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Introduction to Biblical Narrative in Genesis 18–19

Peter Sabo
University of Alberta
psabo@ualberta.ca

Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
Related Courses: The Bible as Literature, Religion and Literature, Narrative Theory
Intended Audience: Undergraduates
Syllabus Selection: Introduction to Biblical Narrative, Genesis (18–19)

Objectives

After completing the lesson, students should be able to:

  1. understand the basic workings of biblical narrative and the importance of reading literarily;
  2. identify three of the more distinctive features of biblical narrative: repetition of key terms, type-scenes, and the art of biblical characterization; and
  3. apply the practice of close literary reading to other biblical texts.

Outline of Lesson Plan

  1. Background Information
  2. Pre-class Preparation
  3. In-class Lecture
    1. Introduction
    2. Key terms (Leitwörter)
    3. Type-scenes
    4. Characterization (and Narration)
  4. Assignments

I. Background Information

1. Introductions to the Bible and Literature

  1. NOAB, Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study: Literary Approaches
  2. The Jewish Study Bible, Literary Approaches
  3. Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, Narrative Criticism and Narrative Hermeneutics
  4. Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, and the Bible

2. Commentary on Genesis Pertinent for Lesson

  1. NOAB, Genesis: Introduction
  2. The Oxford History of the Biblical World, The Narratives of Genesis 12–50
  3. The Oxford Bible Commentary, Commentary on Genesis, Abraham and His Family (chs. 12–36)
  4. Encyclopedic Entries on Abraham, Lot, and Sodom

II. Pre-class Preparation

Students should read the following:

  1. Gen. 11:26–22:19, with particular attention paid to chs. 18–19
  2. Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, Narrative Criticism and Narrative Hermeneutics
  3. Optional: NOAB, Literary Approaches, Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies, Literary Criticism

III. In-class Lecture

1. Introduction

Chapters 18–19 constitute a clear unit within the book of Genesis which can be divided into four main sections:

  1. 18:1–15: The announcement of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah
  2. 18:16–33: Abraham and God’s dialogue concerning justice and the fate of Sodom
  3. 19:1–29: The escape of Lot and his family from Sodom
  4. 19:30–38: Incest between Lot and his daughters in the cave

The two chapters play a central part in the Abraham saga (Gen. 11:26–25:11), which is the formative story of the ancestral narratives as a whole (Genesis 12–50). An overall acquaintance with these larger units is essential to a proper understanding of Genesis 18–19.

The focus of this lesson, however, is not necessarily on specific interpretations of Genesis 18–19 but rather on understanding the basic workings of biblical narrative by using Genesis 18–19 as a sample text. While it is impossible to do justice to this topic in a single class, the hope is to equip the student with some of the initial skills needed to appreciate the crucial role that literary art plays in shaping biblical narrative. Serious literary analysis entails a close attention to the details of a text, to the artful use of language, tone, sound, imagery, narrative viewpoint, and much else. As an introduction, this lesson focuses on three of the more distinct literary features of biblical narrative: the repetition of certain key terms (Leitwörter), type-scenes, and the Hebrew Bible’s construction of characterization (and thus, by extension, narration). Distinct, in this case, does not mean that one cannot find approximate analogues in other narrative traditions but simply that these conventions play a central role in biblical narrative—often much more so than in modern Western narrative traditions. Each section will be divided into three parts: definition and introduction to the specific literary convention, analysis of how that convention is used in Genesis 18–19, and questions for discussion.

2. Key Terms, Leitwörter

A. Definition

In biblical narrative, there is often a repetition of certain key terms that become thematic ideas through their recurrence at different significant junctures. Biblical scholars call these key words Leitwörter (literally, “leading words”) and they are one of the more prominent literary conventions of biblical narrative. These word-motifs not only sustain a thematic development but they can also establish connections between seemingly unrelated scenes.

Note: Tracing Leitwörter in translation is not a simple task. Many English versions translate the same Hebrew word or root with different English equivalents for the sake of fluency, accuracy, etc. While exploring the key terms in Genesis 18–19, therefore, it will probably be necessary for the instructor to provide his or her own translation of the text, translating the Leitwörter as consistently as possible even when it seems strained or awkward to do so. In fact, a strained translation may actually help the students identify the key terms more easily.

B. Text

We will focus here on two of the more prominent key terms in Genesis 18–19: knowledge and justice. Variations of the verb “know” occur in 18:19, 21; 19:5, 8, 33, and 35. The student may not catch the very first occurrence, as NOAB (New Revised Standard Version) has God say “I have chosen [Abraham],” instead of “I have known [Abraham],” although it does provide a footnote explaining that the Hebrew says “known.” The second occurrence speaks of God’s plan to know whether things are as bad as the outcry against Sodom suggests (18:21). In 19:5, the men of Sodom demand “to know” the two messengers whom Lot has taken into his house. The biblical phrase “ to know” someone is frequently used as an expression for intercourse and that is certainly how Lot interprets the request, though it may also connote the Sodomites’ desire to inquire of the messengers’ intentions for visiting their city. Either way, there is an ironic note in the Sodomites’ demand to know the messengers, for the very purpose of the messengers is to know (the wickedness of) the Sodomites. Similar contrast can be found between 19:8, 33 and 35. In 19:8, Lot offers the Sodomites his daughters, asserting that they have not known a man (that is, they are virgins). In 19:33 and 35, however, when Lot’s daughters seduce him on successive nights by plying him to drink wine, the text tells us that Lot “did not know” that he was sleeping with them. Thus, Lot’s daughters now “know,” while Lot does not.

The theme of knowing relates to that of carrying out justice and evaluating righteousness and wickedness. How can God know whether his punishment/judgment of Sodom (and the rest of the cities of the plain) is just without knowing if righteous people live there? How many righteous people need to live there in order for God’s punishment to become unjust? In 18:23–25, Abraham brings these issues before God and even confronts the deity with the pointed question: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (18:25). The words “judge” and “justice” derive from the same Hebrew root. The verse echoes back to God’s interior monologue in 18:17–19 and the ethical legacy of Abraham and his descendants to do righteousness and justice (18:19). The repetition of the root suggests that it is Abraham’s concern for justice and righteousness that leads him to intercede for Sodom in 18:23ff. The root appears in only one verse in Genesis 19, though it is given an emphatic form in which the verb is repeated (once in the infinitive absolute form and once in a conjugated or inflected form). It occurs when the Sodomites rebuke Lot for “playing the judge” among them even though he is only a sojourner in the city (19:9). Like the Sodomites’ demand to know Lot’s guests, this verse too is ironic given that the Sodomites are being judged at this very moment, not necessarily by Lot but by the messengers (and by extension God).

C. Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. Looking back over the story, what might be the significance of Abraham being known by God? How does this present Abraham in comparison to the Sodomites, or even Lot?
  2. The word for laughter is repeated three times in ch.18 (vv. 12, 13, and 15) in regard to Sarah laughing over the promise of her having a son in her old age. The word is then repeated in 19:14 when Lot is “like one causing laughter” (NRSV “jesting”) in the eyes of his sons-in-law when he tells them of the impending destruction of Sodom. What might be the significance of the connection, if any, between these two scenes? And why might laughter be a motif in this story? (The instructor could also inform the students that the name Isaac, the very son who is promised in ch.18, is derived from the Hebrew word for laughter.)

3. The Type-Scene

A. Definition

A type-scene is an episode which is composed of a fixed sequence of motifs and symbols, usually containing a fixed number of characters. The most elaborate example found in the Hebrew Bible is the encounter between a future bride and bridegroom at a well (typically in a foreign land). The general model of this type-scene entails a future bridegroom, or his surrogate, journeying to a foreign land and meeting the future wife at a well. Typically the maiden is identified as so-and-so’s daughter, then either the man or the woman draw water for the other, and the woman rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival. All of this leads to their eventual betrothal, which is often accompanied by a celebratory meal. Examples can be found in Gen. 24:10–61 (Isaac/Abraham’s servant and Rebekah), Gen. 29:1–20 (Jacob and Rachel), Exod. 2:15–21 (Moses and Zipporah), and, in a way, the book of Ruth (particularly chapter 2). The significance of any particular version of a type-scene is revealed only in its context, how it diverges from and refashions the very model which it evokes, and thus how it relates to other versions of the same type-scene.

B. Text

Activity: Divide the students into groups of 3–4 people (the number may vary according to class size) and have them list similarities and differences between Abraham’s scene of hospitality in 18:1–8 and Lot’s scene of hospitality in 19:1–4. While the students are compiling their lists, ask them to ponder the significance of some of the similarities and differences between the two scenes.

In both scenes the host is sits at an entrance, sees guests approaching, rises up to greet the guests, bows down before them, and offers them rest and an invitation to a meal. Abraham’s scene of hospitality, however, is more elaborate. The description of Abraham’s meal is more thorough—fine meal cakes, a tender and good calf, curds and milk—in comparison to Lot’s meal of unleavened bread. In the preparation of the meal, moreover, other characters are included, such as Sarah and a servant boy, while only Lot makes the meal in 19:1–4. Abraham runs to meet his guests and hastens to provide instructions to Sarah and the servant, while such hastening is absent in Lot’s hospitality scene.

Important differences can also be found in the opposite pairs of country/city, tent/house, and day/night. Abraham sits at a tent in the countryside in the heat of the day. When the messengers eventually eat, they do so under a tree. Lot, on the other hand, sits at the gate of Sodom and the guests arrive in the evening. The messengers do not stay in the plaza of the city but go to Lot’s house, behind his closed doors (emphasizing the architectural difference between a tent and a house). The difference in these pairs reveals a sense of foreboding in regard to Lot’s scene of hospitality. Night and the city, for instance, are typically associated with evil or the potential for wicked deeds, while day and the countryside are typically associated with good. The messengers’ initial rejection also contributes to the ominous atmosphere of this second type-scene, thereby preparing the reader for the entrance of the inhospitable and wicked men of Sodom (and their eventual fate).

C. Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. What does the comparison of the two type-scenes reveal about the characters of Lot and Abraham?
  2. What might be the significance of Lot offering hospitality to the messengers while the Sodomites do not?

4. Characterization (and Narration)

A. Definition

Characterization is the process by which the text reveals the personality of a character, that is, his or her intellectual, emotional, and, importantly for the world of the Hebrew Bible, moral qualities. Broadly speaking, there are two methods of characterization: indirect (showing) and direct (telling). The Hebrew Bible displays a preference for indirect characterization. This does not mean, however, that all biblical characters are flat; in fact, the Hebrew Bible is renowned for its ability to present deep and complex characters in the most sparse, even rudimentary, way.

One of the first steps in identifying how characterization works in a text is to establish what type of narrative voice it employs. In the book of Genesis, and almost exclusively in biblical narrative as a whole, this is third-person omniscient perspective. Omniscient is a particularly apt description of biblical narrative, as the narrator may also, at times, record God’s inner thoughts. Within third-person narration there is a scale of ascending certainty which one can use to measure knowledge of the motives, attitude, and moral nature of a character: the report of a character’s actions or description of his or her appearance and gestures; the comments of one character about another; the direct speech of a character; the inward speech of a character (inward monologue); or the direct statement by the narrator. Report of a character’s actions, appearance, etc. is the lowest end of the scale, as the reader is still left primarily in the realm of inference. The middle categories reveal a growing sense of certainty, though biblical characters, like people in real life, are not always the most accurate judge of themselves and others. It is only with the omniscient narrator’s explicit statements that the reader can gain a more stable ground of certainty. It should be noted, however, that a distinctive feature of biblical narrative is the drastic selectivity of the narrator, for even when glimmers of insight are provided they are often fragmentary and not elaborated upon. Thus, even if a character is categorically described as righteous or wicked, there is no minute analysis of what motivates them or detailed rendering of their mental process.

B. Text

Genesis 18–19 provides a variety of examples of how characterization works in biblical narrative. The Sodomites, for example, are clearly presented as evil and perverse. Their immediate accusation for Lot to bring his guests out of the house contrasts with the hospitality that Abraham and Lot have shown. Lot’s reaction to their demand, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly,” (19:7) further confirms the negative characterization of the Sodomites. Of course, far before we are introduced to the Sodomites in Genesis 18–19 they have already been described as wicked in the most explicit way possible in 13:13 by the flat assertion of the narrator: “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” What drives the Sodomites’ evil actions, however, is left unexplained. We are provided insight only through their actions in 19:4–11 and particularly their brief speech in 19:9.

The discussion between Abraham and God in 18:16–33 displays another distinctive feature of biblical narrative that applies to characterization: the tendency to narrate through dialogue. The center of the passage revolves around Abraham’s direct address to God in which he questions whether the judge of all the earth will do justice (18:23–25). This leads to a lengthy dialogue (in terms of biblical narrative) between God and Abraham about how many righteous individuals would need to be present in Sodom in order to save the city from punishment. The dialogue presents two characters highly concerned with upright moral conduct, confirming God’s monologue in 18:17–19 in which he decides to reveal to Abraham his plans because of Abraham’s righteousness. The monologue, importantly, also displays the tension within God himself and thus qualifies as one of the rare instances which flatly reveal the mental processing of a character. After the end of the dialogue we do not hear of Abraham again until 19:27–29, that is, after Sodom has already been destroyed. In a wonderfully opaque way these verses describe how Abraham wakes up the morning after the destruction, standing at the very spot where he had debated with God the day before, and peers down at the smoldering ruins of Sodom. Unlike God’s monologue in 18:17–19, however, there is no description of Abraham’s inner thoughts. Did he think that the judge of all the earth had done justly? Was he thinking about Lot? The reader is left to ponder these questions without any direct answer.

C. Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. Clearly the Sodomites are represented as evil while Abraham is presented as righteous, but what about Lot? Is he characterized as righteous, wicked, or neither? Similarly, how are Lot’s daughters characterized? What does one make of their actions in 19:30–38 in which they inebriate and sexually seduce their father? And why does the narrator not offer an explicit comment on this?
  2. Imagine a different narrative voice, or combination of voices, for Genesis 18–19. What if, for example, Abraham was the first-person narrator of Genesis 18 and Lot was the first-person narrator of Genesis 19? What kind of extra information might be provided? What might be left out?

IV. Assignments and Paper Topics

  1. Take another episode from Genesis and analyze its characterization techniques. Provide specific examples of the ascending scale of characterization. (Possible options: Joseph, his brothers, and Jacob in Genesis 37; Jacob, Esau, Isaac, and Rebekah in Genesis 27; or Abraham in Genesis 22.)
  2. Take a modern short story, like John Updike’s “A & P” or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and contrast and compare its characterization techniques to a narrative sequence from Genesis. Provide specific examples from each text.
  3. Compare Gen. 9:18–28 to Gen. 19:30–38 as two versions of a type scene. First identify the sequence and some of the motifs and symbols of the type scene. Then comment on significance of the difference between the two versions, especially the comparison between Noah and Lot. (Note: An acquaintance with all of Genesis 6-9 is also helpful for this comparison.) A similar paper could also be written comparing Gen. 12:1–20 and Gen. 20:1–18.

Further Reading

  • Alter, Robert. “Sodom as Nexus: The Web of Design in Biblical Narrative.” Pages 146–60 in The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
  • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
  • Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by W. R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953. (See especially pages 3–23.)
  • Gunn, David and Nolan Fewell. Narrative in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford Bible Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Josipovici, G. The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Kawashima, R.S. Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Letellier, Robert I. Day in Mamre, Night in Sodom: Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19. Leiden: Kok, 1995.
  • Miscall, Peter D. The Workings of Old Testament Narrative. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
  • Sternberg, M. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
  • Weitzman, S. Song and Story in Biblical Narrative: The History of a Literary Convention in Ancient Israel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
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