The Thematic Arrangement of Biblical Texts

by
R.P. Nettelhorst

I. Establishing the Problem

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:

1. 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2. 1:2-2:4a How God created the heavens and the earth.
3. 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 story.

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=day/dark=night ............4. Sun for day/moon, stars for night

2. water below/above .................5. fish below/birds above

3. dry ground/plants ..................6. land animals/people

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 perish."

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 done?
(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.

F. Judges

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.

A 2:11-13

B 2:14-3:6

B' 3:7-16:31

A' 17-21

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.

G. Miscellaneous

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, however.

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 Saul's service.

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 the structure:

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 service.

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 as follows:

A 13:3-7a

B 13:7b-22

A' 13:23-14:14

C 14:15-23

C' 14:24-48

D 14:49-52

B' 15:1-34

B' 16:1-13

C' 16:14-17

16:18

16:19

D' 16:20-23

A' 17:1-54

D' 17:55-18:2

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 shock.