§4. Characters and Other Entities

A character counts as anyone or anything in a story that can speak and act. Mainly they are people, sometimes divine, and in certain stories, animals, or even things that usually cannot speak or act. We make sense out of characters basically in the same way that we make sense of people in our daily lives. Meeting someone for the first time, we form some general ideas about them based on our past experiences of other people (thematic types). If we get to know them better, see what they say and do, then we develop a more realistic understanding of their complexity and possibilities. With stories, we can reread the text; we can look for connections that we may have missed and perhaps reshape our insight.

4.1. Flat and Round Characters

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster famously divides all characters into flat and round. These categories prove to be more ends of a continuum than two separate groups, and they fit into the distinction between the realistic and the thematic discussed above.

As Forster says,

Flat characters … are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed around a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round.[1]

The flattest characters then are generalizations—that is, stereotypes representing, as Forster says, “a single idea or quality.”

There are many stereotypes. Some arise from a common human experience, and others depend upon a familiarity with the conventions of cultures and societies—the Old Testament prophet being an example.[2]

As Forster notes, flat characters have a “great advantage” because “they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye.” When an old woman or man appears in a story, tradition tells us to expect that wisdom has arrived on the scene. When an enemy king arrives, we know he is a bad guy. Audiences can process this without even bringing it to a conscious level, and we remember these characters easily. Storytellers create more complicated characters by combining traditional types and so move toward a rounder, more realistic character.[3]

Round characters are more complicated and singular, just like real human beings. They are capable of believing one thing and doing another. They can change for the better or worse. As Forster says:

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round.[4]

Round characters then are realistic, or to use Aristotle’s word, they are mimetic—they imitate reality and give us the sense of a real, individual person. As such, it is hard to tell whether they are historical or fictional.

Biblical narrative is mostly spare and minimal. Robert Alter uses the word “reticence” and asks particularly how the Bible is able to create characters that “evoke such a sense of depth and complexity” in such few words.[5] In his famous book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach argues that biblical narrative leaves much in the “background.” Unlike Homer, who tells everything and puts everything in the “foreground,” the Bible’s narrators leave much to our imagination.[6] Some criticize Auerbach’s generalization as too broad; still, his insight touches much in biblical narrative.

4.2. Other Entities

In addition to those who speak and act, other things, sometimes called entities or existents, play important roles in stories.[7]

The “Red Sea” appears twelve times in this story. The sea or some form of chaotic waters appears as the antagonist in several mythic battle narratives of the ancient Near East. The Canaanite deity Baal fights Yamm, the sea god, and wins kingship. In the Babylonian Enūma Elish, Marduk, the deity of Babylon, fights Tiamat, the ocean depths, and becomes the king of the divine pantheon.[8] Some biblical texts also refer to the killing of a sea monster.[9] Here, however, the Red Sea is not the mythic enemy representing chaos but rather the Lord’s instrument for destroying the forces of slavery and oppression. This story transforms a traditional image or motif. It shows that the Lord is in charge of the destructive waters and can use them as it seems good.[10]

4.3. Characters in the Red Sea Story

The characters here are mainly flat, with the Lord as an exception.

Egypt and the Egyptians, named 28 times, represent the land of slavery and oppression. Its power appears as its “army” (four times), “chariots” (nine times), and “horsemen” (six times). The Egyptian forces serve as the traditional enemy army ready to destroy “our” side. The unnamed Pharaoh, appearing eleven times, reigns as the king of the land of slavery and oppression. With his officials, he changes his mind one last time in 14:5: “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” This change of mind does not make him a realistic character but completes the pattern of Exodus 7-11. Each time Moses asks Pharaoh to let Israel go, he refuses, and Moses invokes a plague that forces Pharaoh to relent. Moses then calls off the plague, but Pharaoh reneges. With the tenth plague, Pharaoh has let Israel leave, but now he reneges once again and pursues them. He is playing his traditional role.

Robert Scholes counsels readers to “note the things working against the movement of the story.”[11] Clearly, Pharaoh’s stubbornness serves as a major obstacle to the resolution of this story, and it carries the theme of his refusal to acknowledge YHWH as God. With the main tension in place, the story turns to “our” reaction of fear.

The Israelites, named 19 times, are basically flat. In 14:10, the narrator tells us that they were “greatly frightened,” which is the traditional motif for “our” side at the appearance of the enemy.[12] Here, however, the Israelites attack their leader with questions that are not informational but rhetorical and sarcastic. As Martin Buber observes, their speech to Moses “brings out the antithesis of Egypt and the desert.” The speech’s seven elements end five times with “Egypt” and twice with “wilderness.”[13]

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt
that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?
What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?
Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt,
‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?
For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians
than to die in the wilderness (14:11-12).

Israel identifies servitude in Egypt with life and the desert with death. They fail to see the opposition between slavery in Egypt and the life-giving service to the Lord. They prefer the known to the unknown, servitude to freedom, death to life.[14]

While stereotypical, the speech still captures a realistic, psychological dimension. People trapped by oppression—whether addictions or destructive relationships—can find it difficult to imagine that the unknown world of freedom will be better than the known world of enslavement.

Moses’ reply seems to offer them an unbelievable solution.

Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still (14:13-14).

Moses articulates the central theme of this narrative: The Lord alone will be the hero of this battle, and Israel needs “only to keep still.” As such, Moses stands in contrast to the people he leads. Through the remainder of the story, he simply obeys God’s command to stretch out his hand, and so, as a flat character, he shows himself God’s faithful servant.

In the larger story, Moses becomes a complex character created by the juxtaposition of different scenes. If a faithful servant here, he is unwilling to accept God’s commission in Exodus 3-4. During the debacle with the golden calf, he plays the mediator between God and the people, and he must mollify the Lord who tempts him with the promise of Abraham (Exod 32:7-14). As a result, he is granted a vision on the mountain (Exod 33:18-22). However, in Num 20:11-12, caught between the people and the Lord, he strikes the rock twice, and for that lack of faith, God does not allow him to enter into the Promised Land. All these pieces and more, like a Cézanne painting, show us the many sides of Moses that reveal his complexity as a round character.

This juxtaposition of different views of the same person serves as the primary strategy for creating round characters in the Bible. The Books of Samuel give us two main portraits of David. The four gospels give us more than four perspectives on Jesus, which continually demand that we revise our understanding of his person. The whole Bible gives us many visions of God and so preserves the mystery of God.

Here the Lord presents the most challenging character. He plays the traditional role of king and hero in this battle story but with some noteworthy differences. When the enemy attacks in the royal battle narratives, the king is typically somewhere else and must make his way to the place of battle. Here the Lord orchestrates the battle. In 13:17, the narrator shows how God takes charge of Israel’s route and in 14:2 has them turn back and camp between “Migdol and the sea.” In 14:3, the omniscient Lord reports that Pharaoh believes them “wandering about aimlessly.” Then in 14:4, we hear:

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord. And they did so.

The Lord’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart repeats in 14:8 and 17 and causes the king to pursue Israel. The repetition provides emphasis, but what does it mean that God is causing Pharaoh to do this? The motif does not fit with standard ideas of God, and this has been the source of much consternation. While modern scholarship has tried to limit its function or read it away, Claire Matthew McGinnis has shown that the “problem” has pushed Jewish and Christian theologians to find inventive solutions, and she concludes “that the most fruitful theological approach to this narrative may be not to try to resolve its tensions fully.”[15]

Add to this the Lord’s opening question to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me?” Moses has said nothing, so why does God attack him. Childs, following traditional midrash and also St. Augustine, asks whether Moses had “prayed to God privately” and notes it as a problem.[16]  Many commentators tend to blame Moses, but I find that solution unsatisfactory.[17] Though this may well indicate the juxtaposition of two traditions,[18] as it stands, God accuses Moses without provocation. It reflects poorly on the Lord and makes the deity sound a little touchy or even petulant. Our piety tends to blunt such assessment, but the Lord in this story is full of passion.

Our examination shows the Lord as a more complicated character than the others, but we need to look at the plot before completing our assessment of the hero.

4.4. Footnotes to Section 4

[1] E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927) 102-103.

[2] Abbott, Introduction, 142-144; Chatman, Story and Discourse, 123, 132.

[3] Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 103-104; Abbott, Introduction, 142-143.

[4] Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 117.

[5] Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 143.

[6] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 3-23.

[7] Abbott, Introduction, 19, 232.

[8] Propp, Exodus, 554-561; Dozeman, Exodus, 307-308.

[9] Ps 89:9-10; Isa 50:9-10.

[10] Thomas Dozeman, The Pentateuch: Introducing the Torah (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017) 317-318.

[11] Scholes, Elements of Fiction, 16.

[12] Harry Hagan, Mighty in Battle: A Literary Study of Battle Narrative in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible (Palni, 2021) §2.5.2; 3.5.3. Also, “Basic Plots in the Bible: A Literary Approach to Genre,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 49 (2019) 198–213, esp. 206-207.

[13] Martin Buber, Moses (Oxford, UK: East and West Library, 1946). 86; Ska, Le Passage, 64.

[14] Ska, Le Passage, 64-66, 68; “The Crossing of the Sea,” Landas 17 (2003) 36-50, esp. 40.

[15]Claire Matthews McGinnis, “The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Christian and Jewish Interpretation,” Journal of Theological Interpretation, 6 (2012) 43-64, esp. 61.

[16] Childs, Exodus, 226.

[17] Propp, Exodus, 497.

[18] Propp: Exodus, 479.


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Elements of Biblical Narrative by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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