Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction. Jeanie C. Crain. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010. 213 pp.
Chapter 7 of Reading The Bible As Literature: An Introduction by Jeanie C. Crain looks at themes and motifs as a way of unifying in literature. The author begins by stating 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.” I think it makes definite sense that having a common theme throughout a literary work would make it easier to follow and understand. A common theme in the Bible that stands out to me would be God’s love and His desires for His people. However, I also feel that there are some parts of the Bible that do not seem to always fit with this theme.
According to Crain, theme, or “an organizing idea (abstraction), 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.” It is derived from the overall composition of the literary work. Thematic analysis relates to how the theme is patterned and the approach that is taken to affect the reality. A motif “consists of recurrent patterns – themes, characters, events, situations, verbal patterns, and associational clusters of concepts or objects, generally symbolic,” Crain writes. From what I have seen, these things can be found many times in the Bible.
Most people have traditionally read the Bible from a theological standpoint. They focus on the relationship with God and His character, acts, nature, and existence. They also note the historical aspect and the learning element in the literature. I know this is how I generally read the Bible. However, Crain states that “a literary approach focuses more on entering into and reliving the experiences of the many characters in the Bible, considering them as representatives of the universal human quest to understand its nature, destiny, and place in the universe.” I think this is an incredibly important part of reading the Bible, although also difficult at times. It can be quite a challenge to put oneself in another’s position. Being able to relate to the experiences of the characters can improve the readers’ understanding of the story. Allowing a character to act as a representative of the readers’ lives can increase the readers’ commitment and drive to understand the literature. It can help the reader have a sort of leader and guide to their life.
Crain discusses some of the major themes of the Bible. First, the Decalogue, or the relationships to God and with other human begins. Many books in the New Testament are representative of “God’s desire for relationship and human desire for place and identity,” according to Crain. Decalogue refers to the Ten Commandments, or rules and guidelines that God gave to Moses to relate back to the people of ancient Israel. The Ten Commandments are actually listed twice in the Bible. I think this serves as a sign to the reader of the importance of these commands. God reiterates the rules so that His people are reminded of them and this stresses their significance. One of God’s commandments demands that His followers practice monolatry, worshipping only one God. The New Testament is largely based on laws and the fundamental principles of the religion and God’s will. There are stories of people violating the laws that serve as examples for us.
The Shema is another theme. It relates to the theological concept of God as one and the relationship God has with Israel through a covenant He made with His people. Crain states that “the Shema, named for the first word, ‘Hear,’ calls attention to a sovereign and unique God to whom Israel must be loyal, to whom it must devote mind, will, and vital being.” The Shema functions as Israel’s confession of faith in God. It is also a structural piece that kind of connects the Commandments with the future generations and their responsibility to aim to uphold the commandments. I have not heard about the Shema before. But, I found it interesting to take a deeper look at the context of the theme which helps make a connection from one part of the Bible that I knew about to another that I already knew about.
A relationship based on promise and obligation, such as the many covenants between God and Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David is another theme to be noted in the Bible. These covenants in the Old Testament are built on a promise and then obedience. God makes a promise to His people and then they are expected to oblige and remain faithful and God will fulfill His promise. The idea of covenants between God and His people begins right away in Genesis between God and Adam and Eve. Crain speaks of an “eternal conflict of will between God and human beings.” Humans’ understanding of God seems to be either divine and beyond human understanding or still present and related to the history of Israel.
The covenant God makes with Noah is representative of the beginning of a new creation. God sends the great flood to stop the violence and bloodshed seen by humankind. Since Noah did what God asked of him, God makes a promise to him, his family, and all others that he will never send the flood waters to destroy all people and living creatures again. The covenant between God and Abraham is established and Abraham is expected to walk with God blamelessly. God upholds His promise by providing children through generations. Crain states that “much of Abraham’s life builds movingly upon the promise of posterity, a land, and a people.” God threatens to break the promise when he requests Abraham kill his only son, but saves him. God’s covenant with Moses begins with Moses as a baby being saved from death and sets a tone of great consequences for disobedience. Moses receives the Ten Commandments and is given the responsibility to deliver them to the people of Israel. These give them laws to live by and regulate almost every part of their lives. In return, God promises to relieve them from distress, which Moses reminds them that God will not abandon them. Finally, God makes a covenant with David, promising continued succession of kings of Israel. David and his descendants will have the throne forever.
God’s mercy is most impacted by love; a common theme throughout the Bible. Actually, as Crain notes, “the Decalogue and the Great Commandment require exactly the same behaviors from human beings: love God and love each other.” It is much easier to preach this than to live it. However, with God’s help and example, humans can hopefully be more successful. Although God is loving and forgiving, he is also a just God. Suffering has been noted as the punishment for human failure. Some of these failures are punished by God and may seem evil or harsh. God is “sometimes presented as a character evidencing human characteristics – such as anger, jealousy, pity, compassion, violence, and favoritism.” I think this helps the reader and His followers to feel more at ease with God. It is easier for them to understand when they can see that, at times, He has some of the same feelings as them. Then, in other situations, and to me this is my most common view, “God gradually takes on the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.” I think that also helps the reader to have someone to look to, to trust, and to believe in something bigger.
The heroic quest is a common theme in literature with alienation and standing out. “The archetypal heroic quest involves separation, initiation, and return,” according to Crain. Abraham’s quest turns into one of continuity. This progresses through God’s promise to him and his barren wife, Sarah, and their descendants. The promise serves as the connecting element throughout the entire Old Testament. The themes, both the constant ones that can be seen throughout the entire Bible and those that just connect different parts, can help create connections for the reader. It can make the story easier to follow. I think that the themes can be very difficult pick out and recognize. However, once they are detected, I feel that it can help create deeper meaning and greater understanding for the reader.