Many generations of Bible readers have found meaning through relating to Bible characters who share similar struggles and challenges, fight similar weaknesses, and fail and succeed time and time again in their own process of transformation. When we observe the Biblical characters closely, we gain a more intimate knowledge of them, and thus are able to identify ourselves with them. Their story converts from a dry account of ancient times into an enlivened vision of the past that guides us personally for the present and future.
By looking closely at characters, we also learn about God: who He is, and what His values, expectations, and desires are. We learn how God intervenes and guides human history, and we see how His love for humanity plays out, given the presence of sin in our world. In the next two articles, we will discuss characters and characterization in narrative analysis. As this series unfolds, we will also learn how studying the characters is helpful for understanding plot development and other narrative elements.
Characters and Characterization
Biblical narratives are not novels. The style is laconic, and the characters are often presented in a rather sketch-like fashion. Even with such economy of words, however, some characters are developed much, some very little; however, none are presented so briefly as to prevent us learning something from their story, or so comprehensively as to exhaust the reader’s imagination. Generally, the details are few and selective, but all provided are important.
The first step in analyzing a narrative in-depth is to identify all the characters. Bible characters can be individual or collective: a person, a group of people, a tribe, a nation or empire, or even an animal.
Most narratives include several characters, of which typically one or two are main characters.
The main characters occupy most space in the narrative and are generally named, multi-dimensional, and well developed. They exhibit more complex features, and are dynamic, changing more–for better or for worse. Primary characters are crucial to the plot development, speak more, and are referred to more. They are described in more detail, and their actions are highlighted.
Secondary characters are often unnamed, flat, one-dimensional characters, who exhibit only one or two traits and do not develop or change, but remain static throughout the story. A well-written story necessarily includes less-developed characters in order to highlight the main ones. As Jerome Walsh said, “If everybody is important, nobody is important.”
Thus, while the role of secondary characters is minor, it is not extraneous. Generally, they shed further light on the main characters, contribute to the overall plot progression, and enhance the complexity of the story. Sometimes the minor characters function as a foil. By contrasting the features of secondary characters (who are usually in the background) with the features of main characters (often in the foreground), the narrator highlights key traits of the primary players.
- Example #1: In Genesis 27, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau are main characters who take the stage two by two. The only secondary character is the unnamed individual who tells Rebekah of her sons’ malicious plans. The brief reference to this minor character’s action, however, indicates allegiance to Rebekah, enhancing her portrayal as the well-informed matriarch whose awareness enables her to take action and shape destinies.
- Example #2: In Acts, six brethren accompanied Peter to Cornelius’ house and to Jerusalem (10:23, 11:12). They are only secondary, unnamed characters, yet their presence as witnesses suggests that early church leaders practiced and encouraged accountability.
- Example #3: Consider also the chief eunuch and the steward in Daniel 1. Both are secondary, flat characters. They each perform one action: the chief eunuch named the four Jews (1:7) and the steward tested them for ten days (1:16). The chief eunuch speaks once, his words revealing fear for his life and implying a refusal to change the Jews’ diet (1:10). The steward does not speak at all, but consents to a trial period (1:14). Neither of them changes, and they promptly disappear. However small the role they play, it contributes to the plot progression and the dénouement, and underscores Daniel’s determination to seek any possible way of keeping the dietary laws. When the chief eunuch refused Daniel’s request of not eating the king’s diet for the next three years (1:5, 8), Daniel did not give up, but thought of a less-threatening strategy and asked the person under the chief eunuch for a short trial.
Simply put, characterization is how the actor is presented. Bible writers employ direct and indirect means of depicting their characters:
In direct characterization, the narrator tells us a character has a certain trait. The trait can be physical (Naaman was a leper, Saul was the most handsome in Israel), social (the young ruler is rich), moral (Job was blameless and upright), spiritual (Cornelius was devout, John the Baptist was just and holy), or emotional (Jonah was angry that God spared the Ninevites, Samuel was displeased when Israel asked for a king).
Because in Scripture the narrator is informed through inspiration, his editorial comments are the most trustworthy source of characterization. He knows the facts, the characters’ inner feelings, and the end from the beginning. We also need to bear in mind that everything the Bible writers include is relevant to their purpose. Thus, whenever the narrator discloses a character’s feature, it is important to observe it in relation to all other elements of a story, and understand how it contributes to the intended message.
The passage we will be studying is Genesis 37:12-36 (ESV):
(12) Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. (13) And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” (14) So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. (15) And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” (16) “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” (17) And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
(18) They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. (19) They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. (20) Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (21) But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” (22) And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. (23) So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. (24) And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
(25) Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. (26) Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. (28) Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt.
(29) When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes (30) and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” (31) Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. (32) And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” (33) And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (34) Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. (35) All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him. (36) Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard. (Genesis 37:12-36, ESV)
 James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 122.
 (Jerome Walsh, Old Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 24.
 James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 124.