Professor Jeanie Crain


Bible as Literature


December 9, 2012


Jeanie C. Crain, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, Polity Press, 2010. Pgs 129-148


Crain introduces chapter seven by reintroducing themes in the Bible. Crain emphasizes that while we are not expected to reduce our understanding of the Bible to a set of themes, we should understand that literary and theological themes contribute continuities among the texts and between the two collections of scripture and offer a framework for examining the Bible as a whole. Theme can be described as an organizing idea, one that holds together a work and can be embedded in images, actions, and emotions; it is the main emotional, analytic, and perceptive core of a text. Theme emerges from the genre or “kind” of thing the composition is. Thematic analysis refers to the approach that systematizes the work of identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns (themes) in a text, paying attention to how theme affects the text and shapes social and psychological reality.

                Very similar to themes, a motif consists of recurrent patterns- themes, characters, events, situations, verbal patterns, and associational clusters of concepts or objects, generally symbolic. Motif is commonly understood as more concrete while theme is more abstract. Motif consists of recurring situations that set expectations in the minds of writers and readers. Paying attention to motifs allows readers to read the Bible as a complex of parts in which reiterations multiply and enhance meaning as well as create coherence. An example of unfolding motifs that helps to unite and bring together a story (in this instance, called a plot motif) can be found in the story of Jacob: in the journey of a man to a foreign country seeking a wife, the arrival, the meeting at the well, dialogue, the woman’s running home, the man’s meeting the parents, and the betrothal. Plot motif helps hold together a number of stories of founding ancestors, advancing the narrative of reaching a promised land and eventually becoming a nation.

                The notion of motif can be extended into a set of type scenes that recur in the Bible. A leitmotif refers to less dominant patterns and images such as the way of the righteous and the way of the ungodly. Archetype relates closely to theme, and usually is defined as universal images or patterns that recur in literature generally and in life universally: experiences such as hunger and thirst, water, gardens, deserts, the wilderness, sacrifices, and certain-birth death. Together, themes, motifs, and archetypes provide an intricate network of ideas and patterns that function critically to provide unity and coherence to a piece of literature.

                Readers traditionally have read the Bible through its religious and theological themes- the character of God, the acts of God, the nature of people, the nature of the visible world, the existence of two worlds, the divine-human relationship, and salvation. People have read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as a manual of moral instruction; they regard it as sacred and resist a merely aesthetic approach. Both the Jewish people and Christians understand the Old Testament as promoting the idea that God acted and will continue to act in human history; the New Testament adds to these acts the advent of Jesus Christ and the Church. In both traditions, God acts as the protagonist, in a story that begins with creation, tells of a developing spiritual and moral battle between good and evil, and describes choice and the result of choice in a culminating history.

                Crain next reveals to us the major themes that are important to the Bible, the most important being the divine-human relationship, which develops two perspectives: the relationship to human beings to God and the relationship of human beings with each other. Crain goes on to introduce associated motifs which include the “old” and “new” Israel and a people united, having a language, a religion, a land, and a past and future goals. Another important theme in the Bible is mercy and justice, which emerge early in the Bible especially in the Mosaic Covenant or Ten Commandments. All of these themes are tied closely to the common literary theme of the archetypal heroic quest, bringing with it alienation, initiation, suffering, and transformation.

                Decalogue is a name given to the Ten Commandments. Characterized by apodictic or unconditional laws, these commandments establish for ancient Israel its duties toward God and neighbor. The Decalogue commands the worship of God alone, and decries image-making and the vain use of God’s name. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God in the world, a commandment crucial to the Decalogue. Most scholars identify the Ten Commandments as prohibitions in two categories: crimes against God-apostasy, idolatry, and blasphemy-and exhortation to keep the Sabbath and crimes against society- murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. Together, these serve as the core requirements for guiding relationship to God and human beings.

                Law is an important subject in the New Testament, especially in Matthew, which is the most Jewish book of the Gospels. Jesus, for example in the New Testament, describes his purpose as fulfilling the law. Jesus, in fact interprets the Ten Commandments relative to motivational intent, advocating obedience from the heart. For Jesus, fundamental principles outweigh the mere keeping of traditions.

                The Bible opens up a catalog of human characters living out their choices in relation to the commandments and suffering the inevitable consequences of those choices. King Solomon, who loves many foreign women and their gods, violates the commandment to have no other gods. When Moses delays his return from Mount Sinai, Aaron shapes a golden calf for Israel to worship, violating the commandment to have no idols or images, breaking the covenant entered into by Abraham (Exod. 32). King Zedekiah swears by God’s name, failing to keep the covenant and oath, and, as a result, has to endure seeing his sons murdered, while he himself is blinded and carried to Babylon (2 Kings 25; 2 Chron. 36.11-14; Ezek. 17.15-21). Chronicles makes the theological point that Zedekiah’s faithlessness, including the pollution of the Temple, results in Judah’s destruction and exile and also the destruction of the Temple and city.

                Deuteronomy prepares Israel as a nation to live under one law and advances the theological belief that there is only one God. The Shema, named God to whom Israel must be loyal, to whom it must devote mind, will, and vital being. The Shema serves as a confession of faith in God for Israel, and most of Deuteronomy concerns itself with the admonitions not to forget God (6.12). The Old Testament perceived God in two very different ways: an early model, in which God functions concretely as having a body and behaving in ways similar to other finite beings, and the model that has passed down through Judaism and Christianity, which attributes the abstract qualities of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence to an invisible and abstract God. The New Testament picks up this theme of the “oneness of God,” heavily influenced by Gnosticism and a belief in the supreme source of the world as being One.

                The Hebrew root word from which YHWH derives means “to be” and theologically, according to rabbinic tradition, describes a God who presents Himself in three conditions of time: was, is, and will always be. That YWH is our God, the LORD alone, signifies a personal relationship and states that God is one and not many. Inclusive monotheism belongs to a tradition of Torah that accepts human limitation in the face of the transcendent and evidences a degree of tolerance for plurality. Exclusive monotheism, developing after the Babylonian exile, attempts to define and separate ancient tradition from that of surrounding communities; it rejects syncretism or blended traditions and evidences intolerance for them. It also pits itself against the ungodly, sometimes forcing conversation.  

                Crain next begins to introduce important covenants that can be found throughout the Bible. The 10 commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with a number of statutes and ordinances form a covenant between God and a people. Genesis establishes covenant as a prototype for God’s relationship with human beings. The first man and woman function as prototypes for all humankind and tell a story of how people behave and what consequences result from that behavior. Adam and Eve clearly were created for a twofold relationship, to God and with each other. Another example of a covenant can be found in the Noahic Covenant. This covenant shared between Noah and God marks the beginning of a new creation. God strikes another covenant with Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant involves two sets of people: the Hebrews (through Sarah, Isaac) and the Ishmaelites (through Hagar, the Egyptian, and her son). In Sarah and Hagar, the motif of the “barren” wife emerges and will be seen again in Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, and Jacob’s wife, Rachael, as well as in the mother of the prophet Samuel, Hannah, and in the New Testament, the mother of John the Baptist, Elizabeth. The covenant with Abraham points to ritual and to convention, introducing circumcision as an external sign of the covenant. Baptism for Christians in the New Testament takes on the same ritualistic and symbolic meaning of marking of the “New Covenant.”

                All God’s covenants with the Israelites emphasize divine favor or grace, life, and continuity in the life cycles. The Mosaic covenant adds obligatory overtones and warns of dire consequences for disobedience. Deuteronomy presents Moses as the hero of the Old Testament and the Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant recognizably has the characteristics of a suzerain treaty: a summary of benevolent deeds of an overlord, stipulations binding on the vassal, sanctions of blessings, and curses in the case of disobedience. A charged tension exists in the Old Testament’s presentation of a compassionate, loving and merciful God and a just God punishing command infractions.

                God’s covenant with David establishes a promise of an unbroken succession of kings upon the throne of Israel, continuing and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17. 7); God promises to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (Chron. 17.24). The history of rule under one king-first, Saul, then David, and, finally, Solomon-is far from ideal and results in a divided kingdom (Israel and Judah) in which a long list of kings often behave badly. Through these successive reigns, God remains faithful and steadfast, always saving a remnant and thus fulfilling God’s promise to David: “But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you” (2 Sam. 7.15). The New Testament interprets the David covenant as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Matthew traces the origins of the Messiah from Abraham to David through fourteen generations, and from David to Jesus through yet another fourteen.

                As a whole, the Old and New Testaments are structured around six covenants- if one counts the Adamic prototype and the New Covenant. Christianity explains Jeremiah’s “New Covenant” as mediation between the covenants of early Israel and the Covenant of the Gospels- these in addition to the Mosiac, Abrahamic, Noahlic, and Davidic covenants.

                Part of the challenge of the Bible exists in being able to accept or not accept the sovereignty of God and to recognize that whatever the Creator does ultimately must be right and just, even when human beings cannot see or understand the ultimate purpose. The entire book of Job devotes itself to presenting this paradox: why a just and loving God allows a righteous man to suffer, with Job far from comforted by friends who advance the retributive justice view  that God rewards righteousness and punishes unrighteousness. The character of God evidences a tension between mastery and control- plan, promise, and obligation- and pity, compassion, and love. Although often presented as a flat character, in the context of multiple stories and characters God takes on the ambiguities revealed in complex human characters. Sometimes presented as a character evidencing human characteristics- such as anger, jealousy, pity, compassion, violence, and favoritism- God in the Old Testament is also depicted at work implicitly and unseen; this God gradually takes on the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.  

                The Bible throughout evidences the archetypal heroic quest common to literature, with its themes of alienation and sense of not belonging, initiation, exile and suffering, and transformation and rebirth. Exile in fact, functions as a metaphor for the launching of new beginnings. Genesis to 2 Kings pulls together a series of heroic quest emphasizing the exilic themes of expulsion from an ideal home, wandering, journeys, and the dissolution of homogeneity.

                Chapter seven was a very nice close to this book in my opinion. In chapter seven, Crain first goes into detail over major themes in the Bible, expressing that perhaps the most important theme is the human-divine relationship we share with God. Crain next explains the role that covenants play in the Bible, introducing each major covenant and how they affected human’s relationship with God. In perhaps the most interesting part of the chapter, Crain then dives into the paradox of how a loving and merciful God could allow senseless evil to happen to biblical characters such as Job. This paradox is of particular interest to me. In chapter seven Crain states that “Part of the challenge of the Bible exists in being able to accept or not accept the sovereignty of God and to recognize that whatever the Creator does ultimately must be right and just, even when human beings cannot see or understand the ultimate purpose.” I believe this sums up the paradox mentioned earlier perfectly. Either we must trust that we cannot understand Gods actions and have faith that they are just or we must dismiss the idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God. This particular problem has puzzled theologians for centuries and continues to until this day. Crain ends chapter seven discussing heroic conquests in the Bible through references such as Abraham, Moses, and Joseph.  All and all I really enjoyed this chapter and as I stated earlier it was a very solid way to end this book.