Narrative :: Jonah: Introduction Notes on ch:  3  4  

Study Notes on Jonah (including Hebrew narrative) by Tim Bulkeley



is the systematic study of literature, or a unified theory of texts.

By calling it "systematic" we seek to avoid vague and woolly appreciation, and to focus attention on the rules that govern literature. Using the word "literature" begs many questions, but at least points out that we are not aiming to study history, or the psychology of an author... 

The name "poetics" comes from the pioneer work of the great Greek philosopher/scientist Aristotle. This work was envisaged as a systematic science of literature:

"I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first."

Aristotle. "Poetics." Poetics by Aristotle. 12 May 2000. Online. Internet. 5 Dec 2000; 20:50 GMT +12. Available:

Two cautions: 
(i) although I've used words like "systematic", and even "scientific", literature is such a slippery object, that we cannot hope to uncover absolute "laws". The best we can hope for is descriptions that work with some consistency and which allow us to make interesting discoveries.
(ii) such a study is only a "way in" to the riches of the Scriptural text, it may suggest meaning, it may show us limits on what the text could mean, but alone it cannot cause the text to mean anything for us. For that to happen we must "read" as well as "study"! 


"Poetics" as we have defined it will ask questions like: 
These are elements that recur often in discussion of narrative poetics: 

We will introduce each of these below, with particular attention to their working in biblical narrative.


All narrative has a narrator. A story has to be told to be a story, a story which is not told to us is not a narrative but a play, film or whatever. (The connection between narrative and narrator is so strong that some films and plays even have a narrator, despite the actors who perform the narrative!)

In studying narrators we need to distinguish three relationships to the story. 


The first of these is the author, the real flesh and blood person who composes the words. Texts are often attached to their authors (and - but less often - to their readers): 

Biblical books are often anonymous, sometimes the reader suspects that they are pseudonymous, or the work of several people. Yet all texts have authors, for without them there is no text!

However we do not normally meet the author. The biblical authors are indeed long dead. What we in fact meet is the text the author has written. 


This text contains, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in a hidden way a character who tells the story, "someone" who recounts the events. This someone is the narrator.

In the Bible narrators are not usually explicit characters. Ezra and Nehemiah are exceptions with their autobiographical style. We will devote some attention below to the styles of narration used by biblical texts, and later in the course we shall study the narration of our two stories.

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Implied Authors

Even where the narrator is not a character in the story at all, nevertheless as we read we build up a picture of the author. This picture may be more or less like the real author. This "person" implied by the text and inferred by the reader is often called the implied author. 

This sounds difficult, but we recognise the notion of the implied author in everyday life. When applying for a job if the candidate does not "present themself well" they will not get the post. The "person" I present in my application is the "implied author"!

This implied author corresponds in some way to the real author. In a job application they usually correspond perfectly - at least in the facts presented! 

In fiction this may not be the case, but almost always there is a close resemblance between the real and implied authors of a work. This would be so even if the narrator were someone totally different.

As we have seen implied authors are the, conscious or unconscious, creations of authors. Yet not only of authors, for they come to "life" when the text becomes discourse. That is when it becomes communication in the relationship between text and reader. For it is, in some way, as we read that we build up our implied author. Of course this process is guided by a program built into the text by the author, and good readers are faithful to these programs.

Biblical Narrators

Biblical narrators are unobtrusive, seldom being characters in the story, seldom addressing their readers directly and seldom revealing the process of composition.

However asides to the reader are not uncommon. For example the use of the phrase "to this day" in Gen 35:20, such an attempt to bring things up to date is perhaps the most common form of narratorial presence on the surface of the text.

The use of the reverse reference e.g. the phrase "in those days" is a more discrete yet still clear way of marking off "their time" from "our time" (which is in fact the narrator's and no longer ours!).

Such asides may contain information which the narrator supplies to help the reader understand (the most well known example is probably 1 Sam 9:9) or remarks which invite the reader to share the narrator's judgment on the characters or events (2 Sam 8:15), though as we shall see such evaluation is more often expressed by a character. The aside need not "break the temporal frame" of the story, but could simply assist the reader with an explanation (Gen 13:6) or by sharing the narrator's omniscience about his characters (Jdgs 13:16).

Even an unobtrusive narrator provides such cues to his hearers/readers. One common way is by using an evaluative word or phrase (1 Sam 9:2 "handsome") or one whose emotional tone suggests the evaluation (Jdgs 8:33 "prostituted"). 

The narrator may also draw our attention to something which a character sees using the expression "behold" hinneh, though such narratorial direction is often obscured in modern translations (cf. 1 Kings 18:7 in NRSV "As Obadiah was on the way, Elijah met him; Obadiah recognized him..." with RSV "And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him; and Obadiah recognized him...").

You may well like to try a small exercise on narrators at this stage.


In real life people exist and we relate to them more or less as they are. In a story characters do not exist except as we produce them, using the program the author has provided in the text. 

This process of creating characters, or rather the programs from which the reader builds up characters, is called characterisation.

Depth of characterisation

There is a spectrum of characterisation: 

Major and Minor Characters

Almost all stories have one character who provides the focus, they are called the "hero". One can also usefully (if often somewhat arbitrarily) distinguish major from minor characters.

This spectrum from hero through major characters to minor figures ("walk-on" parts), according to their importance to the story, is closely related to, but not the same as the range in depth of characterisation. Minor figures are less likely to be well-rounded.

Minor characters are not always simply agents however. We shall see how minor characters in the book of Ruth serve to highlight the major figures and their qualities and are thus vital to the theological message of the book. For now, note how in 2 Kings 5:6-7 the "King of Israel" is not even necessary to the storyline, yet by his lack of faith he shows up the prophet's faith.

Biblical authors seldom provide direct description. Yet they provide subtle characterisation using a whole battery of indirect means. Among these 

Where direct description is provided it is seldom gratuitous, for example Absalom's beauty is mentioned in 2 Sam 14:25 "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." for the phrase in bold points forward ironically to this character's bizarre death in 2 Sam 18:9ff..

So description, like other areas biblical poetics, seems to operate in a minimalist way, few words must carry quite a freight. The cases of the first two Kings of Israel are illustrative:

For both these major biblical characters the descriptions are fuller, though still somewhat sparse. Despite this they serve rhetorical rather than mimetic ends.

Characters' thoughts are known to the omniscient biblical narrators. In 1 Sam 1 notice how feelings are indicated (vv. 5, 10) and how we are told of Eli's (mistaken) judgment (v. 13). Since it is the "heart" which matters rather than the appearance, biblical poetics is consistent with biblical theology in telling us more about thoughts and feelings than about the appearance of characters.

Jesus said "by their fruits you will know them" (Mt 7:16,20) and in biblical storytelling it is most often by actions and by their own words that we discover the character of the characters. The shortest Bible verse (Jn 11:35) tells us a lot about Jesus.

Anyone reading the story of Jacob and Laban (Gen 29) soon spots that Laban is even craftier than his cousin, even if the text gives us no description - his behaviour betrays him!

Whether on the mouth of another character or given directly by the narrator evaluation adds greatly to our understanding of a character.

We shall see that, while Ruth's actions are open sometimes to various interpretations, other characters express positive judgments on her. This has to influence how we interpret her acts.

By contrast Job 1:1b gives us the narrator's opinion of Job at the beginning of the story. This judgment is then reinforced by his acts Job 1:5, and then receives the divine seal 1:8.

Contrast between our expectations, or even the character's own expectations, and their behaviour is a most effective means of building up our sense of a character's depth. We shall see this at work particularly in Jonah.

Often a character built up through a contrast with another (often minor) character. This technique is used most effectively in both our stories.

David, the paragon, is often contrasted with others. In 1 Sam 30:6ff. his calm trust is in stark opposition to the panic and threats of the others. Simon in his study of the roles of minor characters in biblical narratives stresses this function:

"It is precisely the possibility of saying little about them which makes them such an effective means for pointing out the main issue. In view of the biblical narrative's quest for theological understatement and its eschewing of ethical value judgments, it is the minor characters who often provide the key to the message of the story. ... indirect characterisation... is done mainly through comparing and contrasting: the unexpected is set against the expected, the outstanding against the normal..."

Simon, 18.

Biblical narrators' love of this technique is related to the anti-establishment tendency of the Bible's message. Simon, again, sums up:

"Only the fact that the biblical narrator does not sanctify the social order but religious and ethical values, enables him to criticise the protagonist by means of the minor character, or to place a low-ranking person in the centre of the story as a main character. For the basic intention of biblical storytelling is not to glorify exalted persons and institutions, nor even to intensify adherence to lofty beliefs and concepts, but to present us with flesh-and-blood persons serving as models and warnings in their rises and falls."

Simon, 18.

The way in which a character is named, or referred to, often serves either to characterise them or the one who names them. At the least the choice of "name" signals the point of view of the namer. In Gen 32:25ff. the mysterious antagonist with whom Jacob wrestles at first has no name. Till verse 31 he remains only a, non-reverential, pronoun.

Naming-through-relationship is frequent and skilfully manipulated. Notice in 1 Sam 1 how in verse 4 the children are called "Peninnah...and... all her sons and daughters". There is no suggestion that Elkanah is not their father, however he is by this naming distanced from them. For he desires children by Hannah.

When, in Job 42:7-8, God three times speaks of "my servant Job" his evaluation of this character is clear. NB. he had signalled his confidence in Job already speaking to the accuser in 1:8 and 2:3.

Points of View

Our treatment of characters has led us already to mention the concept of "point of view". Biblical narratives are (almost?) never flat or one-dimensional. They are stories full of dynamic tensions. This is what makes them interesting and appealing to the reader. Most often this tension is heightened by the presence of a variety of points of view.

"Physically" the story is seldom experienced through a single set of eyes and ears. The presentation of biblical stories is often compared to a film. The "camera" presents us with several scenes, and quite often shows us one scene from more than one "point of view".

Berlin (45-46) gives the example of 2 Sam 18:19-32. Following the assassination of Absalom, Ahimaaz requests permission to take the "good news" to the king, his words suggest his point of view. The camera however stays on Joab until the middle of v.23. In a swift change it now first looks at David, then sees from his perspective, v.24. Notice how, unlike the king, we know that two runners are coming, the king only gradually discovers this (and which of them is first). From this point king and reader have the same point of view. At the close of the scene the camera mounts with the king to his chamber, v.33.

Most of what we have spoken of in this story is the simplest use of the notion of "point of view", the perspective from which the story is told.

However we have already begun to notice another kind of "point of view", that of attitudes, values and conceptions. When we looked at Ahimaaz' attitude to his news, we were exploring his conceptions.

We could use the term "point of view" in a third way to refer to someone's interest or advantage. Our story clearly implies Joab's recognition that it is a bad idea from his point of view (in this last sense) that David learn too soon of his beloved son Absalom's death - or at least of its cause (cf. vv. 12 & 14).

Plot and Structure

Plot from Beginning to End

Aristotle in his "Poetics" provides the simplest possible analysis of plot. Starting from the deceptively simple recognition that:
"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end." 
He goes on to draw attention to the necessary characteristics of these three parts:
"A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles."

Aristotle. "Poetics." Poetics by Aristotle. 12 May 2000. Online. Internet. 5 Dec 2000; 20:50 GMT +12. Available: #290

These axioms are not as useless as they seem. For if we notice that a beginning is something that does not need to come after something else and that an end naturally does follow something else yet is not itself necessarily followed by anything, then we have a way of distinguishing beginnings and ends, even relative beginnings and ends within a larger whole.

Also if we apply this "beginning, middle, end" idea specifically to narrative we find that stories have three parts of a more precise kind. These are often referred to as "exposition", "complication" and "denouement or resolution".

Stories begin from a certain situation which poses a problem or shows up something lacking. 

The presentation of this is the "exposition". Thereafter a series of actions produce transformations, which complicate the resolution of the initial problem, "complication". Finally the initial problem is overcome or the lack is filled, "resolution".

Such a simple schema lets us describe the basics of plot, but it does not suffice to list all the elements even in simple narratives. A number of details can be added to such an approach. 

Order and Speed of Telling

Russian formalists drew attention to the distinction between the order of events in the story told (fabula) and the order of events in the telling (sjuzet or syuzhet). Flashback is a clear example of such a distinction, the event being told (sjuzet) is some time, maybe years earlier than the place in the story (fabula) at which it is told.

A less extreme, but often interesting variation, is when the speed of telling becomes faster or slower. That is, the ratio of sjuzet "telling" to fabula "events told" may be faster or slower. When the telling slows down our attention is drawn to what is happening.

Noticing such phenomena can draw attention to the messages the text is communicating.

A Linguistic Approach to Plot

An American socio-linguist, William Labov, studied storytelling by ordinary inner city black people. His analysis of the content of their stories was found to be helpful in examining biblical narrative (Berlin, 101). He found six elements were commonly present in his informants "stories" though not all would be present every time and some were less common than others. (Cf. Clines)

The uses of such a functional approach can be seen if we look at a short biblical narrative, Gen 6:1-8.

The narrative framework of the book of Job provides an even better example: 

There are a number of more complex approaches, but these will suffice for introducing our study of Ruth and Jonah.


© Tim Bulkeley, 2003