§1. Narrative: Some Basic Ideas

1.1. A Definition of Narrative or Story

For this essay, a narrative or story is a sequence of events moving from tension to a resolution,  told by a storyteller.[1] Unlike drama, where the characters present their story directly, or a lyric, which is not a story, narrative has both a story and a storyteller who mediates the story.[2] It contrasts with the report, which merely retells what has happened without any particular concern for tension or resolution. Between the tension and resolution, the storyteller or narrator develops the story by raising the tension while developing the means of resolution through smaller tensions and resolutions. As Aristotle said in his Poetics (I.7), narratives have a beginning (tension), middle (development), and end (resolution). The analysis of a story often begins with identifying the overriding tension and its resolution and then the smaller tensions and resolutions.

For stories retold many times, we can distinguish between the storyline and a specific telling of the story. Many people can give the basic storyline of the Red Sea Story. The tension begins with Pharaoh deciding to pursue the fleeing Israelites, and it resolves with Israel’s escape and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea. Exod 13:17–14:31 fills out this storyline most fully, but it is also retold briefly in Josh 2:10; 4:23; 24:6, in Psalms 77, 106, 114, and 136, and elsewhere. The victory hymn in Exod 15:2-18 presumes a knowledge of the storyline as it celebrates the victory. Although each telling recounts the same storyline, each is different, and each invites us to assess and appreciate its differences.

Finally, some texts contain an implied narrative. Though the text does not lay out the story in order and may not tell everything, it presumes a story that the audience must figure out from what is told. For example, the voices in the lament psalms tell of illness, false accusations, the attacks of enemies, and more which are the tensions of the implied story. They then call on God to come and save them (resolution). Some are hopeful; others are not. The audience must piece together the implied story from what these voices tell us.

1.2. The Boundaries of Stories

The Red Sea Story in Exod 13:17–14:31 is part of a larger story and raises the question of boundaries. For a modern novel, the story begins on the first page and ends on the last. The Bible is more complicated. The Red Sea Story resolves a story that begins with Pharaoh’s persecution in Exodus 1. Even so, what takes place at the Red Sea has its own tension and resolution and forms a coherent unity that we can examine on its own. Still, we cannot completely isolate it from the larger story.

1.3. The Relation of Narrative to the World: Realistic and Thematic Narrative

Broadly speaking, art reflects the world in two primary ways. One presents the world realistically and seeks to portray a convincing picture that is true-to-life. The other presents the world as general types with its plots and characters reflecting large ideas.[3]

The first reflects the approach of Aristotle, who wanted to know things as they are. He believed that art should imitate reality. Realistic stories then seek to reproduce the world in its specificity and complexity, in its contradictions and ambiguities. These stories are well-suited to explore the complex psychological motivations of characters found in Greek tragedy and modern novels. By carefully considering the specific and realistic, Aristotle expected to arrive at universal truths.

The second depends heavily upon tradition and artistic convention to create its vision of the world. Its characters are stereotypes representing ideas, and its plots play out in predictable ways, with good overcoming evil, truth triumphing over untruth, and beauty outshining the ugly. These narratives almost necessarily end with the required happy ending as they project an ideal understanding of the world. As such, they reflect Plato’s vision that this world only reflects the real world of forms and ideas. James Phelan uses the word “thematic” for this approach because it emphasizes the ‘theme’ or ‘idea’ that these characters and plots represent.[4]

Both the realistic and thematic approaches look for and expect that stories will project a coherent world grounded in coherent ideas. Recent scholarship, often categorized as deconstruction or post-modernism, points out, often insistently, that narratives do not fit entirely together, that the reader constructs the perceived wholes. These constructions, therefore, can be deconstructed to challenge and upend their apparent coherence. While people of faith react strongly to the broad skepticism and relativism of this approach, narratives worth their salt are complex and do not provide simplistic answers. These recent critics have a valid insight, and biblical texts, when read carefully with an open mind, often challenge readers to a larger understanding of this world and of their God. In this way, the Bible preserves the mystery of God that transcends our predictable expectations.

While pure examples of both realistic and thematic narrative are possible, the two mainly serve as poles on a continuum, with some stories adhering more closely to the traditional and conventional while others favor the realistic.

1.4. History and Story

History wants to tell what has actually happened. Readers should be able to verify its claims against the facts, although this is often difficult to do for biblical stories. Even so, the historian and the audience are seldom interested only in the facts; they want to know how and why it happened. Therefore, historians create narratives with tensions and resolutions to address these larger questions.

Though history belongs to realism, it can end up telling a traditional story that projects traditional themes. A historical account can also be difficult to distinguish from a realistic story. Both seek to be believable. Still, history should be verifiable, while realism does not have that burden.[5]

The question of historicity is not irrelevant because the Bible asserts that God has acted in historical time for actual people. Although the historicity of these events is often difficult, even impossible to assess, both Jews and Christians down to the present have affirmed the truth of Exodus as a present historical reality for themselves. At least in that sense, the Exodus has for them a historical reality.

1.5. Realistic and Thematic Dimensions in the Red Sea Story

The Red Sea Story is mainly thematic. It tells the universal story of escape from the forces of enslavement, oppression, and destruction. At the same time, it presents its story as real events in real-time and space. The very specific places in 14:2, repeated in 14:9, add to the sense of realism even though geographers are unsure of the exact locations. As Dozeman notes, the location in the land of Egypt makes the “destruction of the Egyptian army the last event in the land of Egypt.”[6] Though specific, the place also has a thematic dimension: The Lord is defeating Egypt within the boundary of its own land.

Exod 13:19 tells us that Moses brought Joseph’s bones because of the oath their ancestor had made them swear. Though this detail may seem incidental, Robert Scholes counsels readers to “note carefully characters or events which seem to make no contribution to the plot or movement” because they “often…have a special thematic importance.”[7] So we can ask whether this detail is realistic or thematic. If just realistic, it simply reports what happened. However, the return of Joseph’s bones is connected to the promise of the land to Abraham. Without any explanation, this detail evokes one of the great themes of the Pentateuch, and Joshua will realize this promise by leading Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land.[8] The thematic dimensions of elements often depend on the reader’s ability to recognize the possible link.

Some readers take stories only at their face value; others see great significance in most everything. Biblical texts, handed on and retold, often carry a significance that extends beyond its historical moment. As a result, this story remains paradigmatic for everyone who has found themselves in some “land” of bondage or oppression.

1.6 Footnotes for Section 1

[1] Abbott, Introduction, 12–14; Moore, “Biblical Narrative Analysis,” 27.

[2] Robert Scholes, James Phelan, Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2006) 4; Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 13-14; Gérard Genette, “The Architext.” in Modern Genre Theory, edited by David Duff (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000) 210-218.

[3] Scholes, Nature of Narrative, 84.

[4] Scholes, Nature of Narrative, 314; James Phelan, Reading People, Reading Plots: Character Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989) 3, 61-62; 78-79.

[5] Abbott, “11. Narrative Truth” in Introduction, 151-166.

[6] Thomas Dozeman, Commentary on Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009) 184.

[7] Robert Scholes, Elements of Fiction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1968) 17.

[8] Joshua 3; Dozeman, Exodus, 309.



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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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