I’ve closed out The Bible as Literature series for the moment, although I might throw out a post when the inspiration strikes. In the meantime, the columns are archived in the “The Bible” tab at the top of the page.
We’ve looked at the betrothal convention over the last two weeks. The first story containing a betrothal – that of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac – also adhered most closely to the guidelines.
Other betrothals used many of the rules of the convention but tweaked the rules in a way that added to the meaning of the story.
The surprising betrothal is one that massages the conventions in unexpected ways to produce an unexpected conclusion.
In John 4, we read the story of the Samaritan woman. In the story, the hero – Jesus – goes to a foreign country and stops at a well. When a woman approaches, he asks for a drink of water.
The two engage in a conversation and Jesus then invites the woman to bring her husband to meet him. She then has to confess that she has no husband. This tweaks the betrothal convention, which assumes a young maiden who goes to her husband.
In the John story, we don’t meet a maiden but a woman who has been married five times and currently lives with a man who is not her husband. She’s had a life of rejection in being divorced five times. It was usually the husband who divorced his wife and she had endured five rejections.
Jesus tells her about living water. Rather than drinking from the well water, he instead offers her something else: water that will well up into eternal life.
Although she doesn’t fully understand, Jesus’ words intrigue her enough that she hurries back to town, leaving her water jar behind.
She returns with many from the town and, as they listen to Jesus’ teaching, become believers.
Believers are often called the bride of Christ.
Although this betrothal story is a bit more nuanced, it uses the convention to convey a powerful meaning.
Last week we began a discussion about the betrothal genre in the Bible with some basic guidelines laid out. Then we examined the first betrothal – that of Isaac and Rebekah – setting the conventions in place.
The second betrothal is also found in Genesis but features a few tweaks to the guidelines – for a purpose.
Jacob, Isaac’s son, left his home and goes to a foreign land. There was no surrogate this time; Jacob was fleeing his brother’s wrath after deceiving him.
But the convention remains. Jacob went to the well to find his uncle Laban and there met Laban’s daughter, Rachel.
She was unable to draw water because of a stone blocking the well. So Jacob moved the stone for her and then watered the sheep. This slight variation on the convention could foreshadow the difficulties Jacob must overcome to actually marry Rachel- and even her difficulty in bearing children for him.
But the convention continues, for Rachel, after meeting Jacob, runs to her home. He eats a meal with the family and the betrothal is secured.
Although we were told immediately that Rebekah was beautiful, in this story we don’t learn of Rachel’s beauty until later – when she was compared to her sister Leah. The convention flexes here to give us understanding about the coming strife between the two sisters.
A third betrothal follows in Exodus when Moses, fleeing Egypt after murdering an Egyptian, arrived in a foreign land: Midian.
There he met the seven daughters of a Midianite priest – at a well where they had come to draw water. Moses had to drive off hostile shepherds before drawing water for the sheep, as the convention requires.
The girls hurried off to tell their father. Their father, Reuel, invited Moses to a meal and Moses was given Zipporah as his wife. All within the convention.
Next week we’ll look at a surprising betrothal story that used the betrothal conventions to an unexpected conclusion.
Most literature belongs in a particular genre and most genres have rules or conventions that govern the narrative.
For example, if you were to read a romance novel, you’d expect the hero and heroine to meet in the first chapter. You’d expect, in spite of conflict, that eventually they would find each other and there would be a happy ending.
Within those conventions there’s plenty of room for variety.
The Bible uses such conventions with some fascinating results.
Let’s meet the betrothal convention. In this story type, we have the following rules:
- Hero or his surrogate travels to a foreign country
- He encounters a girl, a maiden, the daughter of so-and-so – at a well
- Someone – the hero or the girl – draws water from the well
- The girl hurries – needs to be running/hurried – home to bring news of the stranger
- A betrothal occurs, usually after sharing a meal with the family.
Our first betrothal story occurs in Genesis. Abraham sends his servant, his surrogate to search for a wife for his son. The surrogate travels to a foreign country and comes to a well.
Since the custom was for the young women to draw water there, it was a good place to camp. There he meets Rebekah, who draws water for him and his camels. Then she runs home to tell her family about the stranger.
Her brother, Laban, comes out to invite the servant to a meal with the family. The betrothal is made and Rebekah goes with the servant to Abraham’s land where she marries Abraham’s son, Isaac.
This narrative established the betrothal narrative structure. The next one will stretch at the edges of the conventions a bit – for a very good reason.
We’ll take a look at that narrative next week.
The books of the Bible were written like most literature: in sentences and paragraphs.
However, chapter divisions were added to texts in the 12th century, presumably to make things easier for scholars. The average person wasn’t reading the Bible at that time.
Verse divisions came in the 1500s.
Those divisions are helpful when trying to direct someone to a specific phrase in a text. It’s complicated to tell someone, “See the third sentence in the fourth paragraph on the page? Yeah, the one that starts with ‘And.’”
But those divisions have hurt us in reading the Bible as literature. We focus on a verse and miss the story.
Sometimes the verse starts in mid-sentence and ends before the sentence does. And we read that one verse and think we’ll gain great meaning.
Try reading a biblical narrative as the author wrote it. All the paragraphs and all the sentences. Just like you read a magazine article or a novel.
Sometimes reading a single verse gives us incorrect meaning. Sometimes it limits the meaning or directs it down one path when the author had a wider and richer meaning in mind.
Look for sentences and paragraphs. Ignore the chapter/verse markings when reading.
You may be surprised at what you read.
I once sat through a 16-hour class in two days and figured it would take plenty of caffeine to keep me awake. I was wrong.
The professor sat on top of his desk and seemed to rabbit-trail into a story at every opportunity. He gave us conflict and resolution, drama and mystery.
At the end of the class, I realized that he had landed all his key points through the story telling. He didn’t need lectures because he had tales to tell.
The Bible uses similar strategy. Stories beckon to our emotions, offering visits to different settings with people we don’t know.
We follow the thread of conflict and drama, eager to see what happens next. Our emotions are captured by the stories.
Whether it’s in a classroom or sitting at a coffee shop, stories always trump lecture.
From the beginning of Genesis, where we are given a dramatic unfolding of the creation of the world, to Revelation where we trek through mysterious accounts to read the final plan for the world, we find the Bible packed with stories about people and events, disappointments and victories, love and conflict.
In Genesis alone, we meet numerous people and their life stories. Noah is well-known today for his faithfulness in building an ark before there was a sign of a flood. We ask questions. How could he devote his life to this carpentry? What did the neighbors say to him? What did he say to them?
Abraham’s story fills much of Genesis and we follow his travels from his homeland to an unknown land. He tussles with his nephew, Lot, and with his wife, Sarah. Promises are made to him that he doesn’t see results for many years.
How did he feel when Sarah asked him to produce an heir through a servant? And, later, did he mourn when Sarah forced him to send mother and son – his son – into the wilderness?
What did the celebration look like when Sarah did bear a son, Isaac? Do we like Sarah? How does she train up her son?
We identify with the people and the stories. We grow in our empathy.
Like my professor who used stories to make his points, the Bible plants meaning through stories.
Many allusions come from Job’s story and yet we all wonder just what the meaning of the story is.
We’re told, for example, to have the patience of Job but was he so patient? He didn’t deny God but he did some griping.
What was the purpose of those friends and their advice? Why didn’t Job listen to them? Should he have listened? Did his wife have it right when she told him to curse God and die?
How could he, in the midst of his dilemma, craft a phrase that is now a part of well-known Easter hymn: “I know that my redeemer lives”?
And what do we make of the closing chapters of Job? Was God rebuking or instructing Job? Did Job do well – or forget his place?
I might write more on Job another day but I found an intriguing article this week that I want to share instead.
Scot McKnight offers some thoughts: And then God instructs (or rebukes?)…Job and us.