Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Bible as Narrative, Pt. 1

Here’s a question I'll bet you haven’t given much thought to—what is the organizing principle of the Bible? (I just won that bet, didn’t I?  Although I realize it’s kind of a Bible-nerdy thing to ask in the first place.)  It’s clear that both testaments have been organized by someone, and if someone gave thought to the organization to the various writings then there has to be an organizing principle—some guide, decided beforehand, that dictated the order of the books.  In the New Testament, that organization is pretty clear.  Start with the gospels, which are chronologically followed by Acts, then the epistles attributed to Paul, starting with the longest and ending with the shortest, then the non-Pauline epistles, again going from longest (Hebrews) to shortest (Jude), and concluding everything with the Apocalypse of John.  A different organizing principle could have been used; for instance, a purely chronological one, in which case Mark would probably be the first of the gospels (but still later than some of Paul’s letters).  It would also have made sense to put Luke last in the four gospels so that it could be followed immediately by Acts, which was written by Luke as a companion to his gospel.  But a different organizing principle was used, hence we have the order we have today.  There is really nothing special about the organizing principle of the New Testament; it could have been ordered differently without much, if any, loss, and perhaps with some gain.
At first glance, the organizing principle of the Old Testament appears much the same.  The Christian Bible starts with Genesis—in the beginning—followed by the other four books that make up the Hebrew Torah or Law, then the historical books in chronological order  (chronological order of the events recorded, which may or not be the chronological order in which the books were composed)—Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.  Then the books that the Hebrew Bible calls the ketuvim or Writings are grouped together—Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), followed by the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and concluding with the twelve Minor Prophets.  It’s an organizing principle, but it’s not deemed to be very important.  Other than tradition and personal preference there really wouldn’t be much reason to object if one were to arrange them differently, and in fact various Christian groups put them in slightly different orders and even include some additional writings.  Whatever organizing principle these groups have used, it is clear that they don’t see any kind of narrative structure to the books of the Old Testament.  If you were to ask the average Christian what story the Old Testament is telling, I imagine most would scratch their heads and look at you funny.  If pressed to give an answer they would probably say that the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness, or the futility of trying to earn salvation through the Law, or something along those lines.  These are really more thematic statements than plotlines, however.
But most Christians consider the Old Testament a history of the Israelite nation from creation to post-exilic repatriation, and talk of plot and thematic statements really don’t have a place when telling history.  When telling history, what happened, when, where and by whom are what’s important.  The question of why can be suspect.  Historians can describe the events that led to another event, in the way that Dred Scott and John Brown and the Missouri Compromise are all events leading up to the American Civil War; but to look for larger meanings, deeper meanings, theological meanings—these kinds of why answers are left for the theologians, the philosophers, the sociologists—and the artists, particularly the poets and writers.
But I contend that the Old Testament, while certainly dealing with historical events, is a literary work.  By this I don’t merely mean that it is skillfully written, sometimes beautifully written; I mean that the Old Testament bears the marks of careful craftsmanship, of creativity, of an artful organization.  It does not just have a theme, it has a plot.  It isn’t just a collection of stories, it is telling a story, with all the features we expect to see in great stories—characters, conflict, complications, protagonists, antagonists, etc.
It is an historical story, but it is primarily a theological and moral story.  It takes what most certainly happened in Israelite history and seeks to explain why it happened.
And, as I said before, why is not the question of the objective historian, it is the question of the subjective theologian, ethicist, and prophet.

No comments:

Post a Comment