An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3b: Analyzing Speech

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3b: Analyzing Speech

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Speech is a frequent act in biblical narratives. When we study a story, it is worth paying attention, not only to what is being communicated, but also to the intensity of communication and the way in which different protagonists engage in dialogue. We need to observe who speaks more, who talks less, and who is silent, as well as when the characters speak and what tone they use.

Example #1: Christ and the Demon-Possessed Men

Matthew 8:28-34 presents a remarkable exchange of words between the two main characters: Jesus and some demons.

(28) When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. (29) And suddenly they cried out, saying, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

(30) Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. (31) So the demons begged Him, saying, “If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.”

(32) And He said to them, “Go.” So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.

(33) Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. (34) And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. (NKJV)

If you have a Bible that highlights Jesus’ words in red, you will notice one red word standing out in a sea of black ink: “Go.” In the entire story, Jesus speaks only once, and even then, He utters just one word. The only other characters who speak are the demons, who possess two men. Not only do they speak the most, they initiate the dialogue. What is going on in this story?

As Jesus comes ashore and arrives at the country of Gergensens, two demon-possessed men meet Him. They are so fierce that no one could pass that way. Aside from controlling the two men they possess, the demons also control the territory. In those parts, they hold the power. But their dominance is suddenly threatened by the presence of One they recognize as superior to them, a presence that ominously predicts their grim future.

Before that gets played out, however, they seek to evade it in a request to be allowed to enter a swineherd–a plea that couches a subtle accusation: “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Jesus grants them their request in language as terse as it is cold and unaffected: “Go.” Ironically, their escape ends in death as the swine drown in the sea, leaving us wondering what happened with the demons. It is interesting that what they fear and seek to escape is torment. Was the torment not being allowed to possess and afflict human beings? Was it Jesus’ presence? Was death a relief from torment, or was the drowning an unexpected outcome?

The intriguing speech of the demons in this story is all the more interesting when we look at the surrounding context. In the narrative just prior to Matthew 8:28, we read of a miracle where Jesus displays His power to control the nature (wind and waves) and thus saves His disciples from perishing in a tempest. Immediately after that incident, Jesus comes ashore and is met by two demons who hold power over men and control the territory. The motifs of power and knowledge-ignorance intertwine artfully in these two stories that build upon each other.

While both nature and the supernatural realm recognize Jesus and His power, humans are oblivious to it. It is precisely their awareness of Jesus’ power that prompts the demons to initiate the dialogue. The contrast between their speech and the speech of the disciples in the previous story is phenomenal. While both groups are afraid, some fear because they don’t know Jesus’ powers, and others fear precisely because they do. In both stories, the humans are powerless, at the mercy of superior powers. Jesus, however, possesses the ultimate power, which He chooses to display in acts of liberation and salvation: he saves some from a tempest and frees others from demon-possession.

Example #2: Christ’s Dialogue with Martha

We find our second example in Luke 10:38-42:

(38) Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. (39) And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. (40) But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” (41) But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, (42) but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (ESV)

While the story is often entitled “Martha and Mary,” Mary does not speak at all, which means she is a secondary character. The only dialogue occurs between Jesus and Martha, and if we look carefully at the speech, we notice a parallel between the words and Martha and those of Jesus. Martha says:

Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me. (Luke 10:40b)

Jesus replies:

(41) Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, (42) but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10: 41-42)

 

Martha, who is directly characterized as distracted, alone, anxious, and troubled, accuses Jesus of not caring, and her sister of leaving her to serve alone. These two people were her problem, and the solution to her problem was that Jesus would tell Mary to go help her.

In response, Jesus also describes a problem and offers a solution–both different than Martha’s. According to Jesus, Martha’s problem was feeling anxious and troubled. This, of course, is not a problem in the sense that she should not feel so. Having just been accused of being uncaring, Jesus demonstrates His care by letting her know that He is aware of her deepest issues and needs.

He confronts her in love, because only if she acknowledges this can the proper solution take place. Since the problem is no longer another human being, neither is the solution. This problem needs to be resolved between her and God, by first realizing who Jesus truly was (a mighty God descended from heaven, and not just another human with limited powers who could merely ask Mary to help), and then by seeking His help, as Mary was. As Jesus clearly stated, this help is one that no one could take away.

 

Your Turn to Practice:

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

  • Who speaks in the story?
  • What actions, intentions, or emotions are expressed through the speech?
  • Is there dialogue?
  • If yes, which characters dialogue?
  • Are there any mute characters?
  • How does their presence support the development of the plot?
  • Do you find any repetitions or speech patterns? What do they convey?

 

The passage we will be studying is Genesis 37:12-36: 

(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 characters and 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.