Introduction to narrative :: Ruth :: Jonah

Hebrew narrative: Ruth and Jonah by Tim Bulkeley




"narrative is the recounting of a series of facts or events and the establishing of some connection between them."    
(A. Ross. 156) see note.
Such recounting may be: 
wholly fictional (e.g. a fairy story), or 
stringently factual (e.g. "Report of an experiment to measure...").
It may involve:
a strongly evident "teller of the tale" (narrator) e.g. "As I was going..."
or the presence of such a "person" may be suppressed by convention (e.g. in lab reports: "Information regarding parents' employment and child-care arrangements was obtained during the course of interviews..."). 
In western culture there is a often a similarity between these two kinds of difference with
narrators of fact hiding themselves and 
tellers of fiction presenting themselves. 

Even in Western culture, though, this relationship is far from perfect. E.g. a witness in a trial must tell "what they have seen and heard themselves" and their character and credentials will be examined. Compare "Once upon a time there were three bears..."

Narrative, understood in this way, is the most frequent major genre in the OT as a whole, as the table below shows. It is especially important in the historical books.

Try to list a variety of types of writing that fit this definition of "narrative".
Discuss what is similar and what different about these different genres.

0.22 Presence of Narrative in the Hebrew Bible

at least the framework is narrative, and much of material in Genesis and large parts of Exodus, as well as some in the other books is narrative itself
Former Prophets - all narrative
Later Prophets - only Jonah is overtly narrative, but narrative elements in Jeremiah, Isaiah and also in other books
Psalms, Job, Proverbs are mainly other genres, only Job approximates to story
The five scrolls: (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther) - Ruth & Esther are narratives
Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles - all narrative

Genre and Reading Biblical Narrative

The summary table above does not distinguish the varied kinds of narrative found in the OT. These range from fable (Judg 9:8-15) and other passages with resemblances to folk tales through to reports (1 Kings 6-8); and from short localised episodes involving few characters (Gen 4:1-16) to extended recounting of events spanning many years and scenes (Gen 37ff.). Some involve dramatic divine intervention (2 Kings 2:1-12) others tell of nothing out of the ordinary (2 Kings 12:19-21).

Yet within this diversity there are great similarities of poetics:

These broad similarities of biblical narrative poetics mean that the techniques we use to study Ruth and Jonah will be applicable to other narrative texts, and even that many of the techniques we shall observe in these books will be seen elsewhere too. 

Both books are similar in that they are neither very long nor yet simple and short in construction. Even Ruth, the apparently more localised and straightforward story, moves between several scenes. Ruth fits comfortably together with other short stories, though exactly which texts are generically closest to Ruth is somewhat more debatable. Jonah's relation to other texts is less simple.

Ruth and Jonah are both quite different from the stories of the Pentateuch, most of which form part of a longer cycle and so fit the description saga. However neither book is integrated into one of the sweeping histories (Joshua-Kings, Chronicles). Unlike other short stand alone stories in the Bible both contain several episodes set in different locations. 

However, there are other stories of similar length and with multiple scenes and episodes, at least: Joseph (though this is related to the patriarchal sagas), Esther, Tobit and Judith (from the Apocrypha). Yet among these stories is a wide diversity of style and contents, some are "historical" others (notably Tobit) seem legendary. 

So scholars have described the genre of both "Ruth" and "Jonah" in a number of ways. One common classification has been novelle.  A novelle is artful writing which in a short space tells several episodes, while the name suggests fiction, not all scholars focus on this implication. The purpose of a novelle may be to entertain, but it may also seek to argue a case.

Campbell dismisses this as too broad a category, woolly on the most important issues, and he notes similarities of style with a broader grouping of stories. So he seeks a description which clarifies the significance of the works but which also draws attention to their common poetics with a wider corpus. 

His proposal for this is the term "Hebrew short story". This draws attention to their:
artful composition
style with elements of near poetry
typical people
national significance
purposes which combine entertainment and instruction (infotainment?!)
understanding of providence (while often not making this explicit)
characters serve as examples to emulate or to avoid.  

Narrative and History


For centuries history provided the predominant way of reading our two texts. Both have been scrutinised for the light they could shed on the ancient world, both have been attacked as fitting less than perfectly with other information that produces our idea of the events and society of their period. In particular, the supernatural element in Jonah has been passionately debated, as has the conversion of Nineveh. Such analysis and discussion is vital, at least for those whose primary interest is history.

Both our stories, in their different ways, demonstrate the difficulties which face the critic who is determined to distinguish history from fiction as they read the Bible. Neither book admits to being fiction (but then neither does Jotham's fable - Jdgs 9:7ff.); indeed each places itself within Israel's history 

Yet each poses problems for the reader who understands them simply as history. These difficulties are most acute for Jonah, not merely over the question of the "fishy tale", but more severely over Nineveh's repentance which does not seem to most historians plausible.

The debate for and against historicity has generated some interesting information and even more interesting ways of using available information, not least in the realm of Hebrew linguistics. However this discussion has often been responsible for more heat than light, at least as far as reading and responding to the messages of the stories is concerned.

Discuss how you might decide whether a story intends: 
     to write history
     to give historical information 
       (many other sorts of writing do this including fiction)
     to teach about something else

History of the Narrative

In the last century or so attention has also been directed to the history of the narratives themselves.

Inevitably this set of questions has interrelated with the previous set, for if the main characters are distant in time from the writers it would be more difficult to support the substantial historicity of the storyline. 

Notice that this approach tends to direct attention away from the text to something which may stand before the present text, and therefore be nearer to the historical events. For both liberal and conservative historicists, history becomes more important than the biblical text!


© Tim Bulkeley, 2008