An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3a: Actions and Plot)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3a: Actions and Plot)

Actions are the events that take place in a story, including the deeds of the actors and the natural processes. They are frequent and play a central role.

The plot unifies all actions into a cohesive progression. J.P. Fokkelman suggests that we can “picture the plot as the course of the action, that is, the course of events in a story, as a trajectory. The story begins by establishing a problem or deficit; next, it can present an exposition before the action gets urgent; obstacles and conflicts may occur that attempt to frustrate the denouement, and finally there is the winding up, which brings the solution of the problem to the cancellation of the deficit.”[1] The trajectory of a story is determined by the writer’s vision, who also decides what is relevant to his message and therefore what goes into the story.[2]

If a story were a painting and the plot the painting process, then actions would be the brush strokes. Just as the artist uses brush strokes in several sizes and a palette of colors to create her painting, the writer employs different types of verbs to create a story canvas. Some actions are brief and minor, some are complex and of major consequences. Some paint facts, others paint emotions, thoughts, or perceptions. Thus, with each new brush stroke, and with every additional speck of color, the writer weaves the story together into a masterpiece captivating not only in form, but also in meaning and relevance.

When we read a story, our entire being (mind, heart, senses, and even body) is invited to be engaged in following its progression and capturing its import. Such full engagement can come more or less naturally to us, partly based on our ability to observe the details as we go. Verbs, in particular, can be easily passed over, because they are so frequent in stories.

To absorb the message inherent in their content and relation to each other, it may be helpful to see them in isolation from the rest of the story (in tables or charts), or in relation to particular elements of the story. Several aspects especially helpful to observe when studying actions are: the types of verbs used, the speech, the tempo, and the suspense.

The Use of Verbs

What types of verbs does the writer use? From the overall pool of verbs available, what kind does the author choose? Do they reflect action, perception, emotion, or–as is often the case–a combination of the above? If so, how do they combine to create meaning? Are they past, present, or future tense? Who are the subjects of verbs, and what does that reveal about the characters?

Example #1: Saul’s Anointing

Let’s turn to 1 Samuel 9-10, where the narrator describes the selection and anointing of Saul as king through an enthralling whirlwind of comings and goings. Listen to the verbs “come” and “go” in this excerpt:

(3) Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, were lost. So Kish said to Saul his son, “Take one of the young men with you, and arise, go and look for the donkeys.” (4) And he passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then they passed through the land of Benjamin, but did not find them.

(5) When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to his servant who was with him, “Come, let us go back, lest my father cease to care about the donkeys and become anxious about us.” (6) But he said to him, “Behold, there is a man of God in this city, and he is a man who is held in honor; all that he says comes true. So now let us go there. Perhaps he can tell us the way we should go.”

(7) Then Saul said to his servant, “But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What do we have?” (8) The servant answered Saul again, “Here, I have with me a quarter of a shekel of silver, and I will give it to the man of God to tell us our way.” (9) (Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, “Come, let us go to the seer,” for today’s ‘prophet’ was formerly called a seer.)

(10) And Saul said to his servant, “Well said; come, let us go.” So they went to the city where the man of God was. (11) As they went up the hill to the city, they met young women coming out to draw water and said to them, “Is the seer here?” (12) They answered, “He is; behold, he is just ahead of you. Hurry. He has come just now to the city, because the people have a sacrifice today on the high place. (13) As soon as you enter the city you will find him, before he goes up to the high place to eat. For the people will not eat till he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those who are invited will eat. Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.”

(14) So they went up to the city. As they were entering the city, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the high place. (1 Samuel 9:3-14, ESV)

The author seems so adamant about recording whenever someone came or went that he wants to make sure no step goes unnoticed. In addition to referencing all the comings and goings, he also peppers the story with numerous spatial markers. The frequent use of the verbs come and go suggests a to-and-fro movement.

The spatial markers complement this to-and-fro movement with a detailed description of Saul’s journey, whose quest takes on heroic proportions. Thus, his search for the lost donkeys is narrated in epic language, as if he were on some extraordinary expedition: he passes through the mountains of Ephraim, the land of Shalisa, the land of Shaalim, and the land of the Benjamites, finally arriving at the land of Zuph.

As in any epic quest, the story gets complicated, and a detour is necessary. Thus, Saul ends up going to a city, climbing a hill, arriving at a gate, going to a high place, lodging at the prophet’s house, passing by the tomb of Rachel, coming to the terebinth trees of Tabor, going to the hill of God, then to Gilgal, back home, and eventually winds up at Mizpah where he publicly becomes king. As typical with heroes, Saul is accompanied by a faithful servant who follows him everywhere and encourages him in his mission when he is ready to give up. He also receives help and further directions from some women going out for water, and once he meets Samuel he is led by him through the rest of the story.

The way the narrator combines the action with settings is absolutely fantastic. The comings and goings far and wide become a symbolic depiction of a search much deeper and much more monumental than finding the lost animals. Thus, through an interplay of the motives of “lost” and “find,” and the literary techniques the writer employs, the story carries you through various landscapes and places as you follow the comings and goings of Saul’s quest to find the lost donkeys, which turns into an expedition to find the first king of Israel.

Example #2: Christ’s Betrayal

A second example we will explore is Matthew 26:36-46:

(36) Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” (37) And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. (38) Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

(39) And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (40) And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? (41) Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

(42) Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (43) And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. (44) So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.

(45) Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. (46) Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:36-46, ESV)

Jesus is the agent of most of the active voice indicative verbs in the passage. He came to Gethsemane, spoke to His disciples, took three of them farther, and told them He was in distress. Jesus went even farther, fell on his face, and prayed. He came to the disciples, found them sleeping, and spoke to Peter. He went away again and prayed, then he came to the disciples again and found them sleeping. He left them, went away, and prayed, came to the disciples and told them he is being betrayed. Finally, he told them to rise and go.

The intense movement of Jesus is underscored by the lack of activity on the part of the disciples. Jesus moves, talks, and prays, while the disciples are mute, sleeping, “deaf,” and unresponsive. The contrast between Jesus and the disciples is doubled by the contrast between what Jesus asks the disciples to do and what they do. While Jesus pleads with them to watch and pray, they sleep and fail to pray even once.

The verbs in this narrative depict Jesus as someone who, when confronted with the strongest temptation ever, becomes active and proactive about finding the way forward through prayer. In contrast to Jesus, the disciples take no further step in their spiritual walk from the beginning of the story until the end. They sleep through the entire episode and leave the garden as spiritually blind and dormant as they entered it.

Their steady stillness and sleep contrast and highlight Jesus’ alertness, recurring movement, and action as He repeatedly prays in agony. Jesus’ victory is all the greater when we understand the intensity of His struggle in the context of the disciples’ failure in not even attempting a struggle.

Your Turn to Practice:

Going carefully over Genesis 37:12-36, answer the following questions:

  • What kind of verbs are predominant in the story?
  • Do they express action, emotion, or perception?
  • Do you notice any patterns or repetitions of verbs or actions?
  • Are the verbs predominantly verbs past, present, or future?
  • Who are the subjects of the verbs, and what do these reveal about the actors?

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.

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

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



[1] J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative (Liederdorp, Netherlands: Deo Publishing, 1999), pg. 77.

[2] J.P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative (Liederdorp, Netherlands: Deo Publishing, 1999), pg. 78.

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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.