Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley



All narrative has a narrator. A story has to be told to be a story, a story which is not told to us is not a narrative but a play, film or whatever. (The connection between narrative and narrator is so strong that some films and plays even have a narrator, despite the actors who perform the narrative!)

In studying narrators we need to distinguish three relationships to the story. 


The first of these is the author, the real flesh and blood person who composes the words. Texts are often attached to their authors (and - but less often - to their readers): 

Biblical books are often anonymous, sometimes the reader suspects that they are pseudonymous, or the work of several people. Yet all texts have authors, for without them there is no text!

However we do not normally meet the author. The biblical authors are indeed long dead. What we in fact meet is the text the author has written. 


This text contains, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in a hidden way a character who tells the story, "someone" who recounts the events. This someone is the narrator.

In the Bible narrators are not usually explicit characters. Ezra and Nehemiah are exceptions with their autobiographical style. We will devote some attention below to the styles of narration used by biblical texts, and later in the course we shall study the narration of our two stories.

from: maesta/predel_f/pre_f_m.html
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Implied Authors

Even where the narrator is not a character in the story at all, nevertheless as we read we build up a picture of the author. This picture may be more or less like the real author. This "person" implied by the text and inferred by the reader is often called the implied author. 

This sounds difficult, but we recognise the notion of the implied author in everyday life. When applying for a job if the candidate does not "present themself well" they will not get the post. The "person" I present in my application is the "implied author"!

This implied author corresponds in some way to the real author. In a job application they usually correspond perfectly - at least in the facts presented! 

In fiction this may not be the case, but almost always there is a close resemblance between the real and implied authors of a work. This would be so even if the narrator were someone totally different.

As we have seen implied authors are the, conscious or unconscious, creations of authors. Yet not only of authors, for they come to "life" when the text becomes discourse. That is when it becomes communication in the relationship between text and reader. For it is, in some way, as we read that we build up our implied author. Of course this process is guided by a program built into the text by the author, and good readers are faithful to these programs.

Biblical Narrators

Biblical narrators are unobtrusive, seldom being characters in the story, seldom addressing their readers directly and seldom revealing the process of composition.

However asides to the reader are not uncommon. For example the use of the phrase "to this day" in Gen 35:19, such an attempt to bring things up to date is perhaps the most common form of narratorial presence on the surface of the text.

The use of the reverse reference e.g. the phrase "in those days" is a more discrete yet still clear way of marking off "their time" from "our time" (which is in fact the narrator's and no longer ours!).

Such asides may contain information which the narrator supplies to help the reader understand (the most well known example is probably 1 Sam 9:9) or remarks which invite the reader to share the narrator's judgment on the characters or events (2 Sam 8:15), though as we shall see such evaluation is more often expressed by a character. The aside need not "break the temporal frame" of the story, but could simply assist the reader with an explanation (Gen 13:7) or by sharing the narrator's omniscience about his characters (Jdgs 13:16).

Even an unobtrusive narrator provides such cues to his hearers/readers. One common way is by using an evaluative word or phrase (1 Sam 9:2 "handsome") or one whose emotional tone suggests the evaluation (Jdgs 8:33 "prostituted"). 

The narrator may also draw our attention to something which a character sees using the expression "behold" hinneh, though such narratorial direction is often obscured in modern translations (cf. 1 Kings 18:7 in NRSV "As Obadiah was on the way, Elijah met him; Obadiah recognized him..." with RSV "And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him; and Obadiah recognized him...").

You may well like to try a small exercise on narrators at this stage.


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008