Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley


Narrative Speed

Narration seldom proceeds at the same pace as the events it describes. If the narrator summarises a whole lifetime may (in an extreme case) be told in a few sentences. Jehoshaphat son of Asa reigned over Judah for twenty-five eventful years, yet 1 Kings tells his story in ten verses. On the other hand, if a conversation that is accompanied by actions are being told the time taken to speak the narrative may be longer than the event itself.

I have never seen "narrative speed" quoted as a number: "6.37 minutes per minute" or whatever, but it may help to think of it this way - in this usage "speed" is a useful metaphor.

The "speed" with which a story is told is the ratio between the time the events would have taken divided by the time they take to narrate. As we have seen this speed varies, and there are some "rules" for this variation:

As well as description and summary Bar-Efrat notes that narrators also sometimes step outside storytime. Whenever a narrator offers us directly an evaluation, explanation or interpretation of events they have set themselves in some "other" space and time than that of the story (most often the one we as hearers of the story occupy). So in Judges 20:27-28 the action - seeking God's will - is described, very briefly, then storyline is interrupted while the narrator explains, before the action is narrated as a scene:

Translators often render such elements that are outside the storyline with brackets, as the NRSV has here.

And the Israelites inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, "Shall we go out once more to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites, or shall we desist?" The LORD answered, "Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand."

As we have seen description is rare in biblical narrative, so the speed of the narrative tends to move between sections that are (mainly) scenic and very brief summaries. By this means authors give us powerful clues as to what they think is significant. So, the reign of Jehoshaphat takes ten verses (1 Kings 22:41-50), while that of Ahab began in 1 Kings 16:28-22:40 though his reign was three years shorter!

The slowing of significant moments can achieve powerful emotional responses in the hearer. The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 is one of the most terrible in the Bible. It is told largely in the usual biblical style, with stretches of scene interspersed with brief summary:

Gen 22 Content style Words in Hebrew






vv.3-4 Narration 28
v.5 Speech 13




















Summary conclusion


At first glance this looks very even with each item of narration slightly longer than the speech which precedes it. Leaving the Angel's final speech, on behalf of God, as the unpaired and longer (notice how this underlines Davis' point that biblical narrative is not about you, or even primarily its human characters, but about God).

However, a closer look at the sections of narration reveals interesting variation of speed. The first section of narration (vv.3-4) recounts preparations and a journey of several days; the second (v.6) takes only minutes; in the third the action is fast while Abraham and Isaac (without the servants) complete the journey and Abraham builds the altar, then he:

laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

Notice the "unnecessary" words "in order", we do not need both the name Isaac and the description his son, and having been told Isaac is laid on the altar, we hardly need to know that he is "on top of the wood"; and then, at the point of maximum emotional tension, the telling is slowed yet more to a crawl:

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

The first part of verse thirteen is also slow, as we watch Abraham discover God's provision of an alternative sacrifice! The actual sacrifice is not the point of this story, so it is told with all economic speed (v.13b).



© Tim Bulkeley, 2008