Copyright © 1990 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
The Bible as Literature
Part 2 (of 4 parts):
"And It Came to Pass": The Bible
as God's Storybook
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois
loves stories. Henry R. Luce, founder of Time magazine, commenting
on his magazine's interest in personalities, quipped, "Time didn't
start this emphasis on stories about people; the Bible did." One of
the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the familiar
four-word plea, "Tell me a story." The Bible constantly satisfies
this human longing for stories. Once when I wondered which passage
to choose for the midweek Bible study, my son commented, "Choose a
story, not a poem."
Scholarly interest in biblical narrative has never been higher
than it currently is. In fact the literary approach to the Bible is al-
most synonymous with a narrative approach. Narratology is a
thriving enterprise that cuts across disciplinary lines.
The Narrative Shape of the Bible as a Whole
is its way of seeing the Bible as a whole. Educational research has
established that the biggest variable in a learner's ability to assim-
ilate data is the presence or absence of a unifying framework within
which to place individual items. Viewing the Bible as a story pro-
vides such a framework for the Bible as a whole.
To demonstrate that the big pattern in the Bible is a narrative
pattern, all one need do is consider the things that make up a story.
The soul of a story, said Aristotle, is plot. This is a way of saying
132 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990
that the most essential ingredient of a story, without which it could
not exist, is a sequence of events. The essence of plot, in turn, is a con-
flict around which the whole action revolves.
Above all else, the Bible is a series of events, with many inter-
spersed passages that interpret the events. From beginning to end,
moreover, the Bible is arranged around a central plot conflict be-
tween good and evil in a way that a newspaper, a history book, a
book of sermons, or a systematic theology never is. In terms of its
overall organization, the Bible obeys the dynamics of narrative by
its reliance on a central plot made up of individual episodes.
Stories, moreover, consist of interaction among characters. Such
interaction is different from the usual forms of historical writing,
such as the chronicle of events, character profiles, and catalogs of ac-
complishments. The Bible has the nature of a story, since it is full of
interaction among characters. Dialogue is prominent in the Bible.
The Bible is filled with voices speaking and replying. In fact the in-
cidence of direct quotation of speeches in the Bible stood without
parallel until the modern novel was born.
Another feature of stories is that they focus on the choices of the
characters. There is a corresponding element of suspense, surprise,
and discovery in a story. The rhythm of a story rests on three ques-
tions: How did it start? What happened next (and next ...)? How
did it turn out? This narrative logic is partly what accounts for the
sway that stories hold over people's attention.
The Bible, like other stories, is about human choices. In the
Bible people's difficulties did not arise from the hostility of the ex-
ternal world, which only provides the occasion for people to choose
for or against God. People's moral and spiritual choices in history
are the heart of the matter. Chesterton once commented on the nar-
rative quality of the Christian faith:
Christianity concentrates on the man at the crossroads.... The true
philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or
that?-that is the only thing to think about.... The instant is really aw-
ful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant that it .. .
is full of danger, like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis.1
Another feature of stories is that they consist of events that fit
together with unity, coherence, and shapeliness. According to Aris-
totle, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. On this score,
too, the Bible as a whole makes up a story. Its beginning is literally
the beginning-God's creation of the world and His placing of Adam
and Eve in the garden. The middle is the universal history of the
1 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; reprint, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1959),
Wilder has written that "God is an active and purposeful God and
his action with and for men has a beginning, a middle and an end
like any good story."2
The overall shapeliness of the Bible is impressive. It is a U-
shaped cycle that moves from the beginning to the end of time. It be-
gins with two people in a garden and ends with a multitude that no
one can number in a city. In the words of Frye, "The Bible as a whole
presents a gigantic cycle from creation to apocalypse."3 By ending
where it did not begin, the Bible follows a basic principle of stories.
The element of progression is strong as the story line of the Bible is
followed, especially in moving from the Old Testament to the New.
Stories are unified around a central protagonist, and so is the
Bible. The characterization of God is the main concern of the Bible,
and it is pursued from beginning to end. All other characters and
events interact with this great Protagonist. The story of the Bible is
the story of God's acts in history. It is the story of salvation his-
tory-of how God entered history to save individuals and (in the Old
Testament) to save a nation from physical and spiritual destruction.
Stories are full of the concrete experiences of everyday life. Sto-
rytellers are never content with abstract propositions. Their impulse
is to show, not merely to tell about an event. Stories help readers re-
live an experience in the order in which the events happened and as
vividly as possible. Stories incarnate their meaning in concrete form.
In the words of fiction writer Flannery O'Connor, a storyteller speaks
"with character and action, not about character and action."4
The Bible, then, should be regarded as a story because it consists
of the very things people associate with stories. These include plot
conflict, interaction among characters, emphasis on human choice, a
unified and coherent pattern of events that ends where it did not be-
gin, a central protagonist, and the incarnation of meaning in concrete
settings, characters, and events. The narrative quality of the Bible is
rooted in the character of God, for God is above all the God who acts.
What are the implications of the narrative shape of the Bible
as a whole? Primarily it gives the best possible organizing frame-
work for individual parts of the Bible. The average layperson's
grasp of how individual parts of the Bible fit together is almost
nonexistent. The most customary ways by which people try to orga-
2 Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 56.
1957), p. 316.
York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1957), p. 76.
history. Both of these, however, have been overrated by scholars as
organizing frameworks for the Bible as a whole. The reason theol-
ogy does not help the average person organize the entire Bible is
that it cuts against the grain of how the Bible itself is structured.
The Bible is not arranged as a topical outline.
Nor is most of the Bible organized as one expects history to be
organized. This is not to question that the events recorded in the Bi-
ble are historically accurate. But these historical events are pre-
sented in narrative form, not as the accumulation of information like
that found in modern history books. Many Old Testament survey
courses lead the student away from the biblical text to the constructs
of the discipline of history. Even more emphatically, they distance
the events of the Bible, treating them as having no relevance today.
Literary narrative, by contrast, has a universal quality to it. It
tells not simply what happened but what happens-what is true for
all people in all places at all times. In this regard preachers intu-
itively tend to take a literary approach, while academic biblical
scholars cling to the historical model. The tendency of academic bib-
lical scholarship, as distinct from a more devotional approach to
the Bible, has been to seal off the Bible in its ancient setting. To
guard against possible misunderstanding, let me say again that my
literary approach does not lead me to question that the events
recorded in the Bible actually occurred. The question is how one can
most profitably talk about the stories of the Bible in preaching and
teaching. In terms of how the Bible actually presents history, it re-
sembles the chapters in a novel more than chapters in a history book.
Yet it differs from a novel in being factual rather than fictional.
Methodology for Interacting with Bible Narratives
In considering the dynamics of the individual stories in the
Bible, the aim is to provide a minimal grammar for handling these
stories. For those who want more detail, several books provide good
As a backdrop, consider how stories are typically handled from
the pulpit and in Bible studies. The unity that is found in the pas-
sage is ordinarily a conceptual or theological unity. Expositors ap-
5 A plausible starting place for examples and further sources of narrative analysis
are the following books by the present writer: How to Read the Bible as Literature
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984); Words of Delight: A Literary In-
troduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987); and Words of Life:
A Literary Introduction to the Neu, Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
assume that the writer is presenting a thesis with supporting evi-
dence. The sermon takes a similar form. The expositor goes to the
story with theological or moral categories in mind and quickly sees a
sermon outline taking shape. The resulting sermon has a thesis and
three or four subordinate generalizations. Details in the story are
then adduced as supporting data for the generalizations.
All this misunderstands how stories communicate their truth.
Storytellers have a story to tell. They do not construct their stories
out of ideas, though ideas are indirectly embodied in their stories.
The basic ingredients of stories-and the corresponding terms with
which they should be discussed-are setting, characters, and plot or
action. First on the expositor's agenda should be to relive the story.
The theological or moral principles should be asserted later.
Settings are the forgotten element in many people's analysis of
stories. Yet they will repay all the attention given them. Settings
are physical, temporal, and cultural. They serve two main functions
in stories. They are always part of the action in a story, providing a
fit container for the actions and characters and allowing the story to
come alive in the reader's imagination. Often a setting takes on
symbolic importance as well, becoming an important part of the
meaning of a story. In the story of Lot, for example, Sodom is a moral
monstrosity, and God's turning the city into a wasteland is itself the
meaning of the story-God's judgment against sin. Analyzing the
function of settings in the stories of the Bible will almost always add
immensely to one's understanding.
Characters are the second thing to note in a story, and here the
record of most expositors is rather good. Biblical characters are
known in a variety of ways: by what the storyteller says about
them, by other characters' responses to them, by their words and
thoughts, by what they say about themselves, and above all by
their actions. The key to interacting with the characters in biblical
narrative is to look on them as real--life people and therefore to get
to know them as fully as possible.
A principle of literary narrative is that characters in a story are
in some sense universal. They are representative of humanity gener-
ally and carry a burden of meaning larger than themselves. On the
basis of what happened to them, Bible readers and preachers can
generalize about people in general, including themselves.
At the level of plot, discussions of biblical narrative usually
show the most deficiency. To begin, stories are built around one or
more plot conflicts. Nearly everything in stories is slanted around
these central conflicts. The conflict can be physical conflict, conflict
between people, or moral/spiritual conflict. A plot conflict has a be-
ginning, a discernible development, and a final resolution. Not to
136 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990
approach the unity of a story in terms of plot conflict is self-defeat-
ing. Plot conflict is simply how most stories are constructed.
A plot is also constructed as a cause-effect sequence in which one
event leads to the next. A story differs in this regard from journalis-
tic reportage, where a summary of the most important information
appears first, with other details added by a principle of accumula-
tion. A story, by contrast, takes us through an action in the order in
which it unfolded. This means that any successful teaching of a bib-
lical story requires that the action be presented in its successive
phases, observing the ongoing progression and coherence of the action.
This progressive unifying element is utterly lost if an expositor sim-
ply reaches into a story for details that support a conceptual outline.
In the ongoing progression of the plot conflicts(s), the reader goes
through the action with a central character known as the protago-
nist. Arrayed against him or her are the antagonists. Viewing the
action from this perspective gives the analysis a focus that it other-
wise lacks. Common narrative strategies are to show the protagonist
in situations of testing and situations that require choice. A discrep-
ancy between what readers know to be true and ignorance on the part
of characters in a story is known as irony.
Having interacted with the story in the terms noted, an exposi-
tor must move from story to meaning. Since stories embody their
meanings indirectly, this requires active interpretation. It is useful
to divide the interpretive process into two phases. The first is to de-
termine what the story is about, and the second is to identify what
the story says about that experience or topic. A simple rule of inter-
pretation is to assume that every story is in some sense an example
story and therefore to ask what the story is an example of. The nar-
rative world that a storyteller creates by his or her selectivity of
details is a picture of the world as the writer understands it, and of
what is right and wrong in that world. It should also be remembered
that storytelling is an affective art. That is, a story conveys much of
its meaning by getting a reader to feel positively or negatively to-
ward characters and events.
Listening to sermons, surveying Bible study materials, and even
reading specialized literary commentary have demonstrated over
and over how rarely people use foundational narrative concepts
when analyzing the stories of the Bible. One cannot relive a biblical
story without employing the standard tools of narrative analysis.
The practical application of all this is that the exposition of
the stories of the Bible needs to be informed by literary analysis.
People need to hear more about plot conflict and characterization
and the function of settings in a story than they customarily hear.
They need to see stories laid out into their successive episodes or
dramatic scenes. They need to see the unity of stories identified in
"And It Came to Pass": The Bible as God's Storybook 137
such narrative terms as testing and choice and initiation and quest.
They need to see theological statements arise from the analysis of
stories instead of being imposed on them. And they need to see theo-
logical meanings derived from stories as a whole instead of the usual
practice of moralizing about the specific details in a story.
Nothing has been said this far in this article about such matters
as narrator, implied author, implied audience, the narrator's point
of view, signifier, actant, sender, receiver, and similar terms that
fall into an approach that can loosely be called the rhetorical ap-
proach to biblical narrative. Such concepts have little use.
Specialized literary analysis of biblical narrative is currently
governed by the myth of complexity. It assumes that the stories of
the Bible are enormously complex and are best discussed by critical
tools that are extremely detailed. Such a myth of complexity, how-
ever, is to be rejected. The literature of the Bible is subtle and artis-
tically crafted but essentially simple. It is folk literature with oral
roots. Talking about the Bible's literature does not require intricate
tools and theories. It does, however, require literary tools.
narrative and in effect have discussed what the stories of the Bible
share with stories in general. This should be balanced with a discus-
sion of some things that are distinctive to biblical narrative. The
territory about to be covered is essential to understanding biblical
narrative but no more essential than what has already been said.
This statement intends to counter the widespread false assumption
that the Bible is somehow better and truer when it differs from sto-
ries generally. Its validity is often wrongly made to depend on its
uniqueness. People would get more out of the Bible and handle it bet-
ter as teachers and preachers if they would carry over to the reading
of the Bible more of what they know about other books.
The most distinctive feature of biblical narrative is the mingling
of three impulses or modes. They are the historical, the theological,
and the literary (the impulse to embody human experience in an ar-
tistic form). Usually one of these dominates a passage, though not to
the exclusion of the others. The more literary the treatment of an
event is, the more a literary approach will yield. But even in these
cases the stories of the Bible invite historical and theological ap-
proaches as well as a literary approach in a way that stories in gen-
eral do not. Obviously then the plea for literary criticism of biblical
narrative does not imply the sufficiency of such an approach by itself.
From the time that Erich Auerbach wrote his classic comparison
of storytelling technique in Homer and in Genesis, it has been a com-
138 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1990
monplace in literary criticism that the stories of the Bible are told
in a spare, unembellished style.6 To quote Auerbach's well-known
summary, biblical narrative includes
the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary
for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity, the decisive
points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is
nonexistent; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only sug-
gested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, per-
meated with the most unrelieved suspense ... remains mysterious and
"fraught with background.”7
The effect of this unembellished storytelling technique is that the
stories "require subtle investigation and interpretation."8 With so
few details included, readers need to get maximum mileage out of ev-
erything the writer puts before them.
Clarity and mystery thus mingle as one moves through these sto-
ries. For the most part the storytellers of the Bible narrate but do not
explain what happened. Rarely do they add explicit commentary to
their presentation. What they tell is reliable, but they leave much
unsaid. In the formula of one literary scholar, when the storytellers
of the Bible add explanation to their presentation, they tell the
truth, but not necessarily the whole truth about an event or charac-
ter.9 The result is that it is easy to grasp the basic action in a bibli-
cal story, but difficult to interpret all of its meaning or human dy-
interpretation becomes clearer when one observes the way in which
dramatized scenes are usually the central element in a Bible story.
Storytellers can use as many as four different modes. In direct narra-
tive they simply report events, telling in their own voice what hap-
pened. In dramatic narrative they dramatize a scene as though it
were in a play, quoting the speeches or dialogue of characters. In de-
scription writers describe the details of setting or character, while
commentary consists of explanations by storytellers. Overwhelm-
ingly, biblical stories emphasize the dramatized scene. Biblical
imagination is strongly dramatic. Drama, in turn, is the most objec-
tive of literary genres. It simply presents characters and leaves it up
to the audience to come to the right conclusions. Once again the sto-
ries of the Bible call for interpretation.
trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), pp. 3-23.
University Press, 1985), p. 43.
tive units. This preference for the brief unit is characteristic of other
biblical genres as well. It means that extended delineation of per-
sonality is not included in biblical narrative, though a composite
portrait may be produced by combining the fragments. In reading,
"the great figures move in somewhat remote fashion, their charac-
ters illuminated as it were from the side by flashes of magnanimity,
pity, anger; heroism, deceit, covetousness; suffering and the frequent
cry of despair."10
The stories of the Bible also combine two types of narrative
often thought of as opposites. One is the impulse toward realism.
The stories of the Bible are rooted in actual history. They often in-
clude passages that read more like diaries or journalistic reports
than ordinary stories. They tell about the failings of characters as
well as their virtues. They also focus on common experience and
characters of average social standing in a way that other ancient
literature does not.
But the stories of the Bible also possess the qualities of a type of
story that is in many ways the exact opposite of realism and that
literary scholars call romance. This is the type of story that de-
lights in the extraordinary and miraculous. Such stories are filled
with mystery, the supernatural, and the heroic. They are replete
with adventure, battle, capture and rescue, surprise, the exotic and
marvelous, poetic justice (good characters rewarded and bad ones
punished), and happy endings in which the underdog wins, the vil-
lain gets just punishment, the slave girl marries the king, the dead
come back to life. It is no wonder that the stories of the Bible appeal
to children. Nor is it surprising that they merge in a child's imagi-
nation with romance stories. I recall an occasion when my daughter,
then age five, recommended I select for a Bible study "the story of
Gideon, and his knights, and their fiery swords."
The stories of the Bible thus combine the two tendencies of nar-
rative that have most appealed to the human race. They are factu-
ally realistic and romantically marvelous. They bring together two
impulses that the human race is always trying to join-reason and
imagination, fact and mystery. The stories of the Bible appeal to
that part of humanity that is firmly planted on the earth and to
that part of humanity that soars to the heavens.
Another fusion of polarities occurs with the way in which the
stories of the Bible call for both a naive and a sophisticated literary
response. They are both adult stories and children's stories. On one
10 T. R. Henn, The Bible as Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p.
plot line. They are stories that elicit intuitive responses from chil-
dren. Looking back, I find that my childhood responses to such things
as dramatic irony or poetic justice or characterization were usually
the right ones, even though I lacked the literary terminology to
But the stories of the Bible also call for a sophisticated re-
sponse. Part of this is the ability to deal with what are today
called adult themes-violence, sex, deceit, death, the subtleties of
tension in personal relations, and the ambiguous mixture of good and
evil in people's character and actions. Bible stories often carry a sur-
face meaning that no one can miss, combined with difficult issues
that require interpretive skill to notice and unravel. In a sense the
Bible is ready to meet its readers, whether children or adults, at
whatever level their own background of experience and literary
ability allows them to meet it. This is true not only of the content of
Bible stories but also of their artistry. For people whose literary ca-
pacity has been awakened, there is as much excellence of literary
technique to relish in the stories of the Bible as in other literature.
Some additional distinctives of biblical narrative may be noted.
Patterns of repetition are numerous and intricate.11 Irony is a leading
ingredient.12 Physical descriptions of characters are understated and
sparse. Biblical storytellers frequently work with elemental di-
chotomies such as good and evil, light and darkness, God and people,
the earthly and the heavenly or spiritual. The simplicity of these
stories is paradoxically also majestic. Most distinctive of all is the
regularity with which God is a character in the stories.
If the stories of the Bible are like other stories, they are also
different from them. Even at a literary level, readers of the Bible
are continuously aware that this is a special book. If it reenacts fa-
miliar narrative conventions, it also transcends them and sometimes
The Narrative Quality of Christian Life and Doctrine
The high proportion of stories in the Bible suggests that narra-
tive is inherent in the Christian faith itself. Wilder once wrote
criticism. Specimen studies include Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New
York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 88-113; and Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible
(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1978), pp. 24-50.
A Christian can confess his faith where he is ... by telling a story or
a series of stories."13 If a believer wants to tell about his own Chris-
tian faith, he has to tell a story about how his faith began, where
it has led him, what he has done on the basis of it, what God has
done for him, and so forth. Here indeed is the basis for an amorphous
but flourishing phenomenon known as narrative theology.
Life itself has a narrative quality to it, inasmuch as it consists
of the same ingredients as stories-settings, characters, and action.
The Christian faith highlights the narrative quality of life. It be-
gins with the premise that every person is the protagonist in his or
her own life story. Like literary protagonists, each person is put into
situations that test him or her and. require choices.
The world has the qualities of narrative as well. It is a world in
which a great conflict is raging between good and evil, God and Sa-
tan. It is a time-bound world in which things never stand still. Pro-
gression in time characterizes life stories, with an accompanying po-
tential for change and development, progress and regress. Suspense
and discovery accompany the unfolding of this story, along with
growth in understanding as one looks back and reads his own story.
Stories have pattern and design, and in this way also believers'
lives have a narrative quality. Their lives have the beginning-
middle-ending shape of a story. They are progressing toward a goal.
In fact Christians have already read the last chapter of their story,
even though they have to wait to read the intervening chapters.
The last chapter resembles romance stories, since it includes the ap-
pearance of a hero who kills a dragon, marries the bride, celebrates
the wedding with a feast, and lives happily ever after in a palace
glittering with jewels.
Stories have an author who stands outside the story and controls
it. Stories bear the imprint of their author and express that author's
values. The Christian's life is a story told by God.
The Christian's story is built around familiar archetypes or
master images. It is a rescue story (Col. 1:13-14). It is also a quest
story, having heaven as the eventual goal of the quest (John 14:2-3;
Heb. 11:16) and personal holiness as a daily goal (Matt. 5:48). The
dragon-slaying motif of much of romance literature is also present in
this story: "put to death . . . evil desire" (Col. 3:5, RSV). Equally
prominent are the motifs of testing (1 Pet. 4:12) and transformation (2
Viewing the Christian life in narrative terms helps believers
organize it and understand it better. It can make believers better
two things-the profession they make and the story they are in the
process of telling by their actions. Their profession is what they say
outwardly to the world. The story each Christian tells is more pri-
vate and hidden from view, but it is a truer indication of who he or
she really is. Christians prove their allegiances less by what they
say than by the story they create with their choices and actions in
life. The story is the basis for the decisions Christians make-deci-
sions that often baffle others who know only their profession.
The grand edifice of Christian theology is similarly not only a
list of doctrines but also a story. The Apostles' Creed, for example, is
not simply a collection of ideas but also a story about what God has
done. Likewise baptism and communion also tell a story about re-
demption in Christ.
Systematic theology should be supplemented with narrative
theology. Viewing one's beliefs as a story underscores the need to act
as well as to believe. It makes Christians participants in the grand
drama of redemption, not simply the recipients of a doctrinal system.
Even ethics is more than a list of commands and principles. It is a
story of choosing good and rejecting evil-of acting virtuously in the
face of life's choices the way the hero of a story acts.
To summarize, both the Bible and the Christian faith based on
it have the quality of a story. Teachers and preachers need to do jus-
tice to this narrative quality. Doing so begins with a commitment to
teach and preach from the narrative parts of the Bible. It extends
beyond that to the way in which the doctrinal content of the faith is
pictured-not simply as a list of beliefs but also as a story of what
God has done and what His followers are called to do in response.
Respecting the narrative quality of the Bible can affect how
teachers and preachers of the Bible view their tasks. The
metaphors by which they perform those tasks have a subtle influ-
ence on how they approach them. The dominant metaphor continues
to be one in which they view themselves as lecturers imparting in-
formation. It has been the burden of this article to suggest that they
should also view themselves as telling God's story. The stories of
the Bible should be treated not only as histories of what happened
but also as metaphors of the human condition generally. And when
teachers apply these stories to their own lives and to their audience,
they need to avoid customary abstractness and to ask how the prin-
ciples of the faith will actually become part of the life story people
are all in the process of creating.
This is the second in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H.
Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary, November 7-10, 1989.
Dr. Roy Zuck
Dallas Theological Seminary
3909 Swiss Ave.
Dallas, TX 75204
Digital copy proofed by Dan James. Thanks!