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Reading Stories

September 27, 2010

Reading stories is something most of us do easily as long as the story is not in the Bible. We read stories in the newspaper, in fiction (it’s worth pointing out that “story” does not mean “fictional”), and on people’s blogs with ease. The minute a narrative arc is in Scripture, though, a number of forces gang up on us to make us read in some special way that normally results in worse reading. Reading stories in Scripture often requires rethinking our approach and developing better ways to read. I won’t pretend to cover, or even know, all of these ways in this article, but there are two that I think are worth reviewing.

The first is the textual unit. I have seen, once, a Bible that had no verse numbers, no chapter divisions, and no section headings. I have never seen such a document again. All of these divisions were added to the text much, much later than its original composition. This means that they are, occasionally, completely wrong. Section headings are especially notorious for this, mostly because they convey more information and therefore have more to potentially be wrong about. However, the basic idea that a text can be divided into smaller units does make sense. Sometimes these units are pretty clear, as when Jesus is asked a question and responds. There’s a unit in which Jesus deals with the question. The edges are readily apparent unless Jesus launches into a larger discourse, which happens from time to time.

Things are not always so clear, however, as two problems can foul us up. The first is that some units are hard to detect. The second is that units can have levels, and the levels can be hard to detect. “Levels” refers to the idea of nested units on a spectrum. At the large end of this spectrum every book is a unit and the Bible is a unit, and at the small end of the spectrum every sentence is a unit. There are numerous levels in between. Sometimes what you want to know is the level of a unit – is a given story just another story (a lesser unit) or is this story one of the major sections of the book (a greater unit)? We could rephrase these two questions as “where is the edge of the unit?” and “how sharp is the edge of the unit?”

All of this is simpler once we run through an example. One of the best examples is Daniel 3, the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. At first glance it seems pretty easy to determine where this story begins and ends, as it is a mostly self-contained unit. At the beginning of Chapter 3, Nebuchadnezzar makes a statue and at the end he promotes the three protagonists. These elements help frame the story. However, there are a number of short arcs in Daniel. Is Daniel 3 just another small unit like Daniel 2 (Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) or is it marked out from the text more distinctly?

One of the most distinct features of Daniel 3, and one of the more annoying features when one reads Daniel 3 out loud, is the repetition of lists. There are lists everywhere in Daniel 3 of officials, musical instruments, and the clothes worn by the protagonists. The lists of officials and musical instruments are repeated several times, along with a formulaic description of the furnace, which is always the burning, fiery furnace (אתון נורא יקדתא) and never just the furnace, or the fiery furnace, or the burning furnace. These features mark Daniel 3 out as distinct from the surrounding text. This is important because the presence of a single apparent story arc is not always sufficient. For instance, in the Gospels it is often easy to identify places where someone asks Jesus a question, or comes to him for healing, and Jesus responds. These are certainly units of a type, but they are often compiled into larger units as well in which several questions with their answers form a unit addressing a particular theme.

I have other reasons for picking Daniel 3, though, besides the ease with which one can pick up on the style of the story. One of the points of resistance to finding units within the text is that particular branches of Biblical criticism have often latched on to various units and assigned them to other origins, leaving the final author as a compiler of disparate traditions. This compiler seems often to be portrayed as some sort of a moron, since he is supposedly grafting different stories together into a single unit and utterly failing to take even basic measures to make the units hold together (such as removing the formulaic phrases of Daniel 3). The book of Daniel, though, has a number of “breaks” that don’t interfere with the sense that Daniel is a book with a theme. One of the clearest of these is that Daniel is written in two languages. Partway through Daniel the text switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, and then, chapters later, back again. The switch occurs in Daniel 2:4, and the switch back occurs at the end of Chapter 7. The Chapter 7 switch occurs at a natural breakpoint, but the Chapter 2 one does not. Nebuchadnezzar makes a statement in 2:3 which is written in Hebrew. The Chaldeans/magicians (Chaldeans are an ethnic group, but they came to be associated with astrology and magic, and so the word “Chaldean” can refer either to ethnicity or profession) reply to the king, and we are told in Hebrew, “The Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic,” to introduce the reply. Not only is the reply then actually written in Aramaic but the rest of the story is, continuing on through other stories until the end of Chapter 7. While switching between languages is a very clear shift it appears not to signal a shift in content or theme since it comes in the middle of what is clearly a unit. Similarly, the book of Daniel switches between literary genres (historical, apocalyptic, and long passages of monologue) without interfering with an overarching theme to the book.

I promised two techniques for better reading. Once a story has been identified as a discrete unit it is time to ask what the story is focused on. This is one point where it becomes very important to remember the difference between a story and a textbook. Imagine, for an instant, that we took a fictional story of Little Red Riding Hood and asked some basic questions about it as if it were a textbook. How does one identify a wolf posing as one’s grandmother? The story is somewhat capable of answering this one, as there is an exchange between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf about a number of characteristics where the wolf does not match Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. How does one kill a wolf? Again, we have an answer: with an ax. So far so good. How should one hold the ax? Where should one aim on the wolf? How old was Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother? How could she have prevented wolf attack to begin with? These questions are not answerable from the story. They aren’t answerable for a simple reason: unlike a textbook about avoiding attack from talking wolves the story of Little Red Riding Hood contains only information that furthers the story. This is why it is important to identify the purpose of a story.

A very clear example springs to mind the minute I write about this. Some time ago I suggested to a group (actually a class on how to read the Bible co-led by another of our blog’s contributors, Ben) that we examine the story of Cain and Abel. I thought this was a relatively straightforward story and was pleased with our progress through it until we got to the point where God curses Cain. Cain complains that anyone who finds him will kill him. Of course, if you’ve been paying any attention to Genesis you will have a pretty precise headcount of the global population which is three: Cain and his parents. Needless to say we immediately got sidetracked. Who were these people Cain was worried about finding him? How, a few verses later, does he find wives? The problem is that these questions are unanswerable. There is no information whatsoever in the story to make sense of these events. There is, however, a coherent narrative arc that remains intact anyway. Wherever these people come from Cain’s worry makes sense. He’s worried that what he has done is beyond the pale, and that he will not only be an outcast from society but that human society will actively seek to destroy him. The fact that society seems to come out of thin air to emphasize the severity of Cain’s crimes is immaterial. We can understand the events as they impact the characters just fine without ever answering the question of where these additional people came from. And, of course, even for someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of inspiration it would be exceedingly strange to believe that some scribe had written this all down and not noticed this problem. For whatever reason the story doesn’t find this detail important, and so the natural questions that arise are never answered.

I will suggest one final thing: if a story does not find a point important it is probably best that you don’t, either. Christianity is full of strange explanations that fill in gaps. Judaism is, too. But the simple fact is that we have stories with gaps. We have stories with gaps because the nature of stories is to have gaps. Other sorts of documents are not supposed to have gaps (although as long as humans are doing the writing they will, anyway) but the purpose of a story is to tell the story. Stories that fill in all the details are actually harder to read. In fact, we have a special name for details that don’t further the story: tangents. If we want to respect the Bible we have we should focus on the things it is trying to tell us, and not the details it didn’t see fit to mention.

All of this prepares us for the task of actually reading some difficult stories. Many of the stories I have plans for are in the Old Testament which is often avoided by Christians in part because the stories are hard to read. On the larger level this also helps us address the framework in which we think. We have all answered a number of questions about how to read the narratives in the Bible but many people seem to be unaware that they did so. Hopefully, by highlighting the answers to these questions from my perspective I have helped address that issue as well.


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