§2. Author, Narrator, and Worldview

2.1. Author, Narrator, and Worldview

Sometimes you hear “narrator” and “author” used interchangeably, but there is a difference. The author is, of course, the one who creates the story and so creates the narrator who tells the story. The narrator plays a crucial role in mediating the story. As Bar Efrat says, “we see and hear only through the narrator’s eyes and ears.”[1] That persona may closely reflect the author, but it need not be so.

The author also creates the story’s worldview, that is, an understanding of how the world works in this story. The narrator may describe this worldview, but often the audience must reconstruct it from the pieces of the story. In that sense, the worldview is implied, and different readers may reconstruct the worldview in somewhat different ways.

For biblical stories, this worldview could also be called the story’s theology—that is, its understanding(s) of God and humanity and their relationship to each other and to creation. While some see the Bible as just one homogenous theology, a closer look reveals that this book contains many theologies—many understandings of God and humanity. Repeating vocabulary, motifs and characters indicate that some stories share a common theology or worldview. Other stories combine tellings reflecting different theologies into a single story. Much modern scholarship has focused on the dominant theologies of the Bible.

What I am calling the “worldview,” others refer to as the “implied author,” which Abbot defines as “that sensibility (that combination of feeling, intelligence, knowledge, and opinion) that ‘accounts for the narrative.”[2] Though widely used, the term “implied author” has also been the source of some debate, and some find this metaphor hard to grasp.[3] While “worldview” may not capture every dimension of “implied author,” this term names this important feature more literally.

In any case, the reader must reconstruct the implied worldview from what the story presents. Readers usually begin by accepting the story’s worldview without much thought. However, there can be a difference between the story’s worldview and our own. Stories distant from us in time and culture, as is the Bible, can present a challenge because we are unfamiliar with their ways. More critically, we may even find that we have a fundamental problem with a story’s plain meaning. Biblical stories take place in a world that accepts slavery—an institution that we necessarily reject.

In some stories, the author, narrator, and worldview go together seamlessly, as in Genesis 1. There, both the narrator and worldview reflect the theology of the Priestly School, which authored the chapter. The Red Sea Story, on the other hand, is more complicated. It brings together at least two narrative strands representing two different worldviews or theologies. A final editor, often called in biblical studies the redactor, took what came from the tradition and gave the text its final form. Much of modern biblical studies has focused on how various traditions came together to form the final text. While this assessment is surely true, I am interested in the unity of the final text forged by the final redactor.  In §2.3, I shall argue that the joining of different traditions gives the text a tensile complexity.

2.2. First and Third Person Narratorsarious pieces.

The narrator may be a character in the story—often called a first-person narrator because they tell the story in the first person from their perspective. Storytellers inside the story can only tell what they know, and that depends on whether they are telling the story as the action unfolds or later as they reflect on what has happened. Nehemiah tells the story of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem that bears his name. The prophet Ezekiel recounts the major events in his book. The first-person narrator creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy that we typically experience when anyone tells us their own story.

Most biblical stories have a third-person narrator who tells the story from the outside. These narrators typically know and can tell us everything, although they usually do not. They can tell us what each character thinks or feels, what is going on here and then there. As a result, these narrators are omniscient, and one could add omnipresent. For example, we hear in Exod 13:17 (quoted from the NRSV and throughout this essay unless noted):

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt. (13:17)

The narrator does not offer this as the informed opinion of a historian or as a historical fact based on written documents. The narrator tells what God did and what God “thought.” We might ask who knows what God thinks. According to the story here, this narrator does.

Our narrator also tells us what God said to Moses (14:1-4, 15-18, 26), what Pharaoh and his officials said (14:5), and then what Israel and Moses said to each other (14:10-14). The confidence of the narrator’s voice invites us to trust and understand the story from this perspective. Not being a character in the story, the third-person narrator can disappear as we focus on the story. Still, the narrator shapes and focuses the story and projects its worldview and theology. The importance of this voice deserves close attention even though disembodied and disappearing.

2.3. More Than One Author and Narrator

Biblical narrative has another complicating factor. We expect a modern novel or short story to have only one narrator who tells a consistent story. Biblical narratives developed over a long period. Though Moses is honored as the “author” of the Pentateuch, a hard look at these first five books does not reveal a single understanding of God or a consistent story.

For instance, we read in 14:21-22:

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.
21b The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night,
and turned the sea into dry land;
and the waters were divided.
22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground,
the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Close readers see the same event described here in two different ways. Exod 14:21b gives a more realistic explanation: The Lord drives back the sea with an east wind turning the sea into dry land. Exod 14:21c-22 gives a more miraculous understanding: The sea divides to form a wall to the right and left. This story gives us at least two versions of the same event, and scholars over the last three hundred years have invested much energy in discovering and understanding these different stands and their theologies. Thomas Dozeman argues that the Priestly tradition is responsible for Exod 14:1-4,8-10; 15-18, 21-23, 26-29, and he attributes to the “Non-P” tradition Exod 13:17-20; 14:5-7, 11-14, 19-20, 24025, 30-31. By pulling the text apart, Dozeman and many others hope to discover the sources behind the present text.[4] These insights reveal the links of this text to other biblical texts shaped by the same vocabulary and ideas. While important, this concern lies beyond the scope of this essay.

Brevard Childs, in his famous commentary on Exodus (1974), argued that that “the final literary production” has “an integrity of its own” and that scholars must deal with this integrity as it stands in the canon.[5] Similarly, Jean Louis Ska seeks the perspective of the final redactor who gave the text its definitive form to uncover “the principles that give coherence to the whole of the text.”[6] Some would play down the differences, but as Alter points out, they are sometimes glaring. Rather than conclude that the final redactor was oblivious, Alter would search for the contribution each made to the whole.[7]

I want to take a somewhat different approach and argue that the differences belong to the fabric of this multi-perspectival text. The Bible does not give us a consistent, homogenous text. Though some may see that as a deficit, I want to argue that this complexity plays a pivotal role in protecting the possibilities and mystery of the text.

For comparison, let me use Paul Cézanne’s painting, “The Basket of Apples” (1893). The Art Institute of Chicago owns the painting, which is easily found online with extensive commentary. The painting shows apples on a table with a cloth, a plate of cookies, and a bottle of wine. If you follow the lines of the tabletop from side to side, they change beneath the cloth and do not match up with the lines on the other side. The painting shows the cookies from the side, except for the top two cookies; the viewer sees them from above. The bottle of wine stands at an angle. Some of the fruit seems to lie on different planes. Unlike the Renaissance perspective, Cézanne does not present “The Basket of Apples” from a single point of view. His vantage point moves in space as a person might on entering a room and encountering a table with apples from different angles. Cézanne has put them all together and challenges us to create a unified view from his pieces. Finally, Cézanne’s painting does not exist to show us exactly what was on the table; rather, it points to itself as the thing we must confront as the experience of this reality.

Biblical narratives often possess a similar juxtaposition of perspectives. Because these stories were composed and adjusted by different authors, told and retold by various narrators, they offer us different vantage points. Rather than throwing out the “inconsistencies,” the final redactor, often with great skill,  worked them into a unified but not a homogenous narrative. Because things do not quite fit, whether subtly or strikingly, these narratives refuse to allow the audience to adopt a single viewpoint. In this way, the narrative preserves a sense that all cannot be explained, that something mysterious is at work. The differences in the narrative militate against any absolute sense of closure.

Finally, like Cézanne’s painting, the Red Sea Story does not exist to report what happened but rather to offer us an experience of the event that only it can offer. Like Cézanne’s painting, the story points to itself and offers itself as our experience of the event.[8]

2.4. Narrative Lens or Focalization

The narrator often provides the primary narrative lens whereby we view the action. Though the narrator may give the impression of having an objective vantage point, this impression, as noted above, deserves careful consideration because the narrator’s telling shapes the story and its worldview.

Narrators can keep the story at a distance by summarizing and telling everything themselves. Narrators can also allow us to come close to the action by their careful descriptions. More importantly, they can let the characters speak for themselves and so allow us to assess motives and causes for ourselves. This narrative lens, sometimes called focalization, can change rather quickly and often. A narrator may move closer and then farther away depending on the importance of the action and dialogue. Less important events are quickly summarized, while the more critical events benefit from time and closeness.

In Exod 14:1-4, the narrator lets us hear what God says, then in 14:5-7 what the Egyptians conclude in their own words, and finally, in 14:10-14, we hear how Israel reproaches Moses from bringing them into this desert. In each section, the narrator allows us to hear what these characters think by giving us direct speech. In this way, the narrator allows us to experience the complex web of voices in dialogue with each other.

2.5. Reliability

Readers sometimes have good reason to question the reliability of modern narrators whose values run contrary to the story’s worldview.[9]

In the Bible, third-person narrators are entirely reliable. They may not tell us everything, but, as Alter says, “we are never in serious doubt that the biblical narrator knows all there is to know about the motives and feelings, the moral nature and spiritual condition of his characters.”[10] That does not mean that we must always agree with the narrator or the worldview, but only that the narrator is an honest broker. If the narrator tells us that something happened or someone said something, we must accept that as a given in the story.

Also, the Lord is a reliable source though the narrator provides our only access.[11] In Exod 14:3, the Lord predicts that Pharaoh will say: ‘They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.’ There is no reason to doubt the truth of this statement within the story because the Lord has said it.

2.6. Footnotes for Section 2

[1] Bar Efrat, Narrative Art, 13.

[2] Abbott, Introduction, 84.

[3] Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1961): 71-76; Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller.2006. The Implied Author: Concept and Controversy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

[4] Thomas Dozeman, The Pentateuch: Introducing the Torah (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017) 319. Also Dozeman, Exodus, 300-318. For other analyses, see the following: William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1998) 476-484; Vervenne, Marc. “The Sea Narrative Revisited,” Biblica 75 (1994) 80-98, esp. 80-85; Jan Christian Gertz, “The Miracle at the Sea: Remarks on the Recent Discussion about Origin and Composition of the Exodus Narrative.” The Book of Exodus: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation, edited by Thomas Dozeman, et al. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014) 91-120.

[5] Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1974) 224.

[6] Jean Louis Ska, Le Passage de la Mer: Étude de la construction, du style et de la symbolique d’ Ex 14,1-31. Analecta Biblica, 109 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1986) 20-21.

[7] Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 165-166.

[8] Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful.” in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays,  translated by Nicholas Walker, edited by Robert Bernasconi. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 1-52, esp., 34-35.

[9] Booth, Rhetoric of Fiction, 158-159; Chatman, Story and Discourse, 149.

[10] Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 197.

[11] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 19.

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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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