The documentary hypothesis and much of modern higher critical
theories derive from the inherent complexity and odd structuring
of the Hebrew narrative as found in the Bible. Evangelicals will
generally reject these higher critical techniques in favor of
a more traditional understanding of the text, but in so doing,
evangelicals often do not effectively confront and explain the
complexities that created the critical reactions in the first
place. The creative failure results from western myopia when it
comes to the text. Inevitably the Bible is seen through the eyes
of western civilization; certain presuppositions are so obviously
and inherently correct to a westerner that his bias is invisible
to him. Westerners expect texts and documents to follow a chronological
arrangement, especially when the document in question is a narrative
telling a story. Because of this expectation, not only is it possible
to misunderstand the Bible, but such questionable ideas as the
documentary hypothesis are easily postulated as the recalcitrant
text is forced into an alien and ill-fitting garment. McCarter
points out the problem in relation to 1 Samuel:
The narratives about Samuel, Saul, and David that make up our
book have a heterogeneous appearance even to the untrained eye.
Numerous internal thematic tensions, duplications, and contradictions
stand in the way of a straightforward reading of the story. The
figure of Samuel dominates the first three chapters, then vanishes
suddenly and completely in cc 4-6, only to return again in c 7.
In c 8 kingship is depicted as wholly offensive to Yahweh, while
in cc 9-10 the first king is anointed at Yahweh's command. Saul
becomes king by lottery in 10:17-27 but, apparently, by popular
proclamation in c 11. He seems to be rejected by Yahweh not once
but twice (in cc 16 and 17). There are two accounts of David's
betrothal to a daughter of Saul (c 18), two of his defection to
the Philistine king of Gath (cc 21 and 27), and two of his refusal
to take Saul's life (cc 24 and 26).
The pioneering scholars of the early nineteenth century (Eichhorn,
Thenius), aware of these inconsistencies and mindful of the successes
of parallel source theories in dealing with similar problems in
other books of the Bible, posited the existence of discrete strands
within the Samuel narratives.
G. Herbert Livingston in his book, The Pentateuch in its Cultural
Environment, makes an interesting and valid observation:
Many form critics have castigated scholars for looking at and
interpreting the OT from the standpoint of Western thought patterns
and customs. Yet the names give to the Pentateuchal literary types
and the criteria for isolating and labeling these types are Western
to the core. The observation that names for type do not often
occur in the Pentateuch does not justify this procedure. Efforts
must be made to devise labels that accord with and arise out of
the biblical materials themselves.
There is a delightful consistency in the nature of the critical
problems throughout the Bible; rather than explaining the difficulties
as the result of conflicting sources, or by simply ignoring them,
perhaps they should instead be recognized as an inherent characteristic
of Hebrew narrative; it seems an obvious solution. The problems
so well recognized by the critics, if one thinks of it, are remarkably
similar to what is taken for granted as normal in Hebrew poetry:
for instance, the parallelism, which, by its nature, is repetitious.
So, perhaps in narrative something of this method of structuring
thought can be recognized.
II. Summary of the Solution
What will be demonstrated, therefore, is that chronology is not
the overriding structural principle in Hebrew writing (and this
would include the New Testament as well, because, though written
in Greek, it was not primarily composed by Greeks). Rather,
chronology is subsumed by more important principles, at least
in Hebrew thought: namely, theme and content.
While chronology is not lacking, it is not the only, most important
or overriding sequencer of the material. Rather, other things
can become more important, thereby skewing the chronology in unexpected
ways. Perhaps this is not so surprising. After all, the very nature
of the Hebrew verbal system is suggestive of the possibility;
instead of tense, Hebrew has aspects which describe action in
terms of completion or incompletion, rather than in terms of past,
present and future. This outlook cannot have avoided having an
impact on narrative techniques. Yet, in the teaching of the language,
the true nature of the aspect system in Hebrew is commonly obscured.
For instance, Menahem Mansoor, in his book Biblical Hebrew
Step by Step, states:
Strictly speaking, Biblical (i.e. Classical) Hebrew has no tense
similar to those used in English, French, or German. The action
is regarded as either complete or incomplete. Hence
most scholars prefer to call a completed action perfect
and an incompleted action imperfect....
The use of the Hebrew tenses is relatively easy to learn....Thus,
many different types of past action are expressed by the Hebrew
perfect tense. This reductionism is largely true of the Hebrew
imperfect tense in expressing various types of future (and sometimes
also present) action.
Even Gesenius relegates a discussion of the peculiar nature of
the verbal system to a footnote (p. 125), and little if any discussion
is ever made in any grammar on the oddities that such an outlook
on the world would play in narrative or poetic structures.
Rather than stressing the peculiarity of the Hebrew verbal system,
the attempt is made to force it into a familiar mode, so that
students are invariably left with the impression that the imperfect
is present or future and perfect is past tense, with no awareness
of the non-chronological character of the verbal system. Rather
than adjusting minds to the Hebrew mold, Hebrew is pressed into
a Western European mold -- thereby obscuring what is actually
transpiring in the text.
Hebrew narrative structure contains what can be called a thematic
expansion of topic -- a format that commonly replaces chronology
as an organizational principle even in straightforward narrative.
This structuring can be illustrated in various portions of the
Bible, both Old and New Testaments, and is especially illuminating
when it comes to the difficulties mentioned by McCarter in 1 Samuel.
Once noticed, this non-chronological structuring principle becomes
rather obvious throughout the scriptures.
III. Preliminary Examples
A. Genesis 1:1-2:25
Genesis 1:1 through 2:25 takes the following basic pattern:
I. 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
A. 1:2-2:4a How God created the heavens and the earth.
1. 2:4b-2:25 How God created man and woman.
A discussion of this pattern follows:
1. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth"
(1:1-2) is the opening or summary statement regarding the passage,
similar to what one finds in the first paragraph of a newspaper
2. How God created the heavens and the Earth 1:3-2:4a; in the
passage that follows, the author of Genesis now expands upon his
statement of theme. In detail, he describes the way that God went
about creating the heavens and the Earth.
Notice the tendency to arrange by theme rather than chronology
continues with the six days. Their thematic arrangement has been
pointed out before, for instance by Derek Kidner in his commentary
on Genesis for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries.
Notice that on days 1-3, empty places are prepared, while on days
4-6 the inhabitants to fill those empty places are made.
1. light/darkness 4. sun/moon
and stars 2. water above/below 5. birds/fish 3. dry land, vegetation 6. animals and
3. How God created man and woman 2:4b-3:25
The narrative has finally moved from the simple opening that God
created the universe, through how he did it (a general introduction
describing the six days), until finally the author brings the
reader to the details, hinted at in 1:26-30, of how the human
race was created. In 1:26-30, the narrative explains that God
created both man and woman, and that they are both in the image
of God. In the passage of 2:4b-2:25, details regarding the creative
process are revealed; rather than man and woman being created
simultaneously, as a reading of 1:26-30 alone might intimate,
the author explains that Adam was created first, that he studied
the animals and "named" them, finally learning for his
efforts that unlike all the rest of God's creatures, he had no
mate. This fact determined, God anesthetized Adam and performed
surgery; through the use of some of Adam's tissue, God produced
a female clone to be his mate. Adam recognized her and named her
and took her as his wife. The details and the perspective of 2:4b-2:25
are different and expand dramatically from the previous account
given in 1:26- 30. Notice the following pattern:
A In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (1:1)
-- a summary statement
B God creates the heavens and the earth (1:2-25)
C God creates humans (1:26-30)
D God rested (1:31-2:4a)
A' God created the heavens and the earth (2:4b) -- a summary statement
B' God creates the earth (2:5-6)
C' God creates man (2:7)
B' God creates the Garden/Rivers (2:8-14)
C' God establishes man, plans for woman (2:15-18)
B' God creates animals (2:19-20)
C' God creates woman (2:21-25)
B. Jonah 3:5-9
(5) The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all
of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (6)
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne,
took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat
down in the dust. (7) Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
"By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any
man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat
or drink. (8) But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth.
Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil
ways and their violence. (9) Who knows? God may yet relent and
with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not
Jonah displays another example of this same thematic structuring.
Jonah 3:5-9 is a description of Nineveh's reaction to Jonah's
preaching. 3:5 gives a summary of the response of the city to
Jonah's preaching, while 3:6-9 gives specific details about what
happened and how. If an attempt is made to read this as strictly
a chronological description of what occurred, a certain confusion
results. Verse five recounts how the people repented and wore
sack cloth. If verses 6-9 follow chronologically, then why does
the king order his people to do what they've already done?
However, if the thematic arrangement is recognized, the problems
evaporate, and the narrative is perfectly clear and consistent.
Look at the pattern:
A The Ninevites believed God (3:5a)
B They declared a fast (3:5b)
C They put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least (3:5c)
C' King puts on sackcloth (3:6)
B' Proclamation that no one is to eat or drink (3:7)
C' Man and beast covered with sackcloth (3:8a)
A' Let them call urgently on God and repent (3:8b-9)
C. Ecclesiastes 2:1-26
(1) I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with
pleasure to find out what is good." But that also proved
to be meaningless. (2) "Laughter," I said, "is
foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" (3) I tried
cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still
guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for
men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
(4) I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and
planted vineyards. (5) I made gardens and parks and planted all
kinds of fruit trees in them. (6) I made reservoirs to water groves
of flourishing trees. (7) I bought male and female slaves and
had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more
herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. (8) I amassed
silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.
I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well--the delights
of the heart of man. (9) I became greater by far than anyone in
Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
(10) I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
(11) Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
(12) Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
and also madness and folly.
What more can the king's successor do than what has already been
(13) I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
just as light is better than darkness.
(14) The wise man has eyes in his head,
while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.
(15) Then I thought in my heart,
"The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?"
I said in my heart,
"This too is meaningless."
(16) For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!
(17) So I hated life, because the work that is done under the
sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after
the wind. (18) I hated all the things I had toiled for under the
sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
(19) And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet
he will have control over all the work into which I have poured
my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. (20)
So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under
the sun. (21) For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge
and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has
not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.
(22) What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving
with which he labors under the sun? (23) All his days his work
is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This
too is meaningless.
(24) A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find
satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of
God, (25) for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (26)
To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness,
but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up
wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is
meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:1-26 displays the following basic pattern, a pattern
that by now may be starting to become familiar:
A I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with
pleasure to find out what is good." (2:1a)
B But that also proved to be meaningless. (2:1b)
A' Testing with pleasure to discover what's good. (2:2-10)
B' Everything is meaningless. (2:11-26)
In the first verse, the two halves of what the author of the book
of Ecclesiastes seeks to discuss are expressed. In the verses
that follow, he does exactly what he has indicated, first discussing
what is good -- repetitiously, as is the nature of Hebrew poetry
-- and then turning to the second half at verse 11 and repetitiously
describing how meaningless it is. This is standard Hebrew pattern,
and not at all odd, unless one were to insist on a western outlook
in narrative or poetic techniques.
D. Proverbs 1:10-19
(10) My son, if sinners entice you,
do not give in to them.
(11) If they say, "Come along with us;
let's lie in wait for someone's blood,
let's waylay some harmless soul;
(12) let's swallow them alive, like the grave,
and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
(13) we will get all sorts of valuable things
and fill our houses with plunder;
(14) throw in your lot with us,
and we will share a common purse"--
(15) my son, do not go along with them,
do not set foot on their paths;
(16) for their feet rush into sin,
they are swift to shed blood.
(17) How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds!
(18) These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they waylay only themselves!
(19) Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the lives of those who get it.
A My son, if sinners entice, (1:10a)
B do not go (1:10b)
A' 1:11-14 How sinners entice (1:11-14)
B' Do not go with them (1:15-19)
The first line of the pericope establishes the structure for what
follows; the first half of the line, dealing with the enticement
of sinners is expanded upon in the next four verses. At that point,
there is a shift, and the second half of verse ten, about "not
going" is then expanded upon for the same length of time.
E. Joshua 15:13-19
The book of Joshua falls into six parts easily enough:
I. The Entry into Canaan 1-6
II. Incident at Ai and renewal of the covenant 7-8
III. Conquest of the South 9-10
IV. Conquest of the North 11-12
V. Division of the Land 13-22
VI. Farewell and Death of Joshua 23-24
Section V is devoted to the distribution of the land among the
tribes. The story of Caleb and his daughter appears in 15:13-19.
This same story is repeated near the beginning of Judges (1:1-15),
which explicitly informs us that Joshua died before the incident
with Caleb occurred. Yet in Joshua, we do not see the death of
Joshua until the end of the book (Joshua 24:28-30).
There is no difficulty, however, if it is understood that theme
will override chronology in the arranging of a narrative, even
a story, because the incident with Caleb is described in a section
of the book devoted to the theme of the conquest. Caleb's story
of the conquest of Hebron fits in perfectly at that point thematically,
although certainly not chronologically. But chronology was subsumed
by the theme.
The structure of Judges, likewise, is probably not chronological
-- especially chapters 17-21. The last chapters of the book do
not necessarily follow chapters 1-16; instead, they perhaps offer
a snapshot of what transpired in the land during those times when
there were no judges. They illustrate the phrase "there was
no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
I. The Time of the Elders 1:1-2:10
II. The Time of the Judges 2:11-16:31
III. A Picture of Anarchy 17-21.
2:11-3:6 is a summary of the entire period of the Judges, with
3:7-16:31 expanding upon 2:14-3:6 and 17-21 being an expansion
of 2:11-13, creating a chaiastic structure for the book.
It is interesting to notice the common phrase used four times
in 17-21: "Israel had no king". It appears in 17:6,
18:1, 19:1 and 21:25.
In the New Testament, this structuring principle arranges the
beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-11: "the poor in spirit" begins
the narrative in 5:3; the lines beneath (4-11) are simply expansions
and details of who and what the poor in spirit are. John's gospels
and letters begin to make greater sense. In Revelation, words
that seem to describe the end of the world are repeated in 6:12-17,
11:15-19, and 16:17-21, not to mention 18-22. This is not strange,
if a thematic rather than a chronological arrangement is recognized,
IV. The Problem of 1 Samuel
Consider, then, the arrangement of the David/Saul narrative in
1 Samuel. McCarter points out that Saul was rejected twice by
Yahweh and that there are also two accounts of how David entered
How does the theory of "topical expansion of topic"
easily explain these difficulties?
The narrative is certainly puzzling in its current form, if
it is assumed to have a strict chronological arrangement. In 13:7-15
Samuel tells Saul that his kingdom will not endure, but will be
given to another. In 15:7-34, Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected
him and given the kingdom to another. In 16:14-23 David enters
Saul's service, playing the harp for him in order to make him
feel better (evil spirit perhaps better translated as "depression"
based on the fact that Hebrew "spirit" demonstrably
means "emotion" as in Genesis 45:27, paralleling the
English "lifting his spirit"; see also Num. 14:24, Deut.
2:30, Judges 9:23, 1 Sam. 18:1). Yet, come 17:55-18:2, after slaying
Goliath, Saul seems not to have previously met David -- and David
then enters Saul's service.
If a topical/thematic arrangement of the narrative is recognized,
these apparent problems are relatively easily dealt with. If one
insists on chronology as the sole, or most important structuring
criterion, then the problem remains and the interpreter must choose
either to accept the documentary hypothesis, or else explain away
the difficulties as not really present.
So how does it work here?
A 13:7-9 Saul in Gilgal; performs sacrifice!
B 13:10-11a Samuel arrives, questions Saul.
C 13:11b-12 Saul's response.
D 13:13-14 Samuel's rebuke
A' 15:1-7 Saul sent against Amelekites
15:8-9 Saul spares Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle
B' 15:10-14 Samuel questions Saul
C' 15:15 Saul's response
D' 15:16-19 Samuel's rebuke
C'A' 15:20-21 Saul's response; animals for sacrifice!
D' 15:22-23 Samuel's rebuke
C' 15:24-25 Saul's response
D' 15:26-29 Samuel's rebuke
C' 15:30 Saul's response
E' 15:31-33 Samuel kills Agag
15:34-35 Summary; Samuel leaves.
The key to the linkage of these at first apparently separate incidents
is the mention of animals for sacrifice in 13:7-9 and 15:20-21.
The perspective of the two descriptions is somewhat different,
but notice that the passage in 13 is much shorter and much more
condensed than the account of 15, which can therefore be taken
an expansion of the earlier account (notice that this expansion
of topic matches the pattern observed in Genesis 1 and 2, as in
comparing 1:26-30 with 2:4b-2:25).
Now notice the overall structure of 13-15:
A 13:3-7a -- Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost
B 13:7b-22 The account of Saul's rejection
A' 13:23-14:14 -- Description of Jonathan's attack on the
Philistine outpost, much expanded from the account in 13:3-7a
C 14:15-23 -- Summary of general Israelite attack on Philistines
C' 14:24-48 -- Specific details of the campaign summarized in
14:15-23, with additional information of Jonathan's exploits.
D 14:49-52 -- Summary of Saul's family; statement regarding the
wars with Philistines and statement that
"Whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into
his service" -- a foreshadowing of David's coming.
Finally, (B') 15:1-34 is an expansion on Saul's rejection first
described in 13:7b-22.
The addition of David to Saul's staff meshes with the patterns
already established and in 14:52, David's entrance is foreshadowed.
In response to Saul's rejection, Samuel goes and finds a replacement
in the person of David, 16:1-13. Notice that after having anointed
David, 16:13 states "Samuel then went to Ramah", paralleling
the condensed version of 15:34 "Then Samuel left for Ramah",
and 13:15 "Then Samuel left Gilgal and went up to Gibeah
of Benjamin" (LXX has "went his way"). Look at
A 16:14-17 -- Saul's emotional problems and search for musician
B 16:18 -- David, described as a warrior
C 16:19 -- request to David's father
D 16:20-23 -- David enters Saul's service as an armor bearer
B'-C' 17:1-54 Philistine war and Goliath David's involvement
D' 17:55-18:2 -- Introduction after success; David' enters Saul's
Both narratives (16:14-23 and 17:1-18:2) end at the same point,
with David entering Saul's service. The difference is that 16:14-23
is a summary account, while 17:1-18:2 is an expanded
account of the same time frame, but with the emphasis somewhat
different, as the former (16:14-23) narrative ends on Saul's emotional
problems resulting from his rejection by God, and the latter (17:1-18:2)
on military problems associated with the Philistines. In both
cases, David is involved, but the Hebrew approach to relating
the story separates thematic elements and concentrates on them
one at a time.
The structure of the whole passage (13-18:2) may be visualized
V. Conclusion and Summary
The supposed difficulties in the Flood narrative or the Tower
of Babel narrative harmonize and fall into place once the overriding
importance of theme is recognized. Difficulties in the order of
events between the gospels (especially between John and the Synoptics),
and many of the special difficulties of Matthew's gospel can be
handled in the same way, especially if one recognizes that Luke,
being Greek, had reason to write at the beginning of his Gospel,
contrasting himself with the other narratives, that it "seemed
good also to me to write an orderly account..." (Luke 1:3).
That is, Luke chose to write an account where chronology was the
most important structuring principle -- in the Greek style in
contrast to the Hebrew style.
So, once freed from insisting on a Greek narrative technique in
which chronology and time are principle elements of arranging
a narrative, the texts of Scripture are once again fully comprehensible,
although they contribute to a certain discombobulation and culture
The Complaint of Jacob
by R.P. Nettelhorst
Jacob’s life was not a particularly easy one and his family life, both growing up, and then as an adult was certainly what would fit the modern definition of being “dysfunctional.”
So, to say the least, Jacob was not at all happy. The one true love of his life was dead. Joseph, his favorite, the oldest son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years. And now Simeon had been taken from him, and this monster in Egypt was demanding the last link he had to his dead lover. Beside himself with grief, we find his reaction in Genesis 42:36 where it all comes down to this:
Their father Jacob said to them, "You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!"
And certainly it was the case that the circumstances of his life, from his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, made his complaint fully reasonable and perfectly understandable.
And yet, the fascinating thing about his words, for those of us reading the story, is that we know that he couldn’t be more wrong, despite the fact that his words seemed so obviously true to Jacob – unassailably true, in fact. But we the readers of this little episode, know something that Jacob doesn’t: we know that Joseph is not only not dead, but he is second in command in Egypt, the most powerful and most wealthy nation on the planet at that time. We also know that there’s no way for poor Jacob to know that.
So the reality of Jacob’s existence is that everything could hardly be better. His favorite son has done very well for himself, thank you. Good job, and great future, with money to burn. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet. His perception, his perspective of reality, is incorrect.
And we, the readers, can do nothing to alleviate Jacob’s suffering just now. And God didn’t do anything about it either. It’ll be another year before Jacob learns the truth of what his life is really like. For twenty-five years he mourned for someone who was not dead at all. He bemoans his fate as a miserable one, though his family is absolutely powerful and prosperous. But he doesn’t know any of that; in fact, he has no way of knowing any of that.
September 11, 2001 was thus an exceptionally bad day (to say the least) and raised numerous questions in the minds of many people about the nature of existence, about the goodness of God, about what it is really, that God wants and expects out of all of us. How do we live in a world where this sort of thing can happen? How do we face the crises of life, both small and great? Is there some key to life, some playbook we can get, some list we can follow, some formula we can memorize that will get us through life in one piece, with ourselves and our families living productive and prosperous lives? What does Jacob's complaint tell us about our relationship to God and the world?