Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley



Alter (63) distinguished between a "narrative event" - a scene where we "watch" things happen - and "summary" - where we are simply given information. I shall describe these two sorts of material as "scene" and "narration". Summary does not seem to me an appropriate term, since some narration is more than a summary, however we should be aware also that we only "see" the "scene" through the narrator's telling of it!

In 2 Samuel 2:22 we get a brief summary (in my sense of a brief narration), which informs us what Eli's sons were doing, and that Eli was aware of it. This becomes "scene" with the direct speech in v.23.

Since narration (in the restricted sense) is sparse in biblical narrative, the action is carried mainly by dialogue between characters, together with their physical acts. Thus direct speech is very common. It is the main way in which characters interact. Speech is also a significant vehicle for evaluation, at least it frequently gives us the character's evaluation of what is happening. For example, see Eli's speech to his sons in 1 Samuel 2:23ff. tells us clearly what he thinks of them, however, the sons' evaluation of their father's advice is told only in summary v.25.

Reported speech, a form of speech as narration, is not common in biblical narrative, and is most often found embedded in another character's direct speech, when they report what someone else has said! Thus David in 1 Samuel 21:2 tells the priest what he claims Saul has ordered:

David said to the priest Ahimelech,

"The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me,

'No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.'

I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place...

In this case even the invented speech of another character is not reported using indirect speech, but rather in "their own words"! In Gen 26:32 there is a mix of reported and direct speech:

That same day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and said to him, "We have found water!"

One advantage of this preference for direct speech is that it allows for greater complexity and ambiguity in trhe presentration of events. When the narrator tells us what a character thinks we know exactly what the character thought. However, when a character tells another character what they think we have far more licence to explore the complexity of human motives.

Alter (67) uses 1 Samuel 24:4-6 as an example. Saul is pursuing David and his band, who are hidden in the back of a cave, in verse four David's men say to him "God has given Saul into David's power

The men of David said to him, "Here is the day of which the LORD said to you,

'I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.'"

Then David went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's cloak. Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul's cloak. He said to his men,

"The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD's anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the LORD's anointed."

By presenting us with David's own words, unsupported by the narrator's authority, we are left to judge his motives as we would in real life. Why is David "stricken to the heart"? Does he wish that someone else would "raise [their] hand against" Saul.

In biblical narrative speech between characters is usually between only two parties (nb. one character might be a chorus or group - "the people of the town said..." Judges 14:18).

More rarely a third character is a party in the conversation (the conversation between Joseph and the cupbearer and the baker in Genesis 40 is an example). Sometimes, God is one of these "characters", or the action is carried forward through an interior dialogue, where a character talks to themself, or thinks.

Usually dialogues are short, most often only two or three utterances by each party. Though sometimes a longer discourse is presented - perhaps as a monologue, or with the response either brief or merely summarised. The Rabshakeh's conversation with the Judahite delegates in 2 Kings 18:19ff. provides a good example, which also suggests this unusual imballance is used to highlight an imbalance in power between the two parties.

Biblical Hebrew as written had no quotation marks, so these formulae introducing direct speech serve as am open quotes, however we are left to determine where the quotation ends.

Direct speech is introduced by a formula, usually the verb "אָמַר say" or "עֲנָה answer" so: וַתֹּאמֶר = she said "...", and וַיַּעַן = he answered "...". However, despite this suggestion that the words the narrfator supplies are an exact quote, they are clearly an artistic rendering of what was said. For example notice how Boaz speaks to the "other Go'el" in Ruth 4:1, his words are introduced by the quotation formula:

וַיֹּאמֶר סוּרָה שְׁבָה־פֹּה פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי
and he said: "come here, Mr X, and sit down"

Now, it seems fairly sure that פְּלֹנִי אַלְמֹנִי was not the man's name, but like "Mr X" is a way of avoiding identifying someone by name. This was the understanding of the translators of the LXX who render the words by κρύφιε krufie (from "hidden or secret") and also recognised by Rashi (a fine Jewish interpreter of the Bible) in the middle ages. It also seems implausible that Boaz addressed his relative as "Mr X"! Therefore the narrator has chosen to represent Boaz' words, rather than to quote them. The attempt at mimesis (plausible representation) is a Greek aesthetic and the desire for "accuracy" a modern Western notion. The biblical writers preferred to show us what happened and what it meant. Alter cites passages that record an inquiry made for a oracle as strong examples of the stylisation of such speech. The common means of consulting God's will in the early monarchy involved the Urim and Thumim or casting lots - basically cultic activities that gave yes/no answers. However, when David seeks God's will this is reported to us as a conversation. E.g. in 2 Samuel 2:1:

Bar-Efrat (148-9) offers some complex and interesting examples of biblical narrators stylising speech and different motives for this effect.

After this David inquired of the LORD, "Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?" The LORD said to him, "Go up." David said, "To which shall I go up?" He said, "To Hebron."

Since David is not portrayed normally as a prophet who received direct communication from God this report does not record a conversation, but rather presents a question and answer session in that way. We would perhaps render it: After this David inquired of the LORD, asking if he should go up into any of the cities of Judah. The LORD replied to him, "Yes." In response to David's questions he identified the city as Hebron. We would also probably want to know the means by which David consulted God: After this David called his seer Gad to him and inquired of the LORD, casting lots to ask if he should go up into any of the cities of Judah...

The preference for speech over narration is so powerful that thought is most often recorded as internal speech. Sometimes thoughts are introduced by phrases like "he said to himself" or "she said in her heart", but often they are simply indicated by the verb "say" in the same way as verbalised speech to another person. So most translators render כִּי־אָמַר for he said in Gen 32:20 (v.21 in Hebrew) as "for he thought" (cf. Ex 2:14; 13:17; Judges 16:20 etc.).

Alter has pointed out how this powerful obsession (in biblical narrative poetics) with speech is significant for literary and theological understanding of these texts. He wrote:

The mechanical agency of consulting the oracle is in the eyes of the writer a trivial matter and not worthy of narrative representation. What is important to him is human will confronted with alternatives which it may choose on its own or submit to divine determination. Articulated language provides the indispensable model for defining this rhythm of political or historical alternatives, question and response, creaturely uncertainty over against the Creator's intermittently revealed design, because in the biblical view words underlie reality. With words God called the world into being; the capacity for using language from the start set man apart from the other creatures; in words each person reveals his distinctive nature, his willingness to enter into binding compacts with men and God, his ability to control others, to deceive them, to feel for them, and to respond to them. Spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to transpose what is preverbal or nonverbal into speech is finally a technique for getting that the essence of things, for obtruding their substratum.

Alter (69-70)          

In the Bible the literary is theological. For everything in trhe Bible speaks of God, shows us how humans respond to divine initiatives, or how for good and ill their decisions impact themselves and others. The Bible's poetics serves a vision of humanity as responsible beings faced with decisions that matter, and with the potential for relationship with the Creator!


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008