multitude of close reading exercises and questions for reflection.
This chapter was certainly challenging. However, Chapter Seven did achieve its goals. Professor Jeanie Crain provided enough examples and explanations to make the chapter a success. While it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between theological or literary in the Bible, Dr. Crain demonstrated how understanding and identifying themes in the Bible can contribute to a reader’s understanding of the Bible as one unified book. Dr. Crain’s writing style greatly benefits reader understanding; she doesn’t talk down to the reader, but presents explanations and examples to aid in the reader’s comprehension. The examples she provides are always relevant and useful. I also found her close reading exercises and questions for reflection extremely beneficial. For example, close reading exercise number ten instructs readers to read Genesis 37-50, then “explain how the life of Joseph illustrates the heroic quest,” (p. 149). This question not only encourages students to read a Biblical story in depth, but to also look at the story in a different way. Readers must apply their new knowledge of the heroic quest to what they are reading, and by doing this, they are enabled to understand Joseph better as a character.
I also appreciated Dr. Crain’s use of her website for this chapter. Professor Crain’s website is found at www.readingthebibleasliterature.com. As the author has explained throughout her book, her website provides supplementary material that is not found in the text itself. For Chapter Seven, Dr. Crain provided many useful tables. One of the tables that I found especially useful was Table 7.1: “Some Common Bible Themes and Motifs.” While Chapter Seven of the text mentioned some of the main themes, this supplementary table provides more themes found in the Bible, and certain stories or verses that demonstrate these themes. It is highly useful for further study.
In conclusion, Jeanie C. Crain’s final chapter in Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction was an excellent way to end the textbook. Chapter Seven, “Themes and Motifs: A Way of Unifying,” provides students with a strong foundation for understanding and analyzing themes and motifs in the Bible. The chapter discussed some major themes in the Bible, such as God’s mercy and the heroic quest. Upon completion of this chapter, readers will have gained an understanding of how books in the Bible interact, and how the Bible is unified by common themes. Readers will also better understand themes in the Bible by knowing what to look for, and how to analyze the themes.