Finding God in the DetailsTIM GRAY
Biblical narratives recount great events and people, and from these stories one is to learn — by both the good and the evil characters and their deeds — how to live according to God’s plan. Reading biblical narratives, however, takes much more work and skill than we modern readers are accustomed to exerting.
Biblical narratives recount great events and people, and from these stories one is to learn by both the good and the evil characters and their deeds how to live according to God's plan. Reading biblical narratives, however, takes much more work and skill than we modern readers are accustomed to exerting. One of the admonitions of Israel's wisdom tradition was to "be ready to listen to every narrative" (Sir. 6:35). We should heed this encouragement to be ready to listen, for this hints at just how hard narratives can be to crack. An ancient Israelite proverb observed, "It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out" (Prov. 25:2). The same could be said of Scripture: "It is the glory of the author to conceal things, but the glory of readers to search them out."
Unlike modern writing, where transparency of meaning and ease of understanding are essential attributes, ancient Hebrew narratives sought to convey profound meaning through subtle clues and rhetorical conventions that required profound reflection. An awareness of these narrative techniques can aid this reflection. We need to study narrative details, character descriptions, and the story line that biblical writers often employed.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Modern writing has the luxury of expending countless words to adorn its descriptions of characters and accounts. Biblical authors could never afford such wanton use of words, for writing material was extremely costly. For example, to have the New Testament copied in the time of St. Paul would cost an equivalent of $50,000. This economy of space required that every word count. Indeed, details in biblical narratives are never superfluous; every detail and description serves to advance the plot. Take for instance the description of Absalom: "Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him" (2 Sam. 14:25).
A seemingly positive description, but it is followed by some telling details of how much Absalom cared for his hair: "And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king's weight" (2 Sam. 14:26).
The narrator's general observation about Absalom's beauty is itself simply a matter of fact, but the details about Absalom's attention to his hair subtly points out to the reader that Absalom is vain. A small enough detail, but one that points profoundly at the nature of Absalom's character and at the unfolding plot, in which Absalom's vanity will lead him to rebel against his own father, King David. Later, as Absalom is fleeing on his donkey from the king's men, his hair gets caught in the branches of a tree. The story tragically ends with Absalom hanging from a tree by the very head of beautiful hair that he took such care to groom (cf. 2 Sam. 18:9-15). Such details provide a striking reminder that vanity is often one's undoing.
THEY'RE ALL SHOW
There is often an inner logic to the narratives that can easily be lost without an eye for the small but significant details. For example, the story of Jacob stealing his brother's blessing has often perplexed readers because of the deceptive means employed by Jacob. The story begins with the narrator's observation, "When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see . . ." (Gen. 27:1). It is exactly Isaac's inability to see that will be exploited by his younger son Jacob in the subsequent narrative. Unable to see, Isaac is vulnerable to Jacob's deception of word and dress (skins of the goat kids which his mother Rebekah gave to him). What is so troubling is that even though Jacob deceives Isaac, he still wins his father's blessing. Was Jacob justified in stealing his brother's blessing? The narrative makes no comment, and the story moves on.
Modern readers often read such silence as tacit approval of Jacob's less than forthright methods. However, the lack of an explicit condemnation of Jacob's deeds does not at all imply that the narrative turns a blind eye. Hebrew narratives would much rather "show" than "tell." That is, they prefer to narrate someone's misdeeds and let the consequences show how one inevitably reaps what one sows. Hebrew narratives do not give a moral lesson by word, but rather and more powerfully they show that one's sins will one day come home to roost. Thus the Jacob narrative goes on to show just how much Jacob will bitterly pay for his deceptive practices.
After fleeing from the wrath of his brother to Haran, Jacob meets up with his mother's kinsman Laban. Jacob falls in love with Laban's younger daughter Rachel, and works seven years for Laban in order to pay her dowry and marry her. On the wedding night, after much feasting and drinking, Laban brings his older daughter Leah, instead of Rachel, to Jacob's tent (cf. Gen. 29:23). In the darkness of the tent, Jacob thinks Leah is her sister Rachel. In the morning Jacob cries out to Laban, "Why have you deceived me?" Laban responds, "It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born" (Gen. 29:26). It is precisely this birth order that Jacob had subverted by stealing his older brother's blessing. And just as the switch of siblings deceived Isaac before his darkened eyes, now Jacob is deceived by the darkness of his eyes and Laban's swap of sisters. The narrative details cry out for the reader to catch the parallel and thereby see how Jacob is reaping from the bitter seeds of his own sowing.
After working for seven more years for Rachel, and waiting many more besides, Rachel finally bears Jacob a son, Joseph. But Jacob has 10 older sons who are quite jealous of Jacob's preferential love for Joseph. These sons seize Joseph and sell him as a slave. Having stripped Joseph of the coat that his father had made for him, they dip it in blood and bring it back to Jacob (cf. Gen. 37:31). They hope their father will think that a wild animal devoured Joseph. Jacob is deceived by his sons and mourns for Joseph for a very long time, refusing to be comforted (cf. Gen. 37:35). Once again Jacob is reaping what he himself had sown, for just as he had lied to his father and deceived him by a garment of goat skins, now his own sons lie to him and deceive him with Joseph's garment. Although Joseph is not dead, Jacob endures many bitter years of sorrow because of his sons' deception. Now he, too, knows the bitter experience of being deceived by one's own son.
Was Jacob wrong to steal the blessing from his father? The narrative logic of Jacob's life leaves us little doubt. What one sows, one will reap. Sow sin, and one's harvest will be bitter. Although the Hebrew narrative never explicitly condemns Jacob's theft and deceit, it powerfully shows that such means, even for a good end, will not go unpunished. The narrative demands a careful reading. The lazy reader can leave this story wondering why Jacob was allowed to get away with his seeming crime, but a careful reader of Jacob's narrative will not be left in the dark. By showing rather than telling us of the consequences of sin, the biblical narrative invites us to contemplate the whole of Jacob's life and see how God works through the disparate little details of life to reveal to us His truth.
LORD OF THE HARVEST
Modern writing often offers its fruits preprocessed, washed, and sliced ready to serve, whereas the ancient writers invited the reader into the vineyard where they were to pick for themselves a glorious harvest if they but listened well enough to the narrative's clues. A good harvest, however, as the Hebrews well knew, was not simply a matter of hard work and clever methods; it depended on the divine blessing of good rains. Likewise, they knew that a good reading of narratives ultimately rested upon God's grace, so prayer and godly living were just as important as rhetorical techniques. For as a great Hebrew once observed, "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Gen. 40:8).
Tim Gray. "Finding God in the Details." Lay Witness (July/August 2001).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Tim Gray is assistant professor of Scripture and catechetics at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College in Front Royal and Alexandria, VA. He holds a master of theological studies degree in Scripture from Duke University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville.
This ten-part series offers tips for reading Scripture, drawing upon the Church's rich history of harvesting the vineyard of God's Word. This is the sixth installment.
Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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