An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 2b: Indirect Characterization)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 2b: Indirect Characterization)

PC: Joseph sold to the Ishmaelites / via Wikimedia Commons

Indirect characterization is achieved through various story elements such as actions, speech, relational dynamics, figures of speech, and literary techniques. Thus, Gehazi’s run after Naaman to ask for money reveals his greed, Elijah’s fleeing discloses his fear, and Cornelius’ alms-giving habits portray him as generous. Elisha’s prayer depicts him as disappointed with himself, and Esau’s inner speech reveals him as a murder planner. In Matthew 26:36-46, the repetition of Jesus’ prayers underscores His agony and vacillation.

When we observe indirect characterization provided by other characters, it is important to consider that characters have different points of view, and therefore their perspective may be an accurate representation of another character, or not. For example, when Esau paints Jacob as a thief for “cheating him two times” (Genesis 27:36), he is misrepresenting his brother by painting Jacob’s act of buying the birthright as deception, for Esau himself had sold him the birthright (despising it, as the narrator spell out).

Likewise, the Pharisees’ picture of Jesus is faulty throughout the gospels. Indirect characterization via telling is trustworthy to the degree that the character telling something is in alignment with God. Thus, we can trust Jesus’ assessment of Judas when He calls him “the betrayer” (Matthew 26:46) and Stephen’s description of the Jewish leaders as “betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:51-52). However, sometimes even characters that are not aligned with God can accurately depict a character, such as when Daniel is described as “faithful and without error” by the Persian satraps (Daniel 6:4).

Another aspect to keep in mind is that some characters appear only in one episode or narrative, while others hold a large space in Scripture and are described through several stories within the same book, and sometimes even across books. When we zoom in on a particular episode or story, we need to bear in mind the big picture, and in particular, the changes the character may undergo. Conversely, some details are crucial when we study a lengthy story, because they help put things in the right perspective.

Biblical characterization is predominantly indirect, interlaced with occasional direct descriptions. In order to decipher the true character of an individual, we need to consider all the means used by the writer, and understand the different points of view in reference to the divinity.

Example #1 – Let’s take a look at Esau’s characterization in Genesis 26-27:

  • His rash temperament is clear in his readiness to sell his birthright for a soup. Tired from hunting, he stages a death drama (it is quite improbable he would have actually died of hunger in his parents’ household) and sells his birthright for red lentil soup.
  • Later, his deceitful nature is evident in his intention to receive the first-born blessing which was no longer his. He also withholds the birthright trade from his father, who is ready to bless him in ignorance.
  • Furthermore, Esau’s speech when he finds out that Jacob was blessed instead betrays his unstable personality and his irresponsible nature. He twists the truth and falsely accuses Jacob of taking away the birthright he himself had sold away, thus appearing as having never taken seriously what he sealed with an oath when led by unbridled appetite. He turns the tide however it flows in his favor, and is ever-ready to manipulate situations and twist accounts to exact outcomes benefiting him above others.
  • By the end of this story, we learn that his heart is filled with hatred and murder plans. Genesis 26-27 portrays Esau as a drama-boy, a scammer, a liar, a manipulator, a revengeful and self-seeking person who cares about material prosperity as much as he doesn’t care about the means to attain it.
  • While later we read of his conversion, the younger Esau is certainly not a youth model. When Jacob took with deceit what belonged to him, he counteracted Esau’s intention to take “in honesty” what no longer belonged to him –however honest this can be. Jacob’s deception is not necessarily less mistaken because it sought justice, but neither is Esau’s deception right because his brother outran him.

Example #2 – Next, let’s study the characterization of Laban:

  • When the narrator introduces him in Genesis 24, he hints at the man’s fascination with riches as he craftily connects his noticing the sister’s jewels with welcoming Abraham’s servant into his house: “…when he saw the nose ring and the bracelets on his sister’s wrists […] he went to the man […] and he said ‘come in’” (Genesis 24:29-31). This is all the more interesting since the narrator describes the jewels in detail in verse 22.
  • One generation later, Laban’s action of giving Leah to Jacob (Genesis 29:23) is further indicative of his greed, seeing that once the deception is discovered, he exacts more years of service for Rachel (Genesis 29:27). Laban is also indirectly characterized by both of his daughters as one who sold them and consumed their money (Genesis 31:14-16).
  • Jacob views Laban as an avaricious, self-seeking man, as his reproach about his wages being changed 10 times indicates (Genesis31:7, 41). It seems that his daughters and son-in-law meant little more to Laban than a means to personal gain. When things did not go according to his wish, his look became unfavorable (Genesis 31:1-2).
  • Laban appears to be possessive, not only of material goods, but also of people as well, though probably only in so far as they served his selfish purposes. In Genesis 31:43 he claims his married daughters, their children, and their flocks, as his, and in Genesis 31:31, Jacob tells Laban he was afraid he would steal his daughters from him.
  • In light of all this, God’s warning towards Laban to speak neither good nor bad to Jacob may be an indicator of the man’s manipulative spirit who might have sought to either threaten them or speak well of them in order to make them change their mind, even as his heart remained the same. He does, however, listen to God and let Jacob go.
  • In the end, he poses as a protective would-be, asking Jacob to not take other wives besides his daughters, and to not afflict them (Genesis 31:50). Considering that he himself had caused the polygamous family relationship and had afflicted the women–as the sisters voice in agreement (Genesis 31:14-15), this is rather ironic. It does, however, demonstrate that he seems to fail in recognizing his own faults, even while projecting them onto others as possible liabilities.
  • Through both direct and indirect means, the Scripture portrays Laban as a highly possessive and controlling man led by ambitious desires for wealth, which he sought to secure through manipulations, abuse, deceit, and robbery of those in his care and service.

Example #3 – Finally, let’s study the character of Judah:

  • Judah is a character in three stories in Genesis. He is introduced in Genesis 37:26-27 as a secondary character who suggests that selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites would be more profitable than killing him. Given that he was the next in line for inheritance (since Reuben discredited himself by sleeping with his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22), and Simeon and Levi by their disproportionate punishment of Shechem (Gen. 34), it would appear that getting rid of Jacob’s favorite son would secure him the heritage (The NIV Application Commentary, John H. Walton, Genesis, Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2001, 668). For Judah, it seems, financial benefits trump morality and family ties.
  • In the very next story, Judah takes center stage alongside Tamar, whom he misleads by refusing to give her his son Shelah. His affair with Tamar disguised in harlot garments also portrays him as sexually unrestrained.
  • When his daughter-in-law exacts justice from him with deceit, he is forced to confront his true self, which quite possibly was a turning point in his conversion, seeing that this episode likely occurs between the brothers’ two trips to Egypt.
  • A third story featuring Judah is the brothers’ second trip in Egypt, during which we encounter him as a repentant man who genuinely seeks forgiveness. Within these three stories, we witness Judah transforming from the harmful and self-seeking brother who sold Joseph into slavery to the protective and selfless brother willing to be enslaved instead of Benjamin.


Your Turn to Practice:

Going carefully over Genesis 37:12-36 (more than once if necessary), answer the following questions:

  • What can you find about the primary and secondary characters in this story through indirect characterization?
  • What textual evidence for indirect characterization can you spot?
  • Is there any incongruence between the direct and indirect characterization of any character?

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)

Your Turn to Practice: After reviewing the questions, comment below with your analysis of the indirect characterization in the passage above.

Click here to read the rest of Adelina’s series on Biblical narrative analysis

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About the author


Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.