Professor Jeanie Crain
Bible as Literature
October 21, 2012
Jeanie C. Crain, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 65-87
Crain begins chapter four by reviewing the goals of the previous three chapters. Chapter one was intended to provide background information for reading the Bible more closely. Chapter two discusses several rhetorical devices that, when recognized, become extremely important in helping you to understand what a text is saying and how it says it. The third chapter focuses on the use of image, metaphor, symbol, and archetype, and explores the larger patterns in language that connect Bible texts to the language of literature and to its expression of universal human experience. In chapter four, Crain wishes to introduce the major genres into which literary works are grouped according to form, technique/style, or subject matter/content. Crain will explain how a literary genre, once recognized, contributes a set of expectations that shapes a reader’s interpretation of a text.
The first rhetorical device introduced in chapter four is genre. Genre is a French term that means “type”, “sort”, or “kind” and designates the literary form into which works are classified according to what they have in common, either in their formal structures or in their treatment of subject matter, or both. Genre criticism falls under “form criticism,” which directs attention to four elements: (1.) the plot, structure, or shape of the passage in question; (2.) the identification of genre or category to which a text will be assigned, such as narrative, prophecy, poetry/psalmody, wisdom, law, proverb, satire, parable, and drama; (3.) the history of the text being analyzed and its genre, positing a setting in actual life; and (4.) form criticism, which looks at the purpose of the genre in the passage under scrutiny. Overall form criticism addresses structure, genre, setting, and intent.
In classical times the major genres from which other genes have proliferated, were known as lyric (clearly identified as poetry), drama (relating to performance, with characters speaking for a writer in prose or poetry), and epic (in its classical form, referring to poetic narrative, but broadened to include poetry and prose.) as modes or kinds of communication, prose, poetry, and drama vary in different cultures and historical times, the first characterized by being closer to the language of normal conversation, and the second by literary artifice and the special use of poetic form and devices. In literature narrative has been applied to prose which presents chronological or sequenced events to tell a story or stories in a certain way.
Stories that have been made up imaginatively belong to the genre called fiction, which, too narrowly, has been deemed “not true.” Just because a story is created from the imagination does not mean that it does not contain human truths. Fiction tells the truth of human experience through imaginative stories. Plot refers to the story or chain of events, including conflict, suspense, and conclusion. Characters inhabit the story and generate the actions that make up the plot. Setting includes time, location, and everything in which a story takes place; it can also influence characters. A narrator is the entity that tells the story to the readers. Point of view refers to the perspective from which the story is told and can exist in first person (I, we), or third person (he, she, it, and they). Like fiction, drama, through a chain of interconnected events, tells a story and presents actors confronted by conflicts that they attempt to resolve. Fiction, drama, and poetry all use speech or dialogue to reveal or conceal characters’ thoughts, motives, and intentions.
Crain next introduces key elements of story evidenced in sections from the Bible. The focus of this is to explore how the Bible takes individual stories and weaves them together to form an ever greater narrative that has been described as having its own beginning, middle, and end. Biblical narrative consists of episodes that link together chains of stories to form an overarching framework with its own story and plot. An episode consists of phases and steps grouped into a complete story, and results in some form of problem/resolution that can often be subdivided into rising, turning, and falling action.
The opening chapters of Genesis are made up of a narration of cosmic and universal events, referred to in literature as myth (a genre embodying a people’s perception of its realities: cosmology, cultural values, social structure and customs, internal and external political relationships, and religious rituals and beliefs). Genesis has numerous similarities to ancient, pre-scientific historiography, which is a type of writing intended to raise in readers a sense of identity and citizenship. Like historiography, Genesis interweaves elements of myth, legend, and historical fact; unlike historiography however the Bible presents God as the primary character and human’s beings as foolish creatures that upset God’s intention towards them. Here Crain mentions that by understanding that Genesis resembles historiography we are able to accept the genres of legend myth, and tale in the Bible without concluding that these in some way take away from its importance in explain the beginning of the world’s civilizations. Crain also states that understanding that Genesis cannot be described as belonging to the genres of science and history as they have emerged in the modern world will also free us from troubling over issues such as assigning an exact chronology to the beginning of the world and to the appearance of the first man and woman.
The first chapters of Genesis known as the primeval history can be described as bringing together in narrative prose the genres of fable, legend, and myth, using formal rhetorical devices that may echo ancient epic poetry. Early chapters of Genesis contain the creation of the world and human beings, human beings expelled from the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel and the first murder, the beginnings of civilization, the generations from Adam to Noah, and the wickedness of human kind. The next major section of Genesis is referred to as patriarchal tales. Its stories account for the beginnings of the Israelite nation. It first describes the relationship of God to people through a series of promises to the Patriarch Abraham and his son Isaac. The promise of posterity, a land, and people makes Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac one of the Bible’s most moving stories and raises questions about the character of God.
A story normally consists of five parts: (1) exposition, the beginning section in which the author provides the necessary background information, sets the scene, establishes the situation, and dates the action, and usually introduces the characters and the conflict; (2) complication, or rising action, which develops and intensifies the conflict; (3) crisis, the movement at which the plot reaches its point of greatest emotional intensity, the turning point that directly leads to resolution; (4) falling action, the point at which tension subsides and the plot moves towards its conclusion; (5) resolution, the final section of the plot, recording the outcome of the conflict and establishing some new equilibrium, also referred to as denouement. The second creation story displays all those features. An ideal, physical place provides the setting for the characters of God, Adam, Eve, and the talking serpent. The plot and resolution consists of a test and choice on the part of Adam and Eve. God creates a perfect world and asks only that Adam and Eve not eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; the serpent tells them that God forbids the fruit because it will make them like God, knowing good and evil, thus casting suspicion upon God’s motives, causing Adam and Eve to doubt God, and opening them to the possibilities of freedom. When they fold to temptation, they break the trusting relationship they have with God. They then hide from God in exile and guilt. Adam blames Eve, who in turn, blames the serpent.
The primeval history of Genesis includes two groups of stories. In the first story, God creates human beings for one purpose: relationship-man and woman, brother and brother, and man and fellow human beings. The stories consists of the six days of Creation, the creation of humankind, the expulsion from Eden, and Cain murdering Able. The second group of stories centers on Noah and his family, with other genealogies detailing the spread of the human race and eventually settling on Abraham. Here we have stories of God instructing Noah to make an ark, the Great Flood, the flood subsiding, the covenant with Noah, the nations descended from Noah, and the Tower of Babel.
The book of Job has long been considered literature that captures the sublime and engages the emotions and imagination, accomplishing this with a dazzling array of poetic techniques that include repetition, allusion, figurative language, imagery, and formal structure. Chapter 28 shows the impossibility of achieving wisdom except through fearing God and shunning evil, both attributes ascribed to Job. The hymn consists of a formal structure of three strophes or stanzas. The first presents an extended image of the accessibility of ores and gems, setting the stage for the question raised in verse 12, “Where is wisdom to be found?” Strophe 2 describes wisdom as being more precious than gems (simile), and the final strophe (verses 20-28) concludes that wisdom, unlike gold and gems, cannot be found in the physical world; only God knows the source of all things and, thus, the source of wisdom.
Job exhibits the prominent binary form of biblical poetry, so much that it can be described as an example of “extreme parallelism.” Parallelism refers to lines that use different words to express the same or similar ideas in grammatical form: it can be synonymous, expressing similar content in similar grammatical form; antithetical, in which a second line expresses the truth of the first in a negative way; climactic, where the second line completes by repeating part of the first and then adds to it; or synthetic, where a pair of lines form a unit and the second line expands or completes the first. Job’s cursing his birth illustrates many of these forms of parallelism.
I enjoyed reading chapter four. It seems as we are really starting to get in the thick of things so to speak in reading the Bible as literature. I was particularly amused when reading the story of Job and how it deals with evil in the world. I am taking a philosophy class also this semester and one problem we focus on is the same problem Job is faced with in the Old Testament. It is very interesting how Job and many theists today have reached the same conclusion to the problem of evil. I was also very amused when Job concludes that the source of all wisdom is through God. This also attempts to answer another major philosophical question that dates back to Socrates and Plato. It was very interesting for me reading this chapter and realizing how important of a role the Bible still plays in modern theological and philosophical discussions. I’m not sure I would have made those connections if I did not dissect the scriptures as carefully as I did, which is a good sign that I am on my way to reading the Bible more accurately.