The Study of Poetics







        The literary analysis of the text has been the major interest of all the predominant approaches to the study of the Bible, beginning with the old Literary Analytical Approach (also known as the Documentary Hypothesis) through to the Form Critical Approach.  But even though those approaches made great contributions to the study of the text, they were tainted with too much skeptical bias against the unity and integrity of the text.  Frequently the literary interests were made to serve diachronic studies in which the origin and development of the text was traced from its alleged sources; or literary studies were used to distinguish the historical and non‑historical parts of a passage.  Gunkel's well-known analysis of Genesis 1-11 is a good example; he argued that it was poetic, and since poetic not historical.

Very recently there has been a new emphasis in the literary analysis of the text, coming from various theological perspectives all at once.  It should come as no surprise that Form Criticism, with its emphasis on literary genre and compositional analysis, should have led to an even greater emphasis among scholars on the literary features of a text.  But in this new wave of scholarship, people are less interested in tracing the origin and transmission of narratives, psalms, or oracles, than with the literary shape of the final form of the text.[1]   This shift toward the straight literary analysis (synchronic study) of Scripture probably reflects an impasse in the debates over source criticism (diachronic study).

This is not to say that the literary analysts today endorse the historicity of the text.  On the contrary, modern scholars with this pursuit are more inclined to treat the Bible narratives as fiction, creative story-telling, or paradigmatic narratives.  They may grant that back of the story lies some kernel of truth, some event that gave rise to the tradition, but over the years as it was handed down it was  reshaped and embellished for other purposes.  Some writers, then, still attempt to speculate on what the original story or poem was, and what its function might have been.  But others are more interested in studying the material as it exists, as a piece of literature. 


Rhetorical Criticism


The phrase “Rhetorical Criticism” was first used by James Muilenberg in an address to the Society of Biblical Literature in 1968.[2]  His address called for study in the nature of Hebrew literary tradition as an extension of Form Criticism.  This would involve the analysis of structural patterns in a literary unit and the poetic devices that unified the whole.  This new synchronic emphasis would be primarily concerned with matters of structure and texture.[3]

In the recent examples of what may be generally called Rhetorical Criticism,[4] certain features of the literature are employed in the analysis of structure: acts, scenes, episodes, strophes, speeches, discourse, and the like.  The literature can therefore be broken down into its constituent levels.[5]

The analysis of texture concerns sounds, syllables, words, phrases, sentences, and groups of sentences.  This study observes the repetition of thoughts, key words, or motifs; word plays or paronomasia; repetition of sounds such as assonance or alliteration; or adumbration; inclusio; and a host of other literary devices.[6]

This approach to the text as literature has opened up the study for theologians as well as literary critics.[7]  Rhetorical Criticism enables the theologian to understand the theological ideas of the text more fully, because the analysis is concerned with the final, fixed form of the text - the canon.  It is clear that the structure and the texture are not merely ornamental; they are the means of directing the reader's focus in the story.

The structure and the texture do this persuasively by arousing an emotional response in addition to an intellectual reaction to the narrative.  For example, repetition, the hallmark of Hebrew rhetoric,[8] centers the thought and gives unity and continuity to the narrative.  But it frequently does this in a way that makes a lasting impression on the reader, for the repeated element carries forward the emotional and intellectual connotations of the previous use.  For example, note the allusion to Genesis 25:23 in the words of Laban the deceiver to Jacob: “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen. 29:26).

There are weaknesses in the use of rhetorical criticism, and the exegete will have to be alert to them in reading the literature.  First, if the study of the passage ignores altogether the origin, transmission, and original purpose of the text, it may arbitrarily ascribe meanings that go beyond the intent of the passage.[9]  While Scripture may have levels of meanings (different connotations) for different generations, the basic meaning of a text must be tied to its historical setting and purpose.  So the biblical scholar cannot work exclusively on the synchronic level.  Naturally, people who study the Bible generally have their ideas settled on these matters before beginning exegetical work.  The critical scholar is apt to accept that the conclusions of higher criticism are correct, that is, that much of the material is late but projected back to the earlier times; and the conservative scholar is apt to contend that the material is much older.

Second, Rhetorical Criticism has not always coupled the investigation with Genre Criticism.  But this is where the correlation with Form Criticism should be the strongest.  It is one thing to study the structure and texture of a passage; but it is another thing to relate these findings to the literary form of the text, for the form is related to the function.  For example, it will make a difference in the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 if the section is classified as a collection of myths comparable to other ancient Near Eastern literature.[10]

Now the expositor faces another hurdle in working with the Bible as literature, one that has been inculcated in the thinking of Christians for decades, namely, that the Bible must be interpreted “literally.”  In the over-simplistic use of this idea, if the book of Job says that Job said such and such, or his friends said such and such, then that is exactly what they said.  Or, if the text says that God said at the building of the tower of Babel, “Let us go down . . . . ” then that is what he said - in classical Hebrew!  On the other end of the scale, many modern literary studies view the biblical accounts rather differently; they are basically pieces of literature, and the writers were able to use literary devices in telling the stories or recording the oracles. For some this means the stories were made up; for others it means some event was used and in the re-telling embellished.

Here are several considerations that have bearing on this matter.   First, how much interpretation did a writer give by what he chose to include or exclude in the reporting of the traditions?  For example, the Chronicler, by omitting the story of David's sin, gave a picture of David that was rather different than the one in the Book of Samuel.[11]  Second, how much freedom did the writer have in rearranging narrative exposition and dialogue in order to get a poetic balance?  For example, was the dialogue in Job originally delivered in 2200 lines of Hebrew poetry?  Or, did God call Abram by using classical Hebrew poetry.  Or, did the events of the Book of Ruth naturally fall into patterns of parallel repetition and inverted repetition.  Third, how much linking of stories and foreshadowing of events did the biblical writers suggest by their choice of words and phrases.  For example, did Esau actually use the words ’edom ’edom, or did the narrative choose to use those words to foreshadow the nature of the Edomites? (Gen. 25:29); or, did Abraham actually have laws, statutes, and precepts (Gen. 26:6), or did Moses use those words to foreshadow the giving of the Law?

These, and other issues like them, are the kinds of issues that you will be sorting through in the future when dealing with the text.  Conservative expositors naturally will insist that the events in the Bible actually happened in essentially the way they have been reported.  Jesus did die on the cross, did rise from the dead, did ascend into heaven; or David did reign as king, commit adultery with Bathsheba, did move the ark to Jerusalem; or Esau was a hunter, he did trade his birthright for lentil soup, and Jacob did make him swear to it.[12]  But in accepting the facts. the conservative scholar also must give greater attention to the literary art used in the text.  When used within the framework of the doctrine of inspiration, literary art adds much to the meaning and focus of the text.  A belief in the historicity of the events need not exclude literary art in the telling of those events; and a literary analysis of the stories need not deny that the events occurred.

It has been suggested for some time that one of the reasons for literary art in the Bible is that the material was handed down orally before it was committed to writing.  The discussion of oral tradition is a major one, and the student will have to consult the literature on that.[13]  Suffice it to say that it is certainly possible that much of the material existed in oral form and so the repetition, chiasms, and word plays could have been an aid to memory.  However, it is fairly well known that writing was in common use from the earliest periods, and that things that were important were committed to writing almost immediately.  Probably oral transmission and literary texts existed side by side in Israel, the texts preserving the material, and the oral transmission aiding its memory.

The only way for you to become familiar with this entire area is to read the literature and study samples of how the method is used in the analysis of the text.  If you spend time doing that, you will see that there is much to be gained from this approach.  This course will draw some of the material together in studying the psalms; but the different aspects of literary studies go far beyond the formal poetry of the psalms, to the entire Old Testament.  What you learn in this study of the Psalms will be equally applicable in all Scripture.


Rhetorical Critical Method

It is not my purpose to give a detailed discussion of all that literary analysis of the text can provide in the exegetical process.  I propose simply to survey some of the predominant things that can be done, in order to whet your appetite for such a study.  Needless to say, it is not possible to work within this area (with any satisfaction) without being in the Hebrew text fairly frequently.  Some things can be picked up from an English translation, to be sure; but they became much clearer with even a brief glance at the Hebrew words or the Hebrew constructions.



Structure is the arrangement or the organization of the text.  This is to be distinguished from “structuralism” in the technical sense of the word, for that is an entirely different approach that carries the study to very different dimensions.  Some students incorrectly use the latter designation to describe their compositional analysis.

When we study the structure of a passage we are concerned with the higher levels of a work.  The following are some of the things to use in analyzing structure.

1.  Pericope Indicators.  It is commonly recognized that the unit to be studied must be identified at the outset.  This is not always as easy as it may seem.  Many times to determine where the pericope begins and ends calls for a close examination of the text, to look for indicators.  For example, a study of the Hebrew organization of Genesis will lead the exegete to realize that 37:1 belongs with chapter 36, and 37:2 (“these are the generations of Jacob”) marks a new section.  The English chapter divisions have concealed this point.  A re‑division of the narratives means that Esau’s vast prosperity (36) is to be contrasted with Jacob's sojournings (37:1).  Delitzsch caught this, and explained the message of the unit to be that secular, worldly greatness is swifter than spiritual greatness.[14] If the unit is not extended to 37:1, then Genesis 36 is almost unpreachable (which may be why nobody preaches from it).

The units of Scripture often have fairly obvious indications.  In prophetic oracles it may be repeated calls or imperatives, introductory formulae, or parallel motifs.  In the Law it might be repeated motifs, like “I am the LORD your God.”  In Psalms we will be looking at the patterns of different types of psalms, and that will assist in dividing the passage into its parts--although the psalm is the basic unit by itself.

2.  Framing, or Inclusio.   Another device of literary art is framing, that is, using a similar or identical phrase, motif, or episode to begin and end the unit, or a section of the unit.  You can see this very clearly in poetry such as Psalm 8, which begins and ends “O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth.”

But it is used in other biblical literature as well.  For example, in Genesis 9, the first section of the narrative about the Noachian covenant, we have the divine instruction that says: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth”(v. 1).  This is repeated in part in verse seven.  So the first section which prohibits shedding blood, that is, taking life, is framed by the repetition of the instruction to produce life.

Larger complexes of literature also use framing.  For example, the Jacob stories can be divided into the Jacob‑Esau cycle and the Jacob-Laban cycle. The Jacob-Laban cycle is framed by nocturnal visitations from the LORD, the first at Bethel (Genesis 28) as Jacob was leaving his land, and the second at Peniel (Genesis 32) when he was returning to his land.  The immediate observation is that these were placed there because that is when they took place - and that is essentially correct; but on closer consideration we must consider what the framing contributes to the meaning of the written text?  The writer is obviously trying to make the reader aware of the relation between the framing and the intervening material.

Sometimes we must approach the framing from inside the narratives.  For example, Genesis 38 reports the account of Judah and Tamar.  Why was it placed within the Joseph stories?  It follows the account of the sale of Joseph and precedes the account of Joseph's temptation by Potiphar's wife.  The writer, by arranging the material, has framed the Genesis 38 account in order to convey its significance.  In other words, you have to consider the context in order to understand the meaning and impact of the chapter.  In the first place, Judah led his brothers to sell Joseph, their younger brother, to end his dreams of becoming their leader (37).  And then in his own family, and in spite of his own indifference and sin, Judah's younger son, Peres, pushed through to become the leader (38).  The story forms a rebuke on Judah's previous attempt to hinder the will of God.  But how does this story develop?  Tamar played the prostitute and seduced Judah so that she became impregnated.  Now in chapter 39, Joseph resisted the seductive appeal of  Potiphar's wife, showing why he, and not Judah, was the proper choice for the leadership of the people of God.

3.  Chiasm, or Inversion.   Chiasm is the arranging of the material in an inverted parallelism in order to show the mirroring of the first half of the narrative with the second, and in order to show the turning point of the story.  This is a favorite device in rhetorical critical writing; but it was not discovered by them.  Bullinger has pages of samples of this literary feature. You will have to be careful with some of the suggestions for this arrangement; some of the chiastic arrangements are contrived, leaving out items in the text that might spoil the arrangement.


But note the following chiastic structure of Genesis 11:1-9:

A   All the Earth had one language (1)

  B   there (2)

    C   one to another (3)

       D   Come, let's make bricks (3)

          E   Let's make for ourselves (4)

             F   a city and a tower (5)

               X   And the LORD came down to see (5)

             F'  the city and the tower (5)

          E'   that the humans built (5)

       D'   Come, Let's confuse (7)

     C'   everyone the language of his neighbor (8)

   B'   from there

A'   confused the language of the whole earth (9)


This kind of chiastic structure was used for entire narratives as well.  Note the pattern of motifs in the Flood story:

A   God resolves to destroy the corrupt race (6:11-13)

  B   Noah builds an ark according to God!s instructions (6:14-22)

    C   God commands the remnant to enter the ark (7:1-9.)

      D   The Flood begins (7:10-16)

        E    The Flood prevails 150 days, covering the mountains (7:17-24)

          X    God remembers Noah (8:1a)

        E'  The Flood          recedes 150 days and the mountains are visible (8:1b-5)

      D'   The earth dries (8:6-14)

    C'   God commands the remnant to leave the ark (8:15-19)

  B'   Noah builds an altar (8:20)

A'   God resolves not to destroy mankind (8:21, 22)

4.  Symmetry and Order Variation At times the writer will use a variation of previous motifs and expressions in order to parallel sections of the text, thus adding to the meaning.  For example, Genesis 13 records how Abram offered Lot his choice of the whole land, and how Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the circle of the Jordan, and journeyed east, pitching his tent next to Sodom.  But then the last part of the chapter records the word of the LORD to Abraham, telling him to lift up his eyes and look in every direction, for all the land he saw would be his; and then reports that Abram removed his tent and came and dwelt in Hebron.  Undoubtedly, the writer is contrasting the two parts to show that what Lot instinctively did, the LORD sovereignly granted to Abraham.

Another passage that illustrates this is Exodus 13:1-16. Verses 2 and 3 give the summary overview of the chapter: sanctify your sons to me and remember this day by keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  But then note the parallel development of the two sections:

  this day you came out (4)

     when the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites (5)

        you shall keep this service: seven days eat unleavened bread (6,7)

           show your son that this is because of the LORD's victory over Egypt (8)

  it will be a sign on your hand, and memorial between your eyes (9)

      for with a strong hand he brought you out (9)

  you shall keep this ordinance year by year at this time (10)

      the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites (11)

        you shall keep this service: set apart all males (12,13)

           tell your son that this is because the LORD brought us out of Egypt (14)

  it will be a token for your hand, and frontlets for your eyes (16)

      for with a strong hand be brought us out (16),

5.  Repetition of MotifsAlthough this heading could apply to same of the previously mentioned items, it is worth mentioning separately.  There are times in the literature that a motif will appear again and again in the text, giving organization to the passage.  For example, within the text of the Laws of Holiness, the motif “I am the LORD” is placed to show the organization of the material.

Leviticus 19 exhibits a present (or original) structural division by the repetition of certain expressions throughout.  It appears that the chapter is composed of two sections, both dealing with responsibilities in daily lives.  Section one seems to deal with responsibilities toward God (1-10) and section two responsibilities toward people (11-37).  Sixteen paragraph divisions are marked by “I am the LORD your God” or “I am the LORD.”  The first change from one to the other corresponds to the division between verses 10 and 11.  In verses 11-37 these paragraph endings note changes of emphasis:


1-2                        “I am the LORD your God”

3                           “I am the LORD your God”

4                           “I am the LORD your God”

5-10                      “I am the LORD your God”

11-12                    “I am the LORD”

13-14                    “I am the LORD”

15-16                    “I am the LORD”

17-18                    “I am the LORD”

19-25                    “I am the LORD your God”

26-28                    “I am the LORD”

29-30                    “I am the LORD”

31                          “I am the LORD your God”

32                          “I am the LORD”

33-34                    “I am the LORD your God”

35‑36                    “I am the LORD your God”

37                          “I am the LORD”


But even within larger narrative complexes do we find recurring motifs that show the unity and development of the story from one episode to another, giving greater meaning to the motif each time it appears in the text.  For example, when Joseph's brothers deceived their father into thinking Joseph was killed, they put the blood of “a kid of the goats” (she‘ir ‘izzim) on the tunic and sent it to Jacob, asking him to “recognize” (hakker) whether or not it was Joseph's coat (Gen. 37:31-33).  Back in Genesis 27:9 Jacob had used “two kids of the goats” (shene gedaye ‘izzim) to deceive his father.  So the recurring motif of deception ties the stories together and calls for comment.  But then also in Genesis 38, after Judah had been deceived by Tamar, he sent “a kid of the goats” (gedi ‘izzim in v. 17) in payment for the prostitute's services.  Later, when Tamar was revealed as the woman, she produced Judah's signet, bracelet, and staff, asking him to “recognize” (hakker) whether or not they were his (v. 25).  Judah and his brothers had asked their father to recognize Joseph's coat in order to deceive their father; Tamar asked Judah to recognize his things to uncover her deception and rebuke Judah.

6.  Quotations.   At the heart of biblical narrative is the use of direct and indirect quotations, and sometimes imaginary quotations (to represent a person's thinking, or explain a person's action).  Genesis 18:16-33, for example, is constructed largely by speeches separated by narrative reports.  Verse 16 reports that the angels rose up and looked toward Sodom.  But then verses 17-20 record a divine soliloquy, and verses 20-21 a speech to Abraham.  Verse 22 is a narrative report again, breaking the speeches: and the men turned and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stayed with the LORD.  Then, verses 23-32 record the dialogue between Abraham and the LORD over the destruction of the righteous with the wicked.  This dialogue is noted for its repetition, repetition that is important to the meaning, for he could have simply gotten to the last number without working down to it.  The narrative closes with the report that the LORD went on his way (v. 33).

Dialogue and speeches form a critical part of narrative literature.  Of course, they form the substance of prophetic oracles.  But in a narrative the dialogue or speech usually gives meaning to the entire narrative.  For example, in the above passage, the three verses that give the narrative reports would carry almost no meaning were it not for the soliloquy, speech, and dialogue.

7.  Subordinate Clauses and Parenthetical Descriptions Editorial comments form an important part of Hebrew narrative; they provide the writer's interpretations, explanations, or comments.  Everyone is familiar with the literature of the Book of Kings in which the writer is constantly telling the reader whether a king did righteously or not.  That naturally supplies the reader with the proper response to the narrative.

But in Hebrew exegesis there are many times when the parenthetical clause, or a description, provide a more subtle interpretation.  For example, when Lot chose to settle in Sodom, the narrative explains, “now the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked sinners against the LORD” (Gen. 13:12).  The implication of that comment in the story is left up to the reader.  While it does not form a major part of the structure by advancing the narrative, it does contribute to the meaning.  Or, when Simeon and Levi began to make a covenant with the Shechemites in Genesis 34, the narrator explains that they answered them deceitfully, reasoning that Schechem had defiled Dinah (v. 14).  This little explanation alerts the reader to the nature of the agreement to follow, and gives the narrator's opinion of it.  Or, throughout a piece of literature, such as the Book of Jonah, the writer is constantly using the subordinate clauses to give meaning to the structure.  For example, in something so simple as the report that Jonah went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish (the narrative), the clause “to flee from the presence of the LORD” and the repeated phrase “from the presence of the LORD,” serves to explain the main clause (1:2).  So being able to discern the subordinate and parenthetical material enables us to isolate the structure, and interpret it more precisely.




Texture deals with the style or the composition of the text itself, the lower level of a work - syllables, words, sentences‑all that goes to make up the narrative.  It should go without saying that everything in a composition is important, especially in Scripture, for it is a piece of literary art.  Unfortunately, preachers and teachers are too often oblivious to it.  Not long ago I had the disturbing experience of catching a television preacher in his act.  Preaching on Joseph's rise to power in Egypt through the interpretation of the dreams, he said, “It's a long story - I won't bore you with the details.”  What this indicated was that his material, largely exhortation and illustration, was more important than the text.  Many expositors might not say it, but they actually subscribe to that way of thinking, for their expositions are not at all text-based.   Our point, however, is that God gave us “the details” because they are all absolutely essential to the meaning of the unit.  The more that we uncover, the richer will be our understanding

1.  Paronomasia and Phonetic Word Plays.   By these devices the writers were emphasizing and focusing the reader's attention on critical points in the text.  We may make a technical distinction that a paronomasia is a word play involving sound and sense, for the words used were cognate; whereas the phonetic word play only involves sound.  There are also a few word plays that involve only sense and not sound.  In general, all types may be classified as word plays, and then the significance in each case can be further explained.

Word plays regularly appear in naming narratives in narrative literature, the point of the word play being to stress the significant meaning of the story.  For example, in Genesis 16 we have the story of Sarai's giving Hagar to her husband in order to obtain a child.  At the end of the story, the LORD rescued Hagar in the wilderness and prophesied concerning her child, giving him the name Ishmael with the explanation that the LORD heard (shama‘) her affliction (v. 11).  She responded by naming God ’El roi, “a God who sees me,” and then named the place, Be’er lakhay roi, “the well of the living God who sees me.”  The word plays on these names focus the reader's attention to the fact that “God hears” and “God sees,” meaning, God is able to deliver people from their affliction.  Because these come through the revelation of God (a speech in the narrative), and because that revelation is the climax of the story of the expulsion of Hagar - who must return to her mistress - they provide the lesson (and rebuke) for Abram and Sarai.  Is it any wonder, then, that their son Isaac meditates at Beerlahayroi (24:62); and that when his wife was barren, he prayed instead of schemed - and the LORD provided children (25:21)?

But word plays are not limited to namings.  In the story of Jacob and Esau the narrative employs many word plays.  For example, in Genesis 25:27 Esau is described as a mighty hunter (tsayid); but then in verse 29 Jacob boiled (wayyazed) pottage (nazid).  The writer contrasts the two by playing on the sounds, for the words are not related.  But his point was that Jacob was also a hunter, laying the trap for this reddish, hairy animal of a brother who would came running to the bait.

2.  Double ententeThis latter example leads us into another area of the literary art of a passage, that is, deliberate ambiguity in the text by means of words with double meanings.  In Genesis 25:29 another significant meaning can be seen in the choice of the verb zid, for although it does mean “to boil,” it is also used to describe presumptuous activity (the idea of water boiling over the edge coming to represent someone overstepping bounds).  So the connotation of the word and the sounds of the word both go beyond the denotation “boil.”

An example of deliberate ambiguity may be seen in Jonah 4:6 where the LORD caused the tree to grow up over Jonah's head “to deliver him from his evil plight” (mera‘ato).  Does this word ra‘a refer to the angry attitude of Jonah (“it was very evil [wayyera‘] to him,” 4:1), or the sun beating down on his head, or both?  I am inclined to say it refers to both, for the word has been used in the passage for Jonah's attitude, but the immediate context suggests the hot sun is the referent.

At times the writer will use the same word or words in different senses.  For example, in Genesis 40 Joseph was called on to interpret the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker.  The interpretation of the first was that Pharaoh would “Lift up your head” (yissa’ ’et ro’sheka), a restoration to the office (v. 13); but the interpretation for the latter was that Pharaoh would “lift up your head (yissa’ ’et ro’sheka) from you,”  that is, putting to death.  This grisly pun joins the two interpretations together by the repetition of the words, but plays on the different meanings to show the contrast.  The point seem to be part of the proof of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams that appeared similar but had very different meanings.

3.  Repetition.   As should be obvious by now, at the heart of the study of texture will be the repetition of important words within the narrative, psalm, or oracle.  These may be repeated in the same sense, giving direction then to the structure as well, or they may be repeated in a different sense.  For example, in the story of Joseph's dreams about his destiny (Genesis 37:1-11), three times the text explains that his brothers hated him (wayyisne’u  in verse 4; and wayyosipu ‘od seno’ in verses 5 and 8).  This repetition points the expositor in the direction of the point of the episode.  Incidently, the antonym of this verb, ’ahab, seems to fire the hatred, for the passage begins by stating that Jacob loved Joseph more than all the others.

If the repetition occurs between passages, then a sort of stitching takes place by which the narrator wishes the reader to trace the connections.  An analysis of the Book of Psalm reveals that this was part of the organizing pattern (as will be pointed out in the course).  But in narrative, one sample that is clear is in the story of Joseph.  The brothers hated Joseph and were not able to speak peaceably (leshalom) to him (37:4); but then the next section begins with Jacob's sending Joseph to discover the well-being (shelom) of his brothers.  The writer had prepared the reader for the failure of this mission by the repetition of the words.

Sometimes the repetition takes an ironic twist.  In Genesis 12:10‑20 we have the story of Abram's deception about Sarai his wife.  In verse 13 he instructed her to say that she was his sister, “in order that it might go well” (yitab) for him on her account.  But when she was taken from him, the text says that Pharaoh "treated him well" (hetib), giving him all kinds of possessions as a dowry.  The ironic repetition of the verb yatab shows emphatically how his plan backfired on him.

4.  Allusion and Foreshadowing By carefully choosing the words the writer can refer to previous events (allusions), or anticipate future events from the point of view of the text (foreshadowing).  Allusion can be effected by simply using a word that is well‑known from another context.  Psalmists, prophets, and narrators alike all make use of allusions.  The identification of allusions requires that the reader or listener be familiar with the referent.  For example, in Exodus 1:7 the text tells how the Israelites multiplied under the oppression of Egypt: “the Israelites were fruitful (paru) and increased abundantly (wayyisresu), and multiplied (wayyirbu) and became very, very mighty (wayya‘atsmu  bim’od  me’od).”  The words that are used here are drawn from Genesis 1:28 and 1:20, the commandments to “be fruitful” and “multiply,” and the decree that the earth “swarm” with living creatures.  The point of the allusion is to show that God's design for creation was now being developed in his formation of the new creation, Israel.

The story in Genesis 12:10-20 is a good example of foreshadowing in narrative art.  According to this account, there was a famine in the land, Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn, he was met with the possibility of the male being killed and the female taken alive, his wife was taken into bondage, the LORD delivered them by plagues, Pharaoh summoned Abram, and let them go, and they came up out of Egypt very rich.  All these points parallel the experience of Israel's bondage in the exodus from Egypt, down to the use of identical words.  Apparently Genesis 12:10-20 was written with that future experience in mind; in other words, the writer, knowing the later experience (so who better than Moses?), chose to word the patriarchal story to foreshadow the experience of Israel in Egypt - but not making up the story at all.  By doing this he could show that the earlier experience was a harbinger of Israel's experience, showing that God would deliver them.

5.  Notional Featrues.[15]  We now must turn to consider the use of notional features within the sentences of a narrative.  Here we are interested in observing the setting, referents, actions, and ideas as they occur within the text.  This will take in grammatical studies, vocabulary, sentence structure, and paragraph organization.  This part of the analysis is important because frequently the expositor does not know what the narrative is stressing, especially if it is a long and developed story.  The following procedure may prove helpful.

The first step is to list every being, object and place that is mentioned in the story (called referential taxonomy).  Everything plays some role in the story, and so nothing must be omitted.

The second step is to list every way in which a being, object or place is referred to in the course of the text.  A study of the referential variants used reveals something of the writer's style and is useful in determining the theme of a passage.  For example, in Genesis 4 Abel is referred to seven times as “Abel,” and seven times as “his [Cain's] brother,” further stressing that the murder was a sin against the brother.

The third step is to determine what has the prominent use in the narrative (in other words, analyze the material statistically).  Here you will distinguish the function of the referent within the grammar.  Is the referent used in the main sentence structure of the story, or in subordinate clauses, or in quotation?  Prominence can be determined by this, for the subject of a sentence is more important than an object (so Cain is more important to the story than Abel), the explicitly mentioned referent is more important than one referred to with only a suffix or a pronoun, and referents in a non-quotative sentence are more important to the structure of the story than referents in quotations.  By doing this the exegete will learn who or what the writer considered the most important characters) or items in the story.

The fourth step is to make a summary of line-event statement within the text.  This means culling from the text all statements which advance the story in action and time and then restating them an a separate list in the order in which they were introduced into the text (sometimes sentence diagraming will serve this purpose).  Certain things will be automatically excluded here: back references to previous events, supportive or explanatory material, non-event materials such as state-of-being propositions and projected or unrealized event statements, and narrator comments.  Now here you will have to be careful, for the narrative sequence in Hebrew, made with the consecutive and the preterite, is not always used to carry the story-line forward; it may be subordinated to another preterite.  For example, Genesis 3:6 should be translated, “When she saw (wattere’) . . . she took  (wattiqakh).” 

The fifth step is to map the verbs of the narrative.  Match up the verbs with their subjects to see what is the most dynamic subject of the story.  For example, in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 God is the subject of the verbs “to say,” “to see,” “to create,” “to name,” “to make,” “to bless,” “to separate,” “to rest,” “to place,” “to finish,” and “to sanctify.”  No other subject has so many verbs.  God is obviously central to the theme of the story.  This would be obvious to any reading of this particular chapter; I am just using a clear chapter to show how it works so that it can be applied to other, less obvious,  chapters.

The sixth step is to identify thematic referents in the story.  Thematic referents are characters or items that are referred to in more than one episode and are the subject of at least one event-line verb.  For example, in Genesis 4 Abel is the thematic referent.  He is the subject of the verb “brought” in verse 4, but apart from that he is only referred to, or is the subject of a stative verb.

Finally, all this material is to be correlated with the findings of the studies of repetitions within the text in order to determine the theme.   In the creation story there are twelve verbs or verb-centered structures repeated throughout the story.  The familiar wayehi ken, “and it was so,”  occurs once in episode two, twice in episode three, once in episode four, and twice in episode six.  Also, the verb bara’, “create,” occurs six times in the narrative, once in the introduction, once in episode five, three times in episode six, and once in episode seven.  By charting where the repeated verb-centered ideas are concentrated we can determine the highlight of the narratives theme.  In the creation account this seems to be episode six, the creation of mankind.  Even the repeated expression, “there was evening and there was morning, a first day,” repeated for each of six episodes, is highlighted in the sixth episode because only there is the article used in conjunction with the ordinal number - “the sixth day.”  In the creation account episode six has the prominence because it has eight highlighted repetitions within it.  The second most prominent is episode three.  This is significant, because in the structure of the narrative, day one parallels day four, day two parallels day five. and day three parallels day six, each climaxing the twofold development of the narrative that accounts for correcting the waste (days 1-3) and the void (days 4-6).

The highlighted theme of the text would then concentrate on the sixth episode.  This does not mean that the rest of the chapter is secondary, or subordinate; it means that in the wording of the theme for the whole narrative we would focus our attention on that panel.  And that would be expected from the rest of the exegesis too, for that panel records the instructions to mankind that will be developed throughout the Pentateuch.  The exposition would focus, then, on God's creation of mankind and his commission to populate and dominate the totally good creation that God created, blessed, and sanctified.

6.  Scenes.   If we are analyzing stories in narrative literature, then there will be scenes in the development of the story.  These can be rather easily identified by change of characters, change of settings, or change of actions.  Not all will have the clear structural markers that the narrative about creation has, but there is usually enough to indicate the scenes.  For example, in Genesis 27 we have clearly marked scenes in the story by the change of characters: Isaac sends Esau to hunt game for a blessing, Rebekah prepares Jacob for the deception, Jacob deceives Isaac for the blessing, Esau returns for the blessing from Isaac, Rebekah advises Isaac to send Jacob away, Isaac sends Jacob away with the blessing (27:1-28:9).  What is interesting in this story is that no more than two of the people in the family are ever together in one of the scenes.  The first and last scenes are parallel in that Isaac is sending away his sons, the first to hunt game and be blessed, and the second with the blessing.  At the center of the story are two parallel blessing scenes, the first of Isaac blessing Jacob unwittingly, and the second of Isaac giving Esau the lesser blessing.  In a passage like this the analysis of subjects and main line verbs would differ from scene to scene, but the parallel patterns between the scenes would show the emphasis of the narrator.

7.  Poetic Language.   It is important in studying Hebrew narratives to understand that a lofty or poetic language is used throughout to capture the point very dramatically.  In short, highly figurative language is used to communicate the points, because the writer is trying to get the reader to live in the imagination of the story.  At times the language seems cryptic because just enough has been said to make the point, and the rest is left to the reader to imagine.  Note the classic understatement in Genesis 31:2: “And Jacob saw the countenance of Laban, and indeed it was not toward him as before.”   At times we find expressions like “the voice of the blood of your brother cries out from the ground” (Gen. 4:10),  and “sin is couching at the door” (Gen. 4:7), and “Why has your face fallen?” (Gen. 4:6).  Such figurative language brings the narrative alive in the imagination and memory of the reader.   I use these samples to make the point that what is often called narrative literature is also full of figures of speech.  You will need to master the skill of identifying, classifying, and interpreting figures to work anywhere Scripture. 


Genre Criticism


It was with Form Criticism that biblical scholars were awakened to the different literary forms used in the Bible.  By studying the structure and composition of a piece of literature, form critics could isolate different types of literature.  Now genre has become  prominent in literary studies in that the biblical scholar often uses genre in the interpretation of the text. 

Unfortunately, in actual practice, the identification of the form is being used by some critics to determine the question of historicity.  For Gundry, to identify the story of the Wise Men in Matthew as a Jewish midrash brings to an end the question of whether there ever were any magi.  Likewise, for Leslie Allen, to identify Jonah as parable removes the necessity of finding the historical connection with Nineveh or defending the episode with the fish.  In both cases we would have to say “not so fast.”  First, there are serious  questions about their criteria used for identifying those genres, for we know what forms midrash and parables have - and these do not fit those criteria. Second, the classification of a genre does not necessarily means the events did not happen.  If the Wise Men were a midrash, the telling of the story in that form would have the purpose of expounding some event or text.  So these uses of genre studies are questionable.

Genre studies are important for the complete exegesis of the text, but several qualifications are in order.  First, you should know that there is much debate over what genre actually is, and once it can be identified to any satisfaction, whether or not it is all that helpful.

Second, genre deals with the form of literature and cannot be used to determine historicity.  For example, an essay could be fact or fiction.  A play can be historical or non-historical.  Allegory can use real events or fictitious events.  Only when the genre specifically limits the nature of the material can it speak to the issue of historicity, but that limitation comes from the substance of the material, not the form per se (for example, fairy tales).  A story is a story; it can be about William the Conqueror or St, George and the Dragon.

Third, genre determination ivolves circular reasoning.  We use genre to determine the interpretation of the passage, but we use the exegesis of the passage to identify the genre.  But there are checks and balances, if we are careful to use them, to come to an accurate conclusion.  However, if a writer classifies a passage according to a certain genre, but must delete or ignore certain parts in the story that do not fit that genre, or overlook features of the genre, then the classification is to be rejected.  For example, Joseph is often classified as a hero, and the story of Joseph as heroic literature.  But Joseph never risks everything in a heroic act - one of the features of heroic literature.  On the other hand, the Jacob stories do fit the pattern of comedy (in the Greek sense), especially with Jacob's scheming and deceiving, and yet coming out well in the end.  Or, if the writer tries to identify a genre without any other samples of that genre, the entire classification is called into question.  For example, Westermann in his commentary on Genesis says that Genesis 29 is an old “substitution of the wife” story that was so common in the ancient world.  But then he gives no samples and no references.

Fourth, we are not always able to classify a passage according to its genre, whether it is a psalm or a narrative.  We can describe what seems to be the form and the function of the passage, and give it a name, but without being able to find parallels we really do not have a literary type.

And fifth, the study of form should have bearing on function.  That is the whole point of genre.  If we have a biblical narrative that fits a distinct form, then that form will convey something beyond the report of what happened in the narrative‑it captures the didactic element in the story.  We may read again and again stories about provisions in the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers; these types of stories with their similar structures and motifs prepared the readers for the messages.  You will find that it is easier to identify the forms and the functions of the different types of psalms than types of narratives.  But some very helpful samples can be found in G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974).


Everyone who reads the Old Testament is aware that there is Poetry, Prophecy, Law, and Narrative.  Those classifications narrow the discussion, but do not give specific direction for the exegesis.

For psalms we can discern different types: individual lament psalms, national lament psalms, descriptive praise psalms, declarative praise psalms, and many, many more (as you will learn).  Each classification has a distinct but never stereotyped pattern, and distinct terminology and motifs.  The commonly used forms naturally suggest functions.  If a lament psalm records a cry out of physical suffering, then we may identify the type of situation and the function of such a prayer.  Or, if there is a praise psalm for victory in the battle, we may ascertain the setting in Israel's life, and how that praise would function in the worship of the congregation.

So too in other genres of literature do we have specific types.  In narrative literature there is a great deal of debate over the types, but this is not the place to discuss all that material.  But categories such as narrative, story (if dissociated from the idea of fiction), episode, and the like can be useful, for each have distinctive characteristics.  A narrative should have an arc of tension in which the passage traces the event through to a resolution.  If the narratives are part of a self-contained story, such as the story of Joseph, or the Book of Ruth, then the complete story will have such a plot.  And there are smaller units: genealogies, birth reports, burial reports, itinerary, wilderness wanderings, discourse narrative, and the like.  Even within the type genealogy we find sub-categories: vertical genealogies and horizontal genealogies.  The former traces lineage (Genesis 5 and 11), and the latter traces tribal federations (Genesis 10). They obviously have different structures and functions.

As you work through the passages, you will encounter current discussions of genre for each passage.  Some of the discussions will be helpful, and some will not.  You will have to evaluate the suggestions, and if they stand up under close scrutiny, then you will have to determine if they are helpful for exegesis.  For example, most students of the Bible know about the comparison of Hittite suzerainty treaties and Israel's Sinaitic covenant, specifically the Decalogue.  The use of this genre adds to our understanding and appreciation of the text.  On the other hand, the classification of the creation account as a myth, comparable to ancient Near Eastern mythologies, is problematic.  It requires us to understand what a myth is, and what it was supposed to do - and here are some major difficulties.  While one may recognize that Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is primarily a theological treatise, the issue of truth is at the center of this discussion.  The same would be true of the story of the Flood.  While many would like to treat it as myth, some of us still come back to the question of whether or not there was a flood, a fall, or a tower of Babel.  If the classification of "myth" is being used to side-step the question, or make the denial of the facts of Scripture acceptable, then the classification of myth is unsatisfactory.

It must be stated that a passage can be understood apart from genre classification; yet, in many cases there are specific refinements that greatly enhance our understanding of the text.  For example, Micah 1:10-16 has been classified as a Klagelied, a funeral dirge over the cities of the Shephelah (lowlands).  It is characterized by the announcement of doom over the impending invasion of these cities, each of the cities receiving a word play on its name to suggest that the nomen was the omen.  It is written in a meter that characterizes such a song, and the word plays on the names of the cities have the force of drumming the news into the listener so it is never forgotten.  A parallel is Isaiah 10:27-34.  It was written about the same invasion, but concentrates on the northern part of the invasion that comes over the mountain passes into Jerusalem.  It too plays on the names of the cities with ominous word plays, showing that the names themselves speak of the invasion.  Now, in reading through the passage in an English Bible we can learn that there is an invasion coming and the cities will be destroyed.  But by analyzing the genre through the distinctive features we capture the force of this means of expression, and its memorability through the distinctive features of this song of death.  There are no other passages in the Bible that are formed exactly like these two, although the prophets frequently play on the meanings of names.




This section of the notes has briefly opened up the discussion of rhetorical and genre criticism. It should now be clear that the Scripture is literary art as well as historical and theological truth.  The writers employed all the conventions at their disposal in formulating and expressing their messages.  But this literary art is not merely ornamental; it is a part of the total meaning of the text, and must be included in the exegesis and in the exposition of the text.






     [1] This is the emphasis of canonical criticism for one; see Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament Scriptures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

     [2] James Muilenberg, Form Criticism and Beyond, JBL 88 (1969):1-18.

     [3] The literature is very helpful: see J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis and Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: King David; John Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study; and John H. Patton, Rhetoric and Biblical Criticism, QJS 66 (1980):327-337.

     [4] Different writers stress different aspects of literary analysis.  For example, see S. Bar-Efrat, Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative, VT 30 (1980):154-173; Mary Savage, Literary Criticism and Biblical Studies: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Joseph Narratives, in Scripture in Context, edited by Carl D. Evans, William H. Hallo, and John B. White (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1980); and Roy F. Melugin, Muilenberg, Form Criticism and Theological Exegesis, in Encounter with the Text, edited by Martin J. Buss (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

     [5] For a good introduction, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

     [6] See Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts (New York: Schocken Books, 1979).

     [7] For samples of writings of literary scholars, see Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, ed., Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974).

     [8] James Muilenberg, A Study of Hebrew Rhetoric: Repetition and Style, VTS 1 (1953):97-111.

     [9] The work of Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), may illustrate this.  Trible has excellent insights into the texts of selected passages, but there is little attempt to articulate the meanings of the units apart from her use of them for studying terrorized women (which, to be fair, was her purpose).

     [10] If you wish to see this issue for Genesis 1-11 discussed, see Walter C. Kaiser, The Literary Form of Genesis 1-11, in New Perspectives on the Old Testament, edited by J. Barton Payne (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970), pp. 48-65.

     [11] But one must remember that the Chronicler is writing to supplement the Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings, and so there was no attempt to conceal Davids sins, for the reader could read about that elsewhere.  The Chronicler simply had his own purpose, and it did not require reviewing those things.

     [12] It is not a naive faith that leads to the view that these events occurred, but rather a logical consistency in the interpretation of Scripture, as well as a rejection of the arbitrary and subjective elimination of material by the modern theologian just because it may not fit his system or approach.

     [13] See, as a start, Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pp. 135-138.

     [14] Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, translated by Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1888), p. 238.

     [15] I am indebted for much of this section to Robert Bergen, who read a paper at the regional Society of Biblical Literature in March, 1983, entitled, A Proposed Discourse Critical Methodology for Use with Hebrew Narrative Material.