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The Beauty of Biblical Narratives

Biblical narrative. What are they? When we think about reading the Old Testament, maybe you have trouble when it comes to reading through the genealogies, the long verses in the prophets, or the tedious law codes. This is true for many people I’ve talked to. However, there is a genre found in the Old Testament that seems to capture our attention quite well. I am speaking about biblical narrative passages. No doubt there are narratives in the Old Testament Scriptures that captivate us time and time again.

Although the Bible is clear that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for us to read (2 Tim. 3.16), it is true that biblical narrative passages are commonly retained into the hearts of readers in what we could call the “best of” narratives, similar to the way television programs retain particular episodes and compile them into a “best of” collection. In the Old Testament, this is sometimes true because of the sheer amount of writing devoted to particular characters, such as Moses and David. Other times, there may be very little writing (comparatively speaking) devoted to a particular character, such as Jonah and the whale.

Long or Short Narratives

But whether long or small portions, these biblical narrative passages are captured and sealed into the minds of readers. How is this so? From a literary standpoint, narratives possess all that lends to an enjoyable, shakable, suspenseful, compelling reading. What’s more, the literary components of biblical narrative are not an after-thought, as though there are structures, phrases and propositions for the simple sake of necessity in written communication. Rather, the impact given to you and me as reader in a text is found and solidified in the narrative structure itself.

You may be wondering what I mean by that- how can the impact a narrative text has on me be found in the narrative itself? We might understand that when it comes to a book like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, but we are talking about the Bible, a book that is supposed to be spiritual in nature! Can we really say that the Bible is impactful because of its grammatical structure? I want to not only argue an enthusiastic YES, but I want to show you HOW by looking at one of those ‘best of’ narratives in the Old Testament, the account known as the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Follow with me by having a Bible handy and let’s take a look at how we can gather those impactful nuggets throughout the biblical narrative passage.

The Plot in Biblical Narratives

To place Genesis 22 into its proper context, the author signals a continuing thread, preparing the reader for transition (Klein et al. 222) in Abraham’s life by the words of introduction: “After these things” (English Standard Version, Gen. 22.1). An analysis of “After these things” can be found by examining the previous chapter of Genesis and discovering that the promised son Isaac has been born (21.2), weaned (21.8), and dwelt for many days in the Philistine land with his mother and father (21.34).

For the reader who has worked through chapters 12-21 of Genesis, the ending of chapter 21 would seem like a good place to stop with the story of Abraham. After all, the point of the story in God’s calling of Abraham was to take him out of the land and provide offspring for him, so that they might by blessed. Having overcome the obstacle of Sarah’s barrenness, Isaac is presented as God’s resolution to the reproduction problem and the story seems to end with a “happily ever after” note in chapter 21.

A New Phrase

However, the writer introduces a new phase into the what we might call the Abrahamic act (Fokkelman 156), indeed the final definitive phase of the Abrahamic act by way of introducing the Abraham of Genesis 22 in comparison to the Abraham of Genesis 12. The writer does this with an interesting use of the technique of parallelism. This may not be realized by those who read Genesis 22 as an isolated account, but those who read the full account of the man Abraham, the parallelism is unmistakable:

  • “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12.1).

  • “He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen. 22.2).

The author, by using phrasing and structure of thought, brings the reader back to the starting point of this man and cues us in to approach this text with a mindset of assessing the character development of Abram, now Abraham. One question we could ask is ‘How will Abraham react this time to the command of God? We know that up to this point Abraham has been found faithful. Looming in the backdrop is also another question: what can we make of Abraham’s faith, since we have only seen it in action under the want of a son? Now that this son has been given, will Abraham show himself to be a man lacking resiliency?

The author continues the parallel structure to give the reader an indication that we are dealing with the same resolve for obedience:

  • “So Abraham went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him.” (Gen. 12.4a)

  • “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac” (Gen. 22.3a)

In both cases, the LORD speaks and Abraham obeys. Undoubtedly, there is a lot involved when being told to relocate from a land you have known your whole life, just as there is a lot involved when being told to sacrifice the son you have just received after years and years of waiting. Yet the author does not intend to lose our focus by discussing all the preparations involved, not to mention what may have been said to Sarah!

Instead, the author has a very clear goal of character development in mind that need not be side stepped by additional data. The selectivity keeps the narrative progressing into an exposition of how the sacrifice was performed, not how the sacrifice seemed plausible or implausible.

In terms of Abraham as character, there is certainly grounds to consider development that has taken place. In fact, in many ways this text is presented as a survey chiefly of Abraham’s development throughout the episodes in his life. The reader notes that Abraham always seemed to have a backup plan when obeying God in actuality. When God directs him to Egypt, Abraham proposes that Sarah identify herself as his sister for fear of his life (Gen. 12.13). When God promises a child to Sarah, Abraham agrees to have a child only by extension of Hagar instead of Sarah (Gen. 16.15).

In these cases, Abraham took it upon himself to work out the details of God’s word to him. Now, in the text of Genesis 22, the reader notices that this character trait is no longer present. Instead, the author gives the picture of a resilient Abraham who hears the words, sets out on the journey, and cuts the wood for the offering. Abraham does not seek to substitute a servant for his son, nor does he seek out Ishmael in hopes that just as he was good enough for a substitutional offspring, he may be enough for a substitutional sacrifice.

These roadblocks never come up, nor are the thoughts or concerns thereof entertained in the text, showing the reader a developed man of faith.

Brevity in Biblical Narratives

It may surprise the reader to note how little talking occurs in this passage. As compared to instances earlier in the Abrahamic acts (even the previous chapter) the author utilizes a liberal amount of dialogue to direct the narrative. In this case, there is only that which is necessary to break the eerie silence of suspense and propel the narrative towards the height of suspense which will be found upon the heights of the mountain where the sacrifice is to be performed.

Notice the detail of time, only to further leave the reader wanting for conversation pieces! As J.P. Fokkelman asserts, “With every word the writer controls, massages and manipulates us, and we are left with only the simple choice between obedience and pulling out completely. In this case, obedience means following the story” (123). Verse 4 indicates that three days have passed since Abraham’s rising in the morning to begin preparation for the journey. The author has in some ways spared us the details of three days of travel between verses 3 and 4, yet in some ways he has kept the readers in suspense, since any would long to know what internal struggles were occurring in Abraham, or what conversations took place between him and his son.

The plot continues to thicken as we are introduced to a peculiar phrase in verse 5, the first break of silence since God’s initial command, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Gen. 22.5). The direction of the plot seems to leave many open-ended questions that the author does not seek to resolve here, but they beg to be asked nonetheless: Did Abraham truly mean what he said to his servants or was this just wishful thinking? Was this an intentional covering of the truth of their journey, presuming that Isaac does not know what is soon to take place? Is Abraham buckling to the pressure and seeking to amend the instructions to sacrifice his son with a more noble approach to worshiping alongside his son?

This demonstrates both the omniscience of the author and the lack thereof in the character Abraham, since “the text never hints that Abraham recognized he was being tested, although in retrospect the biblical narrator explains that he was” (Klein et al. 499). No doubt these questions are begged by the lack of dialogue leading up to this statement by Abraham, but it seems that the author in a way has given us just enough information to beckon us to continue our own journey up the mountain to see how the story will finally unfold.

At this point, we have no reason otherwise than to take Abraham seriously with his words, which shows for us that he is a man very much grounded in faith.

Finding the Hero in Biblical Narratives

As the journey continues, we read the first and only uttered words of Isaac in which he asks a very valid question in light of Abraham’s previous words: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” We wonder if this question is in response to Abraham’s words to the servants, or if this is in response to an initial conversation between father and son where Isaac had every reason to believe that they were to sacrifice a lamb all along! Again, the author does not give us this information. What’s more, this represents the fact that Isaac is by and large a flat character.

This seems amazing, since the one who is about to be sacrificed would be expected to have some dynamic reactions! Ironically, this passage is commonly called the sacrifice of Isaac, yet the one who bears the title has very little involvement as a developing character throughout the passage itself.

We will not hear from him again, even when his father lifts the knife to kill him! Even during the moment of suspense and in the face of death, he utters no words. This seems to be a very direct cue by the author that our focus is not to be placed upon Isaac himself, or the act of sacrifice. Our mind should instead move to look for the hero of the text.

This can prove to be difficult, since we are never given the point of view of Isaac or Abraham. This seems problematic as these are the only characters present in the narrative after the servants are instructed to stay away from the mountain itself. In a way, the author has given us small glimpses of the supporting cast, while allowing brevity to whisper to the reader: keep looking to the mountain, keep looking to the mountain.

Silence as a Narrative Tool of Progression

The reader again notes the deafening silence for the lack of dialogue. Yet what is lacking in dialogue is not lacking in description. There is sheer genius in the power of suspenseful writing here as we now approach the moment of truth as it were. Note how the command is first given by God to Abraham in terms of Isaac: “offer him there as a burnt offering” (Gen. 22.2b). Now note the utilization of suspense and imagery during the scene on the mountain top: “Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.” (Gen. 22.10).

Just as a picture is worth more than a thousand words, so it is here, as the imagery of slaughter more than makes up for the precious few words between father and son. If we have time to think whether Isaac thought his father to have tricked him in suggesting that a lamb would be provided, or if Abraham had to forcefully hold Isaac during this process, then we may wander off into many speculations. As it stands, the author is not willing for us to do this and beckons us to look to the hand and the knife and connect them to the act of slaughter, silencing our apparitions of how things may have happened, and focusing our gaze on the impending death of Isaac.

And here, in the last moment of time, the command is given by One who was absent all this time as character yet present all this time as God, “Abraham, Abraham!” The repetition of the name clues the readers into what type of call this was, one that undoubtedly roared along the mountain top and was enough to shatter any internal thoughts or cries or sobs that were taking place during the lowering of the knife towards the flesh of Isaac.

The words of God in stopping Abraham are given, and now the characters Abraham and Isaac are finally without reservation clued in to the point of this whole journey to the mountain “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22.12).

And here is where many people err in analyzing this passage, for many who read this verse take it as a cue of what the “moral of the story is”.

But we must remember that we have been privy to much information not made known to Abraham or any other characters up to this point. As early as the first line of the chapter, we have known that this was a test from God to Abraham, showing that God indeed was watching and active in every part of the passage.

Yet those who focus too much on verse 12 are forced to terminate all teaching and summary of the text upon Abraham himself, since this is the predominant character. But what does verse 12 says to us, other than what we have already known about this test?

Seeing that God has just been introduced to us again by the author after a considerable amount of time in silence, a brief analysis on this statement to Abraham should be made. God does seem to indicate being enlightened by uttering the words “for now I know”, but a closer look shows that these words are given for the sake of Abraham. As God is reintroduced in the text, we should take stock of what mode or way He has appeared throughout the text. God provides the timing of the test (Gen. 22.1) and the place of the test (Gen. 22.2).

In these texts, the author prompts the readers to know that God is designer and architect, not merely spectator or a character with guest appearances. Though He is not present with speaking parts, God is present by inference, leading Abraham along the way and providing instruction all the way to the mountain itself. This is clear in what has been revealed about God in the text, and this could not be the case if God operates on limited knowledge. The language of verse 12 seems to be simply a way of an eternal God communicating His intentions and thoughts in the course of time and space.

This is actually a parallel occurrence, since God has sought to use similar language with Abraham when speaking of His intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah:

“The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do” (Gen. 18.17).

“I will go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know” (Gen. 18.21).

This is simply a way of both God and the author capturing the way that God reveals His omniscience (18.17) working out in the course of time and space as judge and assessor (18.21). As J.I. Packer states upon this very passage, “When the Bible pictures God judging, it emphasizes his omniscience and wisdom as the searcher of hearts and the finder of facts” (141). The author seems to do the same thing here in Genesis 22, where it can be verified that God is very much in control, yet communicates his omniscience and wisdom in time and space as a searcher and finder of facts (Gen. 22.12). This should not surprise us as we are familiar with this way of teaching by the author already.

So, the heroic signals, when placing emphasis on what has been revealed about God, show that each character, even including Abraham, are supporting characters to lead us to see the true hero of the story, who is God. This means that even the test of the sacrifice is plot development to lead to the truth of the matter: The LORD will provide.

This message is actually quite clear in the story, but many readers tend to get lost in the details, with most seeing that the signals “God tested Abraham” and “now I know” are the beginning and end of the main point: Abraham and his resilient faith. But this is hardly the point of the narrative, since faith is not an end in itself, and Abraham (in what precious few words the author has recorded) has already signaled for readers the direction and aim of his faith as early as verse 8: “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

John Calvin in his Institutes sheds light on the purpose of this verse: When Abraham said to his son, God will provide (Gen 22:8), he meant not merely to assert that the future event was foreknown to God, but to resign the management of an unknown business to the will of him whose province it is to bring perplexed dubious matters to a happy result” (116).

But in case this wasn’t enough of a cue by the author, he records Abraham to repeat it again by the most powerful way Abraham could have thought to articulate this “So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide’” (Gen. 22.14). When you really want to get a point across or commemorate something, you name a city or a place after it!

This truth that the LORD will provide was proven to be so by the ram who was caught in a thicket. Perhaps it appeared after the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham or perhaps it was present the whole time. This is not the important information of the text, but what is important is that the ram be brought into view. The author does this very pointedly by drawing our eyes away from the scene of dialogue to the scene of provision by the emphatic command to the readers “and behold, behind him was a ram” (Gen 22.13).

If this is still not enough for us, the author, after recording Abraham’s naming of the place after this concept of the LORD’s provision, also tells the readers that this became a saying even to this day: “as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided’” (Gen. 22.14). If we are to follow this trajectory of thought in the narrative, we see that the author has given us a steady stream of this truth:

1. Abraham posits that God will provide (v.8) 2. The ram’s appearance proves it to be so (v.13) 3. Abraham names the place after this reality of God as provider (v.14) 4. It is maintained to be so by all people to this day. (v.14)

Thus, we have the true purpose and meaning of the narrative given to us by the author, the meaning that is demonstrated and developed with the backdrop of Abraham’s test and Isaac the beloved son: God will provide.

The Conclusion in Biblical Narratives

Much can be learned of plot and intention of the author by simply paying careful attention to the clues and cues placed within the text itself. As I have said, it is true that this text is teaching us something about Abraham’s faith. The author surely wanted to convey this to us in the way that Abraham’s character is presented as a whole. But what is not the case is that the point of the text is Abraham’s faith. This is argued simply because Abraham articulates his faith as pointing to something else, something beyond.

The author, through brevity of dialogue, suspense, time, and other literary devices has led us to see that what lies beyond the theme of faith is the hero of God and His provision, hinted in the text and confirmed in the conclusion. It is through these subtle yet powerful literary employments within narrative that the story of Isaac’s sacrifice is part of the “best of” collection and stands to teach some truly spectacular things about God in an enjoyable, shakable, suspenseful, and compelling narrative.

So what do you think about biblical narrative passages? Have you ever tried analyzing them, looking for the clues that tell us the story? Share and comment below and tell us what some of your own discoveries have been in biblical narrative passages!

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