Category Archives: Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study

Biblical Narrative: How Motifs Enrich a Story

Biblical Narrative: The Use of Motifs

A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives use a similar pattern of repetition.
A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives often  use imagery with similar patterns of repetition.

A motif is a recurring pattern or design, or a familiar image that is repeated in a piece of writing such as a biblical narrative. In my last post on “Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study,” I focused on the importance of paying attention to the details of a story (you can read that post here). Another detail that is often overlooked in Bible study is the recurrence of motifs within a story, or even a whole book. Biblical narratives commonly use motifs. These motifs spice up a story and not only increase the “entertainment” value of the story, but usually contribute to the understanding of an important theme, message, or character within the narrative. This is a “detail” worth pondering, and so I would like to take the opportunity in this article to look at various stories and the motifs found in them. With some stories, the reason for the motif is obvious. With other stories, the reason for the motif is more obscure. In this article I will explore the meaning of some motifs while asking all of you who read this blog to offer insights and suggestions about others. I hope you’ll join me by sharing your comments. So let’s have some fun exploring various motifs in biblical narratives and see what we might learn from them.

A stone becomes Jacob's pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.
A stone becomes Jacob’s pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.

Stones are a common motif in some biblical narratives. For example, the story of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, frequently refers to them. When Jacob has his famous dream of the “ladder” that reaches from heaven to earth, we are told that he uses a stone for his pillow (Gen. 28:11). The following morning he takes the same stone and sets it up as a sacred pillar (yes, his pillow becomes a pillar) for a memorial of the occasion (Gen. 28:18, 22). The stone here is obviously a motif that suggests God’s provision, protection, and blessing on Jacob, as he flees from his brother Esau and goes to Syria where he will meet his future wives (Leah and Rachel) and encounter his diabolical uncle Laban, but it also suggests Jacob’s lack of certainty about God. Upon Jacob’s arrival in Syria (Paddan Aram), he comes to a well which has a large stone that covers it (Gen. 29:2). The narrator spends several verses talking about this stone and the shepherds’ reluctance to remove it quickly (Gen. 29:3, 8). However, when Rachel arrives on the scene and Jacob sees her for the first time, we are informed that he rolls the stone away by himself and waters the flocks (Gen. 29:10)! The contrast between the lazy shepherds and the energetic Jacob, the heaviness of the stone and the appearance of Rachel, seems to suggest that Jacob is showing a little machismo and flexing his muscles for the little beauty he has just met! In this case, the stone represents Jacob acting in the flesh. Up to this point in the story it must be admitted that Jacob relies on himself, rather than on God. Jacob secures Rachel as a wife by showing off, working hard, and bargaining with Laban (Gen. 29:18-19). It is all done in his own strength. By contrast, his father Isaac had received his wife through the fervent prayer of Abraham’s servant who sought God’s guidance each step of the way (Gen. 24). Jacob never prays about a wife. He flexes his muscles, works hard, and negotiates.

Stones are a biblical narrative motif. The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55)
The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55) One example of the use of stones in the biblical narrative of Jacob

After years of mistreatment at the hands of his father-in-law, stones reappear again in the story of Jacob as he and his family flee from Laban. The stones in this story represent a covenant (Gen. 31:44-46), but the covenant is based on hostility and mutual mistrust (Gen. 31:51-52). For Jacob they also appear to have the deeper meaning of recognizing God’s protection over him (Gen. 31:53). In Genesis 35, Jacob finally returns to Bethel (where he had his original dream). God appears to him and reiterates all of the promises He had made to Jacob. When God is finished speaking, the Scripture tells us that Jacob set up a “pillar of stone” to commemorate where God had talked with him (Gen. 35:14). This scene brings the story full-circle demonstrating both God’s faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s trust in God. The first stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 28) was set up by a lying and deceitful Jacob who trusted in his own wits and strength. The final stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 35) is set up by a Jacob who has learned humility, trust, and dependence on God. Jacob’s trust in God is declared one final time through this “stone” imagery. On his deathbed, as he is blessing his son Joseph, Jacob refers to God as “the stone of Israel” (Gen. 49:24). Thus by following the “stone” motif in the story of Jacob we can not only discover significant insights into the personality of Jacob, but we can discover the message of how God transforms a self-sufficient man into one who depends on Him.

Saul's spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.
Saul’s spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.

Another motif that Bible commentators frequently draw attention to is the spear of Saul. Following the story of David and Goliath, a spear becomes Saul’s constant companion (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10; 20:33; 22:6; 26:7-22). Some wonder about the frequent reference to Saul’s spear but have no explanation for it. Others suggest that it is a sign of his kingship. To a certain extent this is true, but this insight needs to be taken further. The real key to understanding the significance of Saul’s spear is found in David’s statement to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:45). Most significantly, David states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:47). David’s statements to Goliath cast a shadow over one who puts his trust in a sword or a spear. As mentioned above, it is after these statements by David that the biblical narrative constantly draws attention to the spear that accompanies Saul. The spear becomes a symbol of Saul’s trust in the flesh and his lack of trust in God. This is especially clear when he attempts to use this spear to rid his kingdom of David, God’s anointed (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10). Thus, Saul’s spear represents his conflict with God. By seeking to kill David, he is opposing God and God’s plan for the kingdom. This is part of the significance of David taking Saul’s spear (1 Sam. 26:7-22). God (through David) disarms Saul and demonstrates who the true king of Israel is. Reflecting on the people’s original request for a king (who turned out to be Saul), we are reminded that they asked for a king “to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Saul’s trust in his spear rather than in God, suggests that he is a king “like all the nations” and, therefore, the people got the kind of king that they asked for!

Biblical narrative: Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire.
Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire. Fire is a frequent motif in the biblical narrative of Samson.

Samson’s name is from the Hebrew word for “sun” and fire is a recurring motif in his story. When Samson’s wedding guests are not able to solve his riddle, they threaten to burn his wife and father-in-law with fire (Judg. 14:15). The most famous incident involving fire in connection with Samson is when he captures 300 foxes, ties torches to their tails and releases them into the fields of the Philistines to destroy their harvest (Judg. 15:5). In retaliation for this incident, the Philistines fulfill their threat against his former wife and father-in-law by burning them with fire (Judg. 15:6). After Samson responds by attacking more Philistines, they demand that the tribe of Judah hand him over. Samson agrees to allow his fellow-Israelites to tie him up, but when he is handed over to the Philistines we are told, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him; and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that is burned with fire” (Judg. 15:14). Similarly, when Delilah ties Samson up with bowstrings and says “The Philistines are upon you Samson,” he breaks the bowstrings, “as a strand of yarn breaks when it touches fire” (Judg. 16:9). What we are to make of all of these references about fire, and Samson’s name (which actually means “little sun” or “sunny”) is uncertain. However, fire is clearly a motif of the story. Because many in the ancient world worshipped the sun, some see Samson’s name in a negative light (no pun intended!). Certainly, he was the worst of the Judges. But in spite of his self-indulgent ways, he does bring partial deliverance to Israel. The fire motif is connected with this theme of deliverance from the Philistines. So what should we make of this motif in the story of Samson? I would be interested in hearing what some of you think.

I find the motifs of various biblical narratives an interesting way to approach Bible study. I’ve even thought of one day writing a book on some of the motifs of 1&2 Samuel. We have already looked at the motif of the spear in 1 Samuel. Let me conclude this article by mentioning two more. The motif of feet and lameness appears in the early chapters of 2 Samuel. Asahel is said to be “fleet of foot” (2 Sam. 2:18), while David laments the death of Abner by stating, “Your hands were not bound; Nor your feet put into fetters” (2 Sam. 3:34). In 2 Samuel 4:4 we are introduced to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth who is “lame in both feet.” In 2 Samuel 5 when David attacks Jerusalem, the Jebusites taunt him by saying “You shall not come in here; but the blind and the lame will repel you” (2 Sam. 5:6). More talk about the blind and the lame continues in 2 Sam. 5:8. By the end of 2 Samuel 9, Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, is sitting at the king’s table (2 Sam. 9:13).

Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king's table.
Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king’s table.

Speaking of the king’s table, another very interesting motif that runs through the biblical narrative of 1&2 Samuel, is the motif of eating and not eating. This motif is so widespread that I will only mention a few examples (for a fun study, see how many others you can find!). In 1 Samuel 1:8 Hannah refuses to eat. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli and his sons cannot help but eat everything in sight, including the sacrificial meat that belongs to God (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 27-30). There is definitely a contrast being made between Hannah who refuses to eat what she is entitled to, and Eli and his sons, who eat what they are not entitled to. Other examples include: Saul putting the army under a vow of fasting until he defeats the Philistines, but Jonathan eats some honey unaware of Saul’s command (1 Sam. 14:24-30); Jonathan refusing to eat at the table with Saul because he is grieved over Saul’s desire to kill David (1 Sam. 20:34); Saul’s visit to the “witch” at Endor where he is persuaded to eat after initially refusing (1 Sam. 28:20-25); as noted above, Mephibosheth is invited to eat continually at King David’s table (2 Sam. 9:7-13); David refuses to eat as he prays for the child that Bathsheba has given birth to, but once the child dies, David eats (2 Sam. 12:16-23); and Amnon requests food from his sister Tamar, but then refuses to eat it (2 Sam. 13:5-11). These are only a few of the many stories that contain the theme of eating and not eating in 1&2 Samuel. This motif seems to have different meanings depending on the context and I look forward to exploring it in more depth in the future. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts regarding this motif or others not mentioned in this article, I would welcome hearing them.

Hopefully this brief survey of a few of the motifs in biblical narrative will encourage you in your Bible study. The Bible speaks at many different levels and motifs can be an interesting way of entering into the meaning of a story.

Old Testament Narratives: Paying Attention to Detail

Old Testament Narratives: Paying Attention to Detail

Studying Old Testament narratives
Studying Old Testament narratives

When it comes to reading and studying Old Testament narratives, paying attention to detail really pays off! It is a rare exception when an Old Testament narrator tells the reader something as explicit as, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11:27). More frequently, a biblical narrator will lead us on a journey of discovery. This method is what Old Testament scholars refer to as “showing” rather than “telling.” Revealing a person’s character or proclaiming a particular message by “showing” is certainly a more interesting and artistic approach, but it also makes interpretation more challenging for the reader. Understanding that the biblical author is primarily communicating to us by “showing” should make us alert to the little details that occur in a story. Recognition that writing in the ancient world was an expensive process, and that the Hebrew authors of Old Testament narratives are very succinct in relating an event, makes it even more evident that every word in a story counts.

What to Look For When Studying Old Testament Narratives

So what kind of details should a reader be looking for? It’s impossible in this short article to make an exhaustive list (not that I could anyway), but I will attempt to offer a few suggestions and provide illustrations of the kind of attention to detail I am talking about.

Contrasting Actions

Why Abel's sacrifice is acceptable but not Cain's must certainly be counted among Old Testament narratives that are considered confusing
Among Old Testament narratives that are considered confusing, the difference between Cain and Abel’s sacrifices ranks high on the list.

The story of Cain and Abel’s worship in Genesis 4 often causes confusion for readers. Why does God prefer Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s? Some have suggested that God prefers a blood sacrifice and thus He rejected Cain’s offering from “the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3). Others say, it is impossible to know. Still others fall back on the words of Hebrews 11:4 which states that Abel’s offering was preferred over Cain’s because he offered it by faith. While this is true, where did the writer of Hebrews get this interpretation of the events? Was it by divine revelation, or is there something in the text that points in this direction? Actually, there is. A careful reading of the story shows that Cain’s offering is much more general, suggesting less care and less devotion to God. Cain is said to offer “an offering,” whereas Abel’s offering is said to be of “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat” (Gen. 4:3-4). In other words, Abel brings his best to God and that is the difference between the offerings. The fact that the same word is used for “offering” for both Cain and Abel (even though an animal offering would normally use a different word), and that God does accept offerings from the ground as acceptable sacrifices (Lev. 2:7-16), further demonstrates that God does not reject Cain’s offering because it is a bloodless sacrifice. The key to the story is in the details of Abel’s offering found in the words “firstborn” and “fat.” Observation of such details ends many debates, solves much confusion, and prevents possible misinterpretations of the story.

Personal Tags

One of the small details often overlooked when reading Old Testament narratives are the tags applied to people’s names. By this I am referring to the little descriptions that follow people such as Abner, the son of Ner, or Uriah, the Hittite. Sometimes these little tags appear to define who a person is or what their relationship is to someone else. However, once their identity is established, there really is no need for the tag. Thus when a tag is constantly used the reader should suspect that there is more to it than simply identifying a person.

Michal peers through the window and despises David (2 Sam. 6:16)
Michal peers through the window and despises David (2 Sam. 6:16)

Saul’s daughter Michal is an excellent example of this. Every time Michal appears in the story of 1&2 Samuel, she has a tag applied to her name. When she is first introduced she is called “Saul’s daughter” (1 Sam. 18:20). The next time she appears in the story she is called “David’s wife” (1 Sam. 19:11). Michal’s protection of David in this story suggests that the title “David’s wife” is more than a tag reminding us of her marriage to David. It signifies where her loyalty lies, since Saul is out to kill David. The next two times Michal appears in the story we are told she is “Saul’s daughter” and “David’s wife” (1 Sam. 25:44; 2 Sam. 3:13-14). Since Saul and his family remain at odds with David, these tags suggest a tug of war for Michal’s identity. Which is she, Saul’s daughter or David’s wife? The question is finally answered in Michal’s last appearance in the story. In 2 Samuel 6:16, we are told that Michal (who once upon a time loved David–1 Sam. 18:20, 28), despised David. In this verse, and also in 2 Sam. 6:20-23, she is referred to only as “Saul’s daughter.” This tag suggests that Michal’s affections have come full circle and that she has chosen to identify with her father Saul, rather than with David (for a more in-depth exploration of this idea see my book, “Family Portraits” chapter 10).

Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?

When the time of day is mentioned in Old Testament narratives, it is important!
When the time of day is mentioned in Old Testament narratives, it is important!

If a biblical story mentions the time of day, it is usually important. For example, the angels arrive at Sodom in the evening (Gen. 19:1), and by the time the threatening mob gathers it is night time (Gen. 19:5). The destruction of Sodom occurred at sunrise (Gen. 19:23-24) which was considered the time for judging a case in the ancient world. Another example of the use of day and night occurs in the story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. The wrestling match happens at night, matching Jacob’s fears and uncertainties as he approaches his brother Esau (Gen. 32:21-22). The wrestling match ends at the break of day (Gen. 32:24, 26), at which time Jacob is blessed and receives a new name. As Jacob limps away from this mysterious encounter we are told that “the sun rose on him” (Gen. 32:31), suggesting that a new day has dawned.  But the writer is not interested in the new day for its own sake. The time notice makes clear that it is a new day for this man who now faces his future, not as Jacob, but as Israel!

What Did You Say?

Jonathan's words to his armor bearer show him to be a man of faith.
Jonathan’s words to his armor bearer show him to be a man of faith.

Since it is rare to get a description or evaluation of a biblical character by the narrator, one of the chief ways of discerning their character is by the words they speak. The first words of a character often provide a guideline for the kind of individual we may expect them to be. For example, Jonathan’s initial words are “Come let us go over to the Philistines’ garrison…” (1 Sam. 14:1). These could either be the words of a reckless individual or a brave individual. After some intervening verses which set the scene, the narrator returns to Jonathan’s opening words and fills out their meaning. Jonathan continues, “It may be that the Lord will work for us. For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6). These words immediately characterize Jonathan as a man of faith who is not afraid to boldly step out and give the Lord an opportunity to work. By contrast, the first words of Adonijah paint him as an egomaniac. “I, I will be king” (the Hebrew emphasizes the pronoun–1 Kgs. 1:5). So that we don’t miss the significance of Adonijah’s first words, the narrator helps us out by commenting, “Then Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself.”

Conclusion — Old Testament Narratives: Paying Attention to Detail

Contrasting actions, personal tags, time of day, and the initial words of a character, are just a few of the many small details found in Old Testament narratives that aid one in biblical interpretation. There are many other things that easily go overlooked, or are taken for granted when reading Scripture. Hopefully this article will encourage each of us to read the Old Testament more carefully, not looking past the obvious clues that the author has placed in the text. One word of caution: We should always allow context to guide us on how important a particular detail might be. In other words, a small detail may contribute to an important insight, but we should not magnify that detail beyond what the text warrants. It is a mistake to make the passage about the detail, rather than to allow the detail to assist us in the interpretation of the passage. The next time you read an Old Testament story, remember to enjoy the details!

Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives

gapNo matter what the story is, or who the storyteller is, it is impossible to give every detail of an event.  This means that there are inevitably “gaps” in every story. It’s great when the person relating the story is there with you because you can always ask questions that help to fill in the gaps. But if the story is written down and it is not possible to contact the author, gaps become more challenging. This is especially true of biblical stories which were written centuries ago in another language with a different cultural setting than ours. Some of the gaps we find in biblical narrative are a result of the distance between ancient times and the 21st century. As Robert Chisholm states, “Many of the gaps we perceive in a story would not have been present for an ancient Israelite audience, for ancient readers would have intuitively understood nuances of their language and aspects of their culture better than we do” (Interpreting the Historical Books, p. 69). However, sometimes the author deliberately left a gap in a story, and it is these intentional gaps that I am focusing on in this article.

Intentional Gaps in Biblical Narrative

Probably the Bible's most famous gap concerns Cain's wife.
Probably the Bible’s most famous gap concerns Cain’s wife.

There can be a number of reasons for intentional gaps in a story. First it is important to remember that writing in the ancient world was an expensive process and writing materials were not as readily available as they are today. Furthermore, space was limited. Books were not in use and only so much material would fit on a scroll. All of this means that a biblical author had to be selective about what to include and what to omit. One reason then for a gap in the story is that the detail was not considered important enough to include. Sometimes a gap occurs because the writer has left enough evidence in the text for us to figure out the obvious answer. This is probably the reason for one of the most famous gaps in the Old Testament. It seems that everyone who reads Genesis 4:17 asks the obvious question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” The author asserts that Adam and Eve are the first human beings and that all humanity is descended from them (e.g., Gen. 3:20; 5:1ff.). If the author’s story is taken at face value, then Cain’s wife must be a relative (either a sister or niece, etc.). It would be a waste of precious space for the author to explain this “obvious” detail.

There is a large gap in the story of Samuel
There is a large gap in the story of Samuel

Another reason for gaps may involve the literary artistry of the biblical author. Gaps in the narrative may lead to surprises later in the story. For example, 2 Samuel 21:5-8 reveals that there are other living descendants of Saul besides Mephibosheth and his son (see 2 Sam. 9). Gaps naturally create curiosity and, at times, the author may use gaps to encourage the reader to investigate the text more carefully. The disappearance of Samuel from 1 Samuel 4-6 is an example. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel is a young man who receives the word of the Lord. However, when Israel is defeated by the Philistines and the ark of God is captured (1 Sam. 4), Samuel appears nowhere in the story! When Samuel finally reappears in 1 Samuel 7, he is a much older man. Why are so many years of Samuel’s life blanked by the author? We may presume that some of the material was irrelevant, as we have already discussed, but any reader must wonder how such an important figure can disappear from the story at one of the most critical moments, with no explanation of his whereabouts! The writer seems to be using this gap in the story of Samuel’s life to make an important point. Chapter 3 ends by telling us that the Lord let none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” and that all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord (2 Sam. 3:19-20). In fact, the statement made immediately before the battle with the Philistines is “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (2 Sam. 4:1). If Samuel was indeed God’s prophet, and his word never failed, then his absence in chapter 4 further emphasizes Israel’s apostasy. When the Israelites met the Philistines in battle they did not consult God’s word through Samuel. All we learn is that after an initial defeat, they put their trust in a religious relic–the ark (1 Sam. 4:2-5), rather than in God Himself. By removing Samuel from the narrative, the author subtly comments on Israel’s faithlessness without directly commenting on it! This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that when Samuel reappears in the narrative (1 Sam. 7:3), he is calling on the people to “return to the Lord” and to “put away” their foreign gods. In other words, it appears that when the crisis of 2 Samuel 4 happened, rather than turn to the Lord and Samuel, Israel turned to false gods! This technique of gapping used by the author causes the thoughtful reader to question Samuel’s absence and to read 2 Samuel 7 in light of the comments in 2 Samuel 3:19-21 and 2 Samuel 4:1.

The Danger of Interpreting Gaps in Biblical Narrative

The danger of gaps!
Gaps can be dangerous!

Because gaps naturally create curiosity, it is always tempting to provide an explanation for them. Before attempting to explain a gap we should ask several important questions. First, is the gap due to our lack of historical or cultural knowledge? If so, it is not an intentional gap created by the biblical author and we should be cautious about offering explanations for something we don’t have enough information on.

Second, is the gap important to the story, or is it there because the details would be superfluous to the story? In other words, does the gap exist because the author has no interest in pursuing that particular aspect or detail? If this is the case, then we must consider that it may be a waste of our time to pursue something that the biblical author did not care to illuminate. Some bible studies fall into the habit of attempting to answer questions that the Bible itself is not concerned about, and that ultimately we can never know the answer to. This is a great waste of time and energy because we can miss what the author is really wanting to communicate and chase rabbit trails that, in the long run, are meaningless.

Third, if we discern that the author has intentionally left a gap so that we will dig deeper into the text, we must still be careful to ask the right questions. Using the example above about Samuel is a case in point. While we can observe that there is a gap in Samuel’s life story, the questions we ask about this observation are important. If we ask, “Where was Samuel all those years?” and then seek to answer that question by making guesses about his whereabouts (maybe he went to prophet school, etc.), we miss the point. The important question is not, “Where was Samuel?”, a question we can never answer, but “Why does the author choose to omit Samuel from the story?” When we ask the correct question about a gap, we then have the opportunity to go deeper into the text.

Speculation vs. interpretation of facts
Speculation vs. interpretation of facts

How do we know if we are asking the right questions? The real test as to whether the question is helpful or not is to ask where it leads. Does the question lead us back to the text to search for clues that will provide an answer, or does the question cause us to speculate about what “might have happened” without anyway of proving it one way or the other? If we are seeking to understand the Bible, then questions that lead us to investigate the text and find answers in the text, are good questions. Conversely, questions that lead us away from the text and prompt us to come up with imaginary solutions (even if the solutions are reasonable), are not good “Bible study” questions. The difference can be summed up in two words: interpretation vs. speculation. Interpretation involves filling in gaps by looking at clues in the text. Speculation involves our imagination about what might have happened. To give an example of speculation that leads to bad biblical interpretation, I once read a Genesis commentary that blamed Sarah for Abram’s trip to Egypt (Gen. 12:10)! The text gives absolutely no indication that Sarah prompted Abram to move to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. Now we might speculate that Sarah did so, but that is just our imagination at work. Whether Sarah did or didn’t can never be known. All we know is what the text says and it only focuses on Abram. It seems to me that a great injustice is done to Sarah by blaming her for what the text infers was Abram’s mistake! This same kind of mistake happens frequently in bible-study groups and Sunday school classes. We often drift from the text and end up discussing endless possibilities of what “might have happened.”

Rocky Balboa was Right!

"She's got gaps, I've got gaps, together we fill gaps."
“She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.”

One of Rocky’s famous lines is, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.” Gaps are indeed a fact of life, especially when it comes to telling a story! My hope is that this article helps us to appreciate the gaps that exist in biblical narrative and provides a constructive approach to them. There are different kinds of gaps–some intentional, some unintentional. Together we can “fill gaps” but it is important to ask the right kinds of questions if we desire a deeper understanding of biblical stories.

(For further information on gaps, see my book Family Portraits. For an example of gap-filling that attempts to follow biblical clues, see my treatment of Abiathar in chapter 8 pp. 92-94.)

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

Identifying the Biblical Narrator’s Voice

Over 50% of the Bible consists of narrative.
Over 50% of the Bible consists of narrative.

What do the biblical books of Genesis, Joshua, 1&2 Kings, Nehemiah, Matthew, John, and Acts all have in common? At the most basic level, they are all narratives––stories about God’s interactions with people. As every reader of the Bible is aware, many other biblical books fall into this same category. Indeed, narrative material composes more than half of the Bible. Even some books whose main genre is something other than narrative (e.g., prophetic books which contain large amounts of poetry), still contain narrative (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea). This means that one of the major ways in which God decided to communicate with people is through the medium of story. Perhaps this is because everyone loves a good story, and because stories can be understood by people of all ages (although at different levels of meaning, depending on maturity). Because much of the Bible is presented in story form, this means that it contains all of the elements of a good story including: plot, characters, and a narrator’s voice. People often read the Bible without giving any thought to these, and other, ingredients of a good story. However, this article will attempt to show how paying careful attention to such details can provide a deeper understanding of biblical narrative. Specifically we will look at the critical role played by the narrator of a biblical text, and how identifying the biblical narrator’s voice can clarify a story, or even help prevent a misinterpretation. After discussing a few observations about the narrator in biblical stories, we will look at the story of Saul’s death related in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1. The two different versions of how Saul died has often confused people. Once we understand the role and function of the biblical narrator a solution to this problem will be more evident.

The Identity of the Biblical Narrator

Available at amazon USA / UK
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In popular books, the narrator is often a device used by an author to tell a story. Therefore, the narrator and the author are usually two different people, unless it is clear that the author is telling the story in first person (I, we, me, etc.). Similarly, biblical narrative is usually told in the third person (he, she, they, or using a proper name such as “Moses said to God,” etc.). The Book of Nehemiah and the “we” sections of the Book of Acts are among the rare exceptions to this rule. “The narrator is a device used by authors to shape and guide how the reader responds to the characters and events of the story.” It is important to note that the biblical narrator “gives the impression of an all-knowing mind…a mind that in the context of the canon must be associated with God himself” (Tremper Longman III, “Biblical Narrative,” A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, p. 75). If the narrator’s point of view can be equated with God’s, then this means that statements by the narrator are always true. “Thus any statement made by the narrator about a character or event should be accepted as factual. If it stands in contradiction to a statement made by another character, then we can know that this character is lying, deceived, or misinformed” (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 9), or that the biblical author has some purpose in the apparent contradiction (see my article “How many sons did Absalom have?”). Understanding the role of the biblical narrator can be crucial for correctly interpreting a passage, and the story of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1, provides us with an excellent opportunity to put this knowledge into practice.

The Accounts of Saul’s Death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1

According to the biblical narrator in 1 Sam. 31, Saul took his own life.
According to the biblical narrator in 1 Sam. 31, Saul took his own life.

In 1 Samuel 31:1-5 we read of the death of Saul and his sons. Verse 3 informs us that Saul was wounded by the Philistine archers. In verse 4 Saul pleads with his armorbearer to kill him, but he is too afraid to strike Saul and so Saul falls on his own sword. Verse 5 reads, “And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him” (NKJV). Notice that verse 5 confirms Saul’s death in two ways. First, the armorbearer “saw that Saul was dead,” and second, the armorbearer killed himself the same way that Saul had and, therefore, “died with him” (my emphasis). Before looking at the description of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1, it is important to notice that the account of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 is told by the biblical narrator. Based on our observations above about the narrator, this account should be viewed as a factual report of what happened. Indeed, there would be no reason to doubt it, if it were not for the fact that the story in 2 Samuel 1 seems to contradict it.

2 Samuel 1 rehearses the story of Saul’s death from David’s point of view. David has just returned from rescuing his wives and the families of his soldiers from the hands of the Amalekites (compare 1 Sam. 30 and 2 Sam. 1:1). David is in southern Judah in the town of Ziklag, which is a 3 day journey from the battlefield where Saul died (1 Sam. 30:1; 2 Sam. 1:2). A messenger comes to David to inform him that Israel has been defeated and Saul and Jonathan have been slain (2 Sam. 1:4). When David presses the messenger on how he can be sure that Saul and Jonathan are dead (1 Sam. 1:5), the young man relates the following story. He says that he was on Mount Gilboa and saw that Saul was badly wounded. It is what he relates next, however, that causes the reader to have what I refer to as a, “wait a minute” moment. Such a moment happens when what was previously read doesn’t seem to match the events of the current story. When the young man, who identifies himself as an Amalekite (2 Sam. 2:8), says that Saul asked him to kill him, we are reminded of Saul’s request of his armorbearer in 1 Samuel 31:4. When the Amalekite says that he complied with Saul’s request and killed him, we remember that Saul’s armorbearer had refused to do the same deed. These similarities are interesting and should cause a reader to compare the two accounts of Saul’s death. The real problem comes when we recall that the armorbearer had confirmed Saul’s death and then died beside him. Furthermore, the narrator never mentioned anything about an Amalekite being present at Saul’s death. On the other hand, the Amalekite has a pretty convincing story too because, he has Saul’s crown and bracelet in his possession (2 Sam. 1:10).

Therefore, who should we believe, or could both accounts somehow be true? Some commentators, attempt to harmonize the two stories by combining them. They reason that maybe Saul wasn’t completely dead (inspite of what the narrator says!), and that the Amalekite found him and finished him off. But this explanation has its own problems. For example, after stabbing himself, and his armorbearer believing he was dead (1 Sam. 31:5), did Saul really get back up off of the ground and lean on his spear (2 Sam. 1:6)? This would have to be the case for the Amalekite’s version to be accurate. Such details make the two stories difficult to harmonize.

Intentional Contradictions and the Danger of Artificial Harmonization

When a Bible-believer encounters what appears to be a contradiction in Scripture, the first impulse is to think of a rational explanation for it. Can the two passages be harmonized in some way? Can some other external circumstances explain away the contradiction? However, there are several problems with such attempts at harmonization. Forcing a harmonization can be like trying to fit a square block into a round hole. No matter how hard we try it doesn’t fit, but somehow we try to convince ourselves that it does! Second, whenever we consider “external circumstances” that are outside of the text, as a way of explaining the contradiction, we stop interpreting the text itself and enter the world of speculation. The world of speculation is a dangerous world because, by definition, it is something that cannot be proven. The problem with speculation is that one theory is as good as another. When we seek an explanation outside of the text, there are no longer any guidelines that confirm one explanation to be better than another. And let’s face it, sometimes speculation can lead to some bizarre explanations. However one might seek to defend speculation on a difficult passage, the biggest problem about trying to force an artificial harmonization is that we might be destroying the very thing that the biblical author intended! If the author intends for us to see a contradiction, then explaining it away will certainly lead to a wrong interpretation of the passage.

The Biblical Narrator and the Amalekite
The Amalekite's version of Saul's death contradicts the biblical narrator's version.
The Amalekite’s version of Saul’s death contradicts the biblical narrator’s version.

Recognizing that each account of Saul’s death employs a different speaker is the real solution to the problem. Is there a contradiction? Yes there is, but it is a purposeful contradiction. We have already established that the biblical narrator relates the first account of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31, whereas, it is the Amalekite who speaks in 2 Samuel 1. Since we have agreed that the biblical narrator always tells the truth, and since it is obvious that the passages are contradictory, then the Amalekite must, in this instance, be lying. He cannot simply be misinformed or deceived because he holds Saul’s crown and bracelet in his hands. Therefore he knows that Saul was already dead when he came upon him on the battlefield.

This conclusion is further confirmed by the biblical characterization of the Amalekites who are constantly portrayed as Israel’s enemies (e.g., Exod. 17:8-16; Deut. 25:17-19; Judg. 6:3). Moreover, Saul had previously been charged with destroying the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2-3) in order to fulfill what God had spoken about them in Exodus 17:14 and Deut. 25:17-19. In this same story, Samuel refers to the Amalekites as “sinners” (1 Sam. 15:18). It should also not be forgotten that David had just returned from slaughtering the Amalekites because they had burned his town and carried away all of the women and children (1 Sam. 30; 2 Sam. 1:1). Therefore, the wider biblical context, as well as the immediate context within the books of Samuel, consistently portrays the Amalekites as the enemies of Israel. The negative depiction of Amalekites in Scripture provides further evidence that the Amalekite lied to David and his men. This is additionally confirmed in 2 Samuel 4:10 where David refers back to this incident and claims the Amalekite was looking for a reward (NKJV). David’s exposure of the Amalekite’s motive further unmasks his lie. This conclusion also highlights the problem of attempting to harmonize the two accounts. Are we really to take the word of an Amalekite “sinner” and combine it with, or believe it instead of, the infallible biblical narrator?

When all of this evidence is digested it becomes clear that it would be a grave mistake to harmonize the two accounts of Saul’s death. The biblical author has deliberately set two contradictory stories side by side (This is another indication that the contradiction is deliberate; the story of Saul’s death is still fresh on our minds when we hear the Amalekite’s version.). He uses the biblical narrator to present the real facts and follows it up with the contradictory story by the Amalekite. Why does the biblical author do it this way instead of simply telling us that the Amalekite was lying? First, it makes for a much more artful telling of the story. The reader must do some detective work to arrive at the correct conclusion. Second, the contradiction causes the reader to pause and reread both accounts. This not only encourages meditation on the two passages, but it makes the irony of an Amalekite reporting Saul’s death all the more delicious. Third, it contributes to a common theme in the books of Samuel which can be referred to as “looks can be deceiving.” The Amalekite “appears” to have killed Saul, after all, he has his crown and bracelet. In this story the “looks can be deceiving” theme backfires on the Amalekite. His deception ends up costing him his own life.

In conclusion, if we try to force these two passages to harmonize, we not only miss the art of the biblical author, we also miss the important messages he sought to convey. Therefore, we should be cautious about “solving” what appears to be a contradiction in the text before examining other possibilities. It may be that the biblical author has deliberately allowed a contradiction to occur in order to communicate a certain message.

Typology: A Key to Interpreting the Bible

Typology: A Key to Interpreting the Bible

In this article we will talk about the importance of typology and what it means
In this article we will talk about the importance of typology and what it means

Did you know that one way in which the biblical authors sought to communicate God’s truth was by comparing and contrasting various characters and situations? This may seem obvious to a regular Bible-reader, but people are often surprised how frequently this occurs in Scripture and how helpful it can be in interpreting the Bible. This practice has come to be known as “typology” from the Greek word typos.

Jesus' use of typology
Jesus’ use of typology

“Typology means that earlier characters and events are understood as figures of later characters and events, and the text is written in a way that brings out the connection” (Peter Leithart, “A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel,” p. 13).

Where Does the Practice of Typology Come From?

Peter uses typology when he compares Noah's flood to baptism
Peter uses typology when he compares Noah’s flood to baptism

The Greek word means “pattern” or “example.” It is used 14 times in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 7:44; Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 4:12; Heb. 8:5). Most important for our purpose is that Paul and Peter use examples from the past as a way of paralleling or contrasting current situations of their day. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 Paul uses the word typos to warn the Corinthian believers not to imitate the Israelites in the wilderness (see also 1 Cor. 10:11). 1 Peter 3:20-21 calls baptism an “antitype,” corresponding to the waters which saved Noah and his family. These passages form the basis for what has become known as a “typological” approach or interpretation.

Old Testament authors often employed a similar approach to that of Paul and Peter although the word typos (or its Hebrew equivalent) was not used. In fact, there can be little doubt that Paul and Peter learned this method from their Old Testament counterparts. Have you ever read a story in the Old Testament and thought, “That reminds me of another story I read in the Bible”? There is a reason for that! Biblical authors intentionally recall earlier stories, characters, and events as a way of commenting on the story, character, or event they are relating. The student of the Bible is being invited to compare the stories or characters in order to notice these similarities and differences. Through this comparison, the reader gains insight into what the biblical author is communicating. This is especially helpful when one is trying to understand a particular biblical character. The reader should not only look to the immediate context to understand a character (or event), but also the wider context of Scripture where echos of the present story occur.

Typology in the Story of Abigail

Abigail intercedes before David
Abigail intercedes before David

The author(s) of 1&2 Samuel was a master of this technique, and as a way of illustrating my point I am using a small excerpt from my book “Family Portraits (USA link).” Abigail is introduced to the reader in 1 Samuel 25. Although the story provides a lot of information in forming a character portrait of Abigail, typology is also very helpful. In fact, it’s amazing how many characters in the Old Testament can be called upon to help us in constructing a portrait of Abigail. However, I will only focus on one example. One way in which the character of Abigail is enhanced is by noting the similarities she shares with Hannah (and vice versa).

The following is an excerpt from my book “Family Portraits (UK link)” in the chapter entitled, “Abigail: The Peacemaker” (pp. 226-227):

One of the greatest connections, as far as the books of Samuel are concerned, is between Abigail and Hannah….First, both Hannah and Abigail find themselves in desperate situations. Although these situations are different, the future of a household is at stake in each case. Second, both women make supplication to a superior, using the term “maidservant” to describe themselves (1 Sam. 1:11; 25:24ff.). Third, in making their supplications both ask to be “remembered” (1 Sam. 1:11; 25:31). Fourth, Hannah makes a vow (1 Sam. 1:11), while Abigail swears an oath (1 Sam. 25:26). Fifth, the Lord causes Hannah’s face to be sad no longer (1 Sam. 1:18), while David lifts up Abigail’s face (1 Sam. 25:35). Sixth, both share the theme of “strength through weakness” because of their dependence on the Lord. Seventh, words from Hannah’s prayer are reflected in the story of Abigail and Nabal. Abigail assumes a lowly position and is lifted up (1 Sam. 2:7; 25:23–24, 35), while arrogance proceeds from Nabal’s mouth (1 Sam. 2:3; 25:10–11) resulting in the Lord striking him (1 Sam. 2:6; 25:38). Eighth, and perhaps most important, both adopt a prophetic role that has significance for the future kingship (1 Sam. 2:1–10; 25:26, 28–31). It was Hannah who first proclaimed, “He will give strength to His king and exalt the horn of His anointed” (2:10); and it was Abigail who first announced the “sure house” that the Lord would give to David. The books of Samuel testify that these women were the first to foresee and utter these great truths, which would change the course of Israel’s history. The stories of Hannah and Abigail thus highlight the important role that women played in inaugurating the monarchy. Although Israel, like the nations around it, was a patriarchal society, clearly Israel’s God “shows no partiality” (Acts 11:34).

Typology: Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture

Typology allows Scripture to interpret Scripture
Typology allows Scripture to interpret Scripture

Hopefully this brief example demonstrates the value of comparing biblical stories with similar themes or characters. By comparing Hannah and Abigail, we come to know them both better and we see the common themes being emphasized in their stories. This, in turn, helps us to better understand the message of 1&2 Samuel. The use of typology also allows us to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Although we always approach the text with a certain amount of subjectivity (our background, presuppositions, church tradition, etc.), the similarities (or contrasts) made between Bible characters or events through the use of typology, helps us to better hear the message(s) that the inspired author intended us to hear.