Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 22-42.
In chapter six of “Reading the Bible as Literature,” Dr. Crain introduces the concept of characters. Characters are used throughout the Bible to communicate messages and represent ideas. By studying characters, we can determine their role and understand the author’s message more clearly. Dr Crain eloquently describes this process by stating, “As we learn about characters, we learn about ourselves – coming to understand our own motives, attitudes, and moral natures” (p.110).
Within the Bible there are both one-dimensional and multi-dimensional characters. These characters are created through the author or narrator’s description of character habits, emotions, desires, thoughts, and actions, which is referred to as characterization. When studying characters, it is very important to question why the author chooses to convey specific information in specific ways. No matter how much detail is described about a character, there is still an element of the unknowable. “In the end, like people, the Bible’s characters will remain fragmented, contradictory, mysterious – eluding any attempt to say who they are concisely” (p.111).
The Bible uses stories of characters in action to convey the intended message. These characters face choices that affect their development. The stories focus on the before, during, and after scenarios of these choices. Characters are most commonly human, but they can be animals or things personified as well. For example, Jerusalem is commonly personified as a lady (p. 112).
As mentioned above, identifying characters and what they represent is central to understanding the author’s message. Dr. Crain describes nine aspects to examine when studying characters: context, actions, responses, words, symbolic actions, requests, impact, description, and structure.
Context is an important element for interpreting characters correctly. In 1 Samuel, Saul is a major character. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings all belong to the Deuteronomistic tradition that presents a setting revolving around the nation of Israel and a theology of contrasting absolutes, for instance justice and injustice. The character of Saul is then described over this backdrop. The context of these books presents information about Saul as impulsive, falsely humble, a disregarder of advice, a liar, and disobedient to God (p.117).
The author’s use of actions is very prominent in describing Solomon in 1 Kings, specifically through his rise to power as king, his tainted glory, and his imminent downfall. Solomon is initially described in a positive light by his actions: securing the throne, uniting Israel and Judah, building the temple, and his prayer for wisdom. At the height of his success, Solomon begins a downward spiral. He takes 700 princesses and 300 concubines, tolerates pagan cults, and raises a levy to build his own extravagant palace. Ultimately it is recorded that his wives turn his heart away from God and he is judged because of this.
Responses of others can also be used to assess a character. The Bible provides few explicit details about the prophetess Huldah. King Josiah’s responses and interactions with Huldah can be used to learn more about her character. Josiah instructs a servant to inquire of the Lord and Huldah is immediately contacted. This reveals that Huldah is well known as a prophetess. When King Josiah hears of her prophecy of destruction, he immediately makes reforms, thus communicating his trust and respect for Huldah.
Characters can also be identified through their use of words. Stephen, who gives a speech immediately before he is stoned to death, is an excellent example of this. Stephen’s speech covers the important events throughout Israel’s history all the way up to his present era in which he rebukes the people for rejecting Christ. His words and the author’s comments reveal Stephen as full of moral integrity, grace, power, faith, wisdom, and the Spirit (p.121).
Symbolic actions describe the essence of characters as well. In Jewish culture, it was expected that the death of a family member would be mourned with a series of specific actions. When the prophet Ezekiel’s beloved wife dies, he is instructed by the Lord not to mourn and to go about normal, daily tasks. God uses his wife’s death as a sign that the delight of the people, the Temple, would be striped from them and they would be forced into exile because of their disobedience. The people do not heed Ezekiel’s prophecy and it is not until after they repeat his actions that they remember the connection (p. 123).
Requests also play a role in the description of characters. Salome, the mother of the disciples James and John, is specifically noted in the Bible because of her request that Jesus give her sons places of honor in heaven. This request contrasts Jesus’ model of greatness exemplified through service. This request reveals Salome’s ambition for her sons and also reveals the misguided priorities of the disciples because of the bickering that ensued (p.123-124).
Eunice, Timothy’s mother, is presented through the impact she had on Timothy’s life. The author does not give many details about Eunice, but the author clearly states that she had an immense impact on her son’s life. She shaped Timothy’s faith and because of her actions, he went on to establish the early church, consented to circumcision, was considered affectionate and not excessively assertive, and persisted in the work of Christ despite poor health (p.125).
Another important identifier of characters is the use of description. In 2 John, the church is described as the elect lady, signifying the important role women play in church. The elect lady is described as truthful and urged to love other people and to teach future generations to continue to walk in truth and love (p.125).
Structure is the final aspect involved in the identification of characters discussed in this chapter. The structure of the book of Mark contributes to the analysis of Jesus’ character. Mark emphasizes the ambiguity of Jesus’ ancestry and presents him as credible through the acknowledgement that he is the Son of God and a description of his educational experience with John the Baptist (p. 126).
Many of these characters are very complex and a variety of these aspects should be considered when interpreting their meaning and importance. Throughout the process of deciphering the meaning and framework of Biblical characters, the reader must remember that the fragmented pictures and mysteriousness of these characters will always persist.
This chapter excellently provides the reader with appropriate strategies for identifying and interpreting characters of the Bible. The nine strategies that Dr. Crain describes represent the major aspects of characterization used throughout the Bible. Each of these strategies is well supported with a summary of the character being described and multiple Biblical passages that provided the framework for the characters.
I was especially struck by the two quotes used above. “As we learn about characters, we learn about ourselves – coming to understand our own motives, attitudes, and moral natures” (p.110). This first quote concisely revealed the purpose of characters in an understandable and manageable manner. Having never considered the reasons for an author to utilize a character to communicate a message, I found this idea very helpful and intriguing. The use of another person’s decisions, thoughts, and consequences can be very revealing about oneself.
The second quote, “In the end, like people, the Bible’s characters will remain fragmented, contradictory, mysterious – eluding any attempt to say who they are concisely” (p.111), was also thought provoking. Once again, in my lack of character study I had not considered the idea that despite an author’s desire to communicate through characters, there will always be ambiguity. No matter how many details are provided or how precisely the characteristics are described, there will always be an element of uncertainty involved in interpreting characters. The use of characters thus makes the concepts more relatable to the reader, but also makes the message vague.
In conclusion, I thought the chapter was well organized and well supported with details and explanations. The content of the chapter was immediately applicable and useful for the reader. Similarities can easily be drawn between the use of characters in the Bible and the use of characters in other veins of literature. Overall, the chapter properly presented material for identifying characters in a logical and effective manner.