§3. Narrative Time and Narrative Space

3.1. Narrative Time

Clock time is continuous and even; it moves relentlessly in one direction. Unlike clock time, narrative time refers to the time it takes to tell the story. The narrator can slow down the unfolding of events by describing things in great detail or reporting all the dialogue. The narrator can also cover days and years quickly by summarizing or omitting events.[1] The story can also move back and forth from present to past or future by flashbacks or flashforwards. The sequence of events plays a central role in the presentation and experience of the story, and we shall consider it again when we look at the plot.

The time of the story’s actions seldom matches the time of the telling. The Red Sea Story begins on one day and ends at dawn on the next, but it does not take twenty-four hours to tell. Its text of thirty-seven verses is comparatively short. Even so, the story devotes seventeen verses to the resolution (14:15-31). As a rule, the more narrative time the narrator devotes to an element, the more important it is, and the more it demands our attention.

The Red Sea Story is arguably one of the great works of world literature, but it uses only about 435 words. While earlier scholars, influenced by Romanticism, saw this brevity as a lack of narrative skill, today, there is a much greater appreciation of the mastery reflected in these narratives—its spareness being a hallmark of its mastery. The repetition winnowed these stories and left what mattered. Any analysis of these stories must recognize that every word counts and deserves sustained attention.

3.1.1. The Time of the Story, its Composition, and its Reading

Some stories clearly belong to a specific historical moment. Others belong to imaginative time (fairy tales). Still, others present themselves as real but taking place beyond human, historical time. Though some stories from the ancient Near East present themselves as actually happening in this beyond time, the Bible presents its stories taking place in human, historical time.

The events of the Red Sea Story would date to around 1300 BC, although there is little in this story or the wider book to date the event more precisely. Pharaoh, for instance, has no name. The writing down of the story in its final form, however, belongs to the time of the Persian Empire (539-330 BC)—a difference of nine hundred years or so. The final redactor preserves the story not as some distant historical event but as a paradigmatic event for Judeans in Persia looking to return from their own Egypt. We, of course, are reading the story from our own timeframe, more than two and three thousand years later. To make sense of it, we must discover some relationship that can link our time to that of the final redactor and the time of the story’s events. We must also be careful to respect the timeframe of each moment.

3.2. Narrative Space

Just as narrative creates its own sense of time, so it also creates the space for the story—its narrative world. This space may refer to a realistic place, but it typically has a thematic dimension. Jurij Lotman has championed an understanding of narrative space as a reflection of the primary themes of the story. According to Lotman, narrative is born when a character crosses the boundary between these symbolically charged spaces.[2]

Egypt was and is a country in the northeast corner of Africa. Our story is not particularly interested in the reality of ancient Egypt. Rather, Egypt represents the land of slavery and oppression, as the Book of Exodus itself calls it: “the house of slavery.”[3] This narrative space is mainly thematic rather than realistic. Its Egypt is no longer a place of refuge as was Joseph’s Egypt in Genesis, for “now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (1:8). This land has become a place of threat. Space then can be both realistic (geographical) and thematic (connected to ideas). This understanding neither affirms nor denies the historicity of the story. Instead, it insists on a thematic understanding of the space.

The larger story spans three main spaces. From Egypt, “the house of slavery,” the story moves to the wilderness, the place both of trial and temptation and of theophany before coming to the Promised Land, the goal of the journey. In each case, the opening between these spaces becomes a miraculous event through water: first at the Red Sea and then at the Jordan. The thematic content of this geography is clear. Still, as Thomas Dozeman has observed, modern scholarship has tended to regard thematic geography as pre-critical and has focused on accurate geography. “The result is a one-sided approach to biblical geography in contemporary study, which lacks a critical exploration of the ideological role of setting in creating a cultural and religious landscape in the writing of biblical history.”[4]

As with time, we can inquire about the relationship of “Egypt” to the Persian Empire, where the narrative receives its final form in the Torah. We can also consider our spatial relationship to this narrative space. The geographical differences may be sharp, but this must not obscure the thematic similarity.

3.3. Footnotes for Section 3

[1] Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, translated by Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980) 33-34.

[2] Jurij Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text, translated by Ronald Vroon (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1977) 217-218, 238; Marie-Laure Ryan, “Space,” in The Living Handbook of Narratology (www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de, 2012, 2014) 3.1.

[3] Exod 13:3, 14; 20:2.

[4] Thomas Dozeman, “Biblical Geography and Critical Spatial Studies” in Constructions of Space I: Theory, Geography and Narrative, edited by Jon L. Berquist and Claudia V. Camp (New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2007) 87-108, esp. 103.


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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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