Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley



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 30 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.


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008