An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3c: Tempo and Suspense)

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An Introduction to Biblical Narrative Analysis (Part 3c: Tempo and Suspense)

Tempo

An author can tell a story in many ways, from a variety of angles, and with different highlights. In biblical narratives, the narrator determines the tempo of the story based on the purpose of his writing. Thus, he will sometimes summarize a long period of time in one verse, while other times filling up entire pages with minute details about an episode.

The use of tempo allows him to create the desired focus and contribute to the characterization and plot development by emphasizing certain aspects over others. Therefore, it is important to ask:

  • Where does the story move fast and where does it slow down?
  • What does the writer zoom in on?
  • What does he want us to dwell on?
  • What does he think we should know in detail, and why might that be crucial to understanding the text?

Example #1: The Story of Joseph

A simple and brief example of the use of tempo can be found in the story of Joseph, recorded in Genesis 40-41. Sold by his brothers, separated from his family and removed from his homeland, a stranger punished without cause, Joseph’s work and person continue to flourish under God’s blessing, and thus he is made administrator over the prison in which he himself was a prisoner. During this time, the king’s baker and butler are imprisoned and Joseph interacts with them briefly.

To illustrate the use of tempo, let’s zoom in on Genesis 40:6-7 where the narrator uses four verbs to clue us in to how Joseph reported himself to those under his care–in this case, pharaoh’s imprisoned officials. With minute precision, he strings together four actions and records Joseph’s reactions step by step, as if in slow motion, and thus paints an attitude that is anything but synonymous with negligence and indifference: “he came,” “he looked,” “he saw,” and “he asked.” Because you can refuse to come to those you are in charge of; or you can come, but not look; or you can look but not see; or you can see, and yet never ask. Thus, through the author’s use of tempo, he gives us a glimpse into Joseph’s character and his management.

Just a little further into the story, chapter 41:1 mentions that two years passed since the butler had been freed from the prison over which Joseph had custody. Nothing else is given us about Joseph’s life during those two years. The author moves quickly over this period because nothing critical to the story takes place. Yet it is crucial to notice where he does slow down, because there is always a reason why he dwells longer and provides more details.

Example #2: The Story of Esther

The first chapter in the book of Esther provides another good example of the author’s use of tempo in order to highlight certain aspects of the narrative. On one hand, the narrator describes the feasts of Ahasuerus over several verses, including two full verses (6 and 7) dedicated solely to the description of the luxurious decorations and eating vessels. On the other hand, he brushes quickly over the account of Vashti’s feast, which occupies only a short verse (9) and does not include any details. It is merely a statement informing the reader that she held a separate feast.

Of course, this division is crucial to the plot of the narrative, for the gendered-separation was a key element of that time’s culture and plays a central part in the plot. Thus, while Esther’s feast is important to mention, its description (no doubt lavish as well) is not, because, unlike in the case of Ahasuerus, it is irrelevant to the plot.

An analysis of Esther 1 reveals that this introductory passage is primarily about the king’s desire to show off, and his praise-craving character is indirectly painted through the use of tempo in the detailed description of the feasts. Of course, the fact that he throws lavish banquets because he wants to show off his riches is also evident from the clear statement in verse 4. Yet the details provided strengthen the direct characterization.

Whenever the author dwells on a section in the story, it is important to pause and consider why this is important to the narrative. Nothing is superfluous, and every detail is included for a reason. The use of tempo will help the attentive reader understand a biblical character or the plot development better. It highlights what is important in the story, and knowing what is important is key in helping us discover the purpose of the text.

Suspense

Suspense is the presentation of facts and the progression of the plot in such a way as to retain the reader’s attention throughout the narrative. Suspense is often created by withholding some information where it belongs chronologically, and releasing it at some other junction in the story to make a point.

Example #1: The Story of Absalom

In 2 Samuel 13:22-39, the account of Absalom’s revenge is crafted around several elements of suspense. We already know from the previous narratives that Absalom hated his brother Amnon for raping his sister, Tamar, and that he did not speak to him since the incident, so two years later when he invites his brothers to the sheepshearers, we apprehensively anticipate a dismal follow-up. David’s reluctance only builds the suspense, leaving us wondering how things will develop.

Absalom’s insistence that Amnon joins his brothers builds even more suspense, especially through David’s ominous question “Why should he [Amnon] go with you?” which echoes the reader’s curiosity. Up until verse 18, all of the things related happen in chronological order. At this junction, however, the narrator informs us that Absalom premeditated Amnon’s assassination, and continues to build suspense. Will the plan succeed?

Immediately after informing us of the detailed murder plans, the narrator releases the tension and informs us briefly of the plan’s success. But further suspense builds up as the public spectacle makes the brothers arise, get on their mule, and flee. We now anticipate another follow-up story. How will this all end? David hears from some misinformed news-bearers that all his sons are dead and tears his clothes, but Jonadab clears the confusion in a composed tone that informs the king of what the narrator had already told us earlier: Absalmon had premeditated Amnon’s death–though only now the assumption that this murder was revenge is clarified. Now we relieve the suspense as we watch the story unfold through David’s eyes.

Jonadab’s knowledge in 2 Samuel 13 is surpassed only by that of the narrator, though the writer does not give us too much information about this man’s motives, leaving us wondering whether Jonadab’s knowledge of the murder plans implies some form of participation. Seen that Amnon’s sin was a result of Jonadab’s scheme, this would not be entirely surprising. After all, the writer does describe him as “a very crafty man” (13:3). He also mentions his relation to David both times the character is introduced. Were Jonadab’s intrigues attempts at getting rid of the king’s sons, which might have given him a shot at the throne? In comforting David that Amnon alone is dead, and in disclosing Absalom’s murder plans, was he seeking to gain the king’s favor?

Your Turn to Practice:

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

  • Do you notice any change in the tempo of the story?
  • Does the narrator dwell on some part of the narrative and rush over another?
  • Can you find any markers of suspense?
  • Does the narrator leave you wondering about something, only to provide the clue later in the story?
  • What messages do the tempo and/or suspense convey?
  • Is that congruent with the message uncovered through observing actions and characterization?

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 tempo and suspense 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.